Mom Talk: Dealing With a Mother’s Mental Illness
Photo by Nicki Sebastian
“Let your kids see you cry, show them that big emotions are O.K.”—the idea of practicing emotional honesty with our children is ideal in theory, but the reality can be so much trickier. How do you explain to your kids that grandma has been committed against her will in a mental institution? How do you tell them that you fear the same might happen to you one day? There are certain emotions we all push aside in order to get through the checklist of each day and show up for our children, and in today’s Mom Talk, Claire Fitzsimmons explains how her own struggles often take a back seat to mothering—a situation most of us can can surely relate to. Claire is a writer, curator, and co-founder of The Indie Alley, a female-focused coworking space in California. Claire was a YBCA Fellow in the Public Imagination and her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, and Anxy, amongst others.
When do you get to fall apart as a mom? I’ll tell you when: Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., those hours when the kids are asleep, and you get to be a person again.
It’s Labor Day weekend and today my mom was sectioned. She’s back home in the U.K. I’m out here in California. My brother called later than the time difference usually allows: “Dad took her to the emergency room this morning. He was there all day. She’s been admitted. She’s now on the acute mental health ward.”
I have two kids, eight and three, a boy and a girl. We were due to go to a BBQ. We were due to eat hotdogs and run around the yard. We were due to have a day of “Family Fun.” But I asked my husband to take the kids without me.
I needed time to get my head together, to figure out why I’m so unsettled and what to do with everything buzzing inside. Alone with a glass of wine, I keep thinking: I can’t get to her, I can’t make this alright. I live on the other side of the world and there is nothing I can do for her from here. I can’t hop in the car and go and visit. I can’t call the ward because she’s sleeping now. I can’t take my dad down to the pub and replay the day. There is nothing I can do. Except this: I can pull all these thoughts together before my kids come home for me to wrap them in cuddles and read the bedtime story.
Today, like all those other days, I didn’t know how to bring my feelings into their world.
“Sam, sweetie, grandma isn’t doing so well. Those things that happen with her head—those things in her mind—they got a bit too much today. She had to go to hospital.”
All those things that had come up for me: feeling the guilt of not being with my mom, needing her to be somewhere safe, willing her to be well, when she couldn’t or wouldn’t. The confusion, the anger, the fear. None of it can I convey to my children. That’s for me to endure later. For when they’re asleep and I’m not.
As mothers, we hold everything together. We keep going through an argument with our partner, through a work trial, through emails that grate and bills that drain, through texts to arrange or complain or negotiate, through aches that could be flu and lumps that could be more, through forgetting laundry detergent, or running out of contact lenses, or getting bitten by a wasp, through phone calls home with words like psychiatrist and diazepam and emergency room, through losing a sibling, missing a home, shifting a whole life. We keep going.
We keep our lives together, so we can keep our children’s lives intact. We don’t frighten them with our tears or our rage. We hold those back until another time. And sometimes that other time doesn’t happen at all. Because we are tired too, after long days, and work-life tipping, we fall asleep with them as we listen to the audio version of Winnie the Pooh. We cling to their warm bodies and the comfort of a dark bedroom and regular breaths, and we let go enough to fall asleep, early, exhausted, spent.
Sometimes we don’t wait till the dark, and the cracks show anyway, and when it takes too long for a sandal to be fastened or for breakfast to be eaten, we start to cry. Those tears they don’t understand, because why would we be so, so upset over something so silly. But my son offers a glass of water anyway, and says, “I’m sorry, what did I do?” And then you worry more, because you, my dear love, did nothing. The tears are for something else. Not you. Not because of you. And you regroup and pack a lunch and jump in the car and go to school and greet the day with everyone around you believing in your happiness.
Maybe that’s what my mom did too. Maybe she waited and waited until she could fall apart. She hung on to her mind, to whatever sense of self she still had, to us, until the moment that she lost everything. When my brothers and I left. Got married. Had our own children. Didn’t need her. And then. Then she let her mind slide. So completely that she lost herself.
I wonder whether my mom feels safe. What she ate on the ward tonight. Whether she’s frightened. I wonder if the nurses are treating her well. If the other patients are crazy, and what that really means, and how that compares to her own kind of crazy. I wonder if the person she’s sharing a room with will upset her, or if she’ll upset them. And I wonder too—the most frightening thought—if that will be me, twenty years down the line. If I’ll wait until my kids have left me, until I have mornings and not evenings to break down, until nobody matters except myself, but I will hardly matter at all.
It’s out there, that future. It lurks in the nightlight thoughts. Will I become my mom? Will I become a mother who long ago forgot those children that once fed her worry? Will I be so far gone that when my own kids enter the room, I won’t greet them, even though they’ve been away from me for the best part of the year. Will I no longer raise my eyes to meet my daughter? Or not even try with my voice, with my words, to reach my son?
You’ll want to know what happened to her. You’ll want to know her diagnosis. You’ll want to know what she has. But I can’t answer that with a word like “depression” or “anxiety,” or a phrase like “dissociative identity disorder.” But I can say this: after 11 years of the back and forth of her mental state, I’m still sitting with the shamefully narcissistic explanation of her current situation—that it’s still about us. That we were her trauma. That we have crafted her madness by our absence, as much as we crafted her togetherness with our presence.
In some ways, I know it’s my fault—when we were kids, my brothers and I, we were the force that kept her in the world. How could we then grow up, and take away the scaffolding of her life, to leave her to herself? That wasn’t the deal she thought she’d made when she had us. That’s the deal of a parent, raising kids, to be independent, to not need you anymore. I just don’t think she realized what a brilliant job she’d done.
We left her. That was the betrayal. She had been there for us the whole way through and still, we did that to her. Post-us being kids and her having kids (which are kind of the same thing in her mind), she no longer understood her new world: the empty bedrooms and open schedules, rushed phone calls and disinterested answers. She was out of place in our family home. She was out of place in what still stood for our family. She had nowhere, she thought wrongly, to pour all that love. She could no longer keep us near, and safe, and small. She could no longer be a mom. So, she chose not to be one.
This summer I asked my dad for a photo of my mom, one from when we were kids. I’m getting confused about the versions of my mother that I have. When I think of the mom I grew up with, I think of words like “bubbly” and “vibrant.” I think of skipping school to spend time just with her, not even having to fake a cold because she wanted to spend time with me, too. Of sharing hot chocolate fudge cake with whipped cream, without guilt, giggling like teenage girls.
I don’t think of her saying, “I don’t have a head.” I don’t think of her swearing at me to go home. I don’t think of her sitting in silence, staring into the spaces beyond me. I don’t think of the person lying in a hospital bed, with nurses to medicate her and doctors who will discharge her back into our world soon enough.
Dad reassured me with albums and albums of someone that I did know: beautiful, blonde, familiar. Mom chubby-cheeked and gap-toothed laughing on a boat (though I know she hated water). Coyly tilting her head to the side, flirting with my dad, who must have been on the other side of the camera. Holding a sugary cake in a picture from my birthday party, wearing black leather trousers, a fluffy pink jumper, and a black hair bow.
And there we are, my mom and I, dancing to “Agadoo” at a disco in an English seaside resort. Cute. Happy. An eighties mommy, with sparklers in her cocktails and a big bow on her brand-new car. I pulled out three photos, careful not to tear decades-old glue. Hung them on the wall above my desk to remind me that I wasn’t wrong: that was my mom, that version. Wasn’t it?
Someone once asked me whether she showed signs of being ill when I was a kid and I fumbled with an answer about a brown paper bag and panic attacks in the Lake District. I saw her cry once, but wasn’t there some argument with dad and they made up with kisses in the living room while we sat on the stairs? But nothing else, not really. She was pretty ordinary.
Maybe it wasn’t there. Maybe it was and she didn’t show it. And maybe I didn’t know her well enough then to know how she really was. I knew her as my mom. But I didn’t know her.
Footsteps upstairs. My kids are back from the friends’ house.
“Mama, how are you doing?”
“I’m good, Sam. I’m ok.”
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This spoke to me. My mom is mentally ill, had been through the greater part of my life. I moved far, far, away and never talk about the things going on in her head with my young children.