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A Different Kind of Mother

A Different Kind of Mother

I worry that there is something sharp and harsh about me that will hurt my children the way I was hurt.

by

Like most women, my friends and I are concerned about how to be good mothers. But what concerns me about being a good mother is very different than other women's concerns. By good mothers, my friends mean effective mothers who can motivate their children to behave well, and calmly deal with the situation when they don't. They don't really worry about whether their children will love them or want to be in a relationship with them when they get older.

For me, this is not a given. I worry about whether I can let myself be close to them without hurting them. I worry about how to raise them in a way that won't leave psychological scars. I worry that just having me as their mother will damage them. I worry that there is something sharp and harsh about me that will hurt them the way I was hurt.

I am surrounded by people who constantly reassure me that I am a good mother. But it is impossible for me to relax and enjoy their praise. I am always monitoring myself, watching and waiting. In my eyes, I am always suspect.

 

At school, I shone. At home, I pretended not to exist.

 

My own mother was mentally ill. She was scary and controlling, and my earliest memory of her is of how she terrified me. She would pull my hair until clumps of it came out in her hands. She would yell at me if I made any noise, regardless of whether that noise was laughing or crying. I learned early to make myself invisible. I moved like a silent shadow through our house, unwilling to do anything that would attract attention. I thrived at school, where teachers were lavish with their praise, and being noticed did not automatically mean being punished. At school, I shone. At home, I pretended not to exist.

As I child, I didn't understand that it was her illness that made me feel differently about her than other girls felt about their mothers. I thought that it was something lacking in me, that I was defective in some way, and had not been given the capacity to love my mother in the same way that others had.

It was years before I could contemplate becoming a mother. Years of therapy in which I painstakingly unraveled the twisted contortions of my past. I used those years to learn Torah, replacing unhealthy thinking with a vital and fresh new system of thought. A supportive rabbi helped me to imagine a different future -- a new script that was not based on the past.

But the act of giving birth to my own daughter still terrified me. When I didn't have enough milk to breastfeed my daughter, despite pumping, taking herbs and working for months with a lactation consultant, I felt this was just another proof of my internal deficiency, first as a daughter, and now as a mother. I returned to therapy again, to receive more support at this crucial junction.

Recently I came across a study of women who had been raised by mentally ill mothers. As one woman who participated in the study said, "Please don't refer to her as my Mom. It feels too intimate." These women struggled to define and reconcile their mothers' illness in the context of their relationship with them.

Yet their mother's illness was always a barrier between them, an unnatural presence that prevented true and relaxed intimacy. Many of these women abandoned the struggle as adults. Most of them left home prematurely before they reached adulthood. Their stories mirrored my story. In the stories of these strangers, I had found a community.

It is difficult to talk about this. The relationship between a mother and a child is considered by many to be almost sacred, and this makes it difficult to acknowledge that my own experience has been otherwise.

 

I am terrified of becoming my daughter's nightmare.

 

I have made peace with the fact that my mother was ill. Life with a chronic illness is not life as other people know it. But it is harder for me to make peace with my own motherhood. Having a mother who was mentally ill is different than being an orphan. An orphan can grow into her memory of her mother. For me, that is my biggest nightmare. I am terrified of becoming my daughter's nightmare.

For this reason, I can understand it when someone who has had a childhood similar to my own chooses not to have children. They do not trust themselves, and cannot risk allowing someone so vulnerable to become so dependant upon them. My brother, for instance, has made this choice.

I also do not fully trust myself. Yet what has allowed me to have courage and move forward, despite my fear, is my trust in God. Jewish sources tell us that there are three partners in the creation of a child – a mother, a father and the Almighty. God is not only present at the conception of a child, He remains intimately involved with that child, helping his parents to raise him.

I would be terrified to do this alone. My fear would paralyze me; my memories would haunt me. Even my husband's help would not be enough to reassure me.

Accepting that God is our partner has allowed me to shoulder this awesome responsibility. This knowledge has reassured me that although we will not become perfect parents, God will help us not to be destructive ones either.

 

My fears have pushed me to uniquely develop myself as a mother.

 

I think that my fears have pushed me to uniquely develop myself as a mother. I am extra careful to monitor my moods. Since I remember all too well the terror I felt in the face of my mother's uncontrolled anger, I do not allow myself to reach a state of excessive anger. I consider it simply too dangerous to relate to small children in such a state.

I do not discipline my children in a state of anger. I calm myself down first before deciding if consequences are necessary, or what a suitable punishment might be. I take a break, go into my room, lock the door, and talk directly to God. "I need You to help me out now," I tell Him, "because I am feeling so overwhelmed." These five minutes of prayer allow me to open my bedroom door and face the chaos again, only calmer, and with fresh perspective.

I also take extra care not to reach a state of exhaustion, which makes it harder to keep control of myself. When I go to sleep at night, I say to God "I am going off shift. You keep watch." In this way, I remind myself that I am allowed to concede my limits, both physically and emotionally, and ask for support and reinforcement.

It has been almost seven years since I first held my newborn baby daughter, and it has been a long and intense ride. She has been joined by a brother, and although there is an incredible amount of work that goes into rearing children, there is also an incredible amount of joy.

Had I allowed my fear to control me, I would never have known such intense pleasure. I would never have been touched by such magic.

Published: May 9, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 74

(74) Anonymous, November 9, 2013 8:05 PM

Child of bipolar parent and also mom with bipolar

Very proud of the author of this! Hopefull that God and my children will forgive me for my mistakes and know that I truely gave motherhood my all. I think my kids are struggling but I also think that their lives are full and Godly. They do love and know the Lord and for that I am proud.

(73) Thank You, February 22, 2010 10:32 AM

A wonderful article

Thank you for this piece. Your experience and the comments afterwards has given me much appreciated support in my own journey, which has many parallels. A brave and honest article.

(72) Anonymous, May 19, 2009 5:02 PM

Thank you! You have given me comfort & courage. May HaShem give you, & all of us, the support & wisdom & ...... needed in order to take care of the precious gifts He intrusts in to our hands!

(71) Kim Benson, May 16, 2009 4:51 PM

Dealing with cruel parents

I think this is very common concern. Thank you for sharing your story. There's a BIG distinction between mental illness and evil. There are many more cruel parents out there than people care to admit. (One of the big tell-tale signs that they are evil vs. mentally ill is that they go to great lengths to intentionally hide their sadistic behavior from those outside their immediate home!) As to the person who said, (I'm paraphrasing) "Have some consideration for the mentally ill[abuser]..", I say this: When we have a rabid dog in out midst who is attacking others mercilessly, we don't stop to analyze it, we shoot it for everyone's protection!!! It's also important to keep in mind that these unfit parents are not going to be good people as grandparents either! I recently discovered a GREAT website that deals with the ethics & morality that surround this topic: www.narcissists-suck.blogspot.com It deals head-on with many controversial parenting topics. You do have to be mindful not to screw up your kids. One snippet dealt with corporal punishment & abuse. Nuances are so critical. Saying to a child, "Come here, take this belt-beating, & do NOT attempt to defend yourself because if you make any atttempt at self-defense this beating will be SO MUCH WORSE..." That is so messed-up! Self-defense is a natural human reaction for heaven's sake. Yes, some parents can be actively crushing their children's humanity, without giving it much thought at all. (Hhhmm, now why do you think it is that so many of us women are naturally & unhealthfully drawn to men that are aloof & want us to come close to be humiliated/smacked-down?!) As outsiders, we can not judge adult kids for making the decision to cut off their parents. We were not inside their household growing up. There are things parents can do to permanently "tear up their parent card", as Dr. L would put it. Heck, even Barbara Bush did not attend her own mom's funeral. It's nice that mother's give the gift of life, but if they are too evil or sick to raise them, they should give them up for adoption!

(70) Anonymous, May 14, 2009 11:46 AM

I hear you, but don't worry

I was raised by a mother with mental illness and I understand your feelings. For me though, I wanted to become a mother and raising my children has been one of the most healing experiences I have had. My childhood dream was to have my own happy family. Am I perfect? No- what mother is? I know I was afraid to discipline them for fear they would feel "abuse", so I was perhaps more lenient than some parents. However my children know that they are unconditionally loved and that I treasure them. At each stage of their development, I relived my own childhood and replaced unhappy moments with moments of loving joy. This time I was the Mom. I had control of the emotional climate, and the many loving hugs and smiles filled my own empty childhood heart. Through my children, I actually "grew up" emotionally as well. With children, sometimes rewards are not always evident until much later, but my children have grown into loving caring people. This has been a great blessing and I thank G-d every day for these gifts.

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