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Oh My God, Am I Going to Be Like My Mother?

Disinheriting madness and other traits.

Growing up, even though I adored my smart, funny, loving mom, I never wanted to be like her. She seemed stuck in the 1950s, a kind of “stand by your man” woman, even though my father was a nasty sulky brute she despised but wouldn’t divorce.

Her life, her joy, was my older sister and me. And at first, it was lovely. But then, as I became more independent, her fierce love was punctuated with rages because I was growing away from her control. She hated how I dressed. She hated my wild curly hair, my boyfriends, and most of all, she hated the secrets I kept from her. While my sister acquiesced to her demands and was more like a girlfriend than a daughter, dressing like our mom, marrying young, keeping a suburban home like my mom, even being a teacher like my mom, I knew something was confusingly wrong, and I pulled away. And the more I did, the more upset my mom became.

I wondered about my mom’s mental health. I worried about my own. But when I asked her to consider going to therapy herself or with me, she laughed and said she didn’t need to hear any bad things about herself.

Though I loved my mother, I was more and more terrified of becoming her. Already I saw my sister following our mom’s path, refusing to leave an unhappy marriage, demanding the same co-dependence from her kids. Was this all in our DNA? Was I doomed to repeat this pattern? And then suddenly, to my shock, I did. I married a man my mother approved of, unhappily finding myself in dreaded suburbia again, pressured to look and act like the lawyer’s wife I was, my own true self thrown by the wayside. When I discovered his affairs, my mother and my sister told me not to divorce, that I’d never find anyone else, that I should have a baby to engage him. An unhappy marriage was to be endured, not destroyed.

Instead, terrified, I dug in my heels. I divorced, trading in suburbia for a tiny shoe-box studio in Manhattan where I felt myself come alive.

I didn’t turn into my mother. Or my sister. After a few years, I married a music journalist who like me, loves the city, and who’s my equal. And when we had our son, we raised him the opposite of how I was raised, the opposite of how my sister raised her kids. To my amazement, we broke the cycle.

I’m not the only woman worried about turning into her mother. Leslie Lindsay has written this incredible memoir I blurbed called Model Home: Motherhood, Madness and Memory, now on submission, and as soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to talk to her about it. Leslie is also the author of Speaking of Apraxia: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. Welcome Leslie!

Leslie Lindsay
Portrait of a family entangled in madness
Source: Leslie Lindsay

Caroline Leavitt: You said that one of the things that terrified you was that because you looked like your mother, you were afraid you would be her?

Leslie Lindsay: Exactly! Little boys don’t typically have this concern. They may favor their mother, but nothing compares to a mother-daughter resemblance. Growing up, I heard numerous family members coo, “You look so much like your mother.” As polite children do, I smiled, and thanked them, but deep down, I worried. My mother had a strumming, glistening energy that seemed to infiltrate her entire being; like diamonds shot out of her skin. But she was a tormented soul, spiritually and also mentally. She comes from a long line of maternal mental health issues, some recognized, accepted, others secret, covert. When she started acting strange—psychotic, actually—half-way between my 10th year—I feared that because we looked alike, were both female, I would meet the same predicament. I know better now, of course. Genetics influence our phenotype (outward appearance), but they also make up our genotype (those intricate connections that make us, us); and there’s a whole lot more to it as well…but also, nature versus nurture. I made very cognizant decisions to be not like my mother. For example—and this may sound very goody-two-shoes—but I never smoked or did drugs of any kind; she did and I saw what happened. I didn’t even drink until I was exactly 21. Growing up, I tried so, so hard to do the opposite of what my mother did. If she lashed out at a store clerk, I was extra kind. If she criticized something, I found ways to praise it. She sewed, I was a bookworm and found other ways to be creative. But all along, I grieved. There was a woman—a type of mother—I wanted but did not have.

CL: I think there are different kinds of deaths to do battle with. My mother found love at the end of her life and actually died happy and fulfilled, and that made it easier. My sister is estranged to me and wishes me dead, and that is harder because you keep wondering: What did I do to cause this? How can I fix this? Even when there is nothing at all to fix. Can you talk about this in your own life, please?

LL: There are so many kinds of grief. There are the near-misses, there is the physical death, and there is haunting, too. Estrangement and shunning, that’s another kind of death, maybe the worst kind because those people are still there, simmering in the shadows sending along hateful, or at least—hurtful—(sometimes) silent (sometimes loud) messages. As kid, I knew enough to realize that I didn’t cause my mother’s mental illness, but there were things that crossed my mind: Did I make her angry? Did I forget to make my bed or something innocuous that made her lose her mind? I understood that my mother made a lot of poor choices that led to her downfall, but it was also about her family history, the legacy of mental illness. Did I try to fix it? All the time. I was a peacemaker, a caretaker. I visited her in psychiatric wards and studied psychiatry. She once bragged to a fellow patient that I was going to become a doctor and cure everyone of mental illness. That’s kind of ironic now that I think about it.

CL: Tell us about Model Home? What was the why now moment when you knew you had to write about it? Was it scary doing it? What was the question you were trying to answer for yourself in writing this?

Leslie Lindsay
Police had to come to Lindsay's home when her mother barricaded them all.
Source: Leslie Lindsay

LL: Scary? Absolutely! The "why now" was when she died, a final physical death. And that’s really what I was waiting for. I’ve wanted to write this story for many years, I just didn’t know how it would end. My mother was a gifted seamstress and interior decorator, but her life was a façade, I knew I had so much material to work with, literarily and figurately. Model Home is about motherhood and madness, yes, but it’s also about doing things differently, breaking the cycle. I am mother to two teenaged girls I love to the moon and back and there’s symmetry there; my mother had two daughters. She always said, “I hope you have children who hate you as much as you seem to hate me.” Again, I did the opposite. I wanted to identify and rectify the poor patterns of parenting behavior. Pinpointing more maternal mental illness was also a goal.

CL: There are so many expectations with mother/daughter relationships. My mother was appalled that I was too independent, that I didn’t share everything with her the way my older sister did, and when my mother thought my sister was hiding something from her, even as an adult, my mother went ballistic! And that need for living through a daughter was passed down to my niece who rebelled against it. How did you handle these expectations for yourself?

LL: Independence is good. It’s challenging to think for oneself, to question things, to do what’s right, and that’s why we must continue to be strong, independent, creative women—speak veracity because it’s terrifying, but also liberating. Secrets cloud the truth; they make it challenging to move forward, to pave new paths. Mother’s and daughters…there is no other relationship in the world more prized and challenged, no other relationship as intricately linked, on a cellular level. Here’s what I am doing: I am raising vivacious, creative, independent, funny, intelligent, and kind daughters. Something’s working.

CL: You’re a former R.N., how did that shape this narrative?

LL: When my mother died by suicide over five years ago, I got my hands on her psychiatric records. Enlightening, tragic, terrifying. But I understood them all: the short-hand, the abbreviations, the professional way of charting something. Here’s what I find elegant and astonishing: Women of the same maternal line are like Russian dolls of all the women who came before. I am part of my mother, she is part of hers, her mother, her grandmother, and so on. Over time, that DNA strand gets twisted and tangled, stretched thin, diluted, but never breaks. I can never be fully extricated from my mother, and she cannot from me. On the flip side, my daughters are a part of me—and her—and that’s the beauty. Together, we are stronger, we can break free.

Leslie Lindsay
Leslie was able to survive--and thrive.
Source: Leslie Lindsay

Leslie A. Lindsay, R.N., B.S.N. is the award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia, originally published in 2012. Leslie’s writing and photography have appeared in various literary journals; she has been recognized as one of the most influential book reviewers, interviewing hundreds of bestselling and debut authors at her website. Leslie is a former Child & Adolescent Psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic. Her memoir MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. She resides in suburban Chicago. Visit her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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