My Mother’s Madness Was My Secret

anne-marie with mom

About a year after I was married, I went into therapy. I was afraid that having children would make me turn into my mother. I know. That is a common worry, but I feared that becoming a mother would make me mentally ill, like my mother.

We were a Catholic family. Five kids born over six years. Not a lot of money. I was the oldest, but not the firstborn. I came along just ten months after my parents’ first child died shortly after her birth. My parents took a lot of pictures of me as a baby. I can imagine their joy that I had survived. I grew up in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, before the words “dysfunctional family” would be used to describe a category of memoir.

We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was about six. Then we moved into a house my parents built from a kit, on a lot they bought in a suburban neighborhood. We had less than many of my friends and our neighbors had, but I thought we were pretty much like everybody else. We ate dinner every night at six, knelt beside our beds to say our prayers, and went to church on Sunday.

I didn’t think my mother was unusual. She was a good cook. She sewed and she had a lovely flower garden. She was active in the PTA and was a den mother for the Cub Scout troop. She worked as a nurse in the pediatric ward of the local hospital on weekends. As kids we often made cards for her patients. I thought she was beautiful, and I told her so as she got dressed up and put on makeup on the rare occasions that she and my dad went out.

I had just graduated from eighth grade when I started noticing a change in her behavior. I spent a lot of time at home with her that summer and I started looking for clues to understand what was going on. I had the gut feeling that my mother should not be left alone in the house.

She seemed preoccupied and distant. She sometimes seemed to be laughing to herself. But, more disturbingly, I discovered that she was storing a large kitchen knife in her bureau drawer. When I confronted her about it, she threatened me with it. She said she wanted to kill herself and me. I never told my father or confided in a teacher or counselor. I told my best and only friend Debby, when we floated around her above-ground pool. She didn’t have any advice.

I began to feel unsafe at home and was withdrawn and extremely quiet as I began my freshman year at a Catholic girls high school where I only knew two of my classmates, neither of them Debby. I was unable to fall asleep at night until after I was sure my mother was asleep. I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t tell my father. But he was a strict disciplinarian who frequently invoked the fourth commandment: Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, and I had stoically suffered his spankings when I talked back or was defiant. The other reason was that I felt some responsibility for my mother’s outburst. Hadn’t I provoked it by snooping around her drawers?

The following summer I found a job that got me safely out of the house, working as a live-in mother’s helper and taking care of five lively kids. I earned enough to pay my high school tuition and have a little spending money. After that, I pieced together the means to go away to college through grants, loans, and part-time jobs.

I was 28, married and living and working in New York when a visit from my dad brought back all the memories I had suppressed for many years. He had taken my mother to see a neurologist at her request. During the examination she reported that she had brain surgery as a child. The doctor took my father aside and told him that my mother needed to see a psychiatrist. There was no evidence that she had ever had brain surgery. At the suggestion of my youngest sister, who knew a bit about my experiences with our mom, my dad asked me to explain why the doctor had come to this conclusion.

Not my mother.
Not my mother.

I told my dad some of my mother’s more delusional claims: of dating Paul Newman, being taught to swim by FDR, and of being the nurse in the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph with a sailor taken in Times Square on V-J Day. I told him about the knife. My dad told me that he was very sorry and that he had not been aware of any of this.

After that conversation with my dad, I started therapy. The flood of difficult memories was hard for me to process without help. And I still associated the pressures of raising a family — five kids close in age — with my mother’s delusions. Only later did I learn that my mother’s father regularly abused her mother — even breaking her ribs the day my parents married. My mother’s childhood had been quite troubled. I began to feel more sympathy for her and her difficult life.

At first, I saw my therapist three times a week. I had a lot to share, but I betrayed little emotion. My therapist has since commented that in my calm reporting, I reminded her of a therapist sharing a case with her supervising analyst. In this case, the patient being talked about was my mother. My therapist showed me some studies about resiliency in traumatized children, which helped reassure me that I was and would be OK.

I was several years into therapy before I had an emotional breakthrough. In October of 1987 while lying on my therapist’s burgundy colored velvet couch, I started to talk about the story that was gripping the nation. In Midland, Texas, 18-month old Jessica McClure had fallen into an abandoned well. As I spoke, I felt physically trapped myself. For the first time I was able to express my feelings about my own childhood ordeal.

By the time I had begun to unravel some of the issues that likely led to my mother’s psychosis and felt secure in my own mental health, my husband and I did begin a family. I took easily to becoming the mother of a delightful baby boy. Then, almost six years later, a sunny daughter.
Despite a patch of postpartum depression after our daughter’s birth, I sailed on — with help from antidepressants and the knowledge that my therapist was a phone call away.

Lacking emotional support or practical advice from my parents during this time, I was grateful to my husband, my therapist, and my in-laws who lived nearby, as well as many friends for helping me navigate this time in my life. I joined mother’s groups, read the popular childrearing bibles of Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton and allowed myself to be a “good enough” parent. I was not the cook my mother was. I didn’t sew or knit or volunteer with the PTA. I had a job I loved close to home that allowed me to be available to the kids quickly in an emergency. They participated in afterschool programs and went to camp. They are now young adults who make us proud and who have forgiven us for our parenting missteps.

Growing up, my family has a large collection of pictures — Kodachrome slides that my father took — of my parents’ courtship, marriage and honeymoon and then of us kids. There are lots of pictures of my attractive young mother cuddling a lapful of children, pictures of the building of our house with four young children under foot. The fifth child, my youngest sister, had come home from the hospital to the new house after her premature birth, not long after we moved in. There are pictures of all of us dressed up for Easter, posing in the garden.

It’s been hard for me to reconcile the images of this happy family with the reality of our home life. Was my mother just one of the many 1950s wives and homemakers who had become disappointed in her life? Did her delusions serve to make a humdrum existence more interesting? Or, had her particular family history made her so fragile that a break with reality was inevitable?

Not surprisingly the picture taking ended around the time that I became aware that there was something wrong with my mother. We were all starting to drift. All of my siblings found outlets outside of the house and friends to guide and comfort them. The local Baptist youth group provided solace and became the source of strong friendships for the three youngest.

Another reason that the pictures dwindled was that our dad, the family photographer, was diagnosed with advanced glaucoma — which would eventually rob him of his sight. It’s a sad irony that he was legally blind when I told him about the behaviors in his wife that when he was sighted he could not or preferred not to see.

My mother never did act on her suicidal or homicidal thoughts, and I give her credit for self-control. Maybe articulating her feelings in that moment with me snapped her out of it. She didn’t see a mental health professional until much later in her life and when she finally did, she was hard to diagnose. She had the thought disorder of schizophrenia, but was highly functional.

My complicated mother died of natural causes more than a decade ago, leaving many questions unanswered. My dad is gone now, too. I had many years earlier lost the mother with whom I could have had a rational conversation or who might have guided me through my own mothering. So, as Mother’s Day approaches, my mind turns to my memories of my mother and to my siblings, with whom I am close. I reflect on — and profoundly thank — the many surrogates who got me to where I am now.

I have a close relationship with my grown children — there is no subject we can’t discuss — and in the past year I became the grandmother of the world’s cutest baby boy.

This essay appeared yesterday in Midcentury/Modern. Anne-Marie lived in Montclair for many years before moving to Maine. She wrote about her decision to move to Maine earlier this year.

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