Motherhood is the most enjoyable chapter of any woman’s life. Or so we are told. It isn’t so rosy when you’re looking through grey lenses, caught in the throes of postnatal depression.
Finding the Lost Plot: Navigating Mental Health as a Muslim Mother
No, that’s not being ungrateful. Or negative. Or thankless. It’s being unwell.
Health is central to our ability to function as individuals and as members of a group. If we have major surgery, break a limb or have a stroke, we aren’t expected to simply increase our spiritual efforts, slap on a smile, brush ourselves off and just get on with it. It is understood that recovery takes time and that we will need to be supported by others and won’t completely be ourselves until we have healed. Unfortunately, mental health still isn’t given the respect and importance that its other half, physical health, is.
That’s exactly what physical and mental health is. Two halves of a person’s wellbeing. Think of mental health as the overworked, stay-at-home parent who is burnt out from juggling every single task, thought and worry that parenthood brings. On the other hand, physical health is the full-time working parent who comes home and isn’t expected to do much else but still receives higher regard in the eyes of others. Likewise, when the physical-health-half gets ill, the world comes to an abrupt halt. However, the invisible mental-health-half could have a limb amputated and be coughing its guts out, yet still, be expected to pull its own weight and everyone else’s; the suffering is expected to be a rite of passage.
How many times have difficult periods of our life been described as a “test”? Something we need to be patient through. Something we need to pray harder through. How do we break the news to that well-meaning person, that when our mental health is deteriorating, it takes all our energy and some, just to gear ourselves up in order to simply GET OUT OF BED at some point? Let alone everything else. Let alone parenting tiny human beings whose existence is dependent on us.
So what do we do? I don’t claim to have the magic answer or the miraculous cure to mental health issues as a parent. But I do know this.
It all starts with being honest with yourself.
We live in a world where people live carefully curated, picture-perfect lives, filtered and angled on social media to sell us the false ideal of what family life should like; chiselled contouring with a highlighter that pops in a romantic pose with a relaxed beaming partner surrounded by smiling children in matching outfits, all on the backdrop of an exotic island- captioned with #tooblesstobestressed.
Whereas, the reality where I’m standing is not-washed-in-5-days greasy hair with cardigan buttons on the verge of popping in passive-aggressive mode with an equally tired, stressed partner desperately trying to grab 8 minutes of me-time, watching youtube videos on his phone surrounded by screaming children in mismatched food-stained clothes, all on the backdrop of a perpetually messy home – uncaptioned because I can’t find my phone.
No one really lives a perfect life. Societal pressures to have it all together: the house, the kids, the look, the career, the chores, the deen, the extracurricular activities… have us crumbling silently whilst projecting perfect contentment. It’s time to break the silence.
No one is going to know what we are going through until we say something. They’re not going to know what’s wrong, why we are behaving the way we are or what to do to help.
We can’t expect anyone to “just know” that we are struggling, or to be able to “see” it. Not our partners, not our parents, not our friends, and definitely not our children.
We need to tell those we feel closest to how we are feeling and what we are struggling with. We need to let them in.
I know it is scary. Scary to be vulnerable. Scary to feel inadequate. Scary to be judged. Scary to admit you are feeling like you’ve failed. But you must. If not for yourself, then do it for your kids. Because you cannot go on like this. It WILL catch up with you unless you do something about it now. It’s time you sort yourself out.
Ask for help.
Asking for help takes strength. It is not weakness, not an admission of failure and not a confession of inadequacy. It is a bold act of bravery. In fact, it is an act of rebellion, to be honest, and raw in this pretentious day and age where most connections are hollow and superficial.
We might know we need help but not know how we want to be helped. This makes it difficult to receive help and difficult for the person wanting to support you. They might think they are already helping but because it is not how you want to be helped or what you need from them, you are both left feeling frustrated, lonely and dejected. Our expectations of our partners to be able to “fix” our mood or even us, to “just know” what’s going on, are unrealistic and unfair. They need some sort of instruction and direction from you.
No one has time to be mentally unwell. But a lot of us are. And for those who don’t have time to stop and do that soul searching to find out what they truly need or want, I have put together a shortlist of things that I have found can help when you are a parent struggling with mental health challenges:
1. Practical help
Physical help with cleaning, laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, school runs, extracurricular activities, childcare, etc. Taking a physical task or five off your plate can help you catch your breath in the day, and help you make time and space for the things below. These are clear and concrete things for someone else to help with which they’ll be glad of too.
2. Emotional help
Having someone to vent to, someone to listen, someone to validate your feelings is HUGE. And as simple as that. A listening ear, a kind word, a warm embrace, a hot cup of tea. Sometimes we just want to be heard and seen, and want to feel understood.
3. Professional help
Some of our mental health struggles cannot be fixed by ourselves. We may need professional help to do this. Whether it is medical advice from a doctor or a formal psychological assessment, seeing someone who is trained in the field is really important. If we broke a leg, we would want to be seen by a doctor, not by a mechanic right? And equally, if our car engine needed fixing we would want to get it looked at by a mechanic, not a medic right? Give your mental health the same respect. Seek out professional help. There are so many therapies available now to help you deal with what you are struggling with. And if you need medication, you need medication. There’s no shame in it. Like morphine to major trauma, an antidepressant is to the depressed.
4. Taking time to do the work: the self-work
The introspection, the reflection, the journalling, the walking, the creativity, the writing, the painting… whatever it is that helps you get in touch with your inner world. Do it. Arrange childcare, and make time to do it regularly. Make it a priority. After all, Imam Ali says that both the sickness and the cure are within us. Heck, the entire universe is. It is no wonder therefore that our Holy Prophet (PBUH) advises us that the one who has known himself has known his Lord.
Finally, I want to say this: Allah says in Surah Ra’ad “Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition”. In other words, God helps those who help themselves. You may be struggling with your mental health and with life as a whole, but it is time to shift your focus towards helping yourself now. And He will get you through this storm.