I became a mother at the age of 19. My high school sweetheart and I took a huge leap into parenthood. For him, there were many insecurities and doubts about our ability to be good parents. I recall him having so many questions. Me, on the other hand? I was secure in my ability to parent. So secure we became the parent of two children within three years. When, at 21, I gave birth to my son, my life had taken a few unsuspected turns. The main one: I’d dropped out of college, despite a full scholarship.
My support system had moved out of state. Everyone was gone. My grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister had all moved north to be closer to other family members. I was living in an apartment with my then boyfriend (now husband), working as a team leader at Target. My life was stagnant. I can only say that in hindsight. Back then, I only knew I was sad.
I cried every day. I cried when I was home alone with the children. I cried on my way to work. I cried on my way home from work. When a friend suggested I had postpartum depression, I laughed. I told her that was white people’s mess; I just missed my folks. I figured and assured her I would be fine, as time passed. I’d convinced myself the pain I was feeling day in and day out was because I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life. But then I convinced myself I was not a good mother. I began reading and researching what it meant to be a good mother. I finally confided in my own mother. She told me there was nothing I could read that would prepare me for being a mother. “Your life has already done that,” she said. Ever the teacher, my mother. As I thought about what she said, I realized I was learning to be a mother, even when I was a child myself.
My earliest lessons in motherhood came from living in a house with strong women. My maternal grandmother, Fannie, was a homemaker. She was the mother of eight biological children—five girls. They were the strong, dedicated aunts who stepped in when my mother needed support. My mother, Delois, is fifth in line, and her nature is true to that of a middle child. She’s shy and easy to overlook in a crowd, as she intentionally blends into the background. It takes patience and effort to penetrate her guarded heart. When she speaks, it’s usually intentional. She doesn’t waste words. And I can count the number of times she has ever raised her voice at me. All of this was hard for me to appreciate as a child. I wanted a mother who was going to come to the school and tell the teacher off when I felt wronged. I wanted a mom who was flashy and flamboyant, one who was around more. But my mother’s private nature and need to shield us from her life of addiction made her seem distant from us, often secluded.
For many years, my mother didn’t live in the house with us. Sometimes she stayed over for days, even weeks at a time, but her presence was never a constant. I remember being so full when she was there, though. We’d race doing crossword puzzles and word searches. She was an avid reader, devouring a mystery right after putting down a sappy romance novel, from one day to another. Days with her were my favorite, and then she’d be gone again.
Time at home with her then taught me patience as a mother. It taught me that simplicity is not a bad thing for small children. Roll out some paper and crayons and just color. For hours. Go outside, pick and collect rocks. Do nothing at all. Time is what they will remember. Her absences taught me something about mothering as well. Once I became a mother, I was able to understand why my own mother might choose to live separate from us. My personal feelings of inadequacy were too often what stood out the most, when I was alone with my thoughts, changing diapers or cooking. And my inability to fulfill my own goals added to the reasons I felt inept to be a mother. My mother isolated herself to shield us from her shortcomings. I didn’t have the option (i.e., the support) of doing that, so I made the choice to rectify what I saw as shortcomings in my life.
I finally accepted I had likely been battling depression. At this point in my life, I regret that I never talked to a doctor because I still felt a sense of shame for being depressed “because I was a mother.” I wanted to hide that from the people around me because I felt an immense sense of pressure to live up to the idea that mothers had to be strong, whatever that means. After all, I was from a family of strong mothers. How could I not be? I continued questioning my ability to provide the type of love and guidance my children needed. But I was able to make more life-affirming choices. I re-enrolled in college, for example, and spent more quiet, authentic time mothering my children. We had plenty “do nothing” days during that time. I healed. And most importantly, a restored hope for the future began to blossom and allowed me to move on.
Fast forward. Marriage to the aforementioned high school sweetheart, life is grand, then come babies three and four … and another bout with postpartum depression. This time, I was unwilling to suffer in silence. My pain was palpable. I made the decision to get the help I needed and my family deserved, but still questioned the decision to do so.
“Mom, do you think I am crazy because I feel like this?”
Her response solidified every ounce of love and compassion I’d ever felt for her.
“I live every day wishing I would have been a better mother for you all. … At some point, early, I just gave up. I could have been a better mother. I felt that I couldn’t be what you all needed me to be, so I stopped trying and let your grandmother do the rest. … I needed to deal with myself. My own issues. You all always made me feel like the best mother. You all always accepted my decisions, even when you didn’t understand them. You could have given up too. But you didn’t. You saw a way to be a better mother, and you did it… I am still trying to be better. And you are better.”
It was the affirmation I needed. I’d always needed. I thought I would be shunned for even talking about depression. And here she was offering the simple support, the best she had, like she always had, and always will.
There are so many layers to being mothered and mothering. The layers run deep, especially in families that deal with the added stressors of addiction, abandonment and mental illness. But as we pull back those layers, explore the feelings and heal that hurt, we’ll all be better for it. Mama wouldn’t have it any other way.