Mother’s Day sneaks up on me every year. I see a commercial on TV or especially aggressive signage shouts at me from the greeting card aisle at the CVS, and I think oh shit, it’s almost that time again.
That time is now.
I’m trying to conjure up a happy memory of my mother. I flip through my mental Rolodex and also actual photographs, and I just keep coming up short. I look at my baby pictures, of Infant Pia being held by family members and people other than my mother, and I recall finding out as a teenager that my mother was hospitalized immediately following my birth and remained in a psychiatric hospital for the first few months of my life.
I look at pictures of Young Pia in elementary school and I remember my mother making me lie to my teachers about where we were living, since we moved around so much. I couldn’t tell anyone that we had left my father’s house, that my parents were getting divorced, or that some days we got up before dawn to drive two hours to school, depending on where we were living at the moment.
I look at pictures of Teen Pia at my Sweet 16 birthday party, smiling next to my also-smiling mother, and I remember how she threw the party mostly for herself and made it all about her. I also remember the manic episode that followed it and how I wondered in hindsight if her overspending and grandstanding for the party, an external show of forced normalcy, were early manifestations of that episode.
My mother had dual diagnoses of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and she was not fond of taking her medication. She would complain that it made her mouth dry or made her break out, as though the alternative of existing in an altered mental state that posed serious danger to herself and her two young children was preferable.
She was in and out of various hospitals for much of my life, beginning with my birth. I say to myself, there must have been good times. There have to be good memories. And yet… none come to mind. I blame myself, thinking that I must be engaging in some sort of drastic revisionism or playing the martyr, but the fact is that even during “good” times with her, I was tense and scared, measuring her laughter or scanning her eyes for a glimpse of the inevitable manic or psychotic or depressive episode.
So Mother’s Day has always been difficult, and it always sneaks up on me. When I was younger, I used to try to please Mommy, then I foolishly thought that if I was just a good enough girl and worked hard enough, maybe I could fix Mommy, and of course being a good girl includes enthusiastically celebrating Mother’s Day. I made cards, I bought flowers-- the whole shebang.
I remember doing these things, and I remember being told, either verbally or indirectly, that it wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t good enough.
My mother died a little over a month ago. This Mother’s Day snuck up on me again, but this one will be different. There will be no forced visit and no obligatory card, and no repeated prayers for her peace of mind.
All I ever wanted for her was peace of mind, and maybe to feel that she loved me. Lots of people have told me through the years that “of course” she loved me, but, you know, she has an illness...
That’s how I grew up taking care of everyone else and looking into the eyes of my mother and seeing love where there might have been none. I can still hear her voice calling me “a little bitch,” and I would just think, "well I know deep down she loves me, but she has an illness…”
The alternative was too scary to imagine. Of course my mother loved me, and I had to love her…right? You can’t not love your mother.
She used to pause while beating me to tell me to never write a book about her like “Mommie Dearest”; how’s that for self-awareness?
I want to be very clear that I’m not blaming my mother for having mental illness, just as I don’t blame anyone else who does, just as I’m learning not to blame myself. I blame my mother for not seeking treatment, and for not caring about herself or her children enough to either work on making a better and safer life for us, or for asking for help from someone who could.
An adult’s choice to take psychiatric medication, or not, is entirely their own, but in my case, in my life, my mother’s refusal of treatment put me, my little brother, and herself in danger.
I blame my mother for lying and turning down treatment and offers of help. I blame my mother for making me lie; for stigmatizing mental illness so horrifically that she didn’t see the hypocrisy in denying an illness so severe that she was hospitalized for months at a time. I blame her for making me lie to Child Protective Services and in family court when a well-meaning neighbor or a perceptive teacher called the authorities.
And I blame her for giving me the gift of uncertainty. Beyond her illness, there was also animosity for me, and I never knew where her illness ended and it began. There were times when I could tell she didn’t even recognize me as she was beating me, and there were times when she’d tell me to get out of her sight because I look just like my father. She certainly knew who I was at those times.
Postpartum depression has been a thing since people have been birthed, but it certainly wasn’t a thing that was widely spoken of when I was born. In my tireless teenaged research into what I could do to help my mother, I learned that some women who are prone to severe mental illness will have their first psychotic break at the birth of their first child. (I was my mother’s first child).
Whether it was postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, her first significant break, or just the first documented one, my mother made it clear that she blamed me for her condition. She was violent toward me in ways that she never was toward my younger brother, and I tried to protect him in constant fear that that would change, or that he would suffer some harm of negligence at her hands, even if intent was absent.
And all through my life, I would hear, Well she’s your mother and you know she’s not well…
You can’t not love your mother. You just can’t. Especially not on Mother’s Day. And especially when she’s just passed away.
I’ll be detangling my feelings toward my mother for years to come, and I know that part of that tangle is my fear of being like her. I’ve worked very hard to accept that I’m not exactly like her, but there’s still that fear that I’ll become her. Toward the end of her life, she was irrevocably lost, having had a break from reality that she never quite recovered from, and choosing to fully eschew medication and immerse herself in prayer instead.
I sat at her funeral and thought about how she had become unrecognizable, a known “madwoman,” and traced that decline to my birth. I sobbed uncontrollably as I listened to people speak diplomatically of her “good spirit” despite “difficulties” and her “troubled life.”
I thought about how terrified I am to have a baby. I know that I will be someone’s mother one day; I have a stronger maternal instinct than most, and I’m sure part of that is wanting to care for my hypothetical future child(ren) the way I was never cared for. But I’m terrified of being broken the way my mother was, and of never coming back.
There was a time when I simply ruled out giving birth to a child. I’ve already looked into adoption and surrogacy way too much for someone who has not decided to actually become a mother yet. Years ago, I had a consultation with a doctor for a voluntary hysterectomy, to erase even the possibility of embarking upon the same path as my mother.
That was extreme, and I’ve since opened my mind to the possibility that I could give birth to a baby and not become my mother. Just because my mother failed to actively mother us, doesn’t mean that good mothering while living with mental illness is not possible.
Just because my mother prioritized secrets and lies over treatment and care, doesn’t mean that I will make the same choices, and I know there are lots of perfectly imperfect mothers out there prioritizing their wellness and their children in ways that are healthier than what I grew up with.
I salute them this Mother’s Day. I salute anyone grappling with this holiday because with all of the freedoms and all of the acceptance in the world, we’re still preached to that you can’t NOT love your mother.
I also salute anyone with a wonderful relationship with their mother; my lack would never cause me to begrudge you your joy.
And I salute anyone who has lost their mother, or a child, and is feeling that loss and grief more deeply around Mother’s Day. My grief sneaks up on me, like the damnable holiday itself. My mother’s dead. The thought inserts itself wherever it pleases without warning, and the tears flow rudely without regard for my surroundings or my to-do list.
And there’s guilt. So much guilt about a mother-daughter bond that never was, about things left unsaid, about writing this right now.
I’m writing this because I want to tell anyone for whom Mother’s Day is extremely difficult that you are not alone.
I hope I’ll find those good memories of my mother. I’ll keep searching my mind and my photo albums in the hopes of coming up with at least something to hold on to. I’ll never know how my mother truly felt about me, but I know that she suffered greatly and I hope that her spirit finds the peace that largely eluded her in life. She died peacefully; I’m told her heart stopped in her sleep. May peace prevail.
I hope that one day Mother’s Day will be redefined for me; that it might one day be a celebration of motherhood, however my little one(s) come to be in this world. Love is love, and a lack of shared DNA doesn’t prevent it, just as biology doesn’t guarantee it. That’s one thing I know for certain.
This Mother’s Day will be different. Maybe one day, one will actually be happy.