I received a notification from a friend of mine today referring me to his guest post on a blog that is promoting the message that parents who experience mental health issues can still be good parents. He wrote a “a stripped down, vulnerable post, . . . about [his] childhood.” Things the Grandchildren Should Know. It truly resonated with me, on so very many levels and there were so many thoughts about current events in my life sparking off regarding how I perceive myself as a parent and pending grandparent, how I believe others perceive me – especially my own children, and the discrepancies which exist, both internally and externally, between all these perceptions.
I have already been parent and caregiver to a few mini-generations: I was what felt like a primary caregiver to my cousin who was born around the time I was 14. There was quite a stormy period when her parents, my guardians, went through a very complicated and combative divorce when she was about two years old. I found myself taking on a lot of adult responsiblity without much guidance or preparation, just doing the best I could do. However, as much as I loved and cared about what kind of life she was going to have, I knew that I had no control over her life or mine and eventually ran away when I was 16 to become a parent at 17. My son was born to a clueless mother who, for all intents and purposes was a homeless, rootless, orphan and a charismatic, nomadic, low-level hustler/con-artist of a father. Poor kid. By the time I was 19, I was a single mom, once again with overwhelming adult responsibility, without guidance or preparation, just doing the best I could do.
I knew I had a brain and I knew I wanted to live a different, better life, and give my son a different, better life. So, I sought out what that was. I had believed the Saturday morning promotional spots from G.I. Joe and other influential characters that stated, “Knowing was half the battle,” and bought into the concept that education could and would be my secular salvation. I went back to high school and won a tuition waiver to attend a local community college.
Apparently, I’d also grown up listening to too many Charlie/Enjoli commercials and women’s libber ads and bought into the idea that I could, “Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let him forget he’s a man.” I didn’t know how to cook, cleaning and organizing were never part of my in home curriculum, and early childhood development ed when I was growing up consisted of me teaching myself how to read, somehow, because I don’t remember any snuggle/cuddle bedtime stories or circle story times at the local library. So, I tried to find an in-home child care provider who seemed to have it together enough for the kids to enjoy being there, whom my son connected with, while I signed up for 18 credit hours and two work-study jobs at the community college two hours away by bus.
I worked hard. I wanted to play too. Play had never been much of a part of my life. I didn’t know how to do it. Friendships with my peers had always been difficult and problematic. I’d never really gotten along with “normal” kids. So, when I made friends with those who seemed “normal” and accepting, even though I didn’t “fit,” I jumped in with both feet. I went all out academically. I went all out with work-study. I went all out with my friendships and intimate relationships. I was trying to learn how to be a normal person and thought that making sure my son was cared for by someone who had it together and knew what she was doing, was the best thing I could do for him while I figured out a way to not be on welfare and isolated.
I had one relative who “supported” me with statements like, “I’m not going to let him drive me crazy and to suicide, like you drove your mother.” I didn’t realize that my grandmother was already experiencing dementia and her bi-polar love/hate, paranoid, meanness alternating with carte blanche offering the shirt off her back attitudes weren’t personal or about me.
Then, I crashed and burned for the first time, as an adult. I almost committed suicide. The only thing that stopped me was a voice inside of me – not one I recognized – telling me that I wasn’t going to kill myself and abandon my son to either the foster care system or to the family members who had contributed to my inability to function well as an adult. I got blackout drunk instead of ending my life and withdrew from school the next day. I sought therapy, but had difficulty not giving the answers I knew would enable me to get my financial aid back the next year. I wanted help, but didn’t trust that I could get the help I needed without losing custody of my son, so, I masked and dabbled at getting better, fooling myself probably more than anyone else would have been fooled, who really knew me. But, then, no one really knew me, so, it worked, until it didn’t.
Nine months later, I found out I was pregnant again. So, by the time I was 24 years old, I was single-parenting two children, while battling the many highs and lows of being inside of my head, and not knowing how to trust and reach out for the help I didn’t know I needed. Always needing to be in control of how other people saw me, so that I would not be in danger of losing my children, I sought all kinds of parenting help and supports for my children and what they needed based on their behavioral actions; always reacting to the things in the moment, seldom able to slow down enough to recognize or relate to the things that had come before.
I wound up in a long-term relationship, which has been almost 18 years long now, with someone as equally damaged in other ways, which neither of us understood or recognized. It’s been one chaotic, toxic, roller-coaster of a life that my two oldest kids have been subjected to, poor them.
Relations between my almost 27 year old son and I are intermittent and somewhat strained. However, one thing I have determined, no matter how much he may have given up on me, I will NEVER give up on him, and I have hope and a sort of confidence that the time will come when he needs to address and resolve some stuff inside of him, that will be easier to accomplish if I’m still around for him to come to. I plan on being here. In the meantime, I’m still working on and working through my things, so that I’m ready and capable, not just willing when that time comes.
My 20 year old daughter has her first child due next April. I’ve been asked if she’s ready to be a mom. My answer? “More ready than I was at her age.” However, she has something that I didn’t have; a mother determined to be available when she needs that support and encouragement. I’m also learning to honor and respect boundaries, not pushing and forcing myself into her life and plans with her boyfriend regarding her pregnancy and parenting plans. I let her know as often as possible how much I love her, how proud I am of her, and that I am going to be available when she needs me.
All of that being said, I cry on an almost daily basis because I’m struggling with the dark dog of depression (among other things) and parenting a pre-schooler who is showing signs that she may be on the autism spectrum, while in relationship with her daddy who struggles with his emotional and mental health issues as much as I do mine. Life is difficult and overwhelming, so is the depression. Yet, somehow, I manage to get up and get out of bed, get my little to school, and keep my current and future relationships with my children dangling in front of me as the incentive to keep moving forward.