(Disclaimer: I wrote this before Twitter was recently sold.)
The only social media channel I regularly use these days is Twitter. I like Twitter because it’s primarily words, and I love words. I mostly follow writers, parents, random funny people, and the Obamas.
I came across a tweet from a fellow mother who is married to another woman. She shared that her mother disowned her when she found out she was gay. She asked if it was wrong that she wished her mother could have Alzheimer's, forget she had ever disowned her, and hug her telling her she loves her no matter what. “Am I horrible for wishing to have a mom again?”
Everyone needs and deserves to feel loved by their mother/parent.
I understand this woman’s pain, though my circumstances with my own mother are different. I cannot remember a time when my mom was mentally well. There were up moments now and again amidst the endless downs, but the ups were always short-lived and followed by a seemingly lower, scarier down. I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to make sense of what was going on in her mind, but what I do know is that most of the time, I certainly did not feel loved by her.
Until I became a mother myself, I thought I had a good handle on what it meant to be my mother's daughter - a daughter of mental illness. It just was what it was and I was otherwise a happy, functioning person with meaningful relationships and an exciting, successful career. Sure, my heart stopped anytime I received a call from Home (it still does) as so many times those calls meant something was wrong with Mom and I needed to fly home immediately, but I WAS FINE.
I almost robotically portrayed a wise, mature, and accepting persona when I talked about my mom’s health: Look, everyone, at how strong I am, despite what I have gone through. I am so independent. I take care of myself. I even take care of other people as a yoga teacher. I know it’s not my mom’s fault; she has a mental illness. I AM FINE.
When I found out I was pregnant, my attachment to this independent identity intensified. I thought things like, “Half of the world’s population have gone through this just fine. Of course I can do it.” My sister in law gave birth in Korea, where they practice 30 days confinement. She was booked at a Maternity Center where she was taken care of 24/7, supported in breastfeeding, and allowed to rest. It didn't occur to me that Maternity Centers existed because such postpartum support was essential. I just thought, “Oh how lovely for her! But we don’t have anything like that here in the UK, and anyway, I’ll be just fine.” My husband was only going to have 2 weeks of paternity leave before I would be completely alone with the baby and I thought, “Seems that’s what all families have, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
I did not even consider hiring paid help. Neither my husband nor I had grown up with a nanny of any kind, and it's not something we could have easily afforded. My sisters in law on my husband’s side had already started having kids and they hadn’t hired help. Of course, I didn’t take into account that they both had the help and emotional proximity of loved ones. Most of their family and friends were at least in the same country.
I had none of my family or my close friends remotely nearby. And even if my mother had been my next door neighbor, I wouldn’t have been able to rely on her for anything.
It was too scary to admit how alone I would be so I instead went into big time denial. I was going to do it all. I was going to figure it out. I WAS GOING TO BE FINE. I was going to go back to my full teaching schedule “probably within a month.” I would just wear the baby in a carrier and he would obviously sleep, or quietly coo, soothed by all the yoga and deep breathing.
I don’t know if I will ever forget the pure raw void I felt take over my body when my husband went back to work and it was just me and the baby. My husband was out of the house minimally 12 hours a day. I was filled with dread from 7am to 7pm. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping this little human alive all by myself. I had so many questions and uncertainties, with no one close that I could reach out to.
It was the first time in adulthood that I felt I really, desperately needed a mother. I needed to be held by my mother as I was stepping into my own motherhood. I needed the assurance that the bath was a safe temperature, I needed the motherly partnership of analyzing together the baby’s facial expressions, cries, and poop, I needed to hear, “I’m so proud of you. Look at you. You got this. I got you.”
My pain at never having known a mother’s love without the darkness of mental illness erupted from its dormancy when I started learning how to give a mother’s love to my own child. As I found myself wanting to do my best in caring for him, protecting him, loving him, it became undeniable what I had not been given by my mother. I could not process the reality that I had once been an innocent baby, ever deserving of love. Had I ever felt loved? Did my mother ever have the capacity to be there for me?
My kids are pretty happy little humans. My husband and I do our best to create a warm and loving home environment for them. We stick to routines, set boundaries, read “one more story” (x10), dance to Madonna, Frozen, and the Notorious B.I.G, and eat ice cream. They love their bedrooms and happily sleep in their own beds - “It’s so cozy!” they say. Our family is all about cozy.
When my parents came to visit a few months ago, my dad remarked at how happy my kids are - especially Avy, who is just the epitome of a cheerful child; it’s seriously like she sprinkles rainbow confetti everywhere she goes with the joy she freely emanates - as well as what good sleepers they are. “They are so different to you. You cried so much - sooo much! You never stopped crying!”
My parents and relatives have said this about me throughout my life: “Soojin, you were such a difficult child. You gave your mom such a hard time. Nothing could make you stop crying. We were ready to throw you into the dumpster!”
I gathered that I was meant to feel sheepish and apologetic when I was told this. Grateful I hadn’t been thrown into the dumpster. But reflecting upon it now, it just feels cold and cruel. As a mother, I have learned that children absorb our energies and sense our intentions. I know that a baby doesn’t cry to give their parent a hard time; they’re crying because they need something - food, a clean diaper, a cuddle, a snooze - or quite simply - love.
I’ve always thought that my mother’s depression started impacting our lives when I was five years old because that’s where my concrete memories go back to. It only recently dawned on me that it’s possible and probable that she was unwell from before I can consciously remember. I realized that it’s illogical to think that she would have gone from being a happy and mentally well mother when I was a baby to suddenly being depressed and abusive when I was five.
I recently said to a friend, “I don’t think my mom loved me. She couldn’t possibly have loved me with the way she abused me physically, verbally, emotionally. It is weirdly liberating to think this, albeit heartbreaking and confounding as I experience the love I have for my kids, especially for Avy because I see so much of myself in her. I wonder, was I a sweet girl like Avy is? At the very least I know I was innocent as all children are… How did my mom beat me? How did she hit me, shake me, throw me, drag me by hair? Maybe I wasn’t a sweet child, and maybe that’s why my mom wasn’t loving towards me.”
My friend responded, “I imagine you were every bit like Avy and your mom was too broken to see it.”
There’s no way to delete the pain of the past. There are no time machines and the part of our brain that holds these memories can’t distinguish time and space so the pain can feel very much like it is happening in the present. As much as I am learning to mother myself as I mother my children, it does not perfectly replace the absence of my mother’s love. I am doing what I can to heal as much as I can, but scars remain. This is a fact that I have to accept. Instead of wishing I could do the impossible and go back into the past and make things different, I think the best I can do is to learn from the past and let the pain from the past inform how I can do better now and in the future. How can I be the mother I needed but didn’t have?
Some things cannot be fixed. But all things can be held with understanding, in the compassionate cradle of a mother’s love. Even if that mother’s love has to come from within your own self.