Closing the Door:  Bipolar Disorder and Motherhood 

 Happy Wednesday! Today I offer you an essay by a poet friend who is also childless. This piece previously appeared in an online literary journal called Quiet Storm. As you will see, there are many different ways we can end up not having children. In her note to me, Sherri said that when she told her father she would not be able to have children, he responded, “Get yourself a dog. Dogs are more loyal.” Which they are, but that’s not the point. As always, please feel free to comment.

By Sherri Hope Levine

Sherri Levine I have been grieving over the loss of a dream for many years. The feelings of profound emptiness and sorrow have overwhelmed me. I have always wanted to have a child, and I knew that I would make a wonderful mother. I would break the cycle of critical voices that played a big part of my childhood. Ideally, I would be a loving, nurturing, and accepting parent.

Whenever I see a mother and a child holding hands in the park, or a mother strolling her baby with other mothers, or watch my sister read Harry Potter to her son, I cry out: “Why not me? It’s not fair!” I tell myself to try to move on with my life—to remind myself that I have a loving and supportive partner, family, and friends, that I have a rewarding job teaching English to immigrants and refugees, that I am a passionate and published writer. But is this enough?  Do these things take the place of being a mother? Is this the dream? Is this something I have been dreaming about my whole life?

My mental health has suffered tremendously from bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness. During my teenage years, I endured severe depression and was hospitalized due to suicide attempts. In my twenties, a psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant, and I immediately shot into a full blown manic and psychotic episode. I was living with my mother at the time. While in a heightened state, I impulsively packed all my belongings and took the train from New York to San Francisco. While living there, I was reckless and impulsive. I slept with many men, spent most of my money, and I lost a lot of weight. When my dad found out I was calling my grandma in the middle of the night to tell her I was an artist and model, he flew me home.

What I didn’t know is once you are committed to a mental hospital, you cannot leave. I didn’t believe this. I thought for sure after I got stabilized, I could leave. At first, the doctors figured out the right combination of medications, and I got better. But then I became depressed. Why was I still there if I was better? I had a tough time coping in there because I saw many sick patients, a lot worse than me. The only way “out” of there was to write. I found poetry. The staff allowed me to sit in an empty room with a computer. And that is what saved me. That was my escape. The staff recognized that I was well enough to take day passes out of the hospital. They came up with a plan for me to attend classes at a local liberal arts college. I worked closely with some very fine poets. My writing improved, and I became a student there. I even graduated without any of my classmates knowing that at the end of the school day, my ride had been a shuttle that took me to a locked mental facility on the outskirts of town.

After I graduated, my friends had moved away, and my sister had relocated to Seattle.  I wanted to live near her, so I moved to Portland, Oregon. Little by little, things started to improve again. I took my medication, entered a master’s degree program, and got my first job as an English teacher at Portland Community College, where I have taught for almost twenty years. I was finally stable, happy, and productive.

After months of rest and recuperation, I felt strong again.  I was ready to settle down, get married. I married a man twelve years younger than me. Another impulsive decision! Then I found out that he didn’t want children.  He didn’t even like children. I was so upset because I knew if I was stable, I could have children. I did everything I was supposed to do to prepare myself for motherhood.  I took my medication, continued my teaching job, ate well, and exercised vigorously. I remember talking to my doctor about medication and pregnancy.  It was a risk, he said, but I would be monitored carefully. Still, my husband wasn’t interested in having children or having sex. He finally did give in, and we tried to get pregnant for a year, but something was wrong. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting pregnant.  By then, my husband had become increasingly withdrawn from me. He stayed at work late, and when he came home, we hardly ever spoke. I was devastated. I wasn’t a mother and my marriage was falling apart. I felt empty.

My husband and I split up. I was alone, without a child. By then, I was in my 40s, and it was too late for me to conceive. I thought about adoption, but I was single, so I knew it would be difficult to raise a child on my own.

Many people can tell you to move on, but it does not help. Letting go is part of the grieving process. Losing someone is the most difficult part of life. I believe that raising a child with a mother who has a chronic mental illness would not be fair to the child or to my family.  It would put a heavy burden on all of us.

I have thought about what it would be like if I did choose to be a mother. I might have to stop taking my medication during the first trimester. This risk could cause me to become manic or depressed. Then, after I gave birth, sleep deprivation could also cause an episode. Who would take care of the baby? My husband who was absent most of the time? My 80-year-old mother? My sister who lives in another city? If I became ill, would I be in the hospital loaded with medication? Would the court take away my child?

Some dreams do not come true. I have had to close the door on the dream of being a mother. It doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve, but the intensity of grieving has waned. I have learned to accept the reality of my situation. I put my efforts into my art and my writing. My work has been published in various journals, and I have been hired to be a poetry editor of a literary magazine. I have a loving partner who has a young son. My friends and family are all around me. I realize that embracing loss is embracing life. As I close the door on my dream, other doors will continue to open.

***

Sherri Hope Levine is a poet, artist, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She received the Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize and Oregon Poetry Association’s Poet’s First Prize (Poet’s Choice). Her poetry and other writings have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including CALYXThe Timberline ReviewPoet LoreThe Jewish Literary Journal, and Mizmor Anthology. She founded and hosts Head for the Hills—a monthly poetry series and open mic. Her first book, In These Voices, was published in 2018 by The Poetry Box. She escaped the harsh weather of upstate New York and has been soaking in the Oregon rain ever since.

***

Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

***

Notice anything different about the blog? Yes, the puppy picture is gone. As I polish the “Best of Childless by Marriage” book–and as WordPress makes changes in the formatting software–it seemed like time. I’m still working on making the header type more visible. What do you think of the new look so far? 

Who are we saving our COVID-19 stories for?

A writer friend, Grace Elting Castle wrote a column in the local paper last week about how we ought to document our experiences during this COVID-19 crisis for our children, grandchildren and the generations that follow. Journal, write letters, and save newspaper articles, she says. Your children’s children’s children will want to know what it was like. She says she wishes she had asked her grandparents more about their lives.

Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmdWell, I have been thinking the same thing about my own grandparents. In fact I wrote a whole book called Stories Grandma Never Told sparked by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s experiences growing up Portuguese-American in California. I interviewed a whole bunch of Portuguese women to get their stories, and I’m glad I did. Many of them have since passed away. But own grandmother’s stories died with her.

Not only did I not ask about her Portugueseness. It never occurred to me to ask about the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic that was so like the COVID-19 crisis we’re living through now. All four of my grandparents were teens or young adults at that time, and they could have told me. They could have told all of us. Maybe we would have learned something. But they never talked about it, and we didn’t ask. We all assumed it would never happen again.

What does this have to do with childlessness? Those of us who don’t have children have no one to save all this information for. Do we? Certainly no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Maybe descendants of our siblings’ kids will be interested later on. Maybe not. So what do we do with our stories, just let them die with us?

I’m a writer. I can’t do that. I feel compelled to keep a record. I’m writing, I’m saving information, I’m documenting the whole thing. I’m not planning to write a book about it. God knows we’ll be drowning in coronavirus books in a year or two. But I’m taking notes.

I grieve the loss of descendants. I want there to be someone down the genealogical line with my name and my genes who wants to know what it was like, who will treasure every scrap of information she can get about what it was like for me and others during this time. I want that so bad, but I can’t have it. And yes, I know that if I had children and grandchildren, they might not be interested at all.

Going through a box of my parents’ things the other night, I came upon a tiny prayer book published in 1922. I think it was my grandmother’s. It’s a beautiful thing with lovely illustrations. Who will want it when I go? I placed it with my other keepsakes from dead loved ones, including a Portuguese prayer book that my childless great-aunt left behind. It’s so old I wonder if one of her parents brought it from Portugal in the 1800s. Maybe that little Portuguese book offers an answer. Aunt Edna’s book made its way to me, and I love it. Where it goes from here is not up to me.

I’m not sure who I’m saving my coronavirus stories for. My niece and nephew? Friends? Strangers? My fans (hah)? Maybe they will go to a museum or be archived online. Maybe a researcher or another writer will be overjoyed someday to find my accounts of this time. All I can do it write it. What happens after I die is not up to me.

God help us, whatever we leave behind will go where it goes and we have no control over that.

Grace Castle is the author of A Time to Wail, a Native American novel set here in Oregon. It captures some of her family history. I wish her column had included a paragraph or two that might begin, “And if you don’t have children . . .” but I guess we have to fill that part in for ourselves.

***********************************************************************************

How are you doing during this time of fear and isolation? My neighbor and her daughter are coming outside every night at 8 p.m. and howling like wolves. They are joining a growing group of howlers across the country expressing their frustration as well as their support for healthcare workers and first responders. I have joined them a couple times and plan to do it tonight. What the heck. Go out and howl. See if anyone howls back. Awwwoooooooo!

I welcome your comments.

Grieving? Find Your ‘Fishtrap’ Experience

 

We sat on a circle on the deck, warming in the sun as we wrote poetry. Nearby, the river rushed noisily toward the sea. Squirrels chased each other down the spruce tree and across the deck while a doe silently watched from a few feet away. This was the scene during my mornings last week at the Fishtrap writers workshop in Eastern Oregon. Writers from all over the country gathered to study with experts in all different types of writing. I was one of a dozen in Holly Hughes’ poetry class, a wonderful blend of meditation, mindfulness and creative writing. We writers quickly bonded. There were young people here, too, participating in a program for teens. Young or old, parents or not, married or not, it didn’t matter because we had come together to do something we love. More than spouses or parents or grandparents, we were writers. And I did not feel bad even once about not having children.
In contrast, when I got back to the real world, I visited The Grotto in Portland, which is like a giant Catholic garden, with sculptures and paintings telling the stories of Jesus, Mary and Joseph amid the trees and flowers. Recorded music plays above an outdoor chapel as you walk through the gardens, pausing to think about the Bible stories depicted in the art. It’s lovely, but it’s also full of people with their kids. I was walking through the rose garden when I heard a child call “Baba!” I turned to see a woman about my age stop and hold her arms open wide as her granddaughter ran into her embrace. Suddenly I wanted to weep. I had been looking at religious scenes for 45 minutes, feeling nothing, but this I felt. It was one of those moments. If you’re childless, you know what I mean.
But let’s get back to the joy of Fishtrap. If we immerse ourselves in things we love, we can stop dwelling on the children we don’t have and just enjoy being with people who like to do the same things we like to do. There were some people at Fishtrap who were not writers, who had come as chaperones for their teen-aged kids. And you know what? I felt sorry for them because they always had to worry about the kids. I didn’t have to worry about anyone but myself. I was totally free to write and think and make new friends.
The moral of this story is that you can find relief from your grief by immersing yourself in something you love. It doesn’t have to be writing; it can be anything that takes you out of yourself and into something that captures your mind and heart.
Is there something you can do, someplace you can go to give yourself that Fishtrap feeling?