Motherhood Requiem

Nadia Ghent

One afternoon, after my mother had fallen ill for the fourth or fifth time, I pulled out all my eyelashes, one by one. I was thirteen. She had gone to the hospital in the middle of the night with my stepfather—a psychiatrist, but not hers—and after I came home from school that day, nothing was ever the same. In 1970, we lived in a partially renovated loft in a downtown Manhattan factory building. It wasn’t the kind of SoHo loft that in a few years would be featured in Architectural Digest and sell for fifteen million. Our place featured scarred wooden floors and frayed burlap curtains that couldn’t hide the peeling paint and drafty wood-framed windows overlooking a commercial bakery where pies and cakes sailed down conveyor belts all night long. Extension cords snaked through the 3600 square feet of wide-open space that was strewn with disorderly piles of books, toys, and lumber and building supplies for the never-ending renovations my stepfather was too busy to finish. Stacks of my mother’s violin and viola music were toppling over on the piano lid. Her music stand was covered in sooty grit that fell from the ceiling beams whenever the upstairs neighbors walked on their floor.

There was no privacy in all that vast space—few walls to hide behind, and no soundproofing between neighbors. “You can hear everything in this building,” my mother would say. And then: “The neighbors are listening to all our conversations; they’re writing them down for the F.B.I.” When we’d first moved in, a year after my youngest sister was born, my mother had already been to the hospital three times. I thought the words “fallen ill” meant she had broken something, and in a way, she had. But that afternoon a sense of calm descended from the sooty ceiling beams, permeating the loft with an uneasy stillness. My little sisters were playing together next to the kitchen instead of fighting. The dog was asleep in a patch of sun streaming in from the street-side windows. An unfamiliar babysitter was making us a Shake-and-Bake chicken dinner, laying out gritty drumsticks on a Pyrex dish, as if that was all it took to be a mother. The quiet was unusual, disorienting. There would be at least two weeks of dinners at 5 p.m., two weeks of long, tranquil evenings where I could read and do homework—all without having to worry about my mother. But in fact worry was everywhere, waiting in ambush for me to be alone.

From a young age I had learned to sense my mother’s moods, a palpable shift into minor key. I could track her state of mind that began to change every autumn when days grew shorter and cold air rattled through gaps in the window frames, when we went back to school and the loft felt empty, when the slant of the afternoon light hardened and reminded her of dying. The way she would be up all night, smoking, pacing, listening to Mozart’s Requiem over and over. I would awaken to the screech of the tone arm being jerked back from the end of the record to the beginning, that sound of vinyl being deeply scratched. No musician would willingly ruin their favorite recordings. And yet, she—an orchestral violist, a teacher of the violin and viola—destroyed Mozart’s music. Some say that Mozart composed the Requiem for himself while he was dying, and I guess she was dying too, or at least the part of her that mothered us. I wondered, later, what it cost her, all that unplayable music, scratched records endlessly skipping.

There was the time we went on a shopping trip for school clothes when she bought me a fur coat that made me look like a prostitute; the way she handed the saleslady her credit card before I could even say I didn’t want to try it on, or when she ran out of the house barefoot screaming at every man on the sidewalk. I could hear her delusional rage spilling over five stories below until she turned the corner at West Broadway, drowned out finally by the palliative mercy of noise from delivery trucks backing into the bakery.

I could not forgive her for these acts of an unbound mind. I hated her for it. I remembered when she had simply been my mother, when she would tack up my second-grade spelling words on the refrigerator, the scent of her perfume when she kissed me at bedtime, before the story of her illness fossilized into the narrative of her maternal failure, impenetrable and overwhelming, like lava burying Herculaneum.

And so that afternoon, I put down my book bag, sat at my desk, and pulled out all my eyelashes. The pain was real, but it was finite and controllable. Now I was in charge of how much it hurt. First the tug and the rip, then the absence of feeling. In my hand I held the feathery lightness of an eyelash, a part of me that I could examine and discard, as if I could just throw away a piece of my body that I no longer had use for.

Soon there was a scattering of lashes across my desk, little black commas joining together all the sentences of pain that I could not bring myself to utter. I needed to alter my body in the most visible way, to rip away the protective covering, let my eyes tell the story that I could not.

The story of my mother’s illness is the story of myself. There is a certain solipsism in the idea that her suffering altered my life so significantly that if she hadn’t become ill, I would have been a different person. That her illness was the defining epic and tragedy of my life. It’s a selfish idea, one that allows me to punish her by presuming that I could have been a better version of myself. By telling her story, I can shame her with the worst punishment of motherhood—being responsible for the suffering of one’s children. Telling her story lets me send her to bed without any supper, lets me become the overbearing mother while she is the child with an unruly mind. Telling it is the theft of her suffering for the sake of my writing. In the story of her illness, I am the victim and she is the crime.

But it is the only story that lets me hold onto my mother. If I keep telling this one story, I will never have to accept that I lost her.

Mental illness, post-partum psychosis, manic depression, schizoaffective disorder: these were the words not widely said in the ’60s and ’70s. Artistic, bohemian, troubled, crazy: these were the words that were acceptable. I grew up knowing my parents were artistic, maybe even a little bohemian. My father was a classical guitarist, a musician like my mother. He played the guitar with rapt abandonment and so softly that I had to hold my breath to hear him. He loved Spanish music, especially Tárrega’s Memories of the Alhambra with its weeping tremolo that made his right hand quiver in sadness, his fingers dancing between the frets, as if he had entered another land, far away and long ago.

My father was well over six feet, but quiet, unassuming. There was turmoil, though, underneath his calm exterior, an underground river swift with dangerous rapids. Once, he walked across Flatbush Avenue with his eyes closed. He would disappear for long stretches of time, eventually to resurface bearing gifts for me: a spiny cactus, Matchbox cars, a battered copy of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (our shared first name that, in Russian, also means hope). He called his presents mementos, so that I would remember who he was, that he alone was my father. The gift that pleased him the most was a promise to punch my stepfather in the nose.

My mother dressed in Greenwich Village bohemian, wore a velvet cape and pointed two-tone booties even when she shopped, her thick brown hair pulled into a wispy French twist. She rolled her guttural “r’s,” the last audible vestige of her first language, Russian. Her music was insistent, rigorous, her bow digging into the strings when she played Bach. A child prodigy, she had been forced to play the violin by her mother, but she hated to practice. When I began to play, I wanted to be as good. I wanted her to make me practice, but she never did. Close to her, I could smell the pine of violin rosin and the odor of cigarettes. Once, my father tried to kill her. They divorced when I was four.

There was an entire narrative that ran parallel to the truth, a narrative of words with double meanings. By then I knew that my father was crazy, and that my parents were troubled, and that I was expressing my own troubles by pulling out my eyelashes, or so said the psychologist I was sent to when my odd appearance could no longer be ignored.

When I stood before the mirror that afternoon, looking like a lash-less mole rat blinking in what I hoped would be the glare of parental concern, I briefly regretted my actions. But the blankness on my mother’s face felt like a betrayal. She deserved my pain. Pain, I had realized, was seductive. It made me feel in control. It could twist the anger I didn’t want to talk about into eyelashes that could be plucked out, excised, torn away.

What I didn’t understand or appreciate then was the ironic subtext to my family narrative: my mother and father were crazy, and my stepfather was a psychiatrist. A bad joke for late-night TV. My stepfather would never be mistaken for a Park Avenue shrink, though. His shoulder-length hair was pulled back into a ponytail, accentuating a bald spot fringed with flaky dandruff. His patients were the bohemian troubled, downtown artists and writers, some paying him with books or sculptures or paintings that hung on the walls in our loft. Blind in one eye, he looked out from behind yellow-tinted glasses, his inquisitive stare fixed at a point just beyond my face, posing questions but giving few answers. He spoke in a vowel-rich Canadian accent—”Are you sad aboot your mother?”—elliptical sentences born from his Montreal childhood.

A giant bunch of keys jingled on my stepfather’s belt like a handyman’s, keys that should have unlocked more than just doors. I held onto the belief that he could do something, get my mother onto the analysis couch and sprinkle her with Freudian holy water, talk some sense into her. I wanted to believe that psychotherapy was some kind of magic, that he could make her our mother again, not the shuffling, vacant shell who came back from the hospital smelling of disinfectant—silent, chain-smoking, defeated. How careful he was to hide the look of devastation on his face for all those years, the failure he must have felt when it became clear their marriage and our fragile family would not survive.

There was only one story: when my mother went to the hospital to give birth to my youngest sister, she didn’t come back the same mother. She was broken, unable to experience any real sense of motherhood. The baby was taken from her.

Experts think that 4% of psychotic mothers attempt to harm their children, which is to say that 96% do not. Some hospitals are now allowing mothers with post-partum psychosis to hold their infants throughout their days of recovery, an intervention that speaks of compassion for the psychological challenges of motherhood. But for my mother in 1967, there were likely restraints involved after she gave birth and her arms were not allowed to hold her child, no skin-to-skin contact so essential to human bonding. It was an erasure, a maternal wound that never healed. A wound that forced her back to the hospital eighteen or nineteen times in the following years, I lost count. Each time a little less of her returned.

A different version of a mother came back, cold and rigid with Thorazine, silently going through the motions but not the attachments of motherhood. She sat rocking the baby between stiff arms, holding my sister without the maternal cooing, the lullabies, or warmth. There were no baby presents or polite visits from our friends and family. Instead, there were casseroles dropped silently at the door, the silence of the baby as she slept, the silence of my mother rocking. The world off its hinges.

Only my violin teacher understood what was wrong. “Let’s listen to Fritz Kreisler recordings,” he said. Each week, I would sit in his living room listening to Kreisler playing those gemütlich Viennese bonbons of softly whipped cream that filled the empty parts of me with small measures of happiness. My teacher assigned me Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs and let me pour into the legato phrasing all the confusion I could not let go of. “You are young, you have your life ahead of you,” he would say at the end of the lesson. He never once asked me about my eyelashes or my mother.

Motherhood was an illness I didn’t want to catch, a kind of madness cruel in its private invisible love. I searched for signs that would articulate the silence around my mother’s illness. I didn’t want to be like her. When I was eighteen, I read an article about fertility centers that forbade sperm donations from men with a family history of mental illness. That’s it, I thought. I’m never having children. I didn’t know if I was more afraid of going crazy from childbirth, or passing on her broken genetic code.

In the years of my childlessness, I became a violinist, convinced that the violin in my arms was my own needy child. I resisted that flayed- open vulnerability of becoming a mother, that moment of knowing your own power when you hold a tiny squalling red-faced human covered in your blood, when you breathe that feral newborn smell and feel what your body has accomplished, that cleaving of one in order to make two. I wouldn’t know this until I did.

It felt almost holy to deny myself the thought of having a family. After all, science was telling me I had no business becoming a mother. It didn’t seem possible that there could be greater forces at play, that mental illness could be bound up so tightly with other traits like being a poet or a musician or a writer or a scientist, the traits that make our meager lives more bearable. Maybe this was some kind of inexplicable Darwinism. Maybe this had nothing to do with science, but everything to do with love.

I cannot point to the moment at which I surrendered to my own incipient motherhood. Late in my thirties, I gave in to the notion that I no longer had control over my body. Perhaps I wanted to show my mother that I wasn’t afraid of the history between us. Or maybe I needed to prove how much better I could be at mothering. As my body grew ponderous, bones disappearing into fleshy amplitude, a dreaminess softened the edges of my high moral ground. It grew easier to relax the impossible standards I had set for my mother. Perhaps I was sliding into a hormonal state of forgiveness, a restorative pregnancy to set things right between us. Or maybe I just wanted to heal myself.

No one moment made absolute sense except in that one moment when I wanted to have children more than anything else that I could imagine. But I could not say this because it seemed so deeply wrong, so contrary to the careful logic I had constructed for myself: if I didn’t have children, then I would not go crazy. But of course it was way too late for that kind of thinking. Motherhood untethers you from the binaries of logic, especially when you are dealing with love that is hard and brutal and exquisite in the pain that it causes and the beauty it unleashes. Motherhood is a delirium of the human body.

I remember holding my first child in those moments of utter clarity and confusion right after an emergency C-section brought him into the world sooner than I could comprehend. I felt as if I could not control my arms, that madness might compel me to throw him to the ground, ridding myself of this tiny perfect creature that had occupied my body with an alien force that seemed to blot me out. Even in my drugged state, I could not stop seeing myself causing him harm. The image repeated over and over, dim and half-outlined as if I were watching a grainy black-and-white movie. I could see myself as another, a woman on a gurney with a newborn in her arms desperate not to become a mother. But it wasn’t me. I was watching someone else who was not myself, even as the voltage of impulse coursed through my arms.

I don’t know how long I struggled with these feelings in the recovery room. It could have been minutes or years as my husband hovered by my side. My arms were changing, from stiff branches that could snap and launch the baby into the air, to softer vines that wrapped around my tiny red-faced son. This was the beginning and the end of my madness, the beginning of my maternal delirium. For I was holding him, I would not let him go.

A phone receiver appeared at my ear and there was my mother’s voice. My mother speaking to me at the moment in which I had become, like her, a mother. I could not hear her words clearly, but I felt as if she was passing onto me this kind of fraught motherhood, sweet and bitter, painful and ecstatic. The words evaporated in that moment, beginning another story, my story. There in the hospital, on the phone as I held my son, my mother was holding me with her words. “Life is strong,” she said, “and it beats hard against the restraints.”

I have brought children into the uncertainty and terror of this world, a son and a daughter sharing the same DNA that threads through our family history. I watch them and wait. When I think of what joins us together, I think about chromosomes and broken synapses and missed connections. I think about genetic predisposition to manic depression and mood disorders and loving sunsets. I think about therapeutic interventions and playing the violin. Still, I hear the words “family history,” and I want to translate that into Christmas cards and hand-me-downs and happy summer vacations by the ocean. Not lithium and Thorazine and hospitals. I want to rewrite that family history, defuse the anger that deludes me into thinking only about my loss. Despite everything, I know that my mother was a good mother, a mother who loved her children and her grandchildren, a mother who lost her mind because they took away her newborn because she had lost her mind. And because motherhood is itself love, I wonder why I did not know this before.