I want desperately to be able to say to you, “He’s my greatest teacher, and it’s so humbling, and I’ve learned so much,” and I expect to get to the end of my life or his and be able to say that, but right now I can’t.

My name is Susan. I’m almost 48 years old. I have a daughter, Annabella–we call her Bella. She was 12 on July 4th. And I have a son named Milo, and he’s almost 9.

Motherhood was not something I wanted since I was a little girl. It was not something I aspired to. It was something that I felt I wanted to experience in terms of the quality of love. I have, like I think everybody else, complicated relationships to my own parents, so I knew it wouldn’t be simple, but I did want the experience. And my husband was absolutely sure.

I had my daughter when I was just over 35, and I thought she might be my only child, but my husband came to me and said that he felt really strongly that someone in our family was missing. It was not that hard to convince me. I have a brother, and sister. I am so close to my brother that it’s unfathomable to imagine living without him.

I found motherhood really traumatic. I still find it traumatic. I think of myself as an artist. I’m a writer. I have a very self absorbed personality, even though I think of myself as generous and friendly and having a lot of friends. The relentlessness of motherhood was exhausting to me. It was also, honestly, tedious and boring, and I felt like nobody told me that would happen. I also was surprised at how unnatural a lot of it felt to me. When my daughter was a baby there were times when I would say to my husband, “I really think you should be the mother,” because he seemed much more natural, comfortable and well-suited to what she needed. Motherhood changed my ideas about work in that I actually was desperate to work more.

I was at a certain place in my career and in my own maturation personally where it had been a long time since I had been a beginner at anything. It took me a long time to adjust to the incompetence of motherhood. There’s mechanics of taking care of somebody, and, frankly, that wasn’t hard for me, but the emotional bonding and the idea that it should be joyful in a natural way… It was hard for me to say to somebody, “I’m not enjoying this,” and not feel self-conscious or embarrassed, or worried that there’s something wrong with me, that I was missing some sort of piece or gene.

I shared those feelings because I’m a sharer and because I was terrified. I have always found that my fear ebbs when people tell me it’s not so weird and that I’m not alone. I don’t know that I had a single friend say to me, “It is a trauma.” I had a lot of, “Oh, yeah. It’s a full-body tackle. It knocks you down.” I don’t know that any of my friends were as traumatized as I was.

Because I’m a superstitious person, I had made a bargain in my mind with the forces of nature that if my first child was healthy, because I developed an obsessive fear that she wouldn’t be and that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of taking care of her if she wasn’t, I had made this sort of bargain that if she were born healthy I would not ask for another one. And I had to confess this to my husband when he asked for another one, and he wisely said, “Well, I didn’t make that bargain. This is our child, and I also don’t think it works that way,” and he’s incredibly persuasive. So I put a lot of faith in people that I thought honestly knew better than I did, and what’s interesting, or ironic, or comic is that I have two physically healthy children. My daughter is really delicate emotionally and my son is mentally ill. So I kind of got what I bargained for.

My son is beautiful, and really charismatic, and funny, and smart. He was born really fat and healthy, and for the first few years of his life he was referred to unironically at daycare as Mr. Agreeable. At about two he started to be difficult in a way that was a little off the scale, but not completely. But by four he was chronically difficult. We were visiting my family in California. My brother, who had at that time two teenage sons, took me aside and he said, “He’s an asshole, but he doesn’t have to be, and he certainly doesn’t want to be. Something’s wrong with him, and your job is to find out what’s wrong with him and help him.” Until that point, there was this tremendous critique of our parenting. My brother basically lifted it right off us. And we came home and began a process of assessment. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly that he has something called sensory processing integration disorder, and there’s therapy for that that isn’t pharmacological. His issues are pretty serious. For years you couldn’t touch him. You couldn’t kiss him. He was really reactive to smells and sounds, and he’s been through three solid years of occupational therapy and that’s really helped. It took a long time to find out that he matches the description of what they call pediatric bipolar, and there’s adult bipolar in both my husband’s family and my family. So I, at this point, accept that diagnosis. He cycles through mania and depression. He has delusions. He has grandiosity. He’s not unlike a grown up person with bipolar, but all those things can happen in an hour and can happen 10 times a day, so that’s really–he’s exhausting.

I want desperately to be able to say to you, “He’s my greatest teacher, and it’s so humbling, and I’ve learned so much,” and I expect to get to the end of my life or his and be able to say that, but right now I can’t. What I can say right now is that he has forced me to better learn patience and have a much more nuanced understanding of progress because he’s someone that can only be compared to himself. He’s not unenjoyable. He’s full of laughter. He’s a very goofy, silly kid in a good way, and he’s smart. Once I accepted the fact that he’s mentally ill, he did become a lot easier to love.

When you have a special needs child, the anti is really front and center all the time. How can we get to it all this week — the 50,000 therapy appointments and still get to our jobs, and that sort of thing.

How has this experience affected my relationship with my husband? It’s certainly taken away most of the whimsy, and not the romance. There’s a level of intimacy that comes with being in it together. Although I don’t want to romanticize it.

How do I cope? I tell the truth. The most liberating thing for me is that I have good friends and family that I can tell the truth to, and not feel judged.

I do a lot of things that other people do. I try to walk in the woods, and I meditate. I try, really, self-consciously to enjoy the things about my kids that are enjoyable. My husband and I are pretty good at reminding each other that this is nice, this is good. We have a good life. Look, how well he’s doing. She’s so pretty. Whatever it is. Look at her report card.

But for me the lifesaving thing is that I have friends and I can call them up and say my kid is motherfucking crazy. He’s crazy. My kid is acquainted with the police department, because at the height of his illness before he was properly medicated, he would have delusions and he would run away. He wasn’t being petulant or difficult. He thought he was being pursued. I mean, he really did!

I’ve also been questioned by the police because he was having a tantrum of such epic proportions physically, and I was trying to restrain him therapeutically and it was scary to people.

It’s very helpful to have friends who say to you, “Yeah, I know that’s some serious, serious shit.” I also swear. It’s my favorite vice. I swear in public which runs a little counter to my otherwise dignified position and sweet visage, and it feels great.

How would I comfort another mother who is beginning to experience similar challenges? I would say to her what I actually say to comfort the people who spend their time with Milo, his teachers, his therapist. I would say that when Milo, my son, is making other people’s lives hard, when he has left the campus of his school, run into the woods and climbed a tree so that they have to call the police and surround him, and get my husband or myself to come talk him down, when he has brought the action of the entire world to a screeching halt, he is still the person in the most amount of pain.

It’s really hard, really hard especially for adults to believe that. That’s what I tell myself. That’s what I would tell others. At the end of every hour and every day this is about his pain and relieving it. And the more relief he feels, the more that there is an echo of concentric circles of relief. It’s very hard to remember, so hard.

I remember when he had that fit that caused me to be questioned by the police. It was on the metro, in Washington DC, and I was with my mother. He was having this fit and my mom said, “What do we do?” And I said, We’re going to get off at the next stop, whatever it is, which we did, and he continued the fit there, which is when the police came to question me. And they left, and my son calmed down. It took a solid hour and a half before we could get back on the metro. And then my son was fine. It almost felt to me like he was having some sort of seizure, because his own memory seems so clean afterwards, while I felt so traumatized.

And my mother said to me, “What do think happens to kids like him who don’t have parents with your resources, your emotional resources, your financial resources? I said, “They get beaten. I’m sure they get beaten because it’s taking a lot of my resources not to beat him.

Am I different because I’m a mother? There’s no way you can’t be. I don’t know that I’m a better person. I could not imagine losing my children and surviving, but I can easily imagine never having had them.

Once you have children, what shifts is what you have to lose. That is different about me. I can’t say what I think a lot of other mothers say, that it’s made me deeper, or better, or kinder, or more loving, or more self-sacrificing or anything like that. I think it’s made me more aware of what I have to lose.

As much as it’s a hard thing to admit, I am at best ambivalent about motherhood. On my worst days, I regret motherhood. On my best days I’m ambivalent.

I take good care of my children and I love them to the best of my capacity. I know I’m not a great mother. I work towards being a good enough mother. But I think a lot about what my life would be like if I hadn’t had children, and I know it’s not the best thing I ever did. It is the only thing I ever did that I can’t undo.

And I really, really wish women understood that. I wish our culture understood how hard it is to be a good mother with wanted children, so how important it is that every child be wanted. And that is something that has come to my attention — the degree to which bad parenting hurts all of us.


24 Responses to “I want desperately to be able to say to you, “He’s my greatest teacher, and it’s so humbling, and I’ve learned so much,” and I expect to get to the end of my life or his and be able to say that, but right now I can’t.”

  1. Retha Varallo says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing! I can totally relate to everything you wrote about and it made me cry.

  2. […] This essay is about motherhood, ambivalence, honesty and fear. […]

  3. Debbie says:


    Your honesty is so refreshing. I have had many of the same thoughts and worried that I must be a terrible mother for having those thoughts. I must admit, now that you have put the thoughts to words they are so fitting of who I have always thought you were.

    One thing motherhood has done for me is that not a day goes by that I do not worry about my kids. It is only magnified in your case with Milo. He is so lucky to have you and your husband and your families.

    So glad you shared this with the world.

  4. “I take good care of my children and I love them to the best of my capacity. I know I’m not a great mother. I work towards being a good enough mother. But I think a lot about what my life would be like if I hadn’t had children, and I know it’s not the best thing I ever did. It is the only thing I ever did that I can’t undo.”

    I have the immense good fortune of coming here by way of a common friend of ours.
    And I am so glad I did.

    I write about mothering and how I have raised myself as I raise my kids- or at least, until I read this, that is what I thought I was writing.

    But you help me see that it is in mothering that I have been raised.
    And the fact that it is the only thing I have ever done that cannot be undone, the permanence of mothering- the indefatigable nature of this job I find myself in has re-wired me entirely.
    I will go look about your site and see what you are up to.
    I hope we can get to know each other more.
    I send you all my love and thank you for your transparency here.

  5. Tom Schmit says:

    Thanks. I happen upon parenthood via the step-father route, but nonetheless the only father my son has really known. It seems less dramatic, but our son has dyslexia. And we live in Latvia. This leads us down a brand new (for Latvia) path. Because of our son’s dyslexia and our decision that “this shall not stand” there are now two orgs in Latvia that advocate for the needs of kids with dyslexia and new regulations to force provision of remediation and support. And these benefit many. But, the biggest thing is simply in the sharing. Much like your openness here, sharing our story of frustration, screaming and fights, has led to many “we’re not in this alone moments” for other parents in Latvia. Thanks so much for your honesty.

  6. Kylie says:

    omg, this is me…ME. You are ME. I feel like finally SOMEONE gets what its like. I was in tears reading your story.
    My son is the same as yours, he has paediatric bipolar disorder, (sorry, I’m an Aussie, we spell paediatric differently, lol) and it is in my family, my brother and my uncle both have bipolar disorder, but not diagnosed until adults.
    My son is the eldest of my 5 children, so I have 5 kids aged 12 down to age 3, (I have 4 boys, and one girl who is my 2nd child) and every.single.one.of.us is impacted by my sons mental health every.single.day. He is very hard work and it is mentally exhausting. And NO-ONE knows what its really like. No-one. Except, maybe you.
    He was the happiest, most lovely joyful child right up to about age 3, then he changed almost overnight into the devil child. By the time he got to age 8 it was at its peak and we were desperate and found it very hard to get anyone to take us seriously and get help.
    He cycles rapidly, many times through the day, when he goes through a REALLY bad cycle, usually once a year, he even gets to the point of hearing voices, which apparently happens in bipolar disorder. We have had holes in the walls, broken furniture, death threats. Then he can be the most charming funny kid who is very smart, and loves to give us hugs.
    We say he is like that nursery rhyme “When she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid”, we also call him “Jekyll and Hyde”. He can turn from happy to angry in an instant. Its like walking on eggshells every day!
    To top it off, not only does he have bipolar, he has anxiety disorder, PTSD (from severe bullying at school and the death of his best friend at age 9) and he also has Aspergers. And just for a bit more ‘fun’ he is gifted, high IQ, splinter skills, the whole lot. So he gets bored, very easily and very often as his mind needs constant stimulation.
    At his most recent assessment at the Royal Childrens hospital I told the pysch, “we love him, but he is very hard to like.”
    I hope as he grows older and his condition is better managed we can enjoy him more. We still get ‘glimpses’ of the ‘real’ him, and we like what we see! He is currently on risperdal which he went on last year, with great improvement, however he backslid a few months ago, and we discovered he had ‘grown out’ of his dosage, so currently waiting for a higher dosage to kick in and start working.
    B.K (before kids) I was a smart, confident, educated woman with a Bachelor degree in Applied Science, working as a medical scientist. Then I had kids, and yes, at times I feel bored out of my BRAIN!!! I love my kids and they are gorgeous, but motherhood is not the be-all and end-all of my existance and I feel as though I am unable to admit that to most mothers, as it makes me seem a ‘bad mother.’
    Everything you wrote resonated very strongly with me, if you would like to chat/email please let me know. And I wish you all the best on your journey with Milo, it is a long hard road but one which I hope, for both your son and mine, is well worth it as they grow into adults. Take care.

  7. […] honest writing from Susan on How Motherhood Changes Us on experiencing ambivalance as a mother and parenting a child who is bipolar. The link is via […]

  8. MCW says:

    Dear Susan, I am among the many who appreciate your efforts in bringing this essay to light. You have said much of what I have expressed over the years about my son who is now 27. I am still fighting the urges to figure out what I did wrong. My therapist, priests, friends, family and husband assure me this is not my fault. Motherhood is many things and taking on the responsibility of raising our children includes feeling like their troubles are due to a faulty rearing process. While I have no problem giving credit to my son when he does something right, I feel guilty when he still has his episodes. I have often described his hours long rantings and anger as “conscious seizures.” Instead of apologizing to mere strangers if this happened in public, I did learn to be bold and ask people to back off when he was being angry. If they asked why he was doing it, I told him he was having an episode. That seem to get them to leave me alone and let me deal with the problem.
    I know what you mean about being closer to your spouse. Sometimes my son’s anger led him to try to divide us. He would often insult our choice of spouse and attack my husband in the most despicable manner. I would say – when he was old enough to hear it- that my husband was more of a man than my son deemed he was, and when my son would challenge that, I would simply say it was not my obligation to explain it, only my hope that some day he would see if for himself. Funny, my son can call me every filthy name in the book and I have learned to let it go. But when he attacks my husband or his sister, I get defensive. Fortunately, not getting into the trenches with his twisted logic has eased his diatribes and he is seeing the value of the people in his life.
    I also relate quite well to your and your husband’s celebration of the small achievements our children have reached. We often tell our closest friends that our son’s progress is hardly noticeable to the outside world but we see small yet significant steps in his maturity and ability to cope more appropriately with his anger.
    I, too, like your mother, often wonder how families without the resources cope with such dilemmas. You are right, the children do get beaten. I see it every day in my job as an advocate for children in foster care. I listen as so-called trained foster parents whine about the slightest inconveniences of their job. I remind them that these children have been traumatized, marginalized, abandoned and abused. How would one cope with all this and be normal? For you, Susan, and for me, the problems are not that our children were neglected or unloved. The mystery of the source of their illness faces us daily. As you said, we are not great mothers, but we are good mothers. I work with children whose mothers and fathers chose not to be good. I embrace these children and nurture them as best I can in the short time I walk with them on their journeys. I silently thank them for helping me hone patience and flexibility, hope and charity, which in turn I can share with my son. I think my son and these kids have given me a better perspective on life and love. I am a better parent because of the struggles. Would I exchange it for something less dramatic? Of course. Like you, I don’t fool myself. I admit when I am tired, angry and “won and done” over the problems that arise with my son. But then I remember a summer day 25 years ago when I watched my son dance in unbridled joy among the rays of sunshine filtering through our trees. I remember thinking what an amazing sight to see – pure joy. I am glad I saw it and remember it now. Some day, I hope, he will have more joy. Right now, I wish him peace – enough for him to know he is loved and wanted.

  9. ML says:

    Susan, Thank you so much for sharing this. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from motherhood is to live within what seems to be some secret code about keeping silent in the regard to the tedium, the relentlessness, the sucky parts of motherhood. I feel pressured to save face for the team by not talking about my frustrations with some of the same things you’ve expressed here. I appreciate you using your forum for such valuable honesty on the subject. Thank you!!!

  10. heidi says:

    As a woman ambivalent about the idea of having children who has decided to allow the opportunity to pass I am really grateful for your honesty – and your acceptance of my choice – I would love a child, and I would do wonderful things for a child, and I am sick as hell of people telling me that because I would also resent the living hell out of a child for changing my life. And children know these things. We need to support each other in making solid parenting choices whatever they may be.

  11. HM says:

    I hear you! Anyone dealing with these issues should check out The Balanced Mind Foundation http://www.thebalancedmind.org to find a whole lot of others who get it. Terrific resource.

  12. Joel van Lennep says:

    I was, to an appreciable extent, the Milo in my parents’ lives. My father hadn’t wanted children, but he made a dutiful concession to having a couple of them. I think we were his tragedy, but he tried – up to a point. My mother was truly heroic human being – that, despite being a very damaged,chronically unhappy person. She truly and deeply loved us – and never wavered in showing it in every way. I have accepted now, as a matter of fact, that I simply could not have helped being the way I was, and, to a considerable extent, still am. Fortunately, I guess, I tended almost exclusively toward the depressive, quiet, pole, which kept me from getting in trouble with the law or being institutionalized. Twenty-five years ago my wife and I took a big chance, and we were phenomenally lucky. We have an absolutely wonderful daughter, the joy of our lives. Her glowing, resolute personality almost predestines her, I believe, for a very good measure of success and happiness in life. For her, the glass is always half full. My 95% wonderful father-in-law, who was last in a family of eight, was shocked when his mother once said to him, out of the blue: “I had eight kids and I loved every one of them, but I never *wanted* any of them.” I think that sums it up for you too. Like her, and my mother, you are one of life’s heroes, and, with true appreciation, I salute you!

  13. You hit so many nails home here! I’m grateful for this essay. I’m printing it out and putting it in the folder of “work to be buried with me” when I’m dead.

  14. julie says:

    Best advice I ever received from a doctor – you can’t compare him to the “scales” or the “norms”. You can only compare him to himself.

  15. Cassandra says:

    Hi Susan,
    This article was a total sucker punch to read. I was the (undiagnosed) bipolar/terrible at sensory processing/OCD screw-up in my mom’s life, but now that I have a (presumed healthy) kid of my own, I am overwhelmed with the feelings you’ve so eloquently laid out. Motherhood *is* a trauma. It’s one of the most grueling jobs ever falsely presented in a Hallmark card.

    You’re speaking for a lot of parents who haven’t found their voices yet, so thank you for your honesty. I’m so grateful.

    Cassandra Stout

  16. Shanna says:

    Dude, you’re a fucking rockstar. I’m just bummed I don’t know who you are, so I can read other stuff you’ve written. You ARE a writer, right? If you’re not, you should be.

  17. […] friend Gina led me to this blog where a woman named Susan wrote this: Am I different because I’m a mother? There’s no way you […]

  18. Cassandra says:

    I think my comment was eaten, but I still wanted to say: like so many others, I support you. You’re giving a voice to so many parents who have lost the ability to speak.

  19. admin says:

    Hey Cassandra, Liisa here who has been interviewing all these mothers… I just logged on and approved your earlier comment. No worries. Sounds like you might make a good interview yourself. -L

  20. Cassandra says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Ack! I should have been more patient. Thank you for approving the comments.

    And thank you also for the compliment. Like Susan, my story is… well, a little dark. Her article is so well done, it would be hard to follow. 🙂 I couldn’t resist sharing it everywhere, and I am mulling some of the concepts over over for a blog post (or two, or three) of my own, with credit to the original work, of course.

    This project is so classy and helpful. I really appreciate the work you’ve all done to demonstrate so many facets of parenthood.

    Cassandra Stout

  21. Sherri Murrell says:

    Thanks for your courage, insight, and selflessness in writing and sharing this piece. sherri

  22. Wendy Tsao says:

    Thank you Susan, for your honesty and the clear view of your life. Maybe it’s so clear because I see and feel the same things?
    Best wishes to you.

  23. tinfoil hattie says:

    I am heartstruck by your beautiful, honest essay. Thank you for writing it.

    And I don’t want to Momsplain anything … I just wo der if your son has been checked for PANDAS? It is caused by streo and often manifests in symptoms like these.

    All the best to you.

  24. […] are Susan’s words, about her nine-year-old bipolar son, and the experience of mothering him. They’re recorded […]

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