During this time of year, social media posts abound with photos of unfathomably beautiful young men and women in glossy gowns, beaming beside one or two relieved parents, above congratulatory post after post. So Proud! What a future this kid has!
As it happens, this year, our extended family is blessed to celebrate the graduations of two young women of remarkable talents (if we do say so ourselves), one of whom is headed off to college and another who earned a graduate degree. I suspect, when all the ceremonies are done and dusted, there will be no less than two-dozen images posted, multiples of that in genuine congratulations.
But as it’s been said, participating in social media is a double-edged sword. Because for some parents, seeing their nephew, niece or even the neighbor’s kid positioned in that quintessential shot, though well earned, can be incredibly painful. Because not all parents get to watch their child make that customary journey, that straight line from Kindergarten to high school graduation, much less through college.
Many of the Behind the Wall parents talk of their struggle to accept the derailment of their child’s path as a result of mental illness. In many cases, their children had been good students, a few outstanding, and others were also musicians, artists and/or athletes. Until their middle grades, these parents had no reason to believe their child wouldn’t graduate high school and go off to college… like every other kid they knew. It had been assumed before even one page of Goodnight Moon was ever turned. As these parents witness the same cohort of men and women to which their child had once belonged and progressed with, grade-by-grade, now arrive at their graduation, they are confronted by the staggering challenges their own child faces. The graduation ceremony that should have included their child is a brutal reminder of an abandoned path. There is a sense of loss.
To cope with this reality, while still honoring the rightful celebrants, we turn to the wise Behind the Wall parents we interviewed. These parents are strong, their advice informed.
Esme’s daughter, Jennifer, became increasingly ill during her middle grades and into high school as she struggled with what was diagnosed as borderline then later bipolar disorder and complicated with substance use. Jennifer had always been a good student and yet, her brain disorder impeded her ability to finish all her coursework. As Esme put it, she couldn’t even finish a small assignment in English, what had previously been her favorite class.
Sadly, when teens struggle to finish simple coursework or cannot even attend school due to an encroaching mental illness, parents and their children are judged. During her high school years Jennifer also had a few public raging episodes. Talk of it traveled throughout her community. Esme knows that other parents blamed her for Jennifer’s behaviors. Esme says that for those who don’t know what it’s like to live with a person with emerging mental illness, it’s easy for others to judge; other parents assume, those parents let their child run wild, no discipline in that house.
One of the most painful experiences for Esme occurred the day that would have been her daughter’s high school graduation. That day, she drove her younger daughter to the ceremony to cheer on her older, graduating friends. Esme recalls how long that drive to the school felt for her, how excruciating the approach, thinking about what that day could have been for their family.
But Esme then corrects this thinking. It’s not her path. Not yet. What she now understands is that Jennifer will have to chart a different route for herself. There is hope; she can begin recovery and rebuild her life. When she’s ready.
Bianca, whose son became very ill early into his college years and has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, reminds parents to look at the progress of their child not in weeks or months, but over the course of a year. Where was he last year? Is it better? She’s referring to what recovery looks like for a person who is learning to manage their own mental health, particularly after a significant health crisis. What she’s saying is that parents can’t set the timetable for their children. Everyone has to set their own path and timetable.
One young man we know has become a successful tradesperson and is still, one of the kindest persons I’ve ever known. Another, Stella, had been an outstanding student throughout her life. In high school, she had to relearn how to learn during her recovery from a profound episode of psychosis. But she did learn to work with her own challenges and graduated with an engineering degree in a highly specialized field of study from a highly ranked university. For Esme, she is grateful for now that her daughter is working toward recovery, which is progress.
It is worth noting that a young person walking at graduation following an accident or hospitalization that derailed studies is often celebrated at graduation ceremonies. “Look! He’s back after that illness!” We’ve all seen the social media postings—standing ovations. Tears.
Not so much when a person takes leave of absence to address mental illness. That return is quiet. But for that too, we can hold out hope.
As I prepare to write the card and prepare the sentiments to the graduates in our family, I know I will remark on their accomplishments, that they have such promise in their future. These things are all true. I am deliriously happy for them. And this is the distinction that I have come to learn through the wisdom of Behind the Wall parents: That the success of my loved ones is not my own. That their failures aren’t either. What is to be celebrated is their achievement of their goals that they set out to accomplish on their own.
Amongst the pictures and postings of the young people and the less young ones, I will be celebrating goals met, futures open, whatever that looks like for the loved ones in our lives. Even if the accomplishments aren’t marked by graduation gowns.
We welcome your thoughts and comments!
Recently our family attended an art show of two women painters, Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio. Calling them “women painters” as opposed to simply, “painters” can elicit a whole conversation about noting that their gender makes them somehow different. Because do we ever say “men painters”?
It’s curious that when we think of a man who is successful we don’t usually say, “And he’s a father!” But regarding a successful woman, we say, “And she’s a mother!” A prolific male painter who is also a devoted father is remarkable. A woman painter, who is a devoted mother, is praised for the fact she does paint. We tend to see motherhood as “natural” and a woman who awkwardly holds a newborn to be odd. Either we underestimate men as fathers or overestimate women’s aptitude and inclination for parenting. Here we risk sweeping generalizations. When a family breaks apart, it is statistically more unusual for a mother to leave her children to be cared for full-time by their father than the other way around. But thankfully, our ideas about these roles are slowly changing.
They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc.
But I call attention to these differences because the fact that these painters are women has dictated their journey. Litwiller and Benicio, who are part of a women painter collective, are working in collaboration to garner exposure. They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc. They are, in fact, wildly talented and disciplined painters. They are special, though, because they are also mothers. And devoted ones, at that.
In order for them to find the block of hours for their work, they first created space in a garage, cordoned off from their children. This space is also sometimes metaphoric. Ellen tells me she created a sculpture from yarn while also watching her sons at the skate park. Hey, everybody in the family has needs and when there’s a will, Ellen finds the way. But family life is always the constant and not necessarily predictable or controlled. It is no small feat to organize the schedules of two adolescent boys, grocery shop, and be present to acknowledge successes and manage meltdowns. And then, in the limited time that is the school day, she pulls from somewhere deep within to create something else. But their work is also what saves them from the pressures of family life. The act of creating can be highly therapeutic.
Where the story of these two women painters connects to the rest of us is that their lives exemplify the creativity and discipline involved for all women to transcend motherhood in small and grand ways. As if motherhood is not a large enough role. But a woman’s life is an integration of identities—mother, wife, professional. And then when life at home becomes more challenging because a child has become ill, for example, a mother must rise to meet that challenge also. Some of us are fortunate to have support of a spouse, sibling or dear friend. But what mother, no matter how well supported, doesn’t feel the constant emotional and practical pull to meet the needs of our kids, maybe a partner, and of our own ambitions?
Motherhood presents an ever-changing landscape. Just when a mother feels she’s got this thing down, it changes. When our children are very young, the needs require physical stamina. Later, mothering becomes increasingly more psychological, at times heartbreaking, as we witness our children suffer what life delivers. If the lack of sleep in those early years don’t get us, the anguish of teenage rebellion just might.
There are many mothers who never get the chance to fully explore their ambitions. Sometimes, their child’s needs are too great to allow much more personal exploration. Or, maybe a mother isn’t supported. Some women quietly find fulfillment or success in less public ways. Knowing that motherhood presents complexity, how can anyone judge a woman’s choices in parenting? One of our Behind The Wall mothers whose daughter lives with borderline personality disorder once said, “I know others judge my parenting because of my daughter’s behaviors.” But to those who are doing the judging, one should ask, “Do you even know what’s going on behind the walls of that home?” Mothers are humans who are figuring it all out as best they can. And when we have our own successes, it is downright remarkable. It is.
This post is our first that is not centered on addressing mental illness. But it is about mothers, who are often the primary advocates for a child who lives with any chronic illness. For this Mother’s Day, perhaps we should contemplate what one can do to support other mothers in their journey to integrate their many identities and to bend to meet the needs of those they love. One way is to respect the hard choices she has to make to meet the needs of her children and herself. And another is to celebrate the brilliant accomplishments of other mothers we know.
Thank you, Ellen and Angelique.
To learn more and view the portfolios of Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio, please go to:
As always, your comments are welcome: