Motherhood and Mental Illness

One mother’s frontline battle with mental health while raising a family in a pandemic.

Mental health in working mothers is often a taboo subject. Women bear an invisible burden, many times without help, support, or recognition of their struggles. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. A KFF Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 also found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. Vanessa Longobardi, Registered Nurse, frontline worker, and mother of three, opens up about her own personal struggles with mental wellness.

When we discuss motherhood and mental health, it’s generally under the guise of postpartum depression. And while PPD certainly is an important ailment affecting 10-20% of new mothers, what isn’t often discussed is the mother who lives with major mental illnesses before, during, and after the natal period. Trying to find, and connect with, mothers diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Eating Disorders, and any of a myriad of diseases in the DSM-V, is not an easy task, not even in our current age of hyper-connectivity. It serves to isolate us further with our feelings of Otherness, a curious sensation where one is always on the outside looking in, wondering, is this what normal is? Is this what normal means? And can I live with it? Perhaps most pressing of all is, what does it mean to take care of myself? What does it mean for my children who live with this, too?

When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness, I was fifteen years old. I spent my teenage years maudlin and in trouble, skipping school to be with my twenty-three year old boyfriend, shoplifting, doing drugs and generally making an inconvenience of myself for everyone who cared about me. I didn’t care about my future, because I didn’t believe I had one. At twenty-one, I got pregnant with my first daughter and the weight of that responsibility sobered me, literally and figuratively. Her sister came three years later. While they were still very little, I worked as a waitress and went to school, studying to become a nurse. Their father never sobered up, though. His efforts in defying societal norms escalated. He dealt and took drugs, and eventually threw me out of our home, literally, where I broke my tailbone when landing. He did this in front of our daughters. His example shows that our illnesses follow us and affect our children whether we face them or not. I left him after he broke my bones, and finished nursing school while houseless and housing insecure.

My earliest years as an RN continued to be plagued by my own mental health issues, as well as those of my ex. At one point, he was arrested for drug manufacture and distribution. The task for raising them had fallen solely to me and their grandmother. There are many challenges with being a single parent with little to no outside support. There’s only one of you to go around, to get them from school, to take them to the doctor. That can and does negatively impact careers. Not long after it was necessary for me to travel nurse to provide for my children. I housed them with their grandmother and proceeded working in several states for 13 week intervals as an Oncology RN. I met my now husband at one of these assignments. We married in 2013 and welcomed our youngest daughter in 2016.

But this time I wasn’t resilient. This time I wasn’t able to power through. My depression made strategic victories over me in 2014, and 2018, when I attempted suicide. I was convinced that I was a burden to my family. I was certain that none of my daughters benefitted from having a mother who took to bed often and stayed there, who couldn’t go to soccer games or swimming practice, who depended on medication to function and even then not well at all, who sometimes couldn’t bathe, brush her teeth, do laundry, cook, any of the things traditionally associated with motherhood. I alternated between crying and vacant, most extensively vacant. That vacancy was terrifying. The more empty I became, the more convinced I was that I was not worth trying from. I didn’t bother writing notes, or giving away my things. I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear from me about my depression. What did I have to be depressed about, after all? New state, new husband, new house, new baby. None of that movie-montage drama happened, though. I just, in a final sense of helplessness, took massive amounts of medications in one swallow.

Retrospectively I can tell you that these were all red flags. In hindsight, the isolating, the lapse in hygiene, the emotional cloaking, all built on themselves until very quickly they were beyond my control. At that point, a therapist could’ve intervened before I traumatized myself or my family with self-harmful actions. And I wouldn’t have to have conversations with my kids about what led up to Mom checking out.

Those conversations are harder after the fact. When the kids were younger I used say, “Mommy doesn’t feel good today.” I would avoid having them in my room if I was bedbound or crying because I didn’t want them to see me like that. It’s now important for me to say, “listen, I’m having a bad mental health day,” to my older children (who are now 19 and 16,) and find quiet activities to do with my 5 year old. My two elder daughters have grown up to have their own struggles with mental health and while I can’t dismiss either nature or nurture playing a role in that, I do accept it for what it is. We know we have each other if we are feeling out of sorts. We can trust that the other actually does know how we feel, and we are careful not to give each other platitudes or Pollyana quips when what we actually need is someone who can just sit with us. I’m more careful to be mindful and proactive when I’m feeling out of sorts now. I’m more careful to make myself available. I force myself to take that shower even if I don’t want to.  It’s not perfect, and some days go better than others. But it works, for now. Being able and willing to make adaptations as necessary is fundamental to this working.

Being able and willing to make adaptations as necessary is fundamental to this working.

The most important thing, for me, has been telling my story. Telling it, and telling it again. One of the first things to go during a depressive episode is the willingness to acknowledge it and speak about it. So, it’s been my experience that simply getting my story out of me, onto paper, in front of others’ eyes, goes miles towards breaking that spell. It grounds me. It helps me to see myself how others see me, which is almost always more forgivingly than how I see myself. It helps connect me to others who have felt the way I do. It helps people who haven’t found their own voice have a sense of connection to someone else. So tell your story. Be honest with your kids in ways they can understand. And take a shower, even if it’s the only thing you do this week.

A Southerner by birth, Vanessa Longobardi is a Registered Nurse raising her children in the suburbs of Long Island, New York. Her roles in oncology and hospice care inform her parenting ethics which center compassion and dignity in care-giving.


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