I Am The Other Kind Of Motherless Mother

by Donna Shute
Originally Published: 
A motherless mother is sitting next to a window and looking through it in the distance
Martin Dimitrov/Getty

“Mothers,” J.D. Salinger once observed, “are all slightly insane.” It just so happens that mine is more so than most.

If my Facebook newsfeed is an accurate representative sampling, my mommy friends fall distinctly into two categories: those whose mothers are alive and well, and those whose mothers are neither. Mine, however, is alive but unwell; she is here but gone, physically present but absent in every way that counts. And as I have learned the hard way, nobody throws a wake or sits shiva for your ambiguous loss. There are no well-wishers, no little black dresses, no bringers of casseroles; you can’t eulogize a woman for living when she never died.

My mother has schizoaffective disorder, which in layman’s terms means she exhibits both features of bipolar disorder and features of schizophrenia. I am not one to poke fun at mental illness or perpetuate the all-too-pervasive myths surrounding psychopathology (I myself inherited more than just my mama’s good looks). But my mother is not seeing a therapist, taking her meds, or conscientiously managing her mental illness. If she were, I would see her as a survivor to admire, someone with whom it was safe to have a relationship. My mother refuses to treat her condition, to her own very real detriment and that of those around her, despite the detritus she leaves in her wake.

And growing up with an emotionally unstable hoarder bouncing in and out of rooms with locked doors and padded walls does a number on you that you won’t soon forget. When you become a mother yourself, the impact of growing up with a mother who has mental illness becomes more clear.

1. You will always feel like a mom imposter.

Being a motherless mother, you will permanently feel the sting of being the odd one out. You are forever the last kid picked in gym class and the only first-grader who didn’t get a Valentine. You will listen, somewhat incredulously, to your friends swap stories of their mothers’ support during their pregnancies, labors, and other momentous kid-related events. You will, much like Chief Brody sheepishly eyeing his appendix scar in Jaws while Hooper and Captain Quint trade shark attack tales, stand awkwardly to one side, lacking a frame of reference for even comprehending these narratives.

You told your mom you were pregnant eventually. Or maybe someone else did. Do people call their mothers about these things? Yours was living on the streets because she thought the NSA had implanted surveillance cameras in her fluorescent lights and a 30-foot statue of Jesus was talking to her. The heartbreak here is not so much that you will never share these moments with your mother: The heartbreak is that you will never understand why anyone else would.

2. Nobody taught you how to do mom things.

I don’t live in squalor, but my domestic skills lack finesse. I don’t have a natural barometric to gauge when things are clean or dirty (Can they make an Adult Children of Hoarders spin-off on TLC? Because I would watch the shit out of that). Hell, if I can walk through your front door without climbing over a waist-deep obstacle course, it looks great to me. People have teased me my entire adult life for loading a dishwasher like it’s a precarious game of Jenga and for not knowing how to mince garlic until the ripe old age of 30. I sometimes have to take a step back, take a deep breath, and extend myself some grace. Nobody taught you how to do this, lady. You’re doing just fine. But I have a lot of anxiety about imparting this particular set of life skills to my child when I perpetually struggle with it myself.

3. You won’t have anyone to call when things are really, really bad.

My kid had colic—bad. For the first eight weeks of his life he cluster-fed ’round the clock and screamed like someone was sawing his right leg off. I considered returning him, but the warranty had expired. (You with the bleary eyes freebasing caffeine, you know what I’m talking about.)

And you know when you’re a kid and your world is imploding on itself, and it all fades to black, and you just want your mommy? Yeah, I get that too, only my mommy is usually in a mental institution somewhere leaving me deranged voicemails sounding like Linda Blair in The Exorcist so instead I have to make do with my mother-in-law, my own lousy instincts, and Facebook crowdsourcing. When my son’s fever spikes to 103 degrees, I have no one to call to ask how high is too high and whether or not I should I go to the ER. I have never had that person, and sometimes it sucks like a whorish Hoover.

4. …or when they’re really, really good.

Conversely, I will never have a mother to call about the good stuff. She wasn’t there to hear about it when my kid learned to crawl or when he took his first steps. She won’t be there to ooh and ahh over his prom pictures. She wasn’t at my wedding; I doubt she’ll be at his. She is too busy pursuing the extravagant desires of a broken mind and doesn’t give the flyingest of fucks that by doing so she has jettisoned everything that really matters.

And you can reassure yourself all the live-long day that it doesn’t matter, that you don’t miss her, that you didn’t really need anyone to call and tell that funny-gross story about the strained turnips in the bathtub. And you don’t. You’re tough. You will get by. But sometimes? It’d be nice. Because no one would appreciate a good strained-turnips-in-the-bathtub story more than the mother you don’t have.

5. You will fear for your children and question your own decision to procreate.

It should go without saying that mental illness has a biochemical basis and a major genetic component. Mood disorders and schizoid-spectrum disorders in particular tend to cluster in families. Every time you look into the big blue eyes of your sweet baby, you will be overcome with the irrational fear that he, too, will go crazy.

Will he inherit the family curse? Is he a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate? What kind of life have I wished on this poor innocent child? And perhaps more fundamentally, was it selfish of me to bring a child into this world knowing I could be passing on such a terrifying legacy? And even if it was, what can I possibly do about it now? For now he is fine, and perfect, and beautiful. But the full-scale horror of the as-yet-unknown—ay, there’s the rub.

6. You will fear becoming your mother.

When you aren’t worrying about your child becoming your mother, you will be worrying about you becoming your mother…and leaving your child to pick up the broken pieces. The thought of your kid coming to resent you the way you resent your own mother is heartbreaking enough. Couple that with debilitating lifelong guilt for feeling the way you do about her and the logistical nightmare that is the care and maintenance of a psychotic adult, and you’ve potentially bequeathed your kid one hell of an inheritance.

7. You will have very little from your childhood to share with your child.

When your childhood memories are steeped in chaos and trauma, it doesn’t mean that no good things ever happened to you. It does mean you have a very difficult time recalling them. And when your primary caregiver was as neurotic and unstable as mine was, family traditions went by the wayside and day-to-day survival was all that mattered.

I don’t have a cherished “Mom’s German Chocolate Cake” recipe. Mostly, I microwaved frozen chicken nuggets for myself and ate them standing up. I have no concept of family mealtimes, no family heirlooms, and for a highly creative person, I’m rubbish at making up holiday traditions. I want to pass these things down to my son, but I keep coming up empty-handed. Manufacturing a whole new childhood for someone else from scratch is hard work.

8. Your kid is missing a grandma.

My grandmas were both pretty badass. One made killer red velvet cake; the other took us out for Chinese food on the reg. One we spent Thanksgiving with, the other Christmas. They both loved me fiercely and showered me with gifts and attention and the best sugar cookies in any possible universe (the secret ingredient is almond extract).

My kid, on the other hand, will always have a gaping hole in his life where he is missing 50 percent of the whole grandmother equation. I can’t tell him she died. She didn’t die. She simply has no interest in having a relationship with him, and even if she did, she is toxic and unsafe for him to be around. Fortunately he’s still little because I’m still working on how to formulate that narrative in the least traumatic way possible. How can you possibly explain to the bright eyes and precious dimples peering up at you and asking the hard questions that while some people’s bodies are broken, Grandma’s brain is broken? That she doesn’t love us because she can’t?

9. You will learn that it’s OK to question yourself as a mother.

In time, however, you will learn to forgive your own mother (albeit imperfectly) for what she couldn’t give you and, more importantly, forgive yourself for what you were not given. This is not to say you will absolve yourself of doing better by your child; you will make it your paramount priority. But you will eventually shed the layers of hostility you feel toward yourself, although perhaps not all those you feel toward your mother. You will learn to treat yourself with a little kindness; you will learn through trial and error that platitudinously but truly, you yourself, as much as anyone else in the universe, deserve your love and compassion. You will learn that you are not a failure for having failings, and that the very fact that you are questioning yourself as a mother means you are already a good one.

10. You will triumph, and prevail, and be on helluva badass motherless mother.

You are not defined by your past. You are not destined to be your mother. You care deeply, something your mother never did. And the deep-seated, love-till-it-hurts empathy instilled in you by what you have suffered can only make you an unstoppable force of motherhood to be reckoned with. We are made to refract light in the broken places. You got this, mama. Go forth and conquer.

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