My chair is angled toward her at the large oval table, my feet dangling several inches from the floor. I use my nail to pick at the veneer, keeping my eyes fixed on the way it’s curling back with each scrape of my thumb.
My belly feels hot, like the stack of coals that’s been sitting inside it for days has turned bright and orange.
Her small gray bag is sitting unzipped on the vinyl floor next to her. I can see a few of her nightgowns shoved inside, along with a carton of Winston Ultra Light 100s and her make-up bag.
When I finally raise my eyes from the table to look at her, her own eyes shift away. They’re filled with tears behind her large circular frames.
“I don’t understand,” I snap, my lip starting to quiver, betraying my anger for the fear that’s there too.
“I have to go. I have to go for a while,” she tells me.
“But why? Why do you have to leave?” I implore.
She begins to cry harder, and I know that I won’t be getting an answer.
The burning is moving into my chest. This time is different. She’s really leaving, and I realize that there’s nothing I can do to make this stop.
My mind races back through the day. If I’d cleaned up the Lite Brite pieces when she’d first asked me to. If I had stopped knocking into my little brother before he’d really lost it. If I’d just shut my mouth when she snapped at me instead of snapping back. Maybe this could still feel like a place she could be.
“Your dad will be here,” she manages to say. “And I’ll be back.”
“But how long?” I demand. “When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know,” she says quietly.
“I hate you!” I scream as I run to my room, the adrenaline coursing through my body. I slam my door and my small body falls to the floor like a deer that’s been shot down.
As I lay with my cheek on the rough carpet, I can hear her open and shut the screen door. There’s another click of the back door and then she’s gone.
She was gone for six days. On day three, I learned she had taken up residence at my grandmother’s house and I asked to visit her.
When I got there, she looked calmer than she had in months, but still had a worried grimace on her face. It looked like guilt, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Your mom’s doing a lot better,” my grandma reassured me. “She just needed some time to cool down.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“Now, you and your brother better knock off the fighting though. She can’t come home to that nonsense.”
I nodded again, my face flushing with heat.
“We’ll be good,” I said, and I meant it. Whatever it took, I promised myself.
I walked over to put my arms around her, waiting to finally feel that surge of safety again. I could smell her Herbal Essence shampoo and her cigarettes on her breath as her warm body pressed into mine.
This was in fact the only time that my mom left home during my childhood, which in hindsight surprises me given how hard depression rocked her. Six days of camping out at her own mother’s house, trying to get her head back on, as she would say.
If the mother of my childhood was sitting on my own therapy couch these days, I’d tell her that she needed a lot more than a week to get back to herself.
We’d probably talk about things like her growing up invisible in her large family, how her absolute exhaustion as a working mother of three made sense, strategies for the panic attacks she was having nightly, and how medication could likely help her pull herself out of the despair she was feeling.
But the couches she landed on told her instead that she should be grateful for the beautiful children she had and these feelings of desperation weren’t cause for concern. Then they charged her the money that she needed instead for the new girl scout uniform because even health insurance at that time didn’t cover things as frivolous as therapy.
A meme went semi-viral a few months ago that said something like, “The female contribution to the family can be summed up in the simple fact that mothers could absolutely never have a ‘secret second family.’” I laughed, along with the rest of the internet. (I thought to myself, too, that if I’m having a secret life, it’s sure as hell not going to be maintaining a whole other family.)
But like all the best memes, there’s a bitter truth that exists here, and that’s the fact that women in heterosexual marriages with children feel not just committed to their roles in their families, but so indispensable to their functioning that they cannot imagine being able to step away. Having a secret second family aside, they agonize over whether to miss the swimming lesson to meet a friend for lunch.
So what happens when mom starts to actually fall apart? Not just a bad day or a high-pressure week, but when the wheels start to come off?
The wheels on the women I sit with in my therapy office are at varying degrees of coming off by the time I see them. But whether they’re struggling with years of self-hatred or falling asleep on the couch each night after drinking two bottles of wine, they can’t imagine truly taking the space and time they need to recover.
Coming to therapy is itself an investment of time, money, and emotional energy, to be sure. And very often, this act of self-tending can be enough to offer important insights and restore a sense of self. But there are times – and they are more often than most of us would realize – that what’s needed goes beyond a once weekly appointment on our lunch hour.
There are times when what a mother needs is to go away, whether for evening or a weekend or for a couple months of intensive treatment. There are times when she needs a release on the pressure valve and the space to do the work that will let her be whole and human again.
But what happens in a system that requires mothers to over-function just to function is that we feel trapped within the constraints of our roles and unable to imagine taking the time we so desperately need to heal. Our minds swirl with every reason imaginable to continue denying our own needs because we’ve not ever been shown a system that can operate without us.
Who will do this? Who will cover that? My manager will be in such a bind. How will she get to sleep at night without me? He won’t know where I keep those. The school doesn’t have his number. My team will feel abandoned. This will fall apart. Who will she talk to while I’m gone?
Our indispensability becomes a paradox. It gives us our sense of identity and purpose, while also chipping away at the flexibility we so desperately need to be healthy and whole.
The six days that my own mother was away were among the most painful of my childhood. I missed my mom desperately, and because our household had been set up so traditionally, things did indeed fall apart in her absence.
It wasn’t nearly enough time for her.
She needed so much more than she allotted herself. Than we as a family gave her. Than society condoned.
Because here’s another paradox: there are times in our parenting journeys when the needs of our children will be at odds with our needs. There are times when we are forced to make decisions that cause grief and pain to our children.
I’d like to tell you that the time you take away – whether that’s for treatment, a respite, or just to get back in touch with a former version of yourself – will pay off for your children. And more than likely, it will. I wholeheartedly believe that the time we take to heal will pay dividends for our future generations. But the bittersweet truth is that it may come with heartache too.
I want to tell you that it’s still worth doing.
It’s worth doing because no one deserves to live a life of inner turmoil, and because we underestimate the impact of our unhealed parenting on our children. It’s worth doing because society needs to create margin for motherhood, to allow moms to actually recover from their ailments, and to recognize our full personhood. It’s worth doing because we are worthy.
A handful of years ago, I went on a weekend retreat with my mom in the Berkshire mountains. We spent two and a half days together exploring the woods and our hearts and eating food we didn’t have to make.
We talked about some of the episodes of depression she’d suffered with during her own life and mine, and we touched on the time she went to stay at grandma’s house. I told her how hard that had been for me, how scared I’d been to not know what was happening or how I’d be cared for.
She understood, she said. She wished she had given me more information and reassurance. She wished she would have made it clearer that it wasn’t my fault that she was struggling, it was never my fault. She wished things could have been different, for both of us.
What I realized in our conversation that day was that her leaving us to save herself had indeed saved me. It had caused me uncertainty and pain, of course, but when I was flailing myself as a teenager and then as a new adult and then later as a young mother, I had internalized a crucial message.
I had learned that lives are messy and adulting is complicated. I had learned that no one person can shoulder it all. I had learned that our lives are – hopefully – long and that taking time to recover yourself will be worth it for the journey. I learned that self-preservation is an act of courage, and also, ultimately, an act of love.
I loved our few days together in the mountains. It was so restorative to step away from life for a bit and be together. It just wasn’t long enough.