A Child’s Experience with a Postpartum Depressed Mother
The last five years I have developed a daughter like friendship with a young woman Stephanie whose mother had postnatal depression and later got psychosis.
I met her as she was among a group of friends with my second son while he was still studying. I was very attracted to her because she seemed much more mature than what is typical for being 22 years of age.
She had been an excellent help in a critical situation where one of the friends had lost control over his money, having spent everything on the wrong things and had loads of unpaid bills. She sat down at the friend’s room, let the others do the cleaning, which was also very needed, and opened the letters from the creditors one by one.
She made a long list of these bills and phoned up the creditors one by one and asked if they could postpone the due payment for her friend, who had run into trouble. This friend came to his legs again, and I started to do things with Stephanie when it was possible. We would meet at a café for a talk or go to cultural events like classical concerts or art museums. In this, she also differs from many young people as she has a genuine interest in art.
I got small hints about her background during the first years, but only after four or five years, a clear picture took form. Stephanie was made curious as I told her about my experience from my professional job as a health visitor, that the way we understand our background influences our ability to become good parents later.
I asked if I could make an interview on her experience of growing up with a mother who was mentally ill and a father who had to get a divorce because of that.
We sat down at a cosy café with a cheesecake each and Stephanie told me her story:
Stephanie’s mother had always been very moody. Her temper changed very quickly even long before she got her one and only baby at twenty-three years’ of age. Stephanie’s father and her mother had been a couple even from their teens and had lived together from that time. When the baby was born Stephanie’s father
“Couldn’t do anything right”
in the opinion of his wife, and he got pushed away over and over to such an extent that he had to leave and find himself another place to live.
To grow up watching a parent’s ever-changing mood takes all the energy of a young child. To relax and learn new things is like a mountain to be climbed especially in surroundings with other people like at school.
The mother “lived only for the baby” and people were kept at a distance. Stephanie only has few memories from the first years, and she had to try not to provoke her mother to anger or fixed ideas. It didn’t prevent anything though. The mother didn’t think that Stephanie could manage things on her own as she was growing up and was very afraid that anything should happen to her. This attitude hasn’t changed now Stephanie is 27 years old.
Stephanie wanted so much to go the kindergarten before school but was not allowed by the mother as she didn’t work. At school she remembers that she was marginalised, the teachers thought that Stephanie had learning difficulties. She didn’t want to invite other children to play at home as her mother was very moody. Stephanie was also far too shy to ask anybody to play with her. If anybody did want to play with her it was only to get hold of her toys.
The small family moved all the time in a specific area of Copenhagen, so memories are not connected to these places either. Later Stephanie was told that her father tried to get full custody over her, but at that time very few fathers got that. When Stephanie was seven, her mother’s mental health deteriorated, and her father started a trial to get full custody of the child. The mother had a talented lawyer and seemed to win, but suddenly she got a significant psychotic breakdown for everybody to see at the court, and the father finally got the full custody over her.
He moved to Brussels in Belgium and suddenly Stephanie had to start all over in a new country. The school was Danish and after a while, the teachers discovered that Stephanie was bright and doing very well at school. The burden had been taken away. The father worked a lot and had a new family also. Becoming a teenager, the demands on Stephanie was growing, as she was the oldest child and expected to behave well and to help in the family. In a way, she felt a bit like Cinderella, not loved and not understood. She had a lot of battles with the father and one day he said:
“You have gone through enough horrible things to sit down and cry for the rest of your life, but it will not help you”!
Stephanie decided to take these words in and never wanted to show that she had suffered anything. She finished her schooling and received education in the fashion branch. When you meet her, you see a polite, smiling and beautiful young woman who makes plans for the future and travels abroad more than many. A more extended period of sessions with a psychologist has helped her very much to understand what she has been through.
Stephanie is very conscious about not having got a basic foundation of security but still knows that her parents love her the way they have been able to love her. She builds her life on her own decisions and tries to keep her boundaries. It’s obvious that these hardships from childhood have matured her at an early age.
Stephanie finds it difficult to dare to stick to a certain goal and as she thinks it’s more natural to just move away to a foreign country with a faint idea of how to find a flat and a job.
She also knows that if she gets a family and children, I will take extra care of her as a new pattern on how to be a mother has to be created.
She closes the interview by telling me that her mother is the one suffering the most as she is increasingly mentally ill and has no understanding of her illness, her mother is never getting the pensions and help she needs. Stephanie feels a massive sense of responsibility for her mother and will be her support for the rest of her life.