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.