Allowing Mama to be flawed
Having a parent with a mental illness will be one of the most defining elements of your life. It will go on to inform your ever-changing ideas about vulnerability and what it means to share the most intimate and messy parts of your life with eyes and ears that might be able to hold space for you — or not. But you won’t really think too hard about it all until you commit to reflecting upon, and writing about, how you have become familiar and acquainted to strange and oftentimes uncomfortable things that your own brain still struggles to compute, despite continuing to live through it all.
You are born and grow up, and in this time, you are socialised into what it means to come from a normal family that does normal things and lives in normal ways.
It is this behavioural normalcy that you will attempt to conjure up while the solid sense of normalcy gradually leaves your life. You will have vague memories of your mother and the role she played in your formative, childhood years. How those years were foregrounded by the presence of an alert and colourful woman who brought so much colour into the world. You will remember her as something of a Mrs Weasley of the Harry Potter books archetype — encouraging and loving, despite being a strict figure of authority.
After all, she did spend your childhood years cleaning the house and cooking the food while letting you do the things that eight-year-olds do: eating and playing and sleeping. It will only be years later that the languid pace with which she passed on the performance of banal “womanly” tasks, such as washing the dishes after supper and sweeping the street in the early mornings, will get you into trouble with aunts and extended family members with limited patience for young girls who have no real idea of how to perform “girlhood” tasks.
You grow up and gradually your mom gets sick. In the beginning, you won’t really know what it all is and what it all means, whether it can be fixed and what it would take to fix it. And so, you will go through the motions, and develop coping mechanisms characterised by teaching yourself to enjoy and when necessary, endure her. Black people hardly have the vocabulary, let alone the management strategies for these sorts of things, so you will grow up thinking that having a “normal” mother one day and one who becomes gradually unwell over time is simply your lot in life. Throughout the intensification of her illness and the sometimes-traumatic episodes that you will witness, no older person will sit you down and explain what it all means, what it all is. In time, you will learn to forgive them too for not having the tools to deal with it themselves and to be there for you.
The immediate family will form coalitions with extended family members, interventions will be staged and mental health institutions will background your teenage years. Your mother will be institutionalised and her returns will have you questioning the functional impact and utility of these interventions. You will notice how quiet and subdued she has become, as if her personality has been snatched from her. You will not be surprised when she indicates that she will not be taking her pills anymore because they make her feel like a robot. You will not protest because you are simply happy to have your mother back home.
For your own part, you won’t have the tact to interpellate your older sibling — the memory bank of the family — into a conversation about what it all meant to her and how she has chosen to remember or misremember the confusion and dysfunction of childhood. As you continue to grow, you’ll develop ways to water the secret river that flows beneath your vivaciousness. You will bond with a colleague who has to resign from work and leave the country he loves because he can’t afford to take care of his mom on his own anymore. The anxiety-quelling reassurance that you are not alone will help.
You will learn how one of the most salient features about your relationship with your mom is how the mother-to-child relationship has been inverted. You will listen to a podcast on the topic of parentification and you will cry yourself to sleep at the serendipitous aptness of it all. Of how you had to grow up too quickly and delay self-indulgent gratification because there are people that need to be taken care of in this life. Of how some of your life’s choices have factored in the question of “who will take care of her if I leave her?” or more honestly, “will I be able to live with myself if I leave her?” and how the inability to reassuringly answer these questions is the reason why you continue to choose to stay.
This inversion of roles will feed into a messy cocktail characterised by anger, disappointment, shame, and a longing for things known and unknown. In the privacy of your mind, you will admit how banal experiences such as going to the mall have become thrilling yet frequently exhausting experiences that require mental preparation. You will watch yourself bond with women your mother’s age, mentors and the mothers of friends come and gone, and you will self-indulgently fantasise about what the possibilities would be if your mom was well. You decide that if fantasies could be made real, she would be a self-sufficient and present presence in your life that you could really unload to about big things and little things: your fears, your dreams and all the other deep whispers of your little big heart.
And as you get older and your ideas about motherhood and daughterhood develop, you will learn to forgive your mother for not being who you wanted her to be for you, for coming in a form that continues to challenge you and push you in ways that blow your mind. You will learn that, in the same way that you do not expect a person in a wheelchair to stand up and walk, for your own sake and hers, you must be able to meet your mom where she is and take her as she is. That despite not being well, she is here and she has always loved you in the best way that she knows how, in the way that only she can.
During noticed moments, you will reflect on how you had no idea why your name means “the patient one” because for you, patience continues to be a virtue you aspire to. You will then realise that loving your darling mother has taught you all that you know about breathing in and out, and about appreciating all the borrowed moments and all the little things. As you learn to reject the unfairness of life, you will learn to take and embrace and honour your imperfect blessings, wherever they are found.