Mother Guilt

My mother is constantly apologizing for her ‘bad’ mothering. I, of course, rush to defend her and point out all my good memories of childhood. She, however, is quite insistent that she has irrevocably damaged us kids.

Perhaps she is right, perhaps I downplay too much what it was like growing up with someone who was bipolar.

My memories of her when I was little, before age 4, aren’t very strong. I remember being outside a lot – my mom loves biking and hiking. My mother worked full time to put my dad through school, so I spent more time with him when little.

The first manic episode occurred when I was 5. My mom was convinced someone was trying to get my little brother and tried to save him with lots of incoherent screaming and fighting with my dad whom she did not recognize. Dad called the ambulance, and they took her away in a straitjacket. I asked my cousin who came over to watch us if my mother was possessed by a demon.

Her answer was more traumatizing than the episode.

When mom came back after a few months she was in a full blown depressive state. The drugs she was on caused her to shake and she really couldn’t function. She stayed in bed for months, listening to church music. Our neighbours came to do our laundry. My mom was vacant, she had been given a drug-induced lobotomy.

I overheard family members bully and blame my dad. Church members prayed for her and proclaimed healing.

After she pulled through, things went back to ‘normal’. My mom could get all the neighbourhood kids playing scrub or king of the mountain. She took us on bike rides out of town and taught us to skip stones in the sloughs. It was great.

Another manic episode. I loved the hypomania! Mom became more confident and creative; it seemed like she enjoyed life and maybe even liked herself! Life was so much fun. Then the psychotic break, which wasn’t as traumatizing because by then, we knew enough about brain chemicals not to blame Satan. Trip to the hospital, playing with drugs. Done.

Then the depression. That was always the worst. Mom crying that she was a bad mother. My brothers calling her names. She encouraging them to do it more. I being the only one to defend her or to make them do their chores. I vowed my kids would never treat me like that.

Guilt ruled her life. I had been delivering papers since age 8, but as a teenager my mom began to ‘help’ me more. Gradually, she took over my route. Before I left home, I had never done my own laundry. When I was asked to clean the bathroom at the bakery I worked at, I had to read the instructions on the cleaners to know what to do.

My mom’s idea that she owed us was damaging. Just as we needed to take more responsibility, she did more for us. All those things she couldn’t do for us when we were little kids she tried to do for us as teenagers. It soothed her guilt, but it wasn’t helpful.

The worst thing was her belief that she was evil. She didn’t respect or care for herself. I doubt I have life-long scars from living with someone who was bipolar, maybe just a fear of losing control of my mind – a fear I think most of us have.

I do have to work to overcome the example of self-loathing and guilt-clouded overfunctioning.

But, its not like I’m a computer program. I’m a human.

11 thoughts on “Mother Guilt

  1. D'Ma says:

    I’m so sorry, Prairie. I have so much empathy for both sides of this situation. Religion probably plays a large roll in her guilt as well. She probably feels sinful for her manic and depressive states and guilt for not being able to control it. Or at least not being able to turn it over to God to control it. And yes, her guilt led her to try to “make up” for things that she had no control over.

    On your side of the fence, though, I can see where it would be hard work to overcome co-dependency and self-loathing taught by your mother. I applaud the fact that you have fond memories of your childhood and that you don’t blame your mother for things she couldn’t help.

    (((Big Hugs))) and warm thoughts going your way.

    • prairienymph says:

      My mom is really a great mom and a wise woman. She is apologizing for the wrong things though. It is her apologies that are hard to deal with.
      I just don’t know how to communicate that.

  2. Jen says:

    It IS hard work to overcome all of that, and I think you’re amazing for doing that work.

    My mom wasn’t nearly as “bad” as yours, but her guilt ran her life and mine. I’m very grateful that she has worked through it now… Now we can talk about my childhood: the hard times and the good times. Without the guilt, conversations are very open and healing.

  3. Quester says:

    On Saturday, my wife woke up and cleaned the house while I slept in. When I got up and looked around, I felt personally attacked as lazy, useless and incompetent. I fought hard with my temper and anguish, realizing that I was going into attack mode out of defensiveness. Suddenly, I heard the echo of my mother’s voice, every time I phoned home with some accomplishment, apologizing that she was such a poor mother that I did not learn or achieve this accomplishment as a child under her guidance. She deflated every moment of exaltation by taking it as a personal attack against her as a bad mother. I tried to shake off these defensive feelings of inadequacy and complimented and thanked my wife for all her wonderful work, but it was so painfully hard. Best of luck to you.

    • prairienymph says:

      🙂 So familiar. We were all eating supper when my husband got home. Instead of jumping up, giving him my chair and serving him like my mother would have done, I just smiled and kept eating. For which I felt guilty and apologized for. He just looked at me puzzled, and asked why I was apologizing for eating supper.
      It is hard to not feel personally responsible for others in our lives.

  4. Guilt is more often than not such a useless emotion and a terrible motivator, especially when it stems from religious belief.

  5. I think many, if not most, parents think back about how good of a job they did at parenting with some regrets, especially if the children don’t turn out to be different than what they had expected or hoped for. In your mom’s case, with the bipolar issue and the religious beliefs layered on top of that, I can understand how she would feel absolutely crushed when looking back.

    It is great that you have persevered despite these difficult circumstances. I can’t help but wonder if they helped to make you the strong woman you are today, making it a bit of a mixed blessing.

    • prairienymph says:

      Funny, I think us kids are all doing pretty well. I mean, I am not going to church any more so I guess that is crushing. But, we are all responsible and compassionate people. Her illness helped make us all more sensitive to people struggling emotionally and to immediately empathize with those on the outside. I’m glad for that. We were hardly hard-done by to have two loving and devoted parents, whatever their idiosyncrasies!

      I am ambiguous about her religious beliefs since they sustain her and give her hope but also cause her to despise all those strong and independent parts of herself.

      • Oh, well then that’s great! 🙂 I’m happy to hear that you all turned out OK!

        I think I know where you are coming from with the ambiguous feeling about her faith too. I’ve seen how it has helped many people push through tough times.

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