Co-Parenting with a Depressed Spouse

Photos by Devon Gillott

Photos by Devon Gillott

Depression. It is debilitating, life changing and can be fatal.

It is not a choosy disease. It is on the rise and is becoming more acceptable to talk about. There have been campaigns to stop the stigma, and yet, this is still hard for me to write.

It’s a disease that I have been living with for over three years. My life has been rocked, my children have been affected and my parenting has been impacted hugely, yet I am not depressed.

My husband is.

In fact, at one point he was severely depressed and we almost lost him. He was at the point where he could no longer see any light in his life and he attempted suicide. I was lucky he wasn’t successful. Not by choice, but by a mechanism that failed him.

This failure gave me a chance to co-parent. It gave my children a chance to have both parents raising them, a chance at a strong male and female presence in their lives. But getting to that point as a team is incredibly hard and challenging.

To co-parent with someone who is depressed is much different than any kind of parenting you could ever imagine. Watching your partner struggle to even get out of bed is heartbreaking. Expecting them to be able to care for someone other than themselves is unrealistic. But taking the whole load on yourself is overwhelming.

Mike ended up being on suicide watch for almost four months. I had to organize for someone to be with my children while I was at work, as well as someone with Mike. I was incredibly fortunate as my family is close by and incredibly helpful. Without their support, I don’t know how I would have been able to manage. But the weight of supporting our entire family bore a heavy burden. It’s exhausting and wore me down. I was susceptible to every sickness that came around and I felt like an unreliable employee and friend.

I was grasping and looking for advice, drowning in my own grief, exhaustion, worry, planning suicide watch and still working. But I didn’t want others to know what was really going on. I didn’t want the looks of pity, the judgement, or being questioned about what I was doing or second guessing every decision I was making.

I was already doing those things myself. Daily, I questioned whether it would be more damaging for my kids for me to stay and support the man that I love, or whether it was more damaging for me to leave him to ensure they didn’t have to be exposed to their father’s depression and everything that came with it and live as a broken family.

Everyday I chose to stay. But there were many days I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision. He was just a shell of the man that I loved. He was full of anger, darkness, and selfishness. Not the fun-loving, outgoing, hilarious man that I loved. Every once in awhile I would get a glimpse of him, the real Mike, and that would keep me going.

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But this new Mike was short tempered at best. For a long time he was around physically, but wasn’t present. He distanced himself from us all and rarely engaged with the kids. I despised having to lock my children screaming in the car while I would run into the house to make sure that he was still alive before they could come in. And I hate to say how many times I would contemplate whether it would have been easier if his suicide attempt had been successful.

But then the flood of guilt would wash over me because I still had him, and there was still a chance that he would come back to me, and there are so many others who would love to have that chance. 

Having their father be in such a state that he was not able to care for himself or his children is incredibly hard to see. They were little and they just wanted to play with their dad. I just tried to be open. I tried to explain that he had a sickness and wasn’t himself, because he really wasn’t.

He was unpredictable, snappy and irrational in his expectation of the kids. He was angry and sad and many days didn’t get out of bed or even talk to any of us. But how does a two and four year old understand that?

I was trying my hardest to preserve their bond and their relationship as much as I could. But they saw more than I ever would have liked them to see.

I started to try and research for advice on how to proceed and tips on how to get through it. But there wasn’t much out there to be offered. So we did a lot of learning as we went.

And I have learned a lot. I have learned that I am strong. That I can support our family in every way when push comes to shove. I have learned that having support, physically and emotionally, is integral to parenting with a depressed spouse. I have learned that I need to let go of some control and be adaptable to whatever comes my way. Also, that sometimes you need to look at the small wins, no matter how small, to keep going. I have learned how perceptive kids are, and how sometimes they knew the exact thing to say or do in times of extreme stress. That they are incredibly resilient and strong. I have learned that depression is incredibly isolating, both for the person who is battling the disease as well as the spouse who is there battling alongside. I have learned the power of having someone bring you a meal out of the blue or having someone help you clean the house can fill you with so much relief and support. And that laughing with the ones that you love and capturing a twinkle in their eye is not always a guarantee. And I have learned that self care is not selfish, but necessary, and should be done guilt free.

My hope is that one day my children will look back and understand why I chose to fight for our family. And it was a fight. I hope that one day they see how hard their dad fought to live. How much effort it took him to get out of bed and eat, to smile. How hard he fought to be part of their lives. I hope they see how hard we fought for our marriage. How much we loved each other, and that when their dad was hardly a shell of who I fell in love with, I could still see that little glimmer of who he truly was and fought to get that back.  

Sarah Byrne