Gillian Marchenko shares an early Mother’s Day post.
For some moms with mental illness, Mother’s Day is nuanced and painful. We are thankful for our children and yet tend to think about our failures as opposed to successes. We worry about what our illnesses do to our kids. Are we robbing them from the life they deserve? Wouldn’t they be better off with someone else?
In Still Life, a Memoir of Living Fully with Depression, motherhood (I have four kids) is a huge topic I return to often.
Can I be a loving mother and struggle with depression? Exactly how does one do that?
Here are some excerpts from my book exploring these question and hopefully showing how God is working in my life regarding my life, albeit at times screwed up, as a mother.
Excerpts from Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression…
. . .
I’m down under a mud puddle somewhere in a dream. I hear a muffled voice.
“Mom? It’s time for dinner. Mommy?”
I roll onto my back and squint my eyes up at Zoya, daughter number two, the easiest baby for me, the one who still crawls up in my lap and rests her head on my breast like she’d nurse if she could.
“Hi.” My voice has a smoker’s grittiness.
This is where it gets tricky. I don’t want to scare my kids. On days I can, I help get them off to school, then do a little work and perhaps a load of laundry. I go back to bed for a while and then get up again right before they return. But sometimes it’s like this: I don’t function. My middle daughter stands expectantly. I glob together blips of energy hiding in my body. My mind gathers them up like worn-out pieces of leftover pie crust that won’t stay together, even with a little flour and spit.
“Hi, honey. How was school?”
“Okay.” Zoya’s voice is small, distant. I see fear in her eyes, and work to remember whether I’ve taken a shower today, or yesterday, or whether I will perhaps take one tomorrow. “Um, Papa says it’s time for dinner. Can you come down and eat with us?” My daughter’s face is creamy, smooth white velvet. (I catch her once in a while, when I’m better, in her bed. “Whatcha doin’?” “Nothing, just resting,” she says. “Okay,” I reply, and walk down our light yellow hallway. I wonder if she’s sad. Would she tell me? In a lot of ways Zoya is the kid most similar to me out of the four: natural athletic ability but not a lot of follow-through, a somewhat round shape, prone to watching long television programs and spending time alone. I worry she’ll have whatever wacked gene I seemed to have inherited that makes life bad and hard sometimes for no reason. I hope to God it isn’t so.)
“I’m not coming down for dinner tonight, honey. I’m still not great, Zoya.”
“Okay. Do you want us to bring you up a plate?” she asks.
“Maybe a little later.”
Depression is not a lazy susan. Depression is a savage. It sucks my life down its gullet; I slide like a sip of bourbon. I’m worthless. A waste. I’m no longer a wife, a mother or even a Christian. I am depressed. Here. Now. People say you can choose happy. Okay, I choose it every day. But it doesn’t choose me. I see Zoya’s face in my mind and remember her as an infant, jet-black hair sticking straight up all over her head. Hair everywhere on her body. A dark patch in the middle of her back, a landing strip for a tiny toy airplane. I think of her laughing over a silly comment her father or a sibling has made. She bends her head back, opens her mouth and lets go. I think of her cuddled up in her bed: “Goodnight, Mommy, see you in the morning.” When she was a toddler I tucked her in for a nap every afternoon, and it felt like Communion, her soft face and gorgeous eyes smiling into mine. Do I still count as a mother like this? I wanted to be a good mom to my kids, and now look at me. I’m not a mom at all. I’m sinking. I don’t want to sink. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus, help. Help me. I can’t do it anymore. I ache. I need help. Zoya bends toward me and wraps her arms around the bulk of my body hidden under the covers. Her embrace stops the ache for a second. People petrify me, but I badly want to have someone near me. A tear slides down my cheek— I wipe it away before she can see it.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, Zoya.”
She leaves my bedroom, and I wriggle around on the mattress to find a way to ease the pain. The door closes.
Still Life, Chapter 7, pages 55-57
. . .
What will my children remember about me when they are grown? I lie in bed at night and wonder. My bones chill, and I find myself rubbing my feet together, attempting to breathe a little warmth into my sobering thoughts. Will they remember their mother swinging them at the park? Will they remember their mother praying with them before bed, or setting the table while Papa puts the finishing touches on dinner, or cheering for them at a school assembly? Or will they remember a closed door? Don’t bother Mom, she’s not well. Keep it down now, girls, Mom is having a hard day. Will they remember phone calls unanswered, unkempt playdates, Mom’s inability to get it together enough to sign them up for gymnastics and swimming? What will they remember? The thought is a plague. Moments make up our lives, right? If that’s true, then I’d best remember that good moments exist, too. But there are lessons in remembering the bad. Because good moments aren’t as good if their worth isn’t realized. Because a good life could go unnoticed if nothing opposed it. Good moments wouldn’t mean as much without the bad. Remember that, Gillian. Name the good and bad moments, and thank God for them.
Still Life, Chapter 18, Page 141
. . .
Do you still think you are a bad mom?” (My therapist) Melanie asks. “I don’t know how to answer that. Yes? Maybe not as often? No?” “Gillian, think about it. Even when you were in bed for days, were your children cared for?” “Yes. But not by me.” “Okay, But were they fed? Did you know who cared for them? Did you leave them? Did you hurt yourself and leave them without a mother?” Melanie pushes, and the sore that I’ve been trying to leave alone so it can scab opens again. I adjust the way I sit on the couch in her office, glance down at my tall black boots, the ones I ordered online to fit my wide calves, and look back up at her. “The girls were cared for . . . I know who cared for them . . . I didn’t leave them.”
“That’s right. And there are lots of women who don’t do those things. There are lots of women who leave. You are not a bad mother. Have you been a sick mom? Yes. But a bad mom? No.” “Yes, but I still ignore them. I still go up to my room when I can. I still struggle.” “So what? Who doesn’t struggle? You have four kids, and two of them have significant special needs. Of course you struggle. I watch my nephew for a weekend as a favor and I struggle. You aren’t a bad mom. You are a normal mom. Yes, you might still go to bed sometimes, but you get up, Gillian. You get back up.”
Still Life, Chapter 20, Page 151
. . .
I may not be the best mom. I may not even get back to being the average mother I once claimed to be. But I’m here. I’m getting back up. I’m not leaving. And I’m the mom God ordained for these four souls, and therefore I am their best mom.
Still Life, Chapter 20, Page 155
. . .
Mother’s Day happens. I challenge you and myself to remember the good moments with our kids and to build on that in the midst of our illnesses. Remember, we are the moms God chose for our kids.
Happy Mother’s Day wherever you find yourself on your journey today.
For Gillian Marchenko, “dealing with depression” means learning to accept and treat it as a physical illness. In Still Life she describes her journey through various therapies and medications to find a way to live with depression. She faces down the guilt of a wife and mother of four, two with special needs. How can she care for her family when she can’t even get out of bed? Her story is real and raw, not one of quick fixes. But hope remains as she discovers that living with depression is still life.
Still Life is available here in paperback and e-book from IVP Press. The Kindle edition is available at Amazon.