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 good”.

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 adapt?
3) What is the price you’ve paid for those choices?
4) What were the strengths these adaptations have created in your life?






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