Counterintuitive Protection: A “child’s” perspective

“She wanted to kill me. What did do? I was only a child, an infant at that, merely eight months old! Did I cry too loudly or too often? How could the thought enter her mind?! How could she actually pull out a knife? She’s my MOM!Does she even want me now?

Those were the thoughts and feelings that frequently flitted about my mind the first several months after my mother told me about her homicidal thoughts toward me as an eight-month old infant. It was one of those things that you much rather go through your life not knowing: the ole proverbial TMI – Too Much Information. But then again, she had to get it off her chest to alleviate some of her own guilt. I cognitively “got” that part relatively quickly, but the emotional understanding was much harder to come by.

My mother suffered from postpartum psychosis after the birth of my brother. Then almost six years later, about six months after my birth, she developed post partum depression. Then sometime between when I was six months old and eight months old when she had homicidal thoughts, post partum psychosis had crept in. At times I think that perhaps the depression and anxiety never completely went away. She was in and out of the hospital for a year from the time I was eight-months old. When she came home from the hospital, it was only in her bodily form: her mind, spirit, and heart were unavailable, even to herself.

photo of actual mother and daughter. I grew up without an emotional mother, at least not the one to whom I was born. Most of the photos that include her up to when I was four or five reflect a woman who was going through the motions, but mentally elsewhere: blank stares and empty smiles. Sure, she had her moments of connection with others, but it was infrequent – or so it seemed. I was fortunate enough to have an emotional mother in my paternal grandmother, Grandma Mutter (Mutter is German for mother), who lived with our family on and off. My father was also an emotional caretaker. As a consequence of our emotional distance, my perception of my mother’s positive and loving relationship with my brother was filled with envy – he was a “momma’s boy” and I was a “daddy’s girl”. But I always wondered why mom didn’t like me as much. When I was in 6th grade she told me about that day when my life was spared. I still think it was way too soon to know, but we can’t change the past.

I didn’t understand the rhyme or reason of how a mother could think about killing her child, let alone carry it through as so many mothers have. It never made sense to me until one day it just clicked. I cannot pinpoint what I was learning about in class that day, or even tell you what class it was, but it was as though a 1000 watt halogen light bulb went on: and with that internal light, there was no sound. Words that, seconds before, filled the room were gone and only mouths were moving. The visible light that normally cast an unusual glow upon the room dimmed and became softly muted and peace surrounded my heart and soul: the answer had arrived. The weight of questioning my mother’s love of me was lifted from my shoulders – I now understood.

Not many people try to comprehend the many factors that lead to mothers developing postpartum depression. Even fewer people actually understand the stories of mothers who had postpartum or bother to listen – they are too busy judging and condemning. I give the credit of my understanding to my experience as a child of a mother who had postpartum depression and to my graduate degree in clinical psychology. Not only did I have the feelings to sort through, I was also provided a context in which to understand the immense emotional pain that life traumas inflict.

The clarity in that moment was comforting: she was merely protecting me. You might think the reason is counterintuitive. “If she was protecting you, why would she try to kill you?” There is a little piece of the puzzle that you are missing; my mother had an emotionally traumatic past that included sexual abuse and having grown up in an alcoholic family. Many women with PPD seem to have similar traumas in their pasts. In her moment of despair, the primary prevention for a problem she had encountered during her childhood was to end mine, so that I would never experience the trauma she had been through.

This answer might not make complete sense to you, because, well, if you try to force it to make sense, it just won’t. You need to let go of rigid standards and try to understand life from a different vantage point. Simply put: in a moment of despair, fear, self-torture, self-loathing, and pain, thoughts are not guided clearly and logically. Emotions aren’t always rational, but that doesn’t make them inauthentic or wrong. Emotions are never wrong. In her moment of internal chaos, clarity came in sparing me from the torture she was continually re-experiencing: preventing the cycle from continuing. She wasn’t strong enough to protect me physically, so she tried to protect me from the emotional torture that still haunted her.

Now, the BIG question: what made her stop? Based on conversations with her and other personal experiences, the answer is Almightily complex and simple: God. You might call this force by a different name – The Creator, The Universe, Allah, Buddha, or even the energy that connects us all – but the result would be the same. My mother’s faith in God spared my life, but that’s her story to tell.

From my standpoint, forgiveness AND understanding from the child’s perspective are possible. I wish for mothers who have been through PPD and/or psychosis, and are holding themselves personally accountable, to be able to forgive themselves and know that forgiveness from family is possible as well. After so many years of distance, my mother and I have a strong relationship and comfort and trust with one another. We continue to do the hard emotional work of remaining connected and nurturing this bond that only came through fits and starts and honest communication. Forgiveness requires hard work, particularly emotional work, yet it is completely worth the effort.

Forever a daughter.

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Counterintuitive Protection: A “child’s” perspective by Crista C Gray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Note: If you think you or someone you know may have post partum depression or post partum psychosis, please work with this person to get help. Some resources to get you started, and a phone number for assistance, are available at Postpartum Support International. If this is an emergency, please contact your local medical emergency center.

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