In the final few years of my mother’s life (she died in 2008) I was living across the country, but visited her three times a year. Inevitably, at some point in these visits, we would go out to dinner, or be waiting for a bus, and my mother would end a lull in the conversation by saying, “I saw that story on the news about that woman who killed her children… it reminds me of when you were little.”
Yeah, that’s as uncomfortable to hear as it sounds (especially the first time). And it was also the kind of thing that I couldn’t help but ask her about. When she would say it again several months later on my next visit (because inevitably a story like this was in the news again), I realized that there was still more to be said. We wound up having this conversation on a number of occasions.
In the early 1970s, my mother was a single mother, struggling to raise three kids on her wages working as a telephone operator at a hotel (women’s work, so not a particularly well-paying gig). The first couple of years after my birth had been marked by what we would now call “post-partum depression” but my mother didn’t have a word for it at the time, and thought it meant something was horribly wrong with her.
By the time I was five, she had resolved to not depend on her parents or other family members anymore, and we were living in a small town in Texas. She was working at a hotel full-time, but at the end of her shift, she told me, sometimes she didn’t even have money to ride the bus home.
My mother was desperate to figure out feeding us, clothing us, paying rent, and keeping us safe when we weren’t in school. She described it as a despairing time, coming home from a full day’s work to our anxious faces in the evening, till she collapsed in bed exhausted, with nothing to look forward to except another day of working, counting her wages, and coming up short. She and I shared a bed, and she would hold me tight all night, “like you were my own little doll.” Strangely, I remember that, but kind of fondly.
She saw no hope for the future, and began to think the only way out was to kill herself. But how could a mother leave her children behind? In her exhausted mind, then, it meant she had to end our misery as well as her own. She began thinking about how she would do it. She began thinking about it A LOT. Pills were the only method she could think of, and she tried to figure out how many she would need. And whether she could afford to buy them.
“But I’m glad I didn’t do it,” she would tell me each time. That chapter of our lives ended abruptly. She called her parents to tell them what was going on. They responded by taking me and my siblings to live with them, separating us from her by over a thousand miles because they were worried she was a danger to us. I’m not sure how long we lived without our mother, but in the way a six-year-old measures time, it was pretty much FOREVER. (It was less than a year.)
“I hated losing you all for that time,” she would tell me. We agreed that my grandparents had done the right thing by taking us in, but that it had come with a price: telling her that she was a “bad mother” without much understanding of how her situation as a parent was different from theirs. Maybe they could’ve listened to her and helped her figure it out without taking us away. Then we would talk about how we didn’t need to judge them either: they were pretty freaked out and did the best they could.
My mother knew that one problem was that once parents open up about having big struggles with their kids, people slip into talking about judging them and whether they’re a “good parent” or a “bad parent.” Those judgements are just talk, and it doesn’t help people become better parents. All parents need way more support to do the hard work of raising their kids.
Each time my mother told this story, it would end the same way, with her desire for the present. “I want to go somewhere and talk with other parents who are overwhelmed and are maybe thinking about this too. I thought it was just me, but now I know a lot of mothers go through this. I want to say to them, ‘find someone to talk to, someone who’ll listen and not judge you.’ Maybe I can listen to them.” (By 2007, my mother had a therapist who she found really helpful.)
“Because if you can get through this time and not act on it, later, you’ll be glad you didn’t kill your children.”
My mother and I had this conversation repeatedly, even as she was getting more and more ill with cancer and her chances to volunteer somewhere for a parenting support group were dwindling because she wasn’t well enough. She didn’t get to do any sort of volunteering like this before she passed.
I saw another news story this week about a woman who killed her child, and I thought about how my mom might say, “that reminds me of when you were little.” And also, “but who tried to help her? Did she have anywhere she could go where she could talk about what was going on and not have people tell her she was a bad mother?”
The more we can do to let go of the judgment of parents, the more tools we can give them to raise their children in loving ways. Every parent is gonna have big struggles sometimes. My go-to resource for supporting parents without judgment is the Hand in Hand community. I’ve found their materials helpful and realistic about what parents struggle with. They never say anyone is a “bad mother,” and they also give people tools to change how they parent.
And I don’t come by this lightly: yes, my mother made concrete plans to kill me, and you know what? She was an excellent mother. Among many other great things she did, when she wasn’t sure she could keep us alive, she gave us up to the care of others.
And now I’ve given her story a chance to be heard.
Image: my mother, Elisa Pequeño, in 2007