A Healthy Stepmother . . . and the surprising function of depression.

My mother was depressed. She was the mother of four children, married to a man who pushed every single boundary and later the wife of a man with three children from a previous marriage. But, being a stepmother was not what caused her depression, it only added to it. No, her depression must have stemmed from her childhood and living with warring parents, one of them likely manic-depressive.

For years now, I’ve wondered about the aspects of my mother’s behavior that were truly her personality and contrasted those with aspects of her behavior that I thought were some muted version of who she might have been had she not been depressed. I blamed her for some years, for not being more present, for not sharing more about how she felt, for not connecting in a deeper way with us, her children.

She died in 1984 and these days I hold her in my heart as a sacred memory that lives on in me. That she loved me, I know without a doubt. What remains is an acceptance that she and I had what we had as long as we had it. I miss her presence in so many ways. Terribly at times and in a more muted way at others.

My thoughts turned to her recently during my study of my family’s behavior patterns, specifically, anxiety and depression.

Do you ever do that? Do you look at your family as if looking at them through a window back in time? What was it like to be in that family, back then? What were the strategies people used to cope with feelings, disasters, and rites of passage? How was the family pattern carried on by each family member? Did they take after one person more than another, or were they some blend of the parents or grandparents? Can you identify with the notion that your family has a pattern? How does that pattern serve you now, at this point in your life? How might it serve you in your future?

So, I ponder all these things as I work with my own behavior to see how it can shift and adjust to each situation, so that I can be adaptable and resilient and sustain myself and not become stuck or extinct, and all the while maintain my integrity.

I look around and see the patterns of my family so very clearly, my father’s anxiety and my mother’s depression.

And, this morning it came to me like a bolt of lightning that my mother’s depression served as a buffer between her and worrying about everyone else. She did not choose to be depressed, but in her depression, she was not able to obsess and worry about her father and her mother and her sister and her husband or her friends or her son or her daughter. Her world became quiet and soft and she tended to the tasks of the day like getting dinner on the table and making sure there was enough milk in the refrigerator for the four kids who went through gallons of it.

I arrived at this insight while musing on a conversation with my husband in which he was sighing with contentment and saying what a great life we have. Since I share that life with him and I don’t have quite as deep a sigh, I wondered why. I know I worry about relationships and the interactions between loved ones, I worry about all kinds of things. So, I began tracking back to where that worry came from. If I recognize that some of my worry is about my legacy of being a female (see The Female Brain), I can also see that a great deal of my anxiety and the interpretation of events and interactions is something I learned.

If I learned it, I can unlearn it.

Or at least soften my level of worry.

Or at least smooth it out so it is seamless and unwrinkled.

And then I felt a momentary wave of jealousy for my mother, in her cocoon of muted living otherwise known as depression.

Maybe I just wanted her to have been cocooned because I’d like to think of her as protected in some way. I’d like to think of her as not having had to hurt in the ways I know she hurt. In the ways I have been hurt. But I think she actually did have some distance from some of the pain.

In the middle of all that thinking, I stopped.

Choose between worry and depression? Weeeeeellll, give me worry any day. But, it makes sense to me why so women are more likely to be at risk of anxiety and depression in a stepfamily situation when their husband has children from a previous marriage, Stepmonster, Wednesday Martin. I dipped precariously close to falling into that abyss and somehow worked my way back out to stand now beside my husband and marvel at what a good life we have.

We do. I’ll take it. I’ll keep it. Forevs . . . as the kids say.

But, get this . . . I’ll keep my worry.

My worry helps me know I’m pulsing, moving, breathing, sighing, gazing, pondering, and caring about my loved ones and my world around me. I’ll monitor the pattern of my worry and anxiety and interrupt it as often as I can to make sure I maintain my health on all levels. And, sometimes I’ll let go of the worry and later I’ll pick it right back up again.

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