Balancing Work with Parenting a Mentally Ill Child Isn't Easy

September 9, 2010 Angela McClanahan

I am a working parent.

Some parents work because they love their work; others because they need the money. I’m a little of both—I don’t love my work, but I value my sanity and indoor plumbing. Without my income, we’d have neither.

Being a working parent is a juggling act under the best circumstances, but when your child has a chronic illness, it’s virtually impossible. Sadly, parents whose children have a psychiatric illness (like my son, Bob, who has bipolar disorder and ADHD) struggle with all of those difficulties--and then some.

Caring For A Mentally Ill Child is All-Consuming for Parents

working1I’ve received several comments on this blog from parents who have either lost their jobs or taken voluntary leaves of absence due to the time required to care for a mentally ill child. I am no exception—the year Bob was hospitalized twice, I was chastised for taking off so much time to meet with therapists and psychiatrists, not to mention the time I wasted going to prenatal appointments because I was pregnant. (I wasn’t fired, but was told there would “need to be serious changes” to my attendance if I wanted to remain employed. I quit and found another job.)

In a perfect world, I could quit my job and take care of my son when he needed me. Or I could work part-time and have more available time for his appointments and “mental health days.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the income I work for—it’s the insurance. Although we could get group coverage through my husband’s employer, it’s more expensive than through mine. And we’d be hard-pressed to obtain coverage for Bob on our own—notwithstanding the pre-existing condition factor, the premium alone would likely bankrupt us (Read: Caring for Mentally Ill Children Should Not Put Parents in the Poorhouse).

Stigma of Mental Illness and Plain Tiredness Takes Toll on Working Parents

One likes to think an employer would be sensitive to the needs of a parent whose child lives with a debilitating and chronic illness. And for the most part, many are. However, the stigma of mental illness often leads to discrimination by employers against such parents. Many employers don’t believe a child has a bona fide medical condition and employees aren’t just running to pick him up from school (again) because the kid is just a delinquent.

working2Parenting a chronically ill child also takes its toll on a parent’s job performance. It’s unlikely one can focus on work tasks when one’s household is in a state of upheaval. Add in the stress of mounting medical bills and the sense of hopelessness when you can’t “fix” your mentally ill child’s problems—not exactly the formula for an Employee of the Year nomination.

It would be delightful if more employers were sensitive to the needs of employees with mentally ill children. Unfortunately, the current economy doesn’t lend itself to employee-friendly policies, and many employers are imposing more strict attendance policies and cutting paid time off benefits. It doesn’t say much for us as a society when some of us actually hope to be laid off so we can collect unemployment benefits and have time available to care for our sick children.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2010, September 9). Balancing Work with Parenting a Mentally Ill Child Isn't Easy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

October, 26 2019 at 11:09 pm

This absolutely hits home. My son 22 has ahad a turn for the worse. Just one day he wasn't himself. Well it let to an suicide attempt. I went immediately to protect and give my son help mode. That failed. Noone listened. So on top of working and watching his every move it happened again. Still noone will help. They took him to two different er cares and let him walk out within hours. Yet again no help no meds no diagnosis. So here I am a single mom taking time off work to watch him. Idk what to do. I have to work and I cannot take anymore leaves. HELP

November, 27 2018 at 11:16 pm

I'm just ready to give up. My resume is completely ruined. Bills are all consuming, desperation at every turn. Only "help" seems to be turning to Gestapo government agencies, and I don't want to lose my liberty, too. It's all I really have left.
Employers don't care. Ther community is a stigmatized wasteland. Hope is fleeting.
And it won't ever get better because he's only going to get bigger, stronger, and the hospitalizations, placements and police run ins (which we've already had half a dozen of) will continue, with worsening results.
The system is broken, unless you want to sign your life over to it.
I'm tired.

August, 23 2016 at 10:57 am

Athena^ I am in the exact same boat- single mom working full time- my son just got kicked out of his 3rd daycare this summer and I had to leave work again to pick him up. I'm out of vacation -sick time- no money-and have no idea what I'm supposed to do with him the next few weeks until school starts. I have to work or we will be homeless.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 27 2018 at 2:52 pm

I have worked my whole life, never getting a head, often getting behind because I must work a schedule that allows for the endless doctors appointments, therapy, IEPs and just bad days. It is so hard. Every time I have the opportunity to take a job with benefits and a constant income, I have to consider being in an office for 8 hours with no flexibility. I end up staying self employed. The stress of not knowing if the next commission is coming or not is not as bad as the stress of knowing that I am the only one who handles my daughters issues. It is exhausting and it causes me to be anxious and often depressed. It is a vicious circle.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 26 2018 at 8:00 pm

My son is now 6 and in 1st grade, but I couldn't find a daycare to keep him in either. I remember that struggle all too well. Now that he's in school, I get phone calls everyday, I have to pick him up all the time and he gets suspended. It is such a stressor, I don't know how to help him, or the school or myself. Helpless is definitely the feeling. Every day I don't get fired for this, i am thankful! I am thinking about trying to take some FMLA time to care for him and myself but not sure how that works. I wish I had answers, but I have none :( I keep thinking time and age will make it better, but the truth is, it hasn't.

October, 21 2018 at 10:07 pm

Hi, Stefani! If you haven't already, do advocate for an individualized education plan (IEP) or accommodations in general for your son. If you're getting constant calls from the school (something I only know too well!), this should trigger the social worker or teacher to do assessments or suggest something more than they're providing. Children have the right to an education, and if a disabling condition is affecting that ability, they have the right to accommodations.

July, 12 2016 at 4:41 am

Yes, I don't know what to do at all! As a single Mom with a full time job, I am completely overwhelmed and 6 months into the year have exhausted almost all my vacation, personal time and sick time AND I have FMLA. Basically when I take intermittent FMLA they take a portion of my vacation and personal time away. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

June, 11 2016 at 1:59 pm

Hi , I was just reading the post about caring for a teen with behavioral emotional problems.
This has been going on for so long. My child was addicted to synthetic marijuana and other substances as well. He has been in several psych hospitals, juvenile jail, rehab, etc. I have an
older son as well who has been in hospital twice in last two years. I worked at hospital for years until middle child was eight years old. Both of them were sexually abused by the same person, and suffered from drug use, nightmares, stealing, etc. I have had a complete breakdown and was filled with the Holy Spirit when my son stole two guns and disappeared for a two week period. I am a Christian. I taught my children about God, read to them, loved them. and all I get is criticized for the type of parent that I am by ex husband, current husband, friends, and family. I put all my faith in Yhwh and he has not failed me. It has been a long journey and a tiresome one at that. I was recently put in hospital myself now because of the stress, explosive behavior, financial problems, and I
have put cussed at, spit on, abused by so many even the people of the courts, and police.
We truly are living in the last days. Pray for your children, and God will walk with you through the pain. I am still sane. And thank God he loves me or I couldn't have made it.

Mrs. Wallace
April, 7 2016 at 3:00 pm

This is so crazy how much I'm seeing my situation in all of these post. My child was diagnosed with a mental illness since she was 5 1/2. And now she is 6 1/2. I asked myself when will this end. I am a nurse and work morning shift
It's so stressful waiting for a call from school stating my daughter is not in school. Or my husband calling and telling me what she has done. I feel so overwhelmed. I forget he is overwhelmed living in the moment of the situation at home. I feel a since of relief when I'm at work. So sad but I do. I feel like i may need an evaluation, myental state has crumbled this pass year. I feel so depressed and anxious when I'm home.

carolina garcia
January, 5 2015 at 4:39 pm

I have ason is mentally ill and he wants all the attention and he is manipulative he wants everything his way .he is 21 and wants 3 years old toys and overeats. And insults me when he cant have it. Touches everything and he moves things around he repeats thngs over and over and he wants u to repeat things over and over. I have try to be peaceful and nice and. But someties nice doesnt work so u have to tell them that he will go to stay away from home and that kind of help sometimes.playing alot and making them tired playing works and u could nap.

k Major
October, 14 2014 at 8:32 pm

Thank god I found this site. Melissa P, I'm having the problems with my 15 year old daughter too. She hasn't been diagnosed as yet, as we have our first psychiatric/counselling session next week. During the day. I am currently fighting my own nerves as I'm so worried about asking fir the time off. I work full time, am single and have only been in the job for 7 months. Now I'm scared they'll have to give me notice because of my attendance. But what can I do when daughter is texting ne to say she can't cope at school and needs me? It's heartbreaking. :-(

Melissa P
August, 30 2014 at 5:23 pm

I am going through parenting a mentally ill child and am finding that working is incredibly hard. She is 15 and has been diagnosed with Major depressive disorder, ocd, un specified anxiety and anorexia nervosa. She can't go to school every day because of her mental state and when she does she is on the phone with me begging me to get her because of panic attacks. There is so much more I could say about our situation. Why isn't there help out there for us parents... financial help to be able to stay home and home school our children, go to the therapy and doctor appointments without having to worry about losing our jobs? I'm terribly frustrated and unsure of what to do next. I hate that so many of us are going through this but it's also nice to know I'm not alone.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
August, 31 2014 at 5:01 am

Parenting a child with mental illness is a really tough job. Working outside the home and balancing the doctor appointments, therapists appointments, and school meetings seems insurmountable at times. It sounds like you are a caring, loving mother doing the best you can. I think that is the most we can do.

March, 27 2011 at 3:08 pm

I just googled "parenting a mentally ill child" and this was one of the first links. I am so glad that I clicked. My husband and I adopted an older child through the foster care system. She came to us without any "major" diagnoses. Almost 4 years later, we realized they just didn't take the time to evaluate her properly. We've had to fight for services for her. She's been in out-of-home placements 5 times in the past 2 years. In the past 6 months, I've had to call the police twice.
It's heartbreaking to have to go this alone. It's taken a huge toll on my marriage, and it's been hard on my own mental health. I have a family history of mental illness, and have dealt with depression in the past. Recently, one of the in-home therapists suggested I get my own therapist to deal with my stress (which has cost me a FT job offer) and I've asked to go back on medication.
Thank goodness I found this blog. I will probably comb over EVERY post to date, lol.

September, 11 2010 at 5:20 am

Thank you Angela,
I purposely switched shifts at work so I could be available for Christopher for school next week, and went to a lot of trouble to work tonight, (saturday) instead.
Christopher went after his little sister yesterday in a physically threatening manner - he is of non-violent nature, so at least no contact was made. He couldn't cope with the fact that he couldn't find his lunch money and accused her of stealing it, using her as a whipping boy once again. Chantel couldn't sleep because every time she closed her eyes, she saw him lunging at her.
Now I fear leaving her alone for my evening shift today. My husband will be caught in the middle of the two of them, with my very explosive, mentally ill son, my daughter and husband will suffer. My son and husband have both been up most of the night as my son is so upset by the outburst yesterday, but cognitively cannot process the information. I've emailed the mother of Chantel's friend to see if she can take her for a couple of hours tonight. They don't want their daughter here in case she hears someone swear. Plus they don't want their cosy life contaminated by our problems (sorry to sound so bitter). Choices are limited, as most people stay away from us because our problems are too huge. Plus my daughter cannot be a room alone and sleeps with my husband and I. That also greatly limits the choices of the people who would take her overnight.
I look forward to returning to work today and concentrating on other's problems instead of my own for once - the mental break from my home life recharges my ability to come home and go another round in the boxing ring. It is a respite for me, but guilt knowing that my respite will cause further pain to my suffering family. My mental health is failing big time because I've spent too many days home already. I hope my daughter will mend.
Again, thank you for your support!!!!

September, 10 2010 at 6:14 am

Hi Angela,
I needed to take a year and a half medical leave when my son's condition deteriorated. It exacerbated my bipolar depression. Frantically searching for help for my son, meeting with experts, appointments galore, and his severe illness pushed me over the edge. Not to mention the death of both my parents within a year. I was not even able to spend any time with either of them because everyone minute was spent in the chaos of our lives. But I can have no regrets - the well being of my son came first.
Gladly, I am back at work now and being out of this toxic environment 24/7 has really helped a lot of my mood. Prior that, if anyone at work asked about my son, I would break down sobbing. My head nurse recognized I needed help and found the best psychiatrist she could find, who diagnosed me with bipolar depression, due to the fact that 20 years of all the antidepressants had now failed. I had one hypomanic episode, probably brought on by the death of my parents, and I guess that confirms the bipolar diagnosis, which is very difficult to accept. I believe that hypomanic episode never would have surfaced had there not been so much stress.
Parenting at home has been a very unrewarding experience. Failure after failure, hurt after hurt, broken heart after broken heart, totally burnt out, and my tank was completely empty.
Going back to work I discovered I had another tank which was not empty, and I could once again be rewarded for the care I could give my patients, see the results, feel their relief and gratitude as I was able to give from my heart.
It's very toxic in my home. I was given this huge bundle to love, but it's also taken away. It's like living with an alcoholic abusive parent or spouse, except you can't leave.
I work part time - nursing is too stressful for someone like myself, I am not tough enough due to my illness. But when I've had too many days off, my mood starts to dip and I realize I've been home too much in this environment and my return to work is the antidote.
I am fortunate I have a strong nursing union that supports nurses with seriously ill family members. I believe my head nurse understands, but she still has a business to run - I do my best to keep my personal problems out of my work, and hope I will not have to miss too much time off work due to my son's illness. I also know this situation should be temporary, my son will be considered an adult in 5 - 6 years, and my parenting responsibilities will have ended (although the parental ties never end) - my husband feels he can never abandon his ill son.
At one point my 9 year old daughter (plus myself) were suffering so much we almost needed to move out, until my husband came around, saw the light, accepted the fact that his son was indeed seriously ill, and wanted his son hospitalized.
I hope I don't have to have the same situation 6 years from now. I hope my son can settle down so that we can all live peacefully in our home.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Angela McClanahan
September, 10 2010 at 6:24 am

Lori, thank you for your comment. I'm glad you're able to find solace in your work--personally, I don't feel like I have a "career" as much as a "job" and therefore my paying gig mostly adds to my stress and depression levels. But the right medication helps. :) I'm beginning to find ways to pursue my true calling (writing) and also working on reframing the way I think about my job. And of course, dreaming of that lottery win...
As I said to you before, I truly hope things balance out for your family sooner than later. Please take care of yourself.

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