Morning Zen

A Mother Responds to Childhood Trauma and a Family Begins to Heal

June 07, 2019

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Deborah Sheffield (Originally posted 3/9/15)

Last week we featured a Morning Zen post from Daun Kauffman where he appealed to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, to seriously address the issue of childhood trauma. A reader sent in a heartfelt response from the perspective of a mother with mental health challenges. She gave us permission to share her letter but wanted to make sure it was okay with her daughter first. You can read her daughters’ response at the end of the post.

Dear Daun Kauffman and Zen,

I recently read an article in a post of Zen. My beloved, determined, and successful teaching daughter could have helped you write this article! But I cried because as I read, knowing that although, as an educator she helps students– many like those mentioned in the article…I am certain that she also would feel a sense of recognition for herself as a child with ACE, according to your definition. I recently found one of her notebooks from middle school.  It read, “I hate my mom! None of my friends can understand why because she is so nice. But I never have anything I want or need.  I hate her!”

I’m tired…and I have been so very tired for a long time now, tired of mental illness associated with those who commit horrible violence or hurtful cruelty against children. I am a mother, was a single mother…and yes, I have a mental illness diagnosis. But I was never a cruel mother to my two children, although I have many heartbreaking regrets.

When my first was born, I had spent eight months in the preparation and, in knowing that she was a girl, prepared her bedding in white and pink dotted-swiss. She had nice quality clothes waiting for her, a pink and lace-clad Ms. Noah bunny and Italian leather baby shoes. I breast-fed on demand and could recite from Your Child’s Self Esteem by the time she was 1. Her dad, she, and I lived in a 1-bedroom apartment, but she had lots of attention, as I was a stay at home mom. There were many colorful and stimulating baby toys, lots of books that were read to him by both her father and me. And there are countless photographs depicting our little lives during those early years.

Our lives were a little more stressful when my son was born in the bitter Kansas winter of l990. Our little family had just endured a layoff of my husband and relocated from the Nashville, TN area. Everything I had read supported breastfeeding as the best way to protect a baby from illnesses, so once again I nursed my child until he was one year old. He had books, toys, and songs too. He was so bright-eyed from the day of his birth! I continued my college education, even though our family had just one car. My children and I would meet my husband after work, and they waited on campus for me to attend my night class 1 evening each week.

Yes, it was difficult and not the most desirable situation, but one night a week they waited for me and then on Saturday, I spent the morning in class again. These were the early days of my children’s lives. This, along with Sesame Street, Minnie Mouse, homemade bed linens and posters of all the Disney Princesses. Little trucks, Little Tikes, and sandboxes–these were the days of books read each night before bed, and the “3 Little Kittens” who nightly lost their mittens! My daughter’s nighttime song was “Brahms Lullaby” and for my son, it was “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”…lullabies sung to them by a mother who loved them both dearly. Their dad sang to them too, “Muffin Man”. Our Thanksgiving as a little family alone in the Midwest was something like this: the four of us colored pilgrim hats, and Native American headbands to wear at the Thanksgiving table where we told the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans celebrating a harvest and harmony together in peace.

That Thanksgiving, I was told by a college friend that my children were “overindulged” because of this interesting way of celebrating.

Then slowly, everything began to change. I met some friends at school who were young, unmarried, and who liked that I could buy the appetizers and drinks on my husband’s American Express card. I was naïve and lonely for friendship. As the mother of 2 young children, I needed to be at home when not at school or the library. But with new-found friendships and attention that accompanied a major weight loss, I began spending more and more time with my new school friends. This wasn’t the right thing at that time in my children’s lives… they needed the stability that had been and a structure for their young emerging selves.

But things worsened. In the spring of l992, the stress of school and a deteriorating marriage broke me; I had a breakdown that landed me in the Psych ward of a local hospital for 2 weeks and in a psychiatrists’ office in Topeka, Ks for the next 4 years; which has turned into most of my adulthood! Then, the  meds were debilitating…they made me so drowsy during the day that I could barely function; when they created a terrifying restlessness that confused me all the more, hives happened and another medicine was ordered to counter the effect of the medicine creating the restlessness and hives! These were the days when meds were given, and no information nor warnings allowed. I sincerely believed that the restlessness and hives were just further indications of being increasingly crazy, of descending further and further into madness.

My life after my breakdown was bleak and heartbreaking, but worse than anything I suffered… My children lost the attentive mother they had grown accustomed to and known since their births.

These two children have been in the forefront of my mind despite 23 years of living with Bipolar Depression… precisely 23 years next month. As a former educator, (yes, I managed my own classroom in middle school in 95-96), my heart goes out to children who are abused both physically/sexually and emotionally. As I think back on the years my children grew up… there was indeed some neglect for which I can never forgive myself. But it was not a neglect from callous uncaring; I quit helping with homework when my son came home from Elementary school and said his math teacher was “tired of his math homework always being wrong.”

There was a divorce when my daughter was 10 and my son only six years old. As a woman trying to be “Normal” but knowing that I carried a diagnosis most people feared, I was shy and a wallflower at Brownie functions and could feel the silent judgment of the other mothers. Because of that heavy silence, I never attended a PTA meeting at their Elementary school. They played soccer with the other middle-class kids, but I never knew if the child support check would arrive timely or 3 days, one week, or 2 weeks late. Curiously, accounting glitches were the norm. Needless to say, my credit suffered and worrying about where the next loaf of bread would come from or pleading with the electric company to leave the lights on 3 more days was taxing, stressful, and something not hidden well. My children never saw me crying in the night and despite all my sadness and depression, I tried my best to be “up” when they were home and around.

The neglect that my children suffered was not some deliberate aberration, some scary threatening aspect of mental illness so often depicted in the media. We were poor; and we had a tiny or old car, always a used car. We lived in a 2-bedroom apartment/duplex but they had their own rooms because I so believed in children having their own spaces to call their own. My bed was a day bed in the living room, and I dressed in the 1 bathroom. But at night, my night meds created deep sleep… slumber that kept me from reminding them to brush their teeth or demanding lights out. When they argued, I didn’t have the energy or confident courage to stand my ground—I often gave in and was a push-over mom.

Finally, I discovered donating plasma, for 2 years I made 45.00 a week selling the fluid from my blood twice weekly. It bought after school snacks, put gas in the car, and also gave my youngest son allowance each week after my daughter moved in which her dad and his new wife. I now have Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus….I don’t know if there is a connection, but certainly donating plasma isn’t the most healthy way to earn 45.00 a week!

I write this to you as a mother who was a single mom with a mental illness. Never in my life would I deliberately hurt my children! I would give my life for them gladly if needed and never was any of the neglect deliberate, but sadly they endured neglect nonetheless.  What I needed was help…not judgments and rumors; assistance with stabilizing my home… not deliberate efforts to destabilize. And what I needed was knowledge, structure, and a demonstration of caring for me as a mother of my two wonderful children from my community—not further searing isolation. I had some wonderful doctors and therapists over the years, but the community seemed so unenlightened about mental illness and supporting single moms.

My children have memories of lack. Although their father and I were increasingly incompatible and hurtful to one another in differing ways, I would give anything if I could go back to those Thanksgivings with homemade head-dresses and black pilgrim hats so that the years of their feeling lack could be undone.

I’m glad there are astute teachers, like you and my daughter, to help the children with ACE… holistic helping, with true caring, empathy, and kindness– rather than indifferent judgment, is key to helping those children…helping those families.



Daughters response to Deborah’s request for permission to post in Morning Zen

  • “No, I think it is great to read that because that is what I have wanted you to understand for a long time. My ACE is really high compared to people I associate with, but lower than the kids I teach. I have worked hard to overcome the things that could have so easily brought me to a lower standard of living, but I always say that if the worst that has come from my childhood is being a young mom and cursing like a sailor, I turned out alright. I’m not embarrassed in any way. I tell people about my childhood all the time. It has given me a lot of insight and empathy. Publish away.”
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