Tuesday, January 22, 1980

Tomorrow, January 22, is my birthday. It’s a Tuesday. Anytime my birthday has fallen on a Tuesday, it has felt particularly significant. I have felt this significance in the last few days, without really understanding where the feeling was coming from. After Googling, it turns out that January 22 was a Tuesday in 1980 — when I was born.

Any other 80’s babies have this exact birthday banner growing up??

I have always loved birthdays — my own, my family’s, my friends’, my pets’. Before becoming a mother and taking on “mom brain,” I had an uncanny ability to never forget anyone’s birthday. I still think of childhood friends, whom I haven’t seen in decades, on their birthdays.

When I was in college at UCLA, I threw pretty epic birthday parties for myself and friends who were fellow January babies. We once rented out the Hard Rock Cafe in Beverly Hills and hit capacity with 400 guests. This was such a talked about social event that in the days leading up to the party, several of us birthday girls received invitations — to our own party.

Over the years and as I’ve moved from LA to Hong Kong, London, and now NYC, my social circle has diminished significantly and my life today is of course very different from when I was a college student. Long gone are big, carefree parties — and the generally carefree days I had pre-motherhood. In recent years, when January would come around, instead of feeling excited for my birthday, I found myself feeling sad. I felt disappointed before the day even arrived. I thought perhaps it was because I didn’t have my oldest, closest friends around. Perhaps I was lamenting my youth. It felt strange to feel this way, so I would force and feign the childish excitement I used to have, grasping for a certain feeling that my birthday used to bring.

It was last year that I realized that the biggest missing piece from my birthday nowadays is my mom.

My mom, whose mental illness has made her largely unavailable to me as a mother throughout most of my life, always pulled it together on my birthday. I have wonderful memories of waking up to balloons, yellow roses, and presents she would never buy for me outside of a special occasion. My mom always made it a point to not spoil us. Our shoes were from Payless and our clothes were from Mervyn’s. But on birthdays — she went all out. It was one of the few times throughout the year that the grip of fear and dread in my stomach would loosen and I could be a carefree child.

Even as I left for college and got older and wouldn’t physically be with my mom on my birthday, she would make the effort to do something special. Once, when I was living in Hong Kong, she baked my favorite carrot cake and express mailed it to me. I can still see her writing on the address label; I remember unwrapping the foil in total disbelief and excitement as I realized what she had sent.

The last time my mom truly celebrated my birthday was in 2010, when I turned 30. I had flown home to California and upon arriving was so touched to see that she had decorated, just like she had done when I was little: balloons, flowers, and presents.

A few months later, I would almost completely lose her to self-inflicted, irreversible traumatic brain injury.

When our son turned four last year, I posted the obligatory “happy birthday to our kid!” photo on Instagram. In the caption, I wrote that not only was it our son’s birthday, but it was also my husband’s and my 4th anniversary as parents. I received a lot of feedback on that statement. People commented that it was such a novel way of looking at your first child’s birthday.

Having gone through postpartum depression that lasted well beyond the supposed one year timeframe of most postpartum illnesses and forever trying to make sense of my mom’s mental illness, I can’t help but think that it was on the day that I was born — Tuesday, January 22, 1980 — that she started to unravel. I’ve tried to figure out if she had previously exhibited any symptoms of depression, but our Korean cultural background does not easily permit this kind of discussion. I have no real answers. I likely never will. I can only make best guesses and keep trying to find my own sense of peace and acceptance.

I know it is not my fault, just like I would never blame my son for my postpartum depression, but it feels important to me to understand the potential connection. What if my mom’s illness started just like mine had, as a postpartum illness, that went unexamined and untreated until it became a lifelong depression, altering her very personality and life trajectory?

I am so much luckier than my mom has been. With my studies and experience as a yoga teacher and practitioner, I know more about the mind-body connection. I have more tools, more language, and more support. Being American-born a generation later in and of itself has paved an easier way for me to ask for and receive help that my mom did not feel she had access to. As well, having seen what she went through and knowing where I did not want to end up has been a bittersweet blessing.

I also deeply understand the shame, the guilt, the denial that comes with the sheer fear of what it feels like to not feel well or like yourself. I understand the impetus to pretend in hopes that it will somehow get better. I understand the desperate dependence on medication that promises to fix things.

There is no one right way to healing. Mental health is as individual and as complex as each of us humans is. It is okay — no, it is necessary — to reach out to others and to ask for help. It is okay to not be okay sometimes or even a lot of the time. In time, it will be okay. It will take work, patience, and deliberate choices, but I believe with all my heart that we can all feel whole, well, and at ease.

I wish I could go back in time and say all this to my mom. To be the person she needed when her darkness set in. Since that is not possible, I am doing what I can to give a voice to what she — and I — have gone through. And as another Tuesday, January 22 rolls around, I honor and thank my mom for bringing me into this world. For all that she sacrificed and for how hard she worked. For digging deep and bringing me joy on my birthdays. And most of all for loving me as best as she could.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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