Jennifer Freeman, Massachusetts Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Jennifer Freeman, Massachusetts
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Mind over Matter

Growing up motherless has been the toughest obstacle in my life. 

       My mother isn’t deceased. She’s mentally ill. And back in the 80’s, mental illness was an even less talked-about subject than it is today. Because her illness is so severe, she is legally declared mentally disabled. She can’t hold a job and hasn’t since I was around 7. She can’t drive and thank God for that.  

       When you hear your mother cry on the other end of the line that she’s starving and has no food because her section 8 hasn’t kicked in, that she spent her entire check on rent that wasn’t subsidized, you get a little grayer in the eyes. Packing your mother food from you dad’s house at 16 and bringing it to her in her run-down apartment as she thanks you with tears in her eyes; this isn’t easy. It is easy to want to help, but hard to see despair, extreme depression, and desolation in the woman who brought you into this world. The one who should be taking care of YOU.

       How do you explain to people that the toughest thing in your life, especially as a woman, hasn’t been the extra weight you carry on your body, but the weight and burden of carrying your schizophrenic/manic depressive mother’s misery on your back? How do I explain that it’s not awkward thunder thighs I try to hide, but it is the gray look in my eyes that I hope you don’t see. I swallow the dry, hard lump, hoping no one sees, when simple traditions between mother and daughter that I never experienced are talked about. Something as simple as lunch and shopping together. Making Christmas cookies. Celebrating the joy of bringing a child into the world. It never happened for me. 

       It sucks when you find out how different you are. That you weren’t really raised traditionally. It is difficult to relive on a daily basis certain things you lacked growing up as a kid, girl, teenager—into a woman. Being a wife. Becoming a mother. 

       To be raised as a woman in this day in age has a certain set of requirements, it seems, that come with the territory of being an everyday, civilized woman. Be neat, clean, and know your manners. Napkin on the lap. Cross your legs when sitting with a dress or skirt. Try to have a certain set of social graces, right? Act normal. Everything’s fine. Wolves didn’t raise you, you come from a decent, normal, everyday family, am I right? Act normal. No one has to know that your mom spends half her life sleeping and crying. What would they think? That there’s something wrong with ME? Do they see the grayness in my eyes on the days she calls me—while I’m working— crying, that she can’t handle life? Do they hear me whisper to her that it will “be OK?” It’s not my 6 year old I’m talking to. It’s my mom. 

       I feel unique and sometimes dare I say lucky, that my father raised me instead of my mother. It’s quite different not having a mother around to care for you and nurture you. You have to find your own confidences in yourself. Your own beauty. I have strong shoulders from the burdens I’ve carried, taking care of my mother as if she were the child and I were the mom. I have harder lines in my face from learning tougher, harder, lessons without a soft, motherly cushion. My hands are harder and nails dirtier because I probably just changed my own flat or oil instead of letting someone else do it. I have a hard-ass attitude from being taught by my dad to take charge because life isn’t always soft and cushy. People wonder where I get the confidence and strength I carry. Why I’m so un-caring of the status quo of what a woman ‘should’ be: cooperative and conforming. Maybe from my Dad. Maybe it was just there the whole time.

— Jennifer Freeman