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I am terrified of what my children will remember of me.

I have been as honest as I can be with them.

I have a sickness in my brain that I am taking care of but sometimes it makes me tired and sad and it is NOT your fault.

But of course, they are children and while they can understand this logically, my actions don’t always line up with my words.

Sometimes I throw my hands up and say “fuck it.” Sometimes I am so angry or irritable I cannot conceal it. Sometimes I cannot help crying, and sometimes I can’t get up.

Children in these situations naturally feel that everything is their fault. I know that when I am distant from them, they feel unlovable. I know that when I am sad they wonder what they did or if they can fix it, no matter how many times I tell them it is not their job. Sometimes we make each other feel like shit.

My partner and I fight a lot. It’s the thing we said we wouldn’t do in front of them, but we’ve failed. We’ve always had what my college friend who has known us since the beginning described as a “volatile” relationship. We love each other, but after 20 years have still not learned to communicate in a healthy way a lot of the time. We try to be better people for our children, but maybe we are just children ourselves. When we remember, we try to apologize in front of them, give loving hugs, take responsibility. It makes them feel better, I can see it. I hope they remember this part too.

I live in nearly constant physical pain, and have only realized recently that this has been the case for about the last 15 years. Whether this is a side effect of mental illness or vice versa, or is just an additional ailment, I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t help.

I am terrified that my children will remember me as sick all the time. Not sick in the traditional sense, but in bed. Immobile. Just trying to survive the physical pain and the sorrow that engulfs me sometimes. They don’t know of course that every day I survive is a battle won. It’s hard to see strength in someone who seems weak. I hope they will see my strength someday.

For the last couple years, I spent most of my days, for the hours my children were in school, in bed. I wasn’t working — I found that I couldn’t even show up consistently to an extremely part-time job at my kids’ school — and I just, couldn’t get myself to do anything. I felt deep shame about it. How could I be this lazy? How could I explain this inability to force myself to move? I didn’t want to tell anyone, because since the vast majority of my friends work full-time I feared the reaction would be “Must be nice.” Must be nice to get to just stay in bed all day. Meanwhile our finances were falling apart and we were blowing through all of our savings, eventually leading (in part) to us selling our house in Seattle and moving into an RV. We couldn’t afford to live there on one income.

When I was pregnant the first time I remember a therapist saying something to me about “what we know” about children growing up with depressed mothers. Surprise surprise, the outcomes are not good. I don’t know why she said this to me, but it has hung over me for all these years, confirming my deepest fears.

Is it even possible for my kids to be ok after having a childhood with me?

My son was born first. His birth was extremely traumatic for me and I still have not recovered from it, and this was followed by severe post-partum depression. I call it “severe” because two years later when my daughter was born, I had “mild” post-partum depression. I was prepared that time. I started medication earlier.

I have been advised not to worry about it and that kids are resilient and that he “won’t remember,” but I hold a ball of guilt in my heart about the fact that my son was born to a mother who was unable to feel the love she was supposed to feel instantly until a couple months in. I fed him, I held him, but I was dead inside. Empty. Blank. I felt a sense of duty to him and I loved him, but the depression came between us. I was hospitalized twice after he was born, because I couldn’t stop vomiting. The diagnosis was extreme post-partum stress, which I attribute largely to the difficulty I had breastfeeding in the beginning. It was extremely painful, and I knew that if it was painful I was doing it wrong. So I had the stress of the pain and the stress of the doing it wrong and the stress of dreading the feedings that had to happen every couple hours.

My son is the one of the two who has ADHD, who struggles emotionally and behaviorally. It could be a coincidence, and it could be that he was affected by those early days. He was drinking my fear and despair and dread directly from my body.

He is the one who already has trauma to deal with, a result of all the fights he’s had with us. All the ways we’ve unintentionally made him feel criticized and unloved, when the reality is that my love for him and his sister threatens to burst my heart.

It doesn’t matter where his struggles came from, but when I am in a worrying mindset I always think about the end of February and beginning of March, 2010, when he came into our lives. Several weeks later, once I was on anti-depressants and my body was feeling better and I had finally gotten past the pain of breastfeeding, I felt what I imagine most mothers feel immediately. A love and a bond like nothing I’d ever felt before. For some of us it doesn’t happen right away. It took a couple months for me. For others it takes several months. For others, years. I wish there was more space for mothers like us. We talk about post-partum depression now, but we don’t offer space for it in the social media landscape, and as much as people want to deny it, social media is important. It’s how many of us connect to the outside world. For many of us, it’s our main form of communication. To feel unaccepted in that space can be crushing.

I know I still have trauma I haven’t explored around my first birth and the aftermath, because when people have babies and share how in love they are and how perfect everything is right away, I feel envious. A little bitter even. And let me tell you how good it feels to feel bitter toward someone who is happy with their newborn baby. I’ll tell you. It feels bad. It feels awful. But I know those are only my knee-jerk reactions and that they are actually reactions to my own trauma, not blissful new parents. But I have yet to see it be ok to share that you are depressed after the birth of a child. I have yet to see a person share this, myself included. I want to see it be ok. I promise I will not turn away from people who share that terrifying and debilitating experience. And I promise you are not less of a mother for having it.

Today my partner took the kids into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the many national parks we’ve been privileged enough to visit in the last six months. When we sold our house in Seattle, we decided adventure and living out of the box was now or never. We bought a travel trailer and truck to pull it with, and we took off for a 7-month-long trip around the U.S. Was it a smart decision financially? No. Do I regret it? Not for a second, although I do regret the sadness it has caused my children to leave their home and friends. But I also know that sadness is most acute now, and once we find a new place to land they will have a new community. I know they’ll be ok.

And I guess all I can do is trust that they’ll be ok even though they have a depressed mother, too. After all, I am more than depressed and scattered and anxious and struggling with undiagnosed ADHD and severe chronic pain.

I am funny. I am kind. I am smart. I am creative. And above all, I am honest, and this is what I cling to in my darkest moments of motherhood. When I am sure all is lost. I turn to honesty and openness, which again and again in my life prove to be the greatest tools I have. With any luck, they’ll remember these things about me too.

Written by

Co-host of the podcast “I Never Saw That.” Humor writer and satirist. Find my work in McSweeney’s, The Belladonna, Little Old Lady, etc... Twitter: @jenfreymond

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