Building Your Spiritual Home
The Joy of a Depressed Mother
When I was about three, my mother had a “nervous breakdown”.
I expect this was the 1930’s version of a major depression.
What I know of it is that our family doctor ordered her into
seclusion in my sister’s bedroom with a nurse caring
for her at all times. We children, my older sister and me,
were to keep away. This lasted about a month, after which,
my mother could start going out for walks and gradually resuming
her normal activities. From then on, I understood that I was
not to stress my mother. My very kind father was her support
system. We were all to conspire to keep her okay by “being
I was a very good child, did as I was supposed to, and was
sent to my room if I displayed defiance, resistance or anger.
I can recall feeling sorry for myself and angry at the unfairness
of it all. I could never be good enough. I would beat my pillow
with my little black stuffed dog until my anger subsided and
I was permitted to rejoin the family.
In therapy, years later, I recalled wanting to break down
the door to that bedroom. I felt the helpless rage I must
have experienced during that month of isolation. I also came
to understand that being “good” protected both
my mother and me.
As I write this I’m aware that it sounds pretty much
like the complaining of so many of us in therapy: “look
at what they did to me!”. Poor me.
But I have another slant on it right now. I think that learning,
as I did, not to expect too much from the world, has stood
me in pretty good stead throughout my life. What I learned
was that it was my job to take care of myself. I was responsible
for not only taking care of me, but also keeping my world
together. If entitlement is a disease of our times- expecting
the world to take care of ME- I had a pretty good inoculation
of the opposite: expect little or nothing, and do the best
you can. This may sound self pitying, but in reality, it is
a gift. I accept that I am responsible for the quality of
my life, that my job is to care for others, and that that
is all okay. Not a bad philosophy for a physician, a psychiatrist.
And there are some other silver linings. I tend to be very
aware of and grateful for any act of kindness. I am joyfully
aware of Kristin, a nurse in our clinic, when she takes charge
of a situation that I would normally need to deal with. When
my wife leaves the porch light on for me to come home to at
night, I still notice and feel supported. And a bit surprised.
I learned early to expect little, and very small kindnesses
have always felt big.
There is a wonderful line from M Scott Peck’s “The
Road Less Traveled”: “Life is difficult...”
and if we can get over complaining about it, most situations
are pretty easily managed and acceptable. I think I gave up
most of my complaining about age 5 and now am pretty good
at just getting on with it.
I do have my moments. Every year, for my birthday in April
and Father’s Day in May, I filled up with that old sense
of “Nobody Loves Me”. The final example of this
chronic theme occurred about seven years ago. It was Father’s
Day. We were at church, and my daughter Laura came over to
me to ask for suggestions about how to make the day special
for her husband Brian. We talked a bit, and then I went home
to sulk. She hadn’t even said Happy Father’s day!
Julie had sent a card, but that didn’t count. And my
own wife had completely ignored me!. I went to bed and settled
in to have a good outrage. Still nothing from Laura! No one
appreciates me! After all I do for them! I hate them all!
All the old feelings of an unloved child. I was right: no
one cares about me. About 1 PM it did occur to me that maybe
I should check the answering machine to make sure, but I was
too involved to get up. I was too angry, and for good cause
too. I’ll show them!
About two, the phone rang. It was Laura. “Did you
get my message? Happy Father’s Day. Did Mom give you
the present I left?” That was the end of my sulk. I
went back to bed, happy and marveling at my own behavior.
Of course I know my children love me. They have so often made
that abundantly clear. What I realized was how much of me
wanted to prove that I was right: all my life I was unnoticed
and unappreciated. I always knew that, and now I could even
prove it. I was amazed to realize that that childhood anger
was still so attractive that I wallowed in it instead of taking
refuge in the present reality. I am known and loved, especially
by my children. It’s been seven years now, and I haven’t
repeated that scene once. I think that catching myself in
the act so clearly helped me to give it up forever.
My life as a child was not that bad. Our family had pretty
clear and reliable routines. My Dad was wonderfully kind,
and very available. The structures were all there to support
a good life. It was just that no one was interested in my
discomfort, my little slant on life, and certainly not in
my anger or any inconvenient feelings. At 13, I went to a
Prep School where I was miserable for four years, picked on
and homesick. I never mentioned it to my parents. I “knew”
that that would be too upsetting. So they thought I was doing
well. My grades were very good.
I feel that this lack of entitlement has been one of the
platforms on which my life has rested. I try to do a bit more
than my share, to watch out for the other guy, to be aware
of all kindnesses and be grateful. This has all been effortless,
a part of my nature. These translate into making me a pretty
good friend and decent parent.
It sounds weird to sing the praises of maternal deprivation,
and God knows, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the pain
many of us suffer for childhood deprivation, but at least
for me, there is a bright side, and it is worth some attention.
1) What were the major stresses of your childhood?
2) What decisions did you make about how you must live to
3) What is the price you’ve paid for those choices?
4) What were the strengths these adaptations have created
in your life?
GET A LIFE
THE JOY OF A DEPRESSED
OPENING MANY DOORS
THE PATH OF MEDITATION
GIVING UP CONTROL
MARRIAGE AS A CHANGE
STRUCTURES THAT SUPPORT
VERMONT AND NATURE
TO HELL WITH DIGNITY
COMPANIONS ON THE ROAD
WHAT SHAPES LIFE
MAKING FRIENDS WITH GOD