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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT