If TV ads are to be believed, a positive pregnancy test is the fastest route to joy. Beatific with the satisfaction of nurturing her children, The Mother lives in a world of bright singing, smiles and sunshine; forehead kisses and energetic hand washing; beaming pride at ceremonies. The Mother may cry, but her tears are just a temporary detour from the true state of blinding happiness that she really exists in.
Cue real life, with a side order of mental illness. I have it on good authority that children don’t work very well as anti-depressants. In fact, parenting someone who is supposed to be a source of joy when you’re in a depressed hole is, rather than a pleasant experience, an inadvertent introduction to some of the worst guilt you will ever feel in your life.
I never wanted children to begin with, and the months of my unplanned pregnancy were some of the most tumultuous of my life. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t experience a rush of love or happiness when my daughter was born—in fact I found the infant quite odd-looking and didn’t want either of us to be in any pictures, since pregnancy had made me odd-looking as well. My first feelings towards her were fierce possessiveness and a quite primitive pride at what I had incubated, followed by an overwhelming sense of helplessness, confusion, fear and despair when she wouldn’t nurse, sleep properly or stop crying.
As the practically endless grind of caring for a newborn wore on, I felt less and less able to carry on; more and more desperate for escape. Dark, hopeless feelings became part of my reality, and I chalked it up to normal postpartum realignment. However, two years later, when I found myself seriously contemplating sending her off to live with a relative so that I could quietly exit the world, it finally occurred to me that perhaps what I was feeling wasn’t normal. I realised I needed help. Not knowing who to turn to, I sent a friend a poem so full of thoughts no ‘good’ mother should ever have that I joked about Child Protection Services taking my child away if they ever found it.
These days, thankfully, things are no longer as bleak. When times are dark, I often feel as though I am treading water rather than drowning. This is mostly because, having sought professional help, I now know what is wrong and have support to help me cope. I have accepted my depression, but I don’t know if I will ever fully feel the same resignation about how it complicates my ability to parent my child. It is both heartbreaking and humbling to witness my toddler negotiate her childhood with my mental illness, sometimes with a kindness and intuitiveness so far beyond her years that I worry I am ageing her.
Already, my daughter knows that mummy doesn’t like hanging out in the living room much, so she hangs out with me in my bedroom. Some mornings she climbs into bed with me and asks, “Mummy, are you awake?”, because she has often seen me struggle—and fail—to get up. She has learned that she won’t get mummy for playtime or story time or bath time all the time. I often don’t have the emotional, mental and often, even physical energy to do those things with her.
During a depressive episode, when my brain is telling me that all I want is to be unconscious and my body is enthusiastically co-signing the memo, even the barest minimum of interaction might as well be an intergalactic trek for all the rallying it requires. So when my toddler comes to me at bedtime and says, sometimes graciously, sometimes with completely justifiable entitlement, “Mummy, will you bathe me tonight? Okay, will you brush my teeth? Tell me a story?” a layer of self-loathing threatens to add itself to the mix. No child should have to dial down her desires. I desperately want to be able to say yes to every need she tables, but I can’t always manage that. On the really bad nights I can’t say yes at all. Needless to say, the guilt can be astounding, inescapable, crushing.
Since I had my daughter I have had to rely on my small but formidable support system to cope with the demands of motherhood. I may be a single mother, but parenting alone would very likely kill me; the months in 2014/2015 where I was almost completely without help with my child were some of the hardest of my life, so much so that I made concrete plans to end it. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and the darkness was made more unbearable by the fact that the one thing that was supposed to bring me joy was driving me even deeper into despair. I desperately wanted to succumb so I could have some peace, but then I remembered that it was my own mother’s death that had led me into the darkness in the first place. I had no way forward, and no way out.
I don’t know how I made it through that time. Besides the personal pressure that made me feel I ought to be doing more for my child, there was the social pressure; the harsh comments, the judgment, the sometimes astonishing lack of empathy. But a person cannot give what they do not have, and invisible/mental illnesses are only just now starting to be taken seriously in small pockets across the continent. I did not have the language for what I was going through and they did not have the tools to handle it. But one day, I was talking to my friend—the same one who got the morbid maternity poem which will never see the light of day—and she said to me, “Babe, it sounds like you have depression.”
It was a struggle for me to accept her words, but eventually I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist after another few weeks of being unable to function and toying with the idea of suicide. Now that I know that I’m living with a mental illness that I might have inherited, I am kinder to my father, who spent decades in a haze of depression, paranoia and schizophrenia. I can rely on my sister, who offers to help with my child whenever she notices that I am unable to eat, sleeping badly and not leaving my room. And I can tell my daughter, “Princess, Mummy isn’t feeling up to playtime this morning. Can we do it later?”
And my toddler—my stubborn, funny, whip-smart, cuddly baby—will more often than I deserve look me in the eyes and say, “Okay, 10 minutes when I come back. I’m going now, Mummy. Don’t cry, okay?” I say no, don’t worry, I won’t cry, but when she is gone I still cry. Not just because the darkness is there, patiently waiting for me to give in to it, but because I am so blessed to have this wonderful child who is in many ways a constant and steady light illuminating the tunnel, or better yet, a lighthouse on a not-too-distant shore that calls me out from beneath the waves.
She hugs me and leaves, and I cry, wipe my eyes, and tell the darkness, “Not today, old friend.” In the final analysis, I’m a mummy, and I owe a special somebody 10 minutes of playtime; somebody who absolutely deserves to have that—as well as all the bright singing, smiles and sunshine that the world has to offer.