Candle lit table in an Italian restaurant. The soft glow of the flame creates dappled shadows around our wine glasses - mine, half empty, his, near gone. His hand slowly glides across the table cloth, gently falling on top of my palm. He looks up at me, burning curiosity in his cool eyes, “so”, he says, “tell me about your family?”
Of course I’m making this scenario up. I don’t go on dates to suave Italian restaurants. I have, however, watched TV shows where people go on dates to suave Italian restaurants, or just restaurants - doesn’t have to be Italian - and this question crops up. As a young viewer, and also exactly now as I type this very sentence, this question always seems like a big deal. To borrow the immortalised wisdom of ‘Friends’ - when you’ve had ‘the talk’, that’s something to get excited about. When you know their sibling’s names, when you know about that disastrous Christmas dinner a few years back, and the big one, when you know about their relationship with their parents, you’ve probably reached the zenith of your relationship’s intimacy.
And why? Because everyone has arguments, moments, and phases from their childhood that they would rather forget. When someone chooses to divulge that information, they are also choosing to reveal a potentially darker side of their history. Darker, but also crucial for understanding who is sat opposite you. After all, to understand who someone is (brace yourself for some amateur psychology) it’s best to know what speed bumps they hit in their formative years.
So, what do you tell someone when they ask you that question? My dilemma over the years has always been whether to tell that special person about my Mum’s mental illness. This doesn’t make me unique, I’m assured that lots of people also have this moment of questioning because, inevitably, lots of parents also have mental illnesses. In fact, 68% of women and 57% of men with mental health problems are parents. So in regards to that question, it's not uncommon and my Mum’s struggle with mental illness has shaped who I am, so it’s important to mention. Surely?
The issue with that is this: one - mental health, no matter how many campaigns chip away at the stigma, is still a slight taboo. People don’t mind talking about it but equally who wants to be the buzzkill who brings up depressive psychotic episodes mid date? Secondly - no one seems to actually talk about their parents having mental health disorders. The conversation that we do have about mental health is predominantly surrounding the wellbeing of teenagers and young adults, ergo, younger people are more willing to talk about mental health than the older generations. The fact that younger people are more vocal nowadays is fantastic. However, there's a lot of empty chairs at this conference; we must encourage everyone to join the chat. That includes your Mum and Dad, your Nan and Grandad, your Aunty and Uncle. Everyone. The reason why? The family model we have established is not working, it is veiling a reality from the people who need it.
Society informs us, overtly and also more subtly through ideology, that parents fit a certain archetype. The connotative network of language surrounding the term ‘parents’ is an endless list of words such as ‘protective’, ‘caring’, ‘guardian’ etc etc. This is applicable, no one would argue for their irrelevance, however, what this language serves to implement, again and again, is that your Mum and Dad, above human, above vulnerable, above everything, are your parents. Their life is defined by you.
It is time to change this.
We have successfully sparked the conversation about the need to deconstruct the importance of the nuclear family, society is beginning to tell us that families can come in varying shapes and sizes and that’s okay. It is therefore proven to be possible to undermine ideological influences that are embedded into us wherever which way we go; think, for example, of adverts where you get the happy family sat around the table as the Mum makes a ten man roast dinner.
My mum has depression, pretty badly. And anxiety, pretty badly also. She has done for as long as I can remember now really. Some days she can blitz the house, dye her hair, make business deals, take over the world AND make a ten man roast dinner. And, some days she really can’t. Some days what she does is sleep, some days it’s worse than that. And you know what? That’s okay.
When I was younger I had issues dealing with why she wasn’t like all the other Mums seemed to be. Why wasn’t she always happy? Why was she having panic attacks? Why was she drinking more than the other Mums? I understand why I asked these questions, I doubt any young kid wouldn’t but as I’ve got older I’ve gained more insight into the situation. My Mum loves me fiercely and absolutely and I never went without, but she was not fitting into the every day 'Super-Mum' structure like the other Mum’s seemed (emphasis on the word ‘seemed’) to be. This was a crucial mistake . There is no such thing as a ‘Super-Mum’; learning both from my friend's stories and just beginning to comprehend the impossibility of that demand has taught me that lesson. The pressure society puts on parents to be perfect is debilitating for children and parent alike. No human being can fit that role. No human being can stay forever happy, enduringly selfless and perpetually calm. However because of the pressure to succumb to that superhuman mould, the message permeates through generations, and inevitably, some parents try and some parents fail. Because who wouldn’t? Even without the added stressors of a mental illness.
My second and most important mistake? I was forgetting the human behind the figure ‘Mum’. A parent, we are informed, exists solely for the enjoyment and service of their child, but my Mum is not just a parent - she is a woman, with her own life, her own past, her own issues.
I do not blame myself at all. It was difficult. It still is. What, however, I am doing is pleading for a change. Changing my mentality about the role of Mum, about the family model, was the best thing I ever did. It gave me insight and a sense of control. Of course, this is no easy sentiment. However, what I do think, know even, is that a lot of my frustration and sadness came from the disparity between the life I had been offered and the reality I thought everyone else was experiencing. I needed to know my version of reality was flawed. To know that I was expecting something that, in truth, only existed in adverts, and to have been certain in that because other people had the confidence to share their stories, that would have been, frankly, a blessing.
I'm not ignorant enough to think this is a miracle cure, for myself or anyone, and by no means is this is a straight forward statement. I am omitting many complications, nuances, some things that I still need to wrap my head around. We've both had our fair share of apologies to make. I still worry sick about her, it has impacted my life, I still have my off days. And, of course, young children, and children of any age for that matter, need that protection and that care that is associated with parenting, but, crucially, I am not discussing the fundamentals of protection and care. I am talking about the every day effects that come with having a parent who struggles with a mental illness, I am talking about the pressure for parents to be infallible, I am talking about realising that children need to understand parents cannot be perfect, because they are human, and if this perspective is allowed to prosper, we are setting children up for a fall. Understanding the flaws in the demand, this is what will break the Larkin-esque view of family. By dismantling the expectations set in place, replacing it with patience and appreciation, this is what will break the haemorrhaging of generations.
As I have grown older and come to respect my Mum for who she is, as a person, and not just as a family member, our relationship has flourished. She does not seamlessly fit into the predetermined 'Mum' role established by society, but because of that our relationship has adjusted to what works best as two individuals, rather than two caricatures of Mother and Daughter. We have a friendship. I can be more relaxed, I can tease her, I know her limitations and her strengths. And now, whereas before we argued and shouted, I phone her every day.
This advice won't be applicable for everyone. Some people may have a very straight forward relationship with their parents, in which case, great. What society offers, works for you. However, some people don't have that and this is for who I write this article. There are so many different tales of childhood, so many stories that are vastly different to mine and the mental health illness, or any other factor, has been too debilitating for the parent to manage successfully. Sometimes it isn't about re-evalutating the humanity behind the persona of Mum and Dad (although I do think this would help adjusting to the reality placed before some people). Sometimes, it's about having to walk away. But, this is my story. And my story is a tale where my Mum needed me to realise that she had a name and life before Mum, a name and life that was as important, as ever forceful, as ever present, whilst still being my Mum.
We need to be bold with these conversations. I know it is difficult, I know there are tones of shame and worry in discussions like this that are hard to eradicate but, nothing changes without a bit of risk. And, it does need to change. Parents, and older generations in general, need to feel more free to discuss their mental wellbeing and with that, children will suddenly have access and exposure to a community of people, like themselves, that they never knew existed.
Parents need to be open about their mental illness, if they do indeed suffer with one. Be patient and explain what can be explained, saying more as and when is needed. Your family is the one that lives with it, they need to understand. And, to us children out there with parents who do suffer, don’t expect the impossible, from yourself or your family. This isn’t your fault. Be kind to yourself. If you need to vent to your friends about it, if you need to get angry, you get damn angry. Understand that people may not get it, try to appreciate the platitudes - they're trying their best. Help where you can but know that it is not your job. There will be tough times, for both of you. Take deep breathes. Remove yourself from situations you don’t know how to deal with or shouldn't have to deal with. Remember that recovery is never instant. Remember that it is braver to say the first word then be silent. Remember that a cup of tea goes a long way.
And, now, referring back to that first question. That question that initially, for me, harboured a sense of impending doom. To answer your question, my family is unique. My twin is bold and brilliant. My Dad is the most hardworking man I have ever met and inspires me every day. And, my Mum? She has anxiety, she has depression, and she is the best Mum in the world.
(If you need a bit of advice, or are just interested, try checking out this website.)