What nobody told me about having adult children, is that they will inadvertently cause me to examine my own childhood traumas as well as magnify my failings as a parent through self-reflection. While I do understand that I did the best I could with the knowledge that was available at the time while dealing with my own mental illness, I see the amazing advocacy my eldest daughter does for her sons and can’t help but get stuck in a downward spiral of if-only.
These two strong women have fought their way to adulthood despite the rocks that have been pelted at them along the way. There were so many nights in the ER that I believed my younger daughter wouldn’t make it into adulthood, yet she has come so far through her own fight to survive. A few years ago my older daughter left her own domestic violence situation and has been fighting tooth and nail for her boys to get the help they need (while going to graduate school). Through them, I have learned about late diagnosed women with autism spectrum, autism in general, Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes, and a variety of other physical and mental issues I had no idea even existed.
Yesterday, my younger daughter (28 yrs old) received a diagnosis confirming that she is on the autism spectrum and my eldest brought up an interesting point: “I imagine if I were you I’d be thinking what if I had caught this earlier? And that would be difficult to feel.” Of course I replied flippantly “That’s the least of my guilt for my children.” But then I started to really think about the ramifications of my lack of knowledge as a young parent as well as the insufficient resources of my own parents, even though my father was a physician. We did not have the internet, nor any way to research symptoms or diagnoses other than to rely on our peers or our physicians.
Each time one of my girls has told me about a new diagnosis, I have examined my own life and frailties. Once I accepted that it’s pointless to berate myself for failings as a parent over which I had no control, I started wondering if there’s really any point of bringing these things up with my own physicians or psych team at this stage of my life. While these diagnoses could explain quite a few things about my ridiculous body and brain that have never quite made sense, I can only see that this knowledge would be helpful if I can find a way to incorporate what I’ve learned moving forward on my own. I have physically and mentally had to adapt to my limitations for so long, would having what one might consider accurate diagnoses really make a difference? And other than being required for insurance, can attaching a DSM-5 approved word to a complicated individual really help improve one’s quality of life?
As I battle the what-ifs, I find myself mired in this cesspool of labels, desperately trying to make sense of the remainder of my life.
During the few times I allowed myself to think of a future as a parent, I never imagined that imparting wisdom derived from my experiences would include how to survive abuse. Nor did I picture myself and my future child having discussions about psychiatric medications.
My mother taught me how to sew intricate Vogue patterns, and then accessorize my outfits with the right shoes and jewelry. She instilled in me the importance of a Chanel black dress, and the need for it to be worn on the perfect body. In addition to an appreciation of the fine arts, I learned the appreciation of fine dining. But all her wisdom was not superficial, I went with her to meetings of the League of Women Voters and Another Mother for Peace.
Not once did we discuss how to cope with mental illness, either my own or that of others. She did not tell me that I was entitled to be treated with respect, nor did she instill in my psyche the importance of “No.” We talked about medicines for birth control, acne, and cramps. Frightening side effects of psychotropics were never brought up, I don’t even think there was a need for this sort of discussion at that time.
I had no idea parenting could be both heartbreaking and heart-enriching. Visiting my child in a psychiatric ward or talking about how to deal with a narcissist were not in any book on parenting. Yet here I am, about thirty years into this adventure, finding myself grateful that none of that came up during my upbringing. Would I have been scared off? Might I have chosen not to have children? I’d like to think that I would have been brave and willing to take on the challenge; but even though I wouldn’t give back my daughters, I’m not really sure I would have been strong enough to say “Yes, that’s something I’m sure I could handle.”
The period from mid-March through mid-April is usually very difficult for me. Twenty-eight years ago, my mother died on April 2 – six days before her birthday and twelve days after her wedding anniversary. It was the kind of death when well meaning people say things like “At least she’s not suffering.” She had mitral valve prolapse, and most of my life was spent waiting for her to die.
Trying to ignore the anniversary of her death, and just celebrate her birthday was how I’ve tried to deal with my grief. It never worked. So this year I tried something different. Using Facebook, I started on April 2 and posted one picture every day that represented a different aspect of my mother’s life. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so I used just a few words to identify what the picture represented to me.
The first day, I was incredibly sad as memories came rushing back spurred by pictures I hadn’t looked at in years. Then something rather disconcerting happened, I started to question my good memories. My parents did the best they could, and it oftentimes fell short of ideal (I don’t think any of us are ever the perfect parent). Over the years, I think I’ve edited my memories to suit my emotional/psychological needs. Did I embellish the good times, or even embellish the bad times? Is this human nature? Do we all edit our memories?
At the end of this experiment, I’ve changed my focus to see her as whole person – not just as my mother. She was intrinsically a decent human being, very talented, and strong in her convictions. I hope that when my daughters look back on my life, they will be able to understand the difficulties I had and remember that on most days I tried to be the best person I could be. That’s what my mother did, and that’s how I choose to remember her.
Appreciater of Art
Mother of the Bride