Some of my favourite stories contain an uncontested truth we hold about motherhood: Mothers are at their best when they are well and whole. Broken mothers, mothers whose pathologies loom large in their lives and, by extension, the lives of their families, are bad news. They lead to fractured adolescence (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), a predilection for dysfunctional attachment and public airing of family troubles (In Her Shoes, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Gilmore Girls) and straight-up mental illness (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). The messaging is clear: crazy mommy, crazy everything.
Before I was a mother, this truth seemed irrefutable. As a mother, I know it is, but I have questions.
Chief among those questions is this: how can one person be expected to be the custodian of life, marshalling it through this mad world and all it throws at us, and be expected to remain sane? The very premise of motherhood – of parenthood – is insane.
It requires suspension of all rational fear and reservations, and adoption of blind hope. And while you’re managing all of those cognitive processes and making those existential trade-offs, you are dealing with the day-to-day minutiae of sleep deprivation and the stress of keeping a very small human being with generally underdeveloped immune and gastric systems healthy and alive. All of that while receiving minimal structural support from workplaces, government etcetera. So, maybe parents in general, and mothers specifically, are not closely in touch with our sanity. So, what? Isn’t crazy the new normal for those of us who commit to this path? And, if so, aren’t we better served by art that acknowledges the normalcy of our abnormality, rather than painting the bleakest pictures possible of what could happen if we dove off the edges we are constantly teetering over?
In the movie version of Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, Rose and Maggie Feller must come to terms with their late mother’s mental illness and death by suicide. Some, though not much, credence is paid to the uncomfortable truth of what life must have been like for the late Mrs Feller. But our focus is drawn sharply and narrowly to the devastation her madness wrought on her two daughters, and all of their relationships.
This myopic view of the relationship between motherhood and madness worries me. It closes off the conversation around how motherhood can truly, understandably drive one to the edge. It stops us from flying off of those edges of ours.
Why? Because we live in a society that is wholly uninterested in catching us and our families when we fall. By constantly relaying these cautionary tales of mothers gone mad, we warn mothers to hold themselves together, do what they must (self-care, self-medicate with anything from wine to coffee etc.) to keep themselves hanging on. The very fates of our families depend on it. God forbid we should ever, for a second, succumb to the enormous pressure of raising our children and holding our families together.
When I was a student, living with my best friend, we would often half-joke about committing ourselves to the private mental health care institution down the road from us. I say half-joke, because, at the time, I was struggling with the beginnings of debilitating mental illness, and I liked to fantasise about leaning on a diagnosis and dropping out of my life for a month or so so I could get the help I desperately needed. I had a way of falling off the edge and I knew that someone would catch me. Why don’t mothers deserve the same? Instead of speaking of motherhood in these terms, we imagine mothers’ admitted madness as doomsday, as the end of family as we know it. Is it any wonder so many women still struggle silently with postpartum mental illness?
Mothers deserve the private and public space to fall apart. We are tired of being expected to hold up the dark and heavy sky, all the while pretending, for the sake of everyone’s sanity and at the expense of our own, that the sun still shines.