I grew up one of four kids in a middle-class family. I shared a room with my two sisters and sometimes wore hand-me-downs but never went without. My dad was a hardworking man who often worked long hours and traveled for his job. My mom stayed home with us, citing his unpredictable schedule and outrageous childcare costs as her reason why. It made sense, so from the outside, nobody ever questioned her choice. And since they didn’t, I didn’t. Looking back, our home operated differently than a lot of my peers’ homes did, but since I wasn’t in their homes, I knew no different. It’s a toss-up if that was a blessing or a curse.
My mom loved her kids and she loved being a mom, but depression changed how she loved us.
And, unfortunately, that was long before depression was a well-known, let alone socially acceptable, condition. Armed with all I know now, I shudder to think about how isolating that must have been for her. And for that reason, she has all my respect for pushing through and continuing to show up for us as she could.
One of the first memories I have of my mom is us watching MacGyver and Days of our Lives together after she dropped my brother off for kindergarten in the mornings. We’d pop a bag of popcorn and curl up on the couch together. It was “our time.” It was also all she could manage. But she still tried to make it feel special. And to this day I appreciate that. I recognize she did what she could with the resources and knowledge she had.
I entered elementary school waking up on my own to an alarm, making my breakfast, and packing my own lunch, too. I remember pouring cereal for my younger siblings in the morning and filling plastic glasses with milk that they could easily add when they woke up. I was “mama’s helper” and proud of that.
I loved my younger siblings and they loved me. We had each other, and again, nobody else to compare our experience to.
My mom was always in her chair when I got home. And from there she would check my homework. She’d check homework and read to my siblings and me if we asked. Often two to three of us at a time would lay on her lap. She loved being close to us. This memory is one of the ones that tells me though she wasn’t a hands-on parent who played, she loved us. And, when I think back on that it jumps out at me that she would have been a hands-on parent if she’d had the physical strength and mental stamina to get up and do so.
We didn’t play sports or do many extracurriculars in our house, Mama said she “didn’t have enough hands to keep up with us.”
Hindsight being what it is, I now know anxiety was at play.
We were all able to do Scouts in elementary school but were responsible for getting there on our own. Still, it remains an opportunity I am thankful for. In part, because it was my first glimpse into other’s lives and homes.
The older I got, the more distant my mom became. Not just from me but from all of us. I don’t know if she couldn’t cope with our changing needs or if without help her illness just kept progressing. I remember thinking if I got better grades or found the perfect Mother’s Day gift things would change, but they didn’t. I’d strive to make my younger siblings behave and keep the house straightened up, again seeking her approval, but it never came. I now know it wasn’t that she didn’t want to give it—but that she couldn’t.
Her cup was empty.
My senior year of high school I had just two classes to take. I came home at 10:20 each day. And the first few times I did, I was shocked to find my mom still in bed. Eventually, I started crawling into bed and laying down beside her. Just to tell her about my day.
Again, we had “our time.”
My sister developed some pretty chronic health issues about this time, and I’d spend afternoons at the hospital with her. I knew her medication allergies and treatment regimens, and my mom knew she was cared for.
I think that experience was her awakening. Me being there, instead of her. And I saw a change. Mom saw a doctor and went on medication. Oddly—for the first time, maybe in my life—in the months to follow, I saw her cry. And I didn’t know how to help.
So, I moved across the country.
And I had a daughter, and more than ever I needed my family, so I moved home. My youngest sister, the one who still lived at home moved in with me. My mom was changing and getting better, but for her—at that time the bridge had been burned.
Kids require emotional and physical support to thrive, and my mom had never been a source of it.
Because of that, my sister came to rely on me, and because of my relationship with her, I knew more of the kind of mama I would be. Like my own, I knew I wanted to be a mama who read books to her children, but never only in one spot. I’d read stories with my daughter on the couch, on the floor, and in her room at bedtime.
I’d be the kind of mama who went to playgroups, slid down slides, and blew bubbles at the park. I’d be a field trip chaperone, a presence at school parties, and in the stands of whatever sport she wanted to play. I’d be a mama who was present and engaged—because, by the grace of God, I could.
I’d be a mama who smiled. Because my own had not been able to.
And as I did these things, my own mother continued to work on herself and get better. And she was able to do many of these things alongside me. As my family grew, her heart did, too. And it was a new beginning. And I love that through my children, I finally see the happiness and approval I longed for.
Though it is largely unspoken, I came to realize the impact of her untreated depression throughout my childhood. It shaped my upbringing, rendering me anxious and without confidence. It created feelings of unworthiness I still fight today and is (at least I claim) the reason I can’t catch a ball.
But I’m not angry, anymore.
I know now, more than ever, she loved her kids with all she had. She loved us enough to hold on. Even when we felt it was cruel.
And I don’t share this to guilt her. In fact, I published it with an anonymous byline to protect her. I share this because while most of us know of postpartum depression, few know of maternal, and we need to. We need to protect our mamas and their children.
Children need and deserve engaged parents. And I share this not to shame those who aren’t but to start conversations to help them.
Life IS worth living. And nobody deserves to go through most of theirs before learning that.