Snap Out of It! You’re a Mom!


One of my fellow CTWorkingMoms bloggers recently posted a heart-wrenching story about her childhood (read it here). It seems her mother, after her own mother died, would not put up a Christmas tree again, even though her daughter asked her to do it. This elicited a very strong reaction in me.

I know that everyone is allowed to grieve, and everyone has their own timetable for this. You don’t just “get over” the loss of a parent. HOWEVER, if you ARE a parent, you have an obligation, in my opinion, to rise above your grief at some point and parent your own children appropriately. If you are clinically depressed, you MUST get treatment to help you function. I believe that as a parent, you need to put your child first, and deal with your own issues in a way that does not punish your innocent child for having the bad luck to be stuck in the middle of your troubled life.

The reason I am such an authority on this is that, as anyone who has read my posts about my mother knows, I was raised by a depressed mother. She lost her mother at age 7 and never got over it. Then her older brothers, who raised her, died when she was an adult, and as my less-than-understanding/fed up father would say, “You should have jumped in with them.”

She went to therapy eventually, but it was too late. She dwelled on her “lifetime of losses” every minute of every day, instead of her lifetime of blessings (3 healthy, devoted children, 7 adorable grandsons who adored her in spite of her detachment, lifelong friends, financial solvency, good health, etc.). When my father died, it was all about the enormity of HER loss. She never once acknowledged that my brother, sister and I had lost our father.

I can hear my mother saying, “You don’t understand. It’s like asking someone with a broken leg to get up and dance,” in response to my begging her to try to feel some joy around the grandsons and their accomplishments. She was quite the ORNERY depressed person, who clung to her gloom like it was part of her skin and fought with anyone who would try to take it away.

I respectfully disagree. I believe it’s part of the Mothering Contract that, if your leg is broken, you get medical help so you CAN eventually dance — you don’t just sit there and wallow in the pain forever at the expense of your child’s needs. And if your leg is broken beyond repair, then you dance in your wheelchair if you have to, to celebrate your child’s successes and happy moments. I don’t mean you have to do a jig 365 days of the year, but when something is important, you pull yourself together and do what it takes not to be a freaking albatross. My siblings and I were thrilled to watch each of our sons become a Bar Mitzvah, but we had to take turns being the Mom Wrangler at each joyous event. She was sooo anxious about being honored when the Torah was passed through the generations, she was sooo uncomfortable not knowing the routine at the temple, she didn’t know what to wear, she had to face lighting a candle alone without my father, and so on. One of us always had to make sure she wasn’t raining on the other sibling’s parade.

Being raised by a depressed, detached, physically present but emotionally absent parent is a difficult way to grow up. Being provided with creature comforts is nice — you know, warm house, food on the table — but being a kid with a disinterested parent — especially when it’s the mom, sorry to say — is devastating.

Her inability to care about what I cared about colored my entire life. When I had my own children, I realized how really cold she had been. Can you imagine not being interested in what your child is interested in? I learned so much from my children, about things that never would have crossed my path but for them. Sesame Street, Disneyworld, Mario Brothers, Teenage Ninja Turtles, Masters of the Universe, Batman, Legos, car and plane models – that’s just the beginning. I learned lessons in morality and humility from my children. I reveled in watching their minds work, and still do.

Don’t misunderstand: I was not gleefully rolling around on the floor with them every minute of the day. I worked part time until my younger son was 5, and then went full time. I’m the first to admit it was often boring raising little kids, and when they got older, I listened to more detailed stories about cartoon plots and video game conquests than I care to remember. But I didn’t check out. I didn’t make myself unavailable, as my mother did, both physically (she spent a lot of time in her room) and emotionally.

It took years of therapy for me to learn that it wasn’t something lacking in me that made me unlovable to my mom — it was her own diminished capacity to love, her inability to ever put herself and her own needs second and rise above her pain that impacted my life and my self-esteem. It has taken many years to get that understanding from my brain to my gut and to really believe it. I still sit precariously on that ledge and with very little stimulus, I will fall right off and assume I am unlovable once again.

I know we try not to judge other mothers at CTWMs, but to me there’s a big difference between understanding the choice between breast or bottle versus reading about a mother’s choice to ignore her child’s plea to do something that matters so much to the child.

I hope I haven’t upset my sister blogger with all this vitriol. What I really want to do is help other moms not to waste so many years trying to figure this out, as I did. Yes, it’s really scary to say, “My mom was wrong when she did this to me,” but it’s also amazingly freeing.


20 comments on “Snap Out of It! You’re a Mom!”

    1. Thank you, Stephanie. I think you have to live it to understand it fully. This isn’t just Mom having a bad day or two. This is the withholding of a basic emotional nutrient that all children need — to know that they matter and that someone loves them unconditionally and celebrates their existence. All we can do is try to do better ourselves in our mothering of our own kids, and work on healing ourselves.

    1. I love you right back. I so wanted to help people who are struggling with this confusion, which is why I wrote about it. I hope you can find freedom and learn that you are wonderful and special, no matter what your mother did or did not do when you were growing up.

  1. This post hurts my heart for so many reasons. Honestly, Randi – I feel for you. This must have been terrible to live with and through, but my heart hurts for your mom. I feel sorry for someone who cannot feel joy in wonderful, simple things. My heart hurts for someone whose husband would tell them (paraphrasing) that they should have died along with her other family members.

    My father grew up with a clinically depressed mother and although she’s been gone since the early 1980s, her presence is still very much a part of my family. It is why the siblings rally around each other. It why they treat their children and grandchildren the way that they do. But … one of the overwhelming things that I have gleaned from listening to my family’s stories is that therapy, psychoanalysis, etc., had such a stigma “back in the day” that you didn’t talk about it. Which is terrible. I’m glad that we’ve evolved.

    So … again, I’m sorry about your mom. But could society and its expectations have had something to do with her reactions? What kind of system was in place when her mother died that could address her emotional and psychological needs?

    1. You are absolutely right, SKM. My mother was born in 1928 so as you surmised, there were NO systems in place. But there came a time when she was an adult and was aware of her problem (I know because she talked about how sad she was) and didn’t seek help. We talked about it a lot. She was frightened to delve into her past for fear she would dissolve or blow up or otherwise perish if she allowed that pain to come to the surface. She made a deal with her psychiatrist (started therapy at age 58) that they would never talk about her childhood. She was very intelligent and able to understand that she was depressed and that there were options for her. She took medication, but refused to go to the source of her pain. I have learned that one must GO THROUGH IT — literally — in order to manage it. If you were a child and avoided dealing with the trauma, you are kidding yourself if you think it’s going to stay beneath the surface. What happens is that you end up spending ALL of your energy trying NOT to deal with that trauma, and that takes away from your ability to enjoy the rest of your life.

      I understand you are saying that perhaps it wasn’t her fault, and I agree, up to a point. But once she grew up and decided to produce children, I believe she had an obligation to try to be the best parent she could be. She, and many other people like her, chose to remain stuck in the past and wallow in the terrible things that happened to her. To me, that is selfish. If you live alone and are responsible for no other people’s well-being, then wallow all you want. But not when you have taken on the responsibility of bringing children into this world, because what ends up happening is exactly what you said: the depressed person may pass away, but her presence is felt for decades to come. It has impacted my children and my siblings’ children. Of my mother’s three children, 2 were divorced. Two of her three children have not been on speaking terms for several years. It’s the terrible gift that keeps on giving.

  2. I think that, just as you’d seek treatment for a life-threatening heart condition, all people (parents especially!) must do the same with mental health issues. Very true!

    1. It’s so much better now, with so many more opportunities for getting mental health care, BUT one of the worst parts of mental illness in some people is the resentment and denial that goes with their illness, which causes them to be noncompliant with treatment. I have so many clients who stop treatment and stop medications because the nature of their illness makes them make that choice. To the judges hearing their disability cases, it’s simple: if you’re ill, you get treatment but if you stop treatment, you are BAD. It’s hard to get them to understand that it’s the contrary, willful illness that is in charge, not the person. So terribly sad.

    1. Thank you, Katie. You have stated the issue perfectly. The person who is depressed is certainly to be pitied and helped if possible, but the children didn’t ask to be put in the middle of all of that, so why do they have to deal with it?

    1. Admitting that your parents were not perfect is so incredibly scary — it rocks the foundation of your world, as an adult! But it’s liberating on many levels, not the least of which is to know we will make mistakes as parents too, and we can tell that to our children, which helps them process stupid stuff we do more easily. I once explained to my then-little kids that I am a beast when it’s hot outside, and for years, whenever I got crabby, they would say, “Are you hot, Mom?” It’s a funny anecdote but it gave them a tool to process my crabbiness as NOT THEIR FAULT, rather caused by external forces. Kids tend to blame themselves for everything and if Mom’s not happy, it must be their fault. I certainly felt this way growing up. Explaining external forces (such as grief) and other things that impact on one’s mood wasn’t in style back then.

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