Parenting with Mental Illness, by Suzy Favor Hamilton

from Suzy’s Blog

AthleteBiz welcomes Suzy Hamilton as a guest blogger. With her permission we are re-posting this blog. Suzy’s story is complicated….and a genuine source of inspiration for many. She is a three time Olympian and a mental health advocate.

I was browsing Twitter not long ago, and a good friend who lives with bipolar disorder and is highly functional and a father tweeted that one living with bipolar disorder can be a competent parent. Well not to toot my own horn, but I agree wholeheartedly, and I’m not blowing smoke here when I say a parent with bipolar or other form of mental illness can not just be a competent parent, but in many ways, an extraordinary one.

As you may know, I live with bipolar disorder myself and can say with regards to my quality and quantiy of parenting, it really comes down to one thing — MANAGEMENT of my mental illness. Because I have not always had my illness under control, I’ll be the first to admit that at times during the life of my eleven year old daughter Kylie, I have not been as good a parent as I needed to be. It’s not easy to admit or come to grips with such a thought. When you give birth to your child, it is literally the best day of your life and she is immediately your ultimate pride and joy. You will do anything for her and anything to enrich her life to the fullest. The furthest thing from my mind on the day she came into this world was that I would be anything but the ultimate mother, every day and every hour. It also happens that on that day, the furthest thing from my mind was that I would soon be looking at suicidal depression straight in the face.

There have been times where I have been an absentee parent in more ways than one. Physically absent during periods of mania where my overriding priority became getting my brain what it needed. Emotionally withdrawn during times of depression where I was completely overwhelmed by motherhood and unable to handle the simplest of day to day tasks. Lashing out at my daughter over nothing. Hypersensitive. Over something that was perfectly fine the day before and the day after. Losing control and having to call my husband to come home from the office time after time, pleading with him, “I cannot handle this. Help me!” Periods where I was present physically, but mentally gone.

But here’s the deal. During those times, my mental illness was not managed. But it can be. Proper diagnosis and meds. Therapy. Reduction or elimination of triggers. Healthy coping mechanisms put into place. With ducks in a row, one living with bipolar disorder can become mostly functional, and therefore an effective parent. But we all know, parenting is tough enough as it is, bipolar or not. Here are a few things I want you to consider when it comes to effectively parenting with bipolar disorder —


The key is to make sure your child knows the reasons for your actions. To prevent confusion. Why was I physically and mentally absent so much at times, emotionally withdrawn at others. Why did I often lash out? Why was I so sensitive and prone to anger? Why was I so often overwhelmed and frustrated? There is the obvious danger that she may feel it’s her fault. That she did something wrong to bring it on. It’s important to educate your child, as once she comes to understand the illness, she will see there is certainly no fault of her own. So I encourage a very open and ever ongoing conversation with my daughter and her father. I want her to ask me questions. Tough questions. Tell me how she’s feeling. And I tell her how I’m feeling. Where my present moods are at. And why. Communication leads to understanding. Understanding leads to a more stable family environment.

Get Support

I find it essential to have someone there to essentially cover for me when I’m “off.” It’s inevitable even with my illness better managed today. My husband has come to understand my illness and what steps to take to help me manage it. He knows when it’s best I be left alone and to take things at my own pace when I’m struggling, and how to adjust when I’m manic. When necessary, he becomes less a co-parent and shifts much more into take over mode. And it’s not just a partner. Ideally, family and friends should be an integral part of the support system to be there when needed. Even with management, there are certainly times where I need help. Have your back-up system in place.

Use it as Motivation

There has been no doubt my daughter has been instrumental in generating my motivation to get well, taking my meds, and doing everything possible to be the best I can be for her and for me. To be a good parent. Feeling lifeless on my meds and thinking about backing off on them? Sick and tired of them. Thoughts of Kylie creep into my head, and NO, stay on track. Do what you need to do to be there for her, as often as possible, as effective as possible.


Because my daughter has a mother with bipolar disorder, she certainly has developed an understanding I don’t think she would have otherwise. As a result, she’s grown extremely compassionate, tollerant, patient and loving. Not just towards her mother, but towards others. She has learned through this to embrace others’ imperfections and flaws, as well as her own. How can this not be a good thing to come out of all of this? Make the most of a situation and use it as a teach these things so vital to a healthy way of life.

Realistic Expectations

It’s imperative to keep things realistic as to your parenting. And those around you, including your child, must develop the patience, understanding and expectations that are necessary. There will be days where you can’t be there like you want to. Days where quite frankly, you check out entirely. I still have periods where I’m suicidal, though I certainly don’t want to be. Where I cannot move / get out of bed. Days where I just can’t parent, as much as I know I need to. These will happen. And it’s OK. Have those backup systems in place for these times. It’s just a part of it. A not so pleasant part, but we all do the best we can.

Avoid Guilt

There is a tendency to feel guilt for the times of being a not so great parent during periods where my illness was unmanaged. For not being there either physically or mentally. For being unduly harsh on my daughter. Just like I implore those living with mental illness to never feel guilt or shame about your illness, I also feel we should do our best to feel no guilt or shame for our actions that may have resulted. Easier said than done, but as I often say, “It’s the illness stupid!” We all intend to be good parents. I tend to smother my daughter, spoil her, and sometimes I have trouble disciplining her when I should because of the guilt I sometimes let that creep in. Making up for it all. Again, it’s easier said than done, but avoid it. Catch yourself. If you are communicating and educating properly, she’ll cut you slack and love you more for being you and doing the best you are able, flaws and all.

Parenting with bipolar presents it’s own unique challenges. But you find yourself realizing you need to step up as a parent that much more when you are able. Your partner and support team too. I’d argue that you can be an extradordinary parent with your ducks in a row. We all want to get there. We all can.

Thanks for listening as always, Suzy

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