There are many things I want my daughters to remember about their childhood: the tree at the end of our driveway where they spend their afternoons climbing, swinging, and hanging upside-down; family walks around the neighborhood with the dog and a herd of scooters; a kitchen where music is always on and we sing along together to the Hamilton soundtrack or “It’s Raining Tacos” or indulge in the occasional head banging dance party to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
And then there are the things I hope they forget.
I can’t pinpoint when it started, but over the past year I found myself losing my cool with them more often, raising my voice even when I knew I shouldn’t. I found myself preoccupied with the importance of being on time, feeling physical distress – pulse pounding, shortness of breath, sweating – when I felt like we were going to be late for school or another event. Yelling didn’t help them move faster, but I did it anyway, and if I realized, as I hustled them into the car, that I’d forgotten something inside, I would mutter curses under my breath while I tried to control my breathing, lest I collapse into tears.
What I was experiencing wasn’t normal. I’d been a mom for over seven years and I had had my share of anger, frustration and impatience. This felt different, like my self-control had just dissolved and I was just as likely as they were to throw a fit over something insignificant. Once I lost it, I was on a merry-go-round of guilt and self-loathing. I could see the disappointment, even the fear, in my children’s eyes, and I hated myself for it.
I don’t want my children to remember the silent, tense rides to school on these mornings as I wiped away tears that I was trying to hide from them. I don’t want them to remember the shame I must have made them feel for not being fast enough, organized enough, self-sufficient enough for me. And I hope my sweet, beautiful youngest child forgets the way she tried to cheer me up when I was in a mood. I cannot tell you how many mornings, as I strapped her into her car seat, she smiled up at me and tickled under my chin. “Tickle, tickle, tickle,” she’d say, her brown eyes expectant. Be happy, mommy, is what it meant.
The knowledge that she was the one trying to lift ME up caused me more pain, I think, than anything else. It told me that she knew how unhappy I was. If I didn’t get myself some help, she might start to believe that my unhappiness was related, in some way, to her. I had to address the problems I was having so that she, if not my other daughters, would remember me as the mom I wanted to be – not perfect, of course, but able to handle my emotions in a healthy way and able to let my girls know that they are loved.
With my husband’s encouragement, I sought therapy. A few months after that, I started taking antidepressants. And yet, earlier this week, we were back to chin tickling, a reminder that I can never truly hide my mental state from my children. When I’m struggling, they know. When I’m feeling low, they feel it too.
I’m not ashamed of my battle with anxiety and depression – in fact, I’m proud that I had the courage to address it. It isn’t that I don’t want my children to know, later on in their lives, that I suffered from these illnesses. I think it’s important that they understand their family’s mental health history. But the last thing I want is for my moods to burden them, to weigh heavy on their memories of what is supposed to be the most uncomplicated stage of their lives.
I have hope that with continued self-care and medical intervention, the version of myself that needed a chin tickle nearly every day will fade from memory. I hope that someday I will be able to think of my youngest daughter saying, “Tickle, tickle, tickle,” without tears welling up in my eyes.
I’m motivated by the thought that, when they are grown and they recall the tree in the backyard, I’ll be there, smiling at their antics and cheering them on. I’ll be walking at their side, carrying their scooters up a hill, my shadow ten feet long in the evening light, answering “Would you rather” questions. I’ll be dancing in the kitchen right along with them while the dog licks our after-dinner crumbs off the floor. They won’t question whether or not they made me happy. In their memories, they’ll know.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you’re noticing any symptoms of mental illness or are having difficulty regulating your mood, I urge you to seek treatment or speak to a loved one about it. There’s a better, more fuller life than the one you’re living now.