My neighbor Toby* was raised by a mother who suffered from clinical depression, and Toby was unable to forgive her.
As a child and teenager, Toby didn’t even realize that her mom was different than the moms of her classmates, but when she became a mother herself at the age of 24, her fury at her mother for not having been able to provide the uncomplicated warmth and joy that she tried to provide her own child (and then children) tsunamied into full-blown rage for several difficult years.
Today, though, two decades later, Toby has a strong relationship with her mom, and she has a very different view of the legacy of growing up with a less-than-perfect mother.
Today, Toby is a popular parenting teacher who helps women become happier and more skilled mothers. In her classes, she frequently emphasizes the importance of self-care for moms and of taking care of ourselves emotionally in order to be the best possible mothers for our children.
And she credits her career choice and the special impact she’s able to have on her students to…her clinically depressed mother.
Which reminded me of an unforgettable story I heard from my parenting teacher Dina Friedman during her final class of the year:
An old Chinese woman used to carry two water buckets that hung on both sides of a bamboo stick.
One of the buckets had a hole in it and the other bucket did not, which meant that by the time the old woman reached her home from the well every day, the broken bucket was half-empty.
After two years of spilling half its water, the broken bucket cried out to the old woman: “I am so ashamed of myself that I am broken! I spill so much water!”
The old lady just smiled. “Didn’t you ever notice that your side of the path is full of many beautiful flowers while the other side is empty? Because of your hole, an entire garden has grown.”
The perfect mother…ahhh…wouldn’t it be wonderful to have one!
But chances are your mother wasn’t perfect. And chances are, also, that if you look you at yourself and your life, you will discover a surprising garden that has blossomed because of that broken bucket.
You’ll see, maybe, that your emotionally absent mother ended up raising an emotionally present one. Or that your manipulative mother ended up raising a less controlling one. Or that your anxious and angry mother ended up raising a calm one.
All week, I have been talking with people about the short story by Batya Ruddell in last week’s Binah entitled, “Are You My Mother?” The story’s main character is raised by her father because her own mother is hospitalized in a mental institution as a result of a severe case of manic depression.
This is the story’s powerful ending:
There are bits, I’ve discovered, of mothers; little bits of love and nurturing from those who are not my own. I’m learning to recognize them, to put them in my pocket when I find them.
[My husband] Leiby’s mother is one of those parts, a large slice of a multi-layered cake.
[My sister] Shaindy is another one of those pieces. She always was and always will be, even though I, her little sister, am growing up.
Mommy is many slices, sometimes coated in frosting, sometimes in sweet, whipped cream. We’ve been tasting our relationship slowly, taking tentative bites.
And then, of course, there’s my mothering of myself and learning that it’s not something selfish or indulgent as I once thought…..
The work of a lifetime, isn’t it? Transforming the curses of our childhoods into a lifelong blessing for ourselves and our children too. Im yirtzeh Hashem, with the will of G-d, we will.
*Name has been changed.
Chana Jenny Weisberg is the creator of JewishMOM.com.