Skip to main content

I can finally forgive my mentally ill mother

By Mary Allen
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says research shows that maternal mental illness is far more common than previously thought.
Mary Allen says research shows that maternal mental illness is far more common than previously thought.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mary Allen: Maternal mental illness is finally getting the attention it deserves
  • Allen's mother was mentally ill, and new research helps her understand her better
  • Allen: When you're a child, it's terrifying, but you find later that it was illness, not you
  • She says children of these mothers can learn from one another how to heal the damage

Editor's note: Mary Allen is the author of "The Rooms of Heaven" and "Awake in the Dream House." The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- When I was 3 years old, I was left alone in the house with my mother while my father was at work and my sister was in kindergarten. I spent the day hiding in a garment bag on my parents' sun porch. At one point I crept into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and hallucinated the comforting sound of my father's voice saying my name.

My mother had just come home after a yearlong stay in a mental hospital, my sister and I had been retrieved from the foster family we lived with during my mother's hospitalization, and I was terrified of my mother.

Mary Allen
Mary Allen

Maternal mental illness -- postpartum depression and psychosis -- are finally getting the attention they deserve. A growing body of research shows that maternal mental illness is far more common than previously thought, and many women are speaking up about their struggles with anxiety, depression, difficulty connecting with their newborns, and sometimes, their intrusive thoughts about harming their children.

Many of these women are receiving appropriate medical treatment and getting well. Reporting about them and their illnesses is often intelligent and compassionate. All this feels as if a closet that has been kept locked for years is finally being opened, letting in light and air.

My life has been defined by the lack of the very information coming out now, not because I'm a mother who has or has had maternal mental illness, but because I'm the daughter of one who did.

Although postpartum psychosis has been officially recognized since the 1800s, we didn't know about maternal mental illness back in 1953, when I was an infant. Not my father, my mother, my mother's psychiatrists, not the general public and, in the years to come, when I was growing up, not me. All I knew, for most of my life, was that I was terrified of my mother from my earliest, preverbal memories on.

I also knew certain things that my father told me.

2012: Web help for postpartum depression
Dr. Drew: 'The brain was misfiring'

She rejected you, he said, when I was growing up. She never really liked you. She didn't want to have anything to do with you when you were a baby. She put you out on the sun porch in the winter so your crying wouldn't wake up your sister. When you were a toddler she scolded you no matter what you did.

And once, my father said, my mother called her psychiatrist and reported, "There's a voice inside my head, and it's telling me to kill my children."

After that phone call and whatever precipitated it, she was taken to the Northampton State Hospital in Massachusetts for an extended stay. When she came home I couldn't get over my fear of her, and, after that awful day hiding in the garment bag and a few more days like it, my father allowed me to go back to the foster family who took in my sister and me during my mother's hospitalization. I lived with them, spending weekends with my parents, until I was 18 years old -- dreading every single one of those weekends at my parents' house.

I did not understand why I was afraid of my mother or even question the fact that I was. My mother never really got well, and over the years when I was growing up, remnants of her maternal mental illness hardened into rage because I refused to live with her -- and hysterical panic attacks in me when she suggested angrily that I should. She died in 1981, just when I was at an age where I might have been capable of overcoming my fear and getting to know her a little.

"Studies indicate that maternal stress may undermine women's ability to bond with or care for their children, and that children's emotional and cognitive health may suffer as a result," Pam Belluck wrote in a New York Times article, "New Findings on Range of Maternal Mental Illness."

"'When I'd walk into his room, he'd burst into tears,'" one mother reports in the article, describing her son's reaction to her.

For years I've plumbed the depths of my unconscious, using a therapy called EMDR, to heal the part of me that burst into tears at the sight of my mother. As a result I've become familiar and even comfortable with what happened to me on the inside.

But it's been harder to take ownership of this part of my story in the outside world -- to see it in any sort of neutral, uncharged way. My early traumatic experiences took over any ability I might have had to be neutral about my mother's illness, and my profound infantile fear of her felt confusing and sort of embarrassing, like a personal weakness.

It's only been recently, with the new findings and the literature coming out, that some penny inside me finally dropped and I saw that being the child of a mother with maternal mental illness -- having a mother who didn't like you, who rejected you and terrified you and whom you rejected in turn out of fear -- isn't only or even really a personal event.

If, as reported by the Postpartum Support International, at least one in eight women in the United States suffer from some kind of mental illness during or after pregnancy, my mother was one of many. So my experiences are not unique, and I no longer have to feel ashamed of them or alone with them.

Because of therapy, I no longer have to carry around the fear of my mother, which as I was growing up turned into a generalized fear of everything. And now I can, finally, once and for all, forgive my mother and her illness.

It's a good time for those of us whose mothers were victims of maternal mental illness to start adding our voices to the literature coming out about it -- to join in the healing taking place around this devastating illness.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT