A few years ago, I wasn’t sure how many more Mother’s Days I would live to see—how many potted geraniums, hand print flowers, and crayoned cards I would receive from my two children. In fact, each May, I twisted myself into self-incriminating knots, believing I was a terrible, damaging, negligent mother.
I regarded their handmade cards (I Love You! You’re the Best Mommy Ever!) with skepticism: How could my children love me when they had to live with me? That’s what the black tunnel of bipolar disorder can do: Every moment of impatience or anger towards my children became weighted with the surety that I was unable to love them enough, unable to love them well enough.
In mixed state bipolar disorder, my diagnosis, depression was fueled into escalating, twenty-four hour, exhaustive rumination over my faults and failings as a mother. During my second pregnancy, I eschewed my medications because they could damage my growing son. Better I suffer than him, I reasoned.
Research suggests that women who have bipolar disorder are at great risk for manic or depressive collapse during pregnancy, initiated perhaps by the fluctuating flood of hormones. My break was also fueled by lack of sleep. After my son was born, he rarely slept more than two hours at a stretch the entire first year, and nursed almost constantly. I was depleted and depressed, yet determined, still, to be the perfect mother.
I strapped him into the jogging stroller and we ran for miles; I rarely pumped milk which would have given me relief from middle-of-the-night feedings, and I tried to keep up with my demanding teaching schedule, with a regular sex life, with a clean house, with my parental obligations for my daughter’s preschool.
In photographs of me from that time, I look absent—from myself, from my children, from the life that was supposed to be joyful, blissful, and open-hearted. But it was near impossible to feel any of that when my heart emptied out, and I was holding on just long enough so that my son could finish nursing, could stop needing me for all hours of the day, but soon enough, too, that he wouldn’t ever remember my having been there.
But then, miraculously, I pulled through. Or I was pulled by family, friends, and doctors who understood that the only way I could be a good mother, a good enough mother, was to take care of myself. This meant getting the help I need, which meant hospitals, medications, the end of nursing, and the beginning of hope and love freed from the black vise of depression.
I could be present for my children, rather than contemplating my future end. I could feel the weight of their arms around me, their tiny lips on mine, and their breath against my cheek and know, with surety, that I would be around for every Mother’s Day that unfurled before us.
~Kerry Neville is the author of Necessary Lies, winner of the Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, and writes the recovery-focused blog Momma May Be Mad. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and was an Assistant Professor of English at Allegheny College. She is the mother to two children and a rescue dog, HoneyBea.
The Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit that raises awareness & provides peer support for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. To see some of the ways we provide moms support, visit http://postpartumprogress.org/community/.