When New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn recently revealed her past struggle with an eating disorder and alcoholism, I imagined it must have taken a great deal of strength for a woman in her position to go public with her mental illness. Of course, people are questioning the impact this will have on her political campaign. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t matter, because she seems to have recovered. But unfortunately, mental illness is still seen as a sign of weakness, meaning this admission may very well hurt her career.
Though I am, by no means, in as powerful a position as Quinn, I can definitely relate to the risk factor in going public with my mental illness. For me, the risk is more personal than professional. The definition of mother, in my mind, is someone who is strong, relentlessly loving and a martyr who constantly puts the needs of others above her own. This may sound extremely idealistic and unattainable to some of you, but I know one woman who fits this definition: my own mother. I’m sure my mom had private moments of desperation and frustration and anger, but she never revealed this side of herself when I was a child.
Mothers aren’t supposed to be mentally ill. And if they are, they need to hide it, to cry in private and never let on that this role is hard. At least that’s the example I grew up with. So when I made the decision to air my mental illness online, I had serious reservations.
First, I knew that this column would shatter any illusions of motherly perfection I might have been projecting to the world. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but in my early months of motherhood I worked very hard to construct a “perfect mother persona” on Facebook. I posted pictures of baby sleeping on my chest and of me toting her around in my homemade baby carrier. My status updates consisted of poetic quips like “My daughter’s hiccups sound like the uncorking of the world’s tiniest champagne bottle,” and “Whenever we finish nursing, there is a tiny imprint of her ear on my arm.”
And in real life, I modeled this Perfect Mom persona, too. I visited my grandparents every Friday, the one day of the week I would make sure to do my hair and makeup and dress nicely. I would arrive with a perfectly coiffed baby, and a well-stocked diaper bag, and a few of the week’s highlights stored neatly in my brain for conversation. It’s no wonder my grandma, the ultimate matriarch, would dote on me and praise me was the most wonderful mother. I was the most wonderful mother, because I made damn sure I appeared that way.
Only a select few friends knew that, most days, I spent hours lying on a recliner, watching sitcom reruns as the sun went up and down around me. Few knew that I was often bored, or just feeling empty and directionless. I was terrified that my once-solid stomach would forever be a dimpled mess, that I would never get back on track with my career, and that my daughter would be ruined because I wasn’t doing enough to stimulate her.
But for all the world knew, I was sitting happily at home, sewing baby dresses and humming showtunes while my daughter contentedly did her tummy time (never did this happen, not once, even though this is how my pregnant self imagined new motherhood would be).
So when I started this column, I knew that I was destroying the persona I worked so hard to create. But I’ve also realized that the “perfect mom” illusion wasn’t doing me any favors. It made me more critical of myself when I failed to live up to my impossible standards, which worsened my depression.
I went public with my PPD because I believe it’s important that our culture sees mothers as multidimensional, not crude stereotypes. The mentally ill are ordinary people, not weepy train-wrecks like we see in movies and TV. I’m guessing that’s why Christine Quinn brought her mental illness to light, as well — to show everyone that you can be imperfect and still be a hard worker with huge ambitions.
(photo: Joseph Marzullo/WENN.com)