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: