From my email:

Hi Leah. I have a daughter that is 9 and a son that is 7. They are beautiful and smart. In fact, that is why I’m writing you. They are so smart that I think they are catching on. I can’t always make sure I am the safe adult parent when they are around. Not that any of my personalities are mean or harmful. If that was true, I would have given them up a long time ago. It’s just that some of my personalities are not as helpful for kids or able to take care of them as well, if you know what I mean. And I’m pretty sure my daughter has figured out that I’m not normal. And I’m sure that my son won’t be far behind. How did you handle this? I know you are integrated now but what about before? Should I tell them the truth? I worry it will just scare them or confuse them but I don’t want to lie to them, either. My mom used to help out but she died last year and I don’t have anyone else to help take care of them. My husband left me right after our son was born. Thanks.

Hey there. I’m sorry you are in the situation of taking care of your kids all by yourself. Do you belong to a church group or have any good friends that understand your situation? Or siblings? Their father’s family? Or can you get connected to some group through your therapist (if you’re seeing one, and I hope you are) that offers low-cost care for kids? I ask because if you don’t have any help, then you are potentially not taking the best care of your kids.

When you say that you don’t have any harmful personalities where the kids are concerned, I think I do know what you mean. None of mine were angry or hurtful towards children, either. But on the other hand, there were a few years when my kids had to basically take care of themselves for hours or days at a time when some of my other personalities were in charge, which is really neglect and shouldn’t be happening. I’m positive that you are doing everything you can possibly do to take good care of them. I’m positive that you are doing the best you can. But please consider finding outside help that is supportive of your situation. Because even though it’s hard to trust others with inside knowledge of your situation, your kids are worth it. And you need it, too.

Kids are way smarter than most adults give them credit for. If you suspect that your daughter knows you aren’t ‘normal’ then I would guess that you are right. It’s a hard situation to figure out how much information is the right amount but yes, probably she needs some. And she can let you know how much she needs if you let her take the lead. One way to do that is to use a modified version of play therapy. I used play therapy with my two older kids when they were old enough to wonder what was going on. We acted out our life using dolls and stuffed animals. My husband traveled extensively (we were in the military) and the kids let me know in play how they were feeling and I helped them know that I heard them in the same way. It might be odd at first if you aren’t used to using play time as therapy but if you keep at it, it can be really healing. This page has some info on how it can help. And this page and has some helpful info with some tips. Here are some books you could look for at your library.

I’m glad you asked this question because it means you are thinking about how you are affecting your children. And even ‘normal’ (have I mentioned I hate that word? 🙂 ) parents affect their kids in ways they wish they didn’t. Parents can’t help it. We set examples in every department by what we do and don’t do. Your kids are watching you and evaluating and setting their gauges about what is right and not right and what they will accept and won’t accept by how you treat them and how you let others treat you. So it would make perfect sense that they would want to understand why you seem to be so different at different times and why sometimes you are seriously invested in their well being and why other times you seem to hardly care at all and they have to fix their own dinner. It might feel monumental to them that when they fall and skin their knee, sometimes you kiss and cuddle and give the love only mothers can but other times send them to get their own bandage.

I should interject a side note here, that not knowing anything about how your internal structure is set up, I don’t know if all your personalities cooperate or not. If not, I would say it’s time to take that into serious consideration. The more you all work together, the better for the kids. If you do work together, it’s possible to make agreements with everyone on the inside to put the kids first. That might mean that if someone else is out and one of the kids gets hurt, they invite you, the mom personality, back out immediately until things are under control again. Alternately, you could get agreements that whenever the kids are with you, that you are out, period. I also understand that could create resentments between your selves, but hopefully, you can figure out the best way to do things with your therapist. If you don’t currently see one, I would suggest finding one and soon.

The way I spoke about my situation during play therapy with my kids when they were those ages was something like this: “I know that sometimes Mommy seems different. Sometimes she seems to pay attention to you better and sometimes she doesn’t. That’s not fair! You are important and special and deserve to have Mommy always care about you more than TV or sleeping or anything! I think there is something going on in Mommy’s brain that makes it so she can’t be like so-and-so’s mommy. So I’m going to tell you the magic words that you can say that will always make Mommy stop acting so different right away. Ok? Here they are! These are the magic words: Mommy! I need you to look at me right now and love me right now! and when you say that her brain will work better and she’ll stop painting or reading or sleeping, OK? Now, try out the magic words!”

Variations on that theme worked well. Understand that I did have an agreement, though, so it was a serious promise I was making with my kids. It helped them feel empowered but it only worked because my personalities were all bound to comply and did. Because it created an environment where they could tell me how they felt, using the dolls and stuffed animals, I got to hear all about hurts and pains they had been saving up for their Mommy when she had been ‘gone away’ or ‘busy with her paints’ or whatever it was they told themselves, and there were many hurts and pains to talk about and relive and go over. But I do think it made a tremendous impact on the quality of my relationships with them which I benefit from today. It opened a dialog with them that continues and I’m sometimes amazed at the things they are comfortable talking about with me, because I never would have talked to anyone in my family, let alone my parents, like they do with me. I’m very lucky.

Remember that while in play therapy mode, it’s important for them to not ever be ashamed of what they say or do. And believe me, there are moments when you’ll want to sink into the floor or become defensive or run from the room. But in order for them to truly heal and connect and understand, you HAVE to be open and honest and make room for them to tell you just how angry or scared and let down they feel. And it is your job to validate every, single, solitary thing they say they feel. Feelings can’t ever be wrong. It’s the action, after the feeling, in a harmful or un-nurturing vein that needs to be stopped and redirected. But the feelings – they are always just feelings and should be validated. It is in this way that you teach them to trust in their instincts and to listen to their gut and to learn to take good care of themselves while creating healthy boundaries. The worst thing you can do is invalidate their feelings by saying, ‘No, mommy didn’t do that or say that. You’re wrong.’ because that is teaching them to NOT trust in their feelings. Even if you disagree with what they are saying because you know it didn’t happen that way, save that talk for another time. In that moment, tell them, ‘I’m sorry you felt so scared and mad. That sounds really hard!’ Later, when you are out of play therapy mode, ask them if they want to talk about it. If they say yes, try to explain what you remember happening. If they still insist it happened different, it may be that you both experienced it a different way. Our recollections, or memories, are easily swayed by all kinds of factors and you could both be right, as odd as at that sounds.

A great example of memory being tricky is that one of my sons distinctly remembers that when he met my husband, Joe had very long hair. Ty was 9 at the time. The fact is that Joe had cut his hair to a very short length before I or my children met him but his driver’s license photo shows him with very long hair. When Ty saw that photo way back when, it somehow ingrained in his memory that Joe had long hair and he still thinks to this day that Joe’s hair was long when they met. Another example is pretty much any family gathering I ever went to. I have 7 siblings and you sometimes get 8 different accounts when talking over things that happened a few years ago. Throw in my parents and a few nieces and nephews and you’d be hard pressed to find 3 or 4 accounts that match in their entirety. So, who’s wrong? The important things are the feelings behind the memories. Sometimes, the time is better spent talking about those than the facts of the accounts.

It’s a big job, taking care of kids, even when you have a partner to lean on in the hard times. By yourself it becomes much harder and when you add in the mental issues it grows exponentially more difficult. I would say it is next to impossible for you in your current situation to give yourself or them the care you all need all of the time. Please look at this as part of your job as their mother. Whatever you need to do, whomever you need to talk to, whatever agencies you need to go through, do it to find the help you need. And how awesome that you care enough to think about this problem and figure it out! Kudos to you. Your children are lucky.

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  1. Wonderful. This post is absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for teaching me. I hope she takes your advice, which I’m going to remember while bringing up my kids. I really liked the validation of feelings portion. I have to work on that because I hadn’t really thought about it they way you put it, but it’s so true. This is good, sound advice for everyone, “normal” (I don’t like that word either) or not. It’s what parenting is all about.

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