Recently I was feeling really bummed out.
I was talking to my best friend on the phone and explaining that usually I start to tune a novel or premise out when it’s about kids or pregnancy. First of all I tend to prefer stories that deal with people my age or younger, and I’m not really ashamed of that; I think it’s natural to want to read about people who have had the same experiences you have or are about to experience them. But I also find it harder to find stories about women in their late twenties like me but without kids/children/pregnancy. I think this is going to be a big problem I will continue to face.
My horrible secret—the one that makes me feel like less of a woman, like there’s something horribly wrong with me and this is why I don’t have a Happily Ever After by now, like men can see through me and deem me unfit for procreation—is that I’m not really sure I want kids. I think I’d be a terrible mom—I don’t handle crises well, I find it hard to sugar-coat a situation or not shoot from the hip giving people advice, and most of all, kids never know what to do with me, nor I them, except when we’re talking about books…I don’t know. Childhood seems like it should be something full of joy and exuberance and innocence and happiness…but my childhood was colored by clinical depression and social outcast-ness and insomnia. I was aware that one day I was going to die at 6 years old, and I latched onto that for the rest of my childhood years.
Anyway, of course over all this hangs the fact that I have bipolar disorder, which would make pregnancy nearly impossible for me and the baby, not to mention an all but guarantee of PPD, and who’s to say I won’t pass along the genetic curse of major mental illness to my child? I really don’t like to think about it. With the right person paired with me supporting me through it, absolutely. But right now I hate myself for this lack of maternal instinct. I feel like I’ve been born without a rib or something. Imperfect. Not a woman.
So today, when I was reading a book guide summary for Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, I started to feel frustrated yet again with how bipolar mothers are portrayed in fiction. In Jacobson’s children’s novel, an 11-year-old boy named Jack is abandoned by his mother very suddenly. His mother…wait for it, has a mental illness (clearly bipolar disorder) and constantly feels like she has to stop taking her medications or else she will miss out on life and feelings, in other words be detached from the real her. She is inconsistent and unstable, and eventually the Department of Social Services gets involved (not for the first time) and poor Jack has to live with his grandma while his mother is hospitalized. Jack comes to a state of acceptance and forgiveness for his mom’s lack of healthy habits.
But I can’t tell you how big the pit inside me was when I read that. It hearkens back to a similar concept I’ve read about: how it’s irresponsible for bipolar people to get into romantic relationships, that it’s not fair to the other person. I remember once I googled “relationship tips bipolar” and nearly every article was about being in a relationship with a bipolar partner, not advice for the person who has bipolar and is just trying to get their shit together enough to experience love like anyone else. Is the solution to send us out on ice floats and let us die in the middle of a freezing cold ocean?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my all-time favorite movie, but it grates me that Clementine is dismissed as a potential mother by Joel. I admit that I felt a sorrow inside me when I heard him question whether she can really take care of a kid. Clementine, who clearly has Borderline Personality Disorder, should not be denied motherhood even if she does overreact sometimes (and it’s understandable when someone doesn’t think you’re capable of caring for and raising a child).
Some of my most positive traits—like creativity, a passion for life, affection, domesticity, and a serious interest in caring for and nurturing others—would probably make me an interesting and sincerely devoted mother.
I like the way that Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum, a children’s novel where a magically fun and exuberant mother struggles with bipolar disorder and medication management. Like in Small as an Elephant, the mother is hospitalized. Yet her children understand that their mother is not at fault. She is a victim of an illness that is greater than her, one that makes her remarkably capable of creating a vibrant world for them at some times but also prone to crippling depression and incapacitating mania. The mom, Marigold, is a tragic figure, but she is not blamed. She is not a perfect mom, but she is not vilified either.
Likewise, one of the best novels I’ve ever read about bipolar disorder is a YA verse novel by Linda Vigen Phillips, titled Crazy. In Crazy, the bipolar is there, but stereotypes aren’t. Told from the perspective of a teen girl, the novel’s bipolar mother is an artist without being a cliche and a mother without being an abusive and neglectful mom. She lies somewhere in between, and I wonder if that’s the happy medium I should expect, that bipolar mothers should expect. In any case it’s clear that the daughter, Laura, needs support, too, and I like that she doesn’t hate her mother, she just wants her to get well.
Scattershot: My Bipolar Family by David Lovelace is a memoir describing his childhood and upbringing when four out of five close family members had bipolar disorder, including his mother and father. Lovelace writes with compassion, dark humor, and utmost seriousness about his misfortune of living in a bipolar family, as well as the joys the highs bring. I think his account more than any fiction book I’ve read is true to the bipolar experience. It hits you with a grit and realism that is tragicomic while also advocating for the mentally ill and the ones they love. More so than any novel, Lovelace’s memoir gives me confidence that someday someone will look at my strengths and not weakness, especially my capacity to love fully and with all my heart and being.
At the end of this rant, I look over at my cat sleeping in the window and think, I can at least manage that. My cats are my world, and I would do anything to give them happiness, comfort, shelter, food, medical care, and love. “I’d make a fucking great mother!” Clementine shouts, and I honestly think I make a fucking great cat mother. I’m hoping we’ll see more compassionate portrayals of bipolar mothers in fiction, perhaps even from the mother’s perspective. I’d like to think my illness doesn’t have collateral, that other people become debris in light of my having a disability. For now I’ll stick to my kitty babies, who look at me like I’m not only the person who adopted them from a shelter, but someone who loves them with her whole (imperfect) bipolar heart.