The subtext of my father’s life and what bled into the four lives he created was the untimely death of his mother from blood poisoning sixteen days after his birth on Christmas Eve, 1931. From all accounts, which are too few, our grandmother was a firm but warm matriarch who managed her brood of nine surviving children with benign militancy and efficiency, keeping a clean and orderly house during the strained years of the Depression.
My siblings and I know Ronie Woodlief King through brief moments with three of our father’s sisters, one of whom was twelve at the time of her death, and from a single brown and white wedding photograph that rested on our piano throughout our childhood. Copies of this portrait, with its jagged creases, have been distributed to the many descendants of Ronie’s ten surviving children and now reside on walls, mantles and tables—maybe shoved in drawers—mostly in North Carolina but also across the country. We always said my oldest sister, Elin, shared a remarkable resemblance to Ronie. Her husband, my grandfather, passed only seven years after her and resembles my father. They share a sweet, youthful expression that belies their later heartbreak.
Despite never meeting this biological grandmother, her legacy profoundly marks us. From as early as I could remember, I saw an ineffable sadness in my father that I assumed was the grief in which my father’s early life was founded. Perhaps my earliest witness to his well of sadness was when I was about five and he began weeping while we watched Bambi together. In one narrative about my father’s first days, he lay crying in his bassinet in a soaked and soiled diaper until his oldest sister, Doris, who, at eighteen, was managing chores and caring for the youngest children still at home, could eventually care for him. It was then that neighbors, who had just lost their own baby, took the motherless infant into their home until the family could properly care for him. Later, this family adopted him, a truly charitable act during the Depression. Because I’m the youngest, what I know of my paternal (non-biological) grandmother, who took my father in and raised him, is that she made memorable pimento cheese and kept a clean home.
There is no other relationship that defines a person’s life the same way as that between mother and child. Adopted parents not excluded here, but in my father’s case, he and his descendants were indelibly marked by the loss of their biological mother. Maternal love is fierce. It’s why I always tell my children as I drop them off downtown or at a friend’s home, to always inform me when they change locations. In an emergency, no one will fight harder to find them than their mother.
Ronie’s impact on her youngest children and grandchildren is discoverable in what was created by her absence. My sisters and I have broadly speculated about what kind of parent or grandparent she would have been and believe she watches over all her children and their children. I imagine she likely had great pride managing home and children. I wonder if she was humored by her bright and funny children. I wonder about the moment she recognized her imminent death and that she was leaving behind an infant and young ones as well as older children. Heartbreakingly, she was robbed of the luxury to be annoyed by her two youngest boys, my father and his brother Julian, when they got into trouble or talked back or didn’t come home in time for supper. She was robbed of opportunities to catch her teenagers, Rachel, Mildred and Helen sneaking out with boys at night or rolling their eyes in teenage disgust behind her back. She didn’t get the chance to yell something at them that she’d later wish she could take back. I wonder, did she, or would she, have complained about all those damn kids?
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death.
Elin and I have interviewed many mothers who have adult children living with serious mental illness. Similarly, these mothers have, at times been robbed of the typical things – of having “normal” moments, experiencing typical behaviors. It is not surprising that, with a similar power as Ronie’s legacy, the stories from mothers we interviewed, profoundly altered my perspective on mothering.
Each one of the mothers we interviewed stressed the importance of being supportive and emotionally available to their child, even when that child showed no reciprocation or appreciation, a common feature of the parenting dynamic, and especially common for adult and teenage children living with untreated mental illness. But we found it somewhat surprising that nearly every mother expressed regrets for some action or inaction. Many admitted having believed at one time or another that they caused the onset of their child’s illness, even though intellectually, they know brain disorders are not caused by bad parenting. These mothers wonder if they could have done something different when they were pregnant; maybe they should have disciplined more. Or less. They have a hard time freeing this false guilt.
These mothers in our Behind the Wall story collection, women like Esme, Tessa, Nathalie, Bianca and Rebecca, admit mistakes but also, through an oft-times harrowing parenting journey, have come to understand how little control they really have. They understand that parenting takes them for the ride and that they have less control in where the journey will take them as much as how they respond.
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death. And then there is the grief of losing the child you once knew to a brain illness. Having been through all that, they can finally acknowledge they are remarkable mothers. They come to know that mothering cannot be perfect but mothers do make an impact, even in absence. As more than one mother expressed it, no one will take care of my child and advocate the way I do, and will.
When a child is unwell, often it’s the mother who has the power to keep things “real,” and maintain a sense normalcy while simultaneously pushing towards recovery. Bianca tells us that even when her son was very sick, living at home with her, unable to go to school or work, she tried to “keep it real” with him. Sometimes this meant yelling at him, getting angry with him like a mother would with any typical young man. For example, after coming home from work to find her house a mess, she said to him,
“You’re not broken! Pick it up! I work too hard to come home on my days off and clean up this house!” As soon as I raised my voice, which at the time didn’t seem like a bad thing to do even though now a part of me knows I shouldn’t yell… I felt guilty about getting angry. But on the other hand, “Pick up your dirty dishes!” He’s not broken. He’s tougher than he looks. (Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents, 71).
For a mother who has spent years caring and advocating for an ill son, usually feeling as if she is screaming into the wind to get help for him, having a typical angry moment with him likely felt refreshing. But while getting angry or “losing it” isn’t ideal parenting, it happens. Tessa also admits to losing it on occasion with her son who binge drinks, gets into fights and has bouts of homelessness. But perhaps that’s the gift she is giving him – that she can show him anger yet he never doubts her fierce love or that she’ll be there for him.
Learning about the unfathomable struggles of mothers like those who have adult children living with mental illness, I’ve come to recognize that being able to treat a child like a “typical” child is a gift. The mothers in Behind the Wall parent on a whole different level than most and they are also far from typical. They are remarkable for their stamina, compassion and pragmatism. They understand a rule of life that took my grandmother’s legacy and my unfolding of it to learn: that we need to be grateful for each day given to us and particularly on those days when (especially) our children and loved ones are safe and healthy.
I will be the first to admit I don’t always feel gratitude for the parenting experience, particularly when a teen is ranting about something that pales in comparison to the struggles of, well, anything happening now in the world. Or when my child has been asked forty-six times to take out the now overflowing and reeking garbage. But underneath all of that, there is deep gratitude that I’m here. I may not be the best mother, but I am here. I’m the one that gets to advocate for my child and be on whatever that journey entails.
On this Mother’s Day, I honor mothers whose children have been unwell, in the past or currently, and who work hard to keep things “normal” or create a “new normal.” I honor my grandmother, Ronie, a woman I never knew, by keeping it real with my own kids. I honor mothers who act from a place of intention, make mistakes because nobody is perfect, and who understand the great fortune in each day we have with our children. I shall celebrate that I have been blessed with the luxury to sometimes become frustrated by my children and yet, they always know I am here for them.
As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome:
Motherhood is beautiful. And messy, challenging, sometimes exhausting, and wickedly unpredictable. The moment a child first gazes into his mother’s eyes, or writes her first grade poem about all the reasons she loves her mother, diminishes most of the heartbreaking events—like the first snub a child experiences by a friend, or a child’s serious illness. Motherhood can be a roller coaster of emotions.
Sadly, some mothers don’t get many of the kind of moments that balance heartache.
This is why I take umbrage at the “Lean In” concept perpetuated by Sheryl Sandberg. Designing one’s own life is possible only to a degree; many of us recognize that motherhood and life throws curve balls. The suggestion that women can be mothers and “have it all” is simply preposterous unless we re-frame the definition of “having it all”. Something has to give way to have it all.
The concept of reframing “having it all”, and how to work toward it was introduced to me by some of the most amazing mothers I know—those women we interviewed for our story collection, Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents.
This is not a rant against working mothers. We need women in the workforce and leadership positions. Personally, I prefer a female doctor. Ms. Sandberg is remarkable for what she has achieved while also raising a family. She has raised the bar for what women can achieve in the high tech world, one in which women have not felt welcomed. But her “Lean In” movement feels disingenuous.
When we plan to have a family, we envision our little family taking walks in nature (without whining about taking the walk), teaching our child to ride a bike, and celebrating graduations, proms, and weddings. As my sister, Elin, says, “That first time you gaze into your child’s eyes, you don’t think, ‘Someday this child will grow up and develop mental illness or substance use issues.’” But for parents whose children are atypical, these simple dreams aren’t always guaranteed. Parents whose children have special needs or serious mental illness, for example, often must make career and lifestyle choices to meet their child’s needs. Bianca, a mother we interviewed for Behind the Wall, had to choose a nursing position that provided a schedule that allowed her to be available for her son who lives with schizophrenia and sometimes cannot be left alone. Bianca’s other adult son sometimes works from home to be with his brother.
Dan considers himself fortunate to have been able to work at home while his daughter, who lives with schizophrenia, was recovering from a mental health crisis. Tessa, a mental health advocate and mother of an adult son with serious mental illness, is challenged to find a window of time to take a vacation because she never knows when a crisis may erupt. And I’m not even talking about the financial impact on parents of an adult child living with mental illness. Or the stress on a marriage.
But yet, these mothers we interviewed do have it all. All of them talk about gratitude for what they do have, how the experience of raising a child with a chronic illness has made them more empathic and compassionate. They are generous, spreading the message of their experience in an effort to help others. They also understand the concept of letting go of control and accepting what cannot be changed and fighting fiercely for what they can change. These mothers are caregivers and gladiators. They understand more about life than most and can hold a range of emotions with utter grace. Their gratitude is genuine, and deeply felt. And whether the rest of society recognizes it or not, by taking care of their own, they contribute in immeasurable ways to our society.
How about we lean in and embrace the hard work they do every day that often goes unrecognized.
This post is dedicated to those mothers. Happy Mother’s Day.
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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: