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A few weeks ago, I had a bad flareup. I’d been laid off from my part-time teaching job, was going through a difficult period in my writing life, and at the same time, my psychiatrist persuaded me to try a new medicine. Meanwhile, my daughter got strep throat, then my son got the flu, then our baby sitter got the flu, then I got strep throat — all just a week in the life of a mother with kids in preschool. Nothing about any of these stressors was catastrophic or even unusual.
Nothing unusual except that in the middle of it, I found it physically painful to get out of bed. All day, going about my stay-at-home mom business, I cried. I cried while asking my kids if they wanted their morning bagels with cream cheese or peanut butter. I cried while driving them to school. I cried at the coffee shop where I go to write and in the dried foods aisle of Trader Joe’s. There was no sobbing, no blubbering or nose blowing, just a stream of tears stopping and starting all day long without any real cause.
My husband worried. My children were fussy and confused. And I couldn’t blame them. I knew exactly what they were going through, because long before I knew what depression was, before I’d ever heard of mood disorders or anxiety, I knew what it felt like to live with someone who was often, inconsolably, unhappy.
Manifestations of this unhappiness are woven through my earliest memories. I remember a weekday afternoon, school out, the red vinyl booth of a pizzeria and my mother weeping at the table. I hear her screaming in public places, hear doors slamming, her frantic voice on the phone with my father, telling him he needed to come home from work. At the time, these moments had no story around them, no reason. They seemed a thing in and of themselves, and I feared them. I came to see my mother’s moods as a force separate from her person. There was my mom, the woman I loved more than anyone in the world, and then there was this other entity, these quickly shifting rages that needed to be anticipated, navigated, endured. I always knew my mother loved me, but I also knew just as surely that there were moments, hours, days, when she could hardly cope with her own life, much less motherhood. Often, these episodes came without warning, like a change in weather, and so I became a meteorologist of her dysphoria. I learned to sense the direction of my mother’s mood by the sound of her footsteps down the hall.
Later, confusion and fear fermented into resentment. As an adolescent and young adult, I hated my mother for her inability to cope, saw it as a sign of weakness and self-pity. I went years without speaking a civil word to her. Then, around the time my younger sister left home, something unexpected happened. The depression and anxiety and erratic mood shifts that had always seemed so integrally woven into the fabric of who she was, dissipated. She started taking one of the SSRI medications for depression that hadn’t been available when we were young. She started exercising, working more, taking time for the hobbies she hadn’t had time for when we were young. And amazingly, she got better. It seemed that without children to care for, she could care for her own mental health. We became friends again, rebuilt a relationship, and I began to hope that my experience coping with the sort of emotional fragility I grew up around was over. Then I had children of my own.
I had never intended to be a stay-at-home-mom. I never thought I had the temperament for it, but it happened anyway, a combination of factors including my low wage-earning potential as a holder of a B.A. in English and an MFA in creative writing, a recession job market, and the fact that my son had a lot of health problems during his first three years. It was hard for me to believe, at times, that was where all my efforts and education had landed me. I felt like a maid, a chauffeur, a short-order cook and dishwasher. I was a scheduler of doctor’s appointments and teacher conferences, a secretary, a wiper of mucus-y noses and a disposer of poop pellets (yes, poop pellets), because my 2-year-old was putting up a fight in the potty-training department and had started trying to change her diaper herself during nap time. I had what felt like an ever-nascent career, and I had feces under my fingernails. This was my life.
Last week, feminists celebrated the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s book, which explores the ways in which traditional conceptions of motherhood and housewifery stifle and demean women and diminish society as a whole. I was 15 when I first read “The Feminine Mystique,” locked in my bedroom, probably wearing black, groping for any ideas I could find on how not to become my mother. And yet here I was, despite all intentions, one of the sad, thwarted women that fill her pages.
When I became depressed this time, I tried to hide it from my children — forced a smile through the tears, tried to make it into a joke: “Mommy’s just being silly, silly, silly.” My 5-year-old son was nervous, clingy, wanted to be physically in contact with me at all times. My 2-year-old daughter acted out, throwing tantrums, turning up the volume on her usual toddler willfulness. I watched them and I saw my own 5-year-old or 2-year-old self — angry, confused, frightened by my mother’s lability, her inability to simply hold herself together and cope. I would have done anything at that moment to spare them that. But I couldn’t stop crying. One afternoon, I called my husband at work and said, “I love our babies so much and so I would never kill myself. But if we didn’t have children, I think I’d consider it.” He told me I had to go back to the doctor.
The stressors haven’t gone away, but I’m back on my old medicine, working on a new project, spending a lot of time at family swim where I can be with my kids while feeling weightless. I’m more like myself, more competent as a parent and a person. And yet, I’m still unsettled by the fact that taking care of my own children full-time and the prospect of continuing to do this indefinitely should be a trigger for a depressive episode. I love them, after all. I love their sweet little faces, their voices, their inquisitive and playful personalities, their high-pitched laughs and endless, earnest questions. But those days when I’m with them for long stretches of time, when my waking hours seem one long shift of milk-pouring, food-cutting, cheerio-sweeping, tush-wiping and tantrum-thwarting, I think I must feel exactly as my mother used to feel, like I just can’t cope, like my brain is an idling engine, like I must clearly be doing something wrong to find taking care of my own children so psychologically taxing.
My husband thinks I’d be happier, more fulfilled, with a full-time job, and sometimes I agree with him. (A Gallup poll conducted last May found that stay-at-home moms experienced more sadness, depression, anxiety and anger than either working mothers or women without children.) But if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think it’s simply a matter of working or not working. If I had a full-time job, I’d probably be equally nuts; my nuttiness would just manifest itself differently. I think the issue is more that for some women, women like me — with a history of depression and a hereditary predisposition toward emotional instability — motherhood and sanity just aren’t 100 percent compatible. This is a hard thing to accept about oneself, and harder to admit. But it became easier when I broached the subject with friends, many of whom revealed similar struggles. For some, the depression or anxiety or moodiness began postpartum. But for many like me, the problem didn’t resolve once their hormone levels fell into check and they’d gotten through those first bewildering months.
My friend Megan, who quit her job when her first child was born, wrote to me in an email that, “After a few months at home with Penelope, I began to get depressed — sleeping too much, drinking too much, watching endless, mindless hours of brainless television. This low-level depression continued through the birth of my second daughter, and it began to escalate when I was home with two kids.” For her, it didn’t get better until she went back to work full-time.
Another friend, Ann, who has a son with a disability, said that for her, the depression had less to do with day-to-day strain and more to do with acknowledging that certain things in her life weren’t ever going to be the way she wanted them to be, that the possibilities of what lay ahead had suddenly gotten much smaller. She told me, “It’s a choice that precludes so many other choices. I love my son and have a wonderful relationship with him, but I knew shortly after he was born that I was never going to have a high-powered career.” Later, she goes on to tell me how “before, there’d be times when I’d ace a test or write a chapter of my dissertation and I’d know as I was doing that it was good. But I never quite feel that way with my son, like I know what I’m doing is right. I’m always feeling like there’s some skill-set I’m lacking.”
And a third friend, Gallaudet, who has two school-age sons, wondered if all these insecurities aren’t societally driven. She wrote to me, “In this time and place, it seems … like it might actually be possible to ‘get it right’ with children, so I often feel like I have to do just that. I forget that throughout most of history, keeping them ALIVE was the goal.” She goes on to explain how in addition to this desire for perfection, “many of us are parenting away from our families of origin, but under the scrutinizing gaze of those we hardly know. If I were to judge my friends’ parenting by Facebook and blog posts, I’d assume their lives were sunshine and organic flowers all the freaking time. When I actually talk to my friends, honestly, I feel much better and less anxious and stressed, because the same shit goes down in every household. But because so much of what I see and hear is prepackaged — marketed, in a sense — I can quickly forget not to judge my own family’s insides based on other people’s families’ outsides.”
As I talked to her and others, and contemplated these various impossible goals and emotional hurdles we set for ourselves, it began to seem an astounding thing that anyone could parent young children without having a breakdown. I could feel my self-assessment softening a bit, as well as my long-held beliefs about my own mother’s shortcomings. I thought about an afternoon when I was talking to one of my mother-in-law’s friends, (a really smart lady and a clinical social worker in her 60s), and after she’d had a couple of glasses of wine, she said, laughing, “Oh, I hated being a mother until my son was 8. I was a wreck! It was awful!” And when she said it I felt this tremendous relief that I wasn’t alone.
For so many years, I wanted or needed to blame my mother for her emotional frailty. I needed to view her moods not as an affliction from which she suffered, or as evidence of the incredible demands our society places on mothers, without offering commensurate support, but as something she (all-powerful as mothers seem to their children) inflicted on us. Now, as I raise my own kids and struggle with the same types of depressive episodes I remember her enduring 20 years ago, and grapple with the many and varied factors that make modern mothers anxious and depressed, the very thing about her I most resented has become a sort of morbid bond between us.
She’s the one I call when getting the kids dressed and fed and out the door to school feels like an accomplishment of Herculean proportions. She’s the one I call when I’m at my lowest, when the weight of the responsibility and the chaos of everyday life feels like it’s going to break me, when I want to cry out, “Help! This wasn’t what I expected. It’s both too much and too little.” She’s often the one I turn to when I want so deeply to be a better mother, a saner, steadier, less irritable, more dependable mother than I am … than she was. I call her, and often she’s able to soothe me with the simple insistence that, “Everything’s OK. It gets better. Everything’s going to be OK.” She says it in the calm, steady, reassuring tone I so wish she’d been able to summon more often when I was a child.
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post your essay on Open Salon and tag it "real families."