‘What do I do with a daughter? I can’t do this.’ I was terrified, wracked with fear.’: Mom terrified of having daughters after trauma of being raised by mom with mental illness

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“For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a mom. Nurturing, protecting, encouraging, and loving the little ones that I would bring into the world. To be my children’s biggest fan, most trusted friend, and always be a safe place for them to run to. All of those qualities are earmarks of what mothers should be known for. In a perfect world each of us would have mothers who are quick to love and show affection; mothers who have an understanding of our most innate craving for physical, emotional, and mental stability. I was always the little girl who didn’t understand what that felt like. I have a mother, and I love her. In many ways I’m thankful for her, but in so many ways I still struggle with feelings of loss and unmet needs. I’ve grown in my feelings toward her as I continue to gain perspective and strive to find peace in my heart toward her and her circumstances. For most of my time growing up, there was a lot of pain, resentment, bitterness, and anger. Mothers have a way of imprinting their children on such a deep level that even at almost 40 years old, I still find myself struggling to break free of those marks on my spirit. Being a mom has unearthed many unresolved issues I have within my own heart. I compare myself to her when I fail my own children and the guilt, whether accurately placed or not, still finds the weak spot in which I’m susceptible. That place in my heart where I was failed as a child. The same place that likes to lie to me and tell me that in my mistakes I’m just like her and I’m going to ruin my relationship with my children. Lies that are sometimes very hard for me to not believe.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

My mother gave birth to me later in her life, she already had one daughter who was 15 years older than myself. A lot can change in 15 years; changes in health, family, perspectives. My sister remembers our mother when she would take her to the grocery store to shop. She remembers when my mom took care of herself. I’ve heard stories that she had shoes to match every outfit and was always so put together. I’ve seen pictures of this beautiful woman who looked so classy and elegant. I know nothing of this person my mother was. Growing up, I was basically an only child in many ways. My sister was out of the house and in college by the time I was old enough to have any lasting memories. I remember wishing that my sister was really my mother and sometimes I would imagine that for reasons beyond her control, I had to live instead, with this woman. As a mom that makes me incredibly sad for her.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

I remember very early how differently my mother was treated by people around us. I have always had a gift of discerning people and situations and while that is a blessing, it is also a burden. I was five years old and in church with my mom. I was standing there as she talked to other adults. I can clearly remember seeing the uncomfortable looks on the other adults’ faces. I remember such a heavy feeling of being out of place. Although I didn’t have the words to adequately describe what I saw then, I knew the feelings, because I felt them as clearly as I saw them. They were feelings of pity, confusion, and uncomfortableness. I know that my feelings were shame and embarrassment. Mental illness has an unfortunate stigma as many people in the world are acutely aware. For my mom and my immediate family, it was not something we were open about. People knew something was wrong, but being from the South, private family matters and secrets were often kept locked away. From the outside and from a distance, we seemed like a normal family. I know if we had been more open about our struggles, maybe my upbringing would have been different. I could have found support in other ways through other people who I would have been allowed to be vulnerable with.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

I knew my mother was different, but I was also keenly aware that she did not realize she was. She laughed at things that weren’t funny, she had odd facial expressions; she would lash out in anger one minute and the next she would be staring blankly into space. I always knew something was different about my mother but I never really knew what it was. If I’m honest, even now, there is no definitive answer to what ails her. I remember my dad telling me stories about her having seizures. Taking her to multiple hospitals to try and determine what was wrong with her. They ruled out brain tumors but not much else. A lot of her medical history is a secret. She had been on various medications and even undergone shock therapy. I can’t truly trust her version of events because a lot of what my mom recalls, never happened. She stopped going to doctors and refused the medication they prescribed.

‘I don’t like the way they make me feel,’ she said.

I remember my dad pleading with her to take her medicine, but she only saw him as part of a conspiracy. She thought my neighbor had kidnapped me, accused my dad of holding a gun to her head, and other unspeakable untruths. She would also hear voices. I remember being in high school and I had strep throat and couldn’t talk because of the pain. She was looking in the medicine cabinet for something and out of the blue, turned around and started yelling at me to shut up. I hadn’t said a word. I remember being so shaken up that I ran to my room and stayed there. There are a lot of speculations as to what specific illness she has, but because she refuses to seek help, she is left to her own devices. She isn’t violent or a threat to others or herself. She primarily stays in her home that she shares with her gentleman friend. He has been kind to her and I’m thankful to him for that.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

I remember being jealous of all the other girls my age. Girls with mothers they could be proud of. Moms who would take them shopping, talk to them about their lives, give good motherly advice, and be a source of emotional comfort. I never knew what it was like to be able to confide in my mother and have a productive conversation. She was so bitter and in her own world of resentment that it took up most of the space she had room for. She wasn’t always difficult to be around. She cooked us supper every night, taught me to sew and at times showed glimpses of hope. Because it was like walking on eggshells around her, I was never truly able to let my guard down enough to enjoy those moments. Her moods were too unpredictable, so to keep myself safe, I put a wall up. I am thankful beyond words for my dad. Without him in my life, I don’t want to imagine where I would be. He was both parents and he did it with strength and grace. When I clumsily experienced puberty, it was my dad who comforted me. When I struggled with ‘mean girls’, body image, and peer pressure, it was my dad who sat on my bed and talked me through it. I am eternally grateful for my dad, but I still needed my mother.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

I only remember her truly comforting me once and that was after we had been in a car accident where I had fallen face first into the floorboard of our Pontiac Bonneville and broke my nose (PSA for car seats and having your kids wear seatbelts in the backseat!) I remember sitting in her lap in the front seat of the car waiting on the police to come. My face was bloody and I was curled up in her lap with the worst headache I had ever felt in my seven years of life. Feeling comfort from her was not something I was used to experiencing. She was often distant, cold, and harsh. I remember her unleashing her angry tantrums on my dad. The man who stood by her and continued to stand by her faithfully until the day he died. Watching her treat my dad with such unveiled contempt only solidified my negative feelings toward her. She was always so selfish and negative; nothing was ever good enough.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

As I have gotten older I have grown in my ability to extend kindness toward her. For those of you who have never experienced what it is like to live with a parent or loved one with a mental disorder, it can sound very callous and cruel to say that I struggled to be kind to her. This is where my struggle has always been. I had deep feelings of shame, anger, and injustice. I had a need for my anger to go someplace. Growing up, before I could separate my feelings from her circumstances, my anger was often aimed at her. She was emotionally and mentally abusive. I was so angry that she treated me the way she did. I knew in my head that she was sick, but when the person who is supposed to defend you and nurture you, is the one who is hurting you, it is all but impossible to keep it from affecting how you perceive that person. The lines between her illness and who she was could be difficult to distinguish at times. That is a terrible burden for a child to carry. My dad always encouraged me to love and respect her because she was sick, but that was hard to do when there was such a huge sense of betrayal.

I have had to forgive her for things she will never realize that she said and did. I don’t seek to dishonor her in this article. For her, in her mind – she had justification for all of her wild accusations. She was a prisoner of her own mind and from her perspective she was the wronged, accused, mistreated, and misunderstood. Above all I pity her. To live in a world that isn’t true, to miss out on friends and family because of the way her mind altered reality. I also have to forgive myself. The burden of trying to make sense of something that makes no sense, is too great for a child to fully grasp. I have to forgive myself for the times I chose not to give grace. I could have loved her better, been less selfish, less angry. I could have recognized the place her skewed perspective was coming from and shown more kindness. So that is my goal now. Mental illness shouldn’t define her. I wish she would get help but she will not. So the best thing I can do is let bygones be bygones and forgive someone who isn’t fully responsible for the wrongdoings to begin with. I have to let it go. I have to love her, and I have to move forward.

Some people learned how to be good parents because of the terrific examples they have had. Others have learned what not to do by bad examples. I’ve had a mix of both. When I first found out that I was pregnant in 2007, I was absolutely sure I was having a boy. There was no way that I was going to have a girl. It was just not an option. Well, as it turned out, I was indeed having a girl. I was immediately disappointed because I didn’t know how I was supposed to be a mother to a daughter.

‘I can’t do this. I don’t know what I’m doing,’ I thought.

I had the sonographer check again to be sure. I was terrified. I continued to have a difficult pregnancy, one that she miraculously survived. Throughout the whole pregnancy I kept having conflicting feelings about my baby girl. I loved her and worried about her health constantly due to my health issues but at the same time, felt disconnected and distant from the idea of her. What was I supposed to do with a girl? I was out of my depth.

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

She came into the world at 37 weeks after a very treacherous pregnancy. I remember she had trouble latching on to nurse. I was so emotional and feeling things that no one had prepared me for. Feelings and emotions that my own mother should have been there to talk me through. Again, I was bombarded with feelings of inadequacy, fear, and resentment. My sister and I were not especially close and I didn’t have a close enough relationship with any other woman that could have offered the support and guidance I needed. I had women I could have asked, but I didn’t know I needed to reach out. I thought I was alone in my feelings.

She wouldn’t nurse and I was so stressed out that I couldn’t produce much milk by pumping. The formula she had to consume was upsetting her stomach so she was colicky and miserable. I felt like I had already failed my daughter. I went through a 3-week period where I was so wracked with anxiety, fear, and disappointment. This ‘being a mother’ thing was for the birds. Why didn’t anyone tell me the range of feelings I was experiencing were normal? Why didn’t anyone tell me that this season of being radically hazed into the motherhood club would pass? Again, I was struck with resentment that my mother was supposed to be the one to come over and watch the baby while I rested, coach me through feedings, give me tips for how to sooth her, diaper her, bath her. I was experiencing the onset of post-partum depression aptly named as ‘the baby blues.’ My unrealistic expectations of motherhood were heightened by my own emotional disappointments. Being a mother is hard and I was learning the hard way.

After the first several weeks, slowly I began to bond with my baby girl. The cloud of impending depression was lifted and although things were still rough as life with a newborn can be, I found myself embracing my role as a mother to a daughter. Her name is Addison, and I recently wrote an article that was featured here as well about our journey with PANDAS/PANS. She is 10 years old and she, along with her little sister Aubrie, are the biggest blessings in my life. I know I make mistakes. I yell at them sometimes, I can be impatient with them, and they get on my nerves quite often if I’m honest. Being a mother to girls still scares me sometimes but I have to realize that I am not defined by my upbringing and I am not defined by my own mistakes. I have and will continue to take the ways my mother was unable to provide for me and use that as fuel to make sure my daughters never feel the way I felt. I fight for my daughters to know that I am their biggest fan, their loudest cheerleader, their unwavering advocate, and forever friend. I am the best mother they could have because they were specifically chosen for me, and I, for them. I wouldn’t trade them for boys for anything in this world.”

Courtesy of Jennifer Wall
Courtesy of Jennifer Wall

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer Wall of Ashland, Kentucky. You can follow her journey on Facebook here and Instagram here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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