My mother is bipolar. Not as a punchline to a joke, but genuinely, medically diagnosed as bipolar. She has been my whole life though we didn’t always know that’s what was going on. I didn’t always know it was mental illness we were battling against, I just knew my mom was not like everyone else’s. 

When everyone else’s moms came to school with their hair done and their clothes pressed, mine stumbled through the halls in her pajamas. While my friends lived in the same house every time I visited, my mom couldn’t keep a job for more than a few weeks at a time, and we were always moving, usually by force. My friends’ moms picked them up from events, but mine was usually either sleeping or out somewhere.

Our youth group had a fun night one year all bundled up to deliver groceries to the impoverished families of the church . . . and I opened the door to see my friends pitying me as they handed me canned goods and shampoo. 

Now, as an adult, I can speak of her with grace. I can understand her mental illness wasn’t intended as anything personal toward me. I can understand she didn’t want or choose to struggle, and that she may very well have been aware of the stark contrast between herself and the other mothers. But when you’re in 7th or 11th grade, or when you’re grown and married and having your third child . . . it can sure feel like she didn’t care.

It sure can feel unfair.

I’ve said many times before that I was born a parent. My mom was incapable of making healthy decisions for herself, let alone two people, so I became very independent at a very early age. Part of me thought it was exciting to walk home alone, to learn how to cook myself dinner, to watch TV without any adult supervision. But part of me also grieved inside when she made choices that left me out, left me puzzled, left me frustrated, or put me in danger.

I raised myself, mostly, and sometimes had to step in and raise her, too. 

The older I got, the more pronounced her illness became. Lies and manipulation were added to the manic flights and depressed slumps. The police became involved . . . more than once. I grew more and more ashamed of her when her name started showing up in newspapers, living in a town that printed every arrest from the previous week. 

I wanted another mom, a normal mom. I wanted a mom who loved her child the way Matthew 7:9 said she did. I wanted a mom who showed up without showing out. I wanted a mom I could trust with my allowance, a mom whose words I could believe.

I wanted a mom who was not like the one I had. 

All these years and therapy sessions and prayers later, she’s still bipolar, and it still hurts. I don’t think it will ever not hurt.

I can’t watch Gilmore Girls without feeling the ache of what we might have had. I spent most of my pregnancy with my own daughter in an absolute panic over what kind of relationship we would have. I see friends and memes and Hallmark cards that all loudly and proudly declare that mothers and daughters are the best of friends, forever and always, and I feel the hot sting of tears ringing my eyes and pricking my nose every time. 

My mom isn’t my best friend. My mom is barely my mom.

I love her, and I know I owe much of who I am, in many ways, to who she is . . . and to who she isn’t.

I’ve accepted her illness and know she isn’t bipolar at me, but I also still feel the pain of when she’s bipolar around me. 

I’ll always feel the hole of what should have been, of the mom every little girl needs. I’ll always picture a glaringly empty photo album when I think back on the mother-daughter memories it seems everyone has but me. I love who she is, and I’ve found a way to love her beside me, but I also grieve the mom who never was.

Just as clearly as I picture my mom oversleeping when she was supposed to take me to school, I picture the hole left by the mother who woke me up on time. Just as clearly as I remember sitting on a curb, waiting, I see the ghost of the car that was waiting for me when I walked out. I remember my children’s births and see the outline of where she should have stood. I flip through the recipe book I’ve compiled from Pinterest, and I see the pages that should have been filled out in her handwriting, passing on traditions and memories as much as ingredients. 

I see her, the mother I wanted, and I long for her. Still. It’s true we never outgrow the need for our mothers, and it never stops aching that I’ll never have her. 

I don’t have the mother who I can call for parenting advice. I don’t have the mother who takes the grandkids for days. I have memories with my mom, but they include courtrooms and manic nights and lots and lots of pain. I thought when I grew up and became a mother myself, I would be free of it all. That she couldn’t hurt me anymore and I’d just shake off our past and be able to love her at arm’s length. Instead, the ache became a throb as I realized I was not just mad at the mom I had, I was grieving the mom I wanted. 

I will probably always mourn her, someone who never was. I’ve quit asking if I was deserving of her and have accepted I just got the short end of the stick.

I did deserve a healthy mother.

I did deserve an attentive mother.

I deserved boundaries, consistency, a home, food with the labels still on them.

I didn’t deserve to be interrogated by the police because of my mother’s choices.

I didn’t deserve the exposure to the things I witnessed and was a part of.

I didn’t deserve a mentally ill mother, but I got one.

I did deserve a well one, but the closest I’ll ever get to her is my grief. 

I love my mother, and I’ve learned to stop resenting her for not being who I wanted, who I needed. Instead of comparing her to who she should have been, like two versions of the same person, I’ve separated her from the mom I wanted. Now there are two moms in my memories, two separate people with very different impactsthe mom I had and the mom I wanted.

Instead of comparing my mother to who I needed her to be, I accept who she is and mourn the healthy mom who didn’t show up. This is how I can love my mother while also grieving her at the same time. This is how I keep resentment at bay and allow the mourning I need to experience. This is how I’ll forever see my childhoodwith the mom I had, and the mother I never got.

You may also like: 

It’s Hard Being a Mom When You Don’t Have Your Own Mother to Lean On

To the Mama With Toxic Parents, I See You

My Toxic Mother Made Me a Better Parent

Jennifer Vail

Jennifer is married to the very handsome man she's loved half her life, with whom she juggles 3 hilarious, quirky, sometimes-difficult-but-always-worth-the-work kids. She is passionate about people and 90's pop culture, can't go a week without TexMex, and maintains the controversial belief that Han shot first. She holds degrees in counseling and general ministries, writes at This Undeserved Life, and can often be found staying up too late but rarely found folding laundry.