I never thought that I would make a good mother. In fact, throughout most of my young adult life I would have been horrified at the mere suggestion that I should have children of my own. With a colourful history of depression, anxiety and self-harm behind me, I considered myself far too damaged to take on the role of a parent. I could hardly keep myself safe, let alone shoulder the responsibility of guiding somebody else through life. And anyway I didn’t even like children. I just didn’t seem to have that maternal instinct that I saw in other people around me. Actually I just didn’t seem to be like other people at all.
Fast forward through ten difficult and troubled years and my wistful wanderings brought me across the path of a boy who was to change the direction of my life forever. I cannot put my finger on exactly what it was about him that made the difference. Perhaps it was because he introduced me to a world where magic could be found hidden in every corner. Endless chances for adventure waiting concealed within the places where I would only have seen shadow and dust. Or maybe it was the way that my poor battered soul finally started to sing again when he fell asleep cuddled up in my arms. Whatever it was, after a mere 24 hours spent in the company of my boyfriend’s 2-year-old nephew, I was hooked. Suddenly I wanted to be a mama too.
Never one to do things by half measures though, I didn’t just want to be a mama. I wanted to be a great mama. The best. But there was a problem. I was ill. And not the good kind of ill that other people could easily understand and accept. No, the things that made me sick were those things that no one wanted to admit to or talk about in public. Rather it was all whispers and hushed tones, the kind of stuff better kept behind closed doors and away from the children. Good parents didn’t have mental health issues and I didn’t stand a chance of being welcomed into the mama club if I tried to enter as my real self. So I decided that for the sake of my future children I would just have to push aside my damaged brain and be “normal” instead. How hard could it be?
9 years and four children later I would like to say that this experiment was a complete success but of course in reality things don’t work like that. Moving from my world of sadness into that of parenthood felt like relocating to a foreign country, a place where I suddenly found myself without the ability to read the signs or interpret the local language and customs. Not wanting to stick out I did my best to camouflage myself whilst ignoring the effects of the culture shock which seemed to follow me around like a shadow. As time passed I found myself shapeshifting, trying to adapt my old self so that it fit neatly into the costume of the land that I was trying to integrate myself into. During some periods the magic worked and my soul soared as I walked around with confidence, showing off the new me that I had worked so hard to form. At other times it felt as though I was trying to force myself into a pair of jeans three sizes too small. Parts of the old me spilled over and refused to be pushed down – those ugly unruly parts that I most wanted gone.
How could I love my broken parts whilst I was trying so hard to be perfect for someone else? I wanted so badly for my children to be happy that I refused to acknowledge the sadness that dominated my own troubled past. The fear and the hopelessness. The times that life had overwhelmed me and I shut down completely, hurting myself purposely to create the kind of pain that I could heal from again.
In the end though I realised that no matter how hard I tried, this sad version of me just wasn’t going to disappear. She would always be with me like a shadow, sometimes dark and full of threat and at other times faint and barely noticeable at all.
Once I started to accept myself I realised that the greatest insights I had to offer my children would never come from some unattainable image of a perfect mother. Rather they would come from the person that I used to be, the person that I now was and from the lessons that I had learned along the way. I didn’t need to try to become someone else at all. Instead I needed to accept and love myself fully so that I could bring all that I was into my parenting journey.
When we try to deny and hide a mental illness, either past or current, we are teaching our children that there can be part of us that is undesirable and unlovable. Instead we should be honest and teach them that handled in the right way everything can have its benefits. The things that make us vulnerable can also be the same things that make us strong. Those ugly parts? They can also be the most beautiful.
My experiences with depression have bestowed upon me the ability to find beauty in the most minute detail. I notice the colours in life, love harder and create more. I am more content with what I have, understand the value of things and know that “things” have no value. And so sadness can bring joy and hopelessness can bring change and action. It’s ok to feel too much. It’s ok to need to close down sometimes.
We don’t need disguises.
We need to be who we are to teach our children that in turn they can be whoever they are. They can love themselves completely just as we do. Broken parts and all.
About the Author
Hazel West is a creative writer, yoga teacher and proud mother of four who has been living in The Netherlands with her Irish partner since 2004. Her work has been published on Amsterdam Mamas.