‘The Invisible Cage Called Freedom’: My Work, My Kids, My Mental Health

Quality over quantity, and the struggle for minorities in a system programmed for failure

3
671
(Artwork by Angela Colón-Rentas)

I

see my 3-year-old’s innocent smile as she plays and rides her tricycle, and I can’t help but feel sad and worried about my daughters’ future. I don’t want them to hurt and be disappointed in a world that can nbe so cruel and heartless. 

I observe little Pheanix, who’s over-the-moon as she does her exciting little dance—because, after so many frustrating trial-and-error attempts, she finally can peddle forward smoothly and continuously. She searches for me and yells, “I did it, Mama!” Her voice strikes my soul, as instantaneously and simultaneously I felt warmhearted, proud, and also nostalgic because I know time will go by so quickly. 

When did she get so big, so smart, so kind? What did I do to deserve her?  I don’t want her world to shatter, and her dreams to evaporate. I know it is my responsibility as a mother to prepare her for the disappointment of what life can be. She and her baby sister Zaphyre deserve better than what I have—and had. 

I must admit something: The reason I had Pheanix was to help myself. There was a long moment in time, as a young adult, when I felt lost, when I had no motivation, inspiration, or real reason to stay here, alive. I struggled to believe I could someday reach happiness. I would often think about my family, nieces, nephews, sisters, boyfriend, mom, and they were not enough to convince me of a purpose to live. I fought with the idea of suicide for over a decade and tried a few times. But I was raised as a Pentecostal, so every time, after overmedicating with whatever drugs were available and falling asleep, I would still pray to God  to forgive me and please wake me up the next day. For as much as I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated, I did not want to cause my loved ones pain. 

Being pregnant did not fix things. In a sense, it just made things worse for my mental health. I fell into a bigger depression while pregnant, even bigger after pregnancy, and I cried nearly every day to the point my fiancé thought I was unhappy with him and the life I had chosen. His advice was simple: “I love you, but I’m not a professional. I don’t know what else to do to make you happy.” It wasn’t him, or my daughter. It was me. For the first time in my life, I sought out professional help. 

I went through an assessment period that lasted an hour—just so they could get an idea of my state of mind—and then at different appointments I talked with a therapist and eventually a psychiatrist, who tried to put me on some more meds to control the intensity of my emotions. When my therapist asked me what my triggers were and what caused my depression, the response was simple: Oppression. Social, economic, societal, and racial inequities. Barriers and roadblocks too often ignored by the outside world. 

The harms for minorities, and the power of being acknowledged

What stood out most about those conversations was my sense of being acknowledged, as my therapist told me I was not crazy at all to think and feel such ways about those things. In the end, after getting diagnosed as bipolar and reflecting on our exchanges, my takeaway was that seeking mental health support did not have to be a lifetime commitment, but something to be accessed as needed. It’s OK to ask for or seek assistance. After a few months, I decided I no longer needed to meet with my therapist. And no, I did not want more meds. 

But in understanding myself, and all the forms of oppression that affect the mental health of me and other people of color—I addressed many of them in my first piece for Mad in America—all of this holds true. Sometimes, no matter how much and how hard we try, we’re stuck inside this invisible cage called freedom. We’re told we have the autonomy and the power to make our own choices, but systems are historically set up to make us minorities fail. And it is impossible to undo, all on your own, the damage done. I just want financial freedom—not ambition. I just want to give my mom more than what she gave me, because she tried her best with my sisters and me, even when she couldn’t figure it out herself. I just want my daughters to have their father home longer, and for him to get decent rest—not just two days a week or at the end of a workday, when he is already exhausted. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, as I dressed Pheanix up to go outside, she asked: “Mommy, where is Daddy? I love Daddy so much; I want Daddy here.” I told her he was working. Internally my heart ached, as I wished he was home, too. And I wished we were financially free. 

I encountered this same problem in my role as a Youth Peer Advocate as well. I see hard-working parents work more hours than they can spend on quality time with their children. Not because it’s something they enjoy, but because it is something they must do to survive and provide.

For example, I had two different families from completely different backgrounds and opposite genders. One included a young African-American girl with adoptive working parents who lived in the suburbs and were financially stable. The other was a white non-working single mother to a young man who lived in the city, and in poverty.

Although on opposite spectrums, both parents asked of me the same thing: to help them communicate and connect with their child because the parent/child bond never grew, or it had been broken. 

Once rapport had been established with the youth, I would ask them the reasoning behind the separation or lack of connection with their parents. Their responses fell along the same theme, saying, “They aren’t home.” And when they are, they’re just there at the house. 

Any form of interaction would come as a demand or accusation. So, when their parents tried to connect, the gulf of time and space would be so great between them already that the youth didn’t know how to embrace the situation—or the connection would be simply short-lived.

I tend to look at things from a third-person perspective, and never judge my families. In fact, this made me reflect—a lot—on myself as a mother, and how much I am willing to sacrifice for my kids. The time that will never return. The “firsts” that I will never experience. The trust that gets lost to distance. The respect that gets cloudy when discipline has to be remembered, not experienced. 

Quantity, quality, and the need for self-care

The truth is, being a mother can get exhausting, with the continuous responsibility and expectation to put myself last at every turn. Knowing what I learned as a peer, I’ve felt the need to be more present in my daughters’ lives, especially when both their parents were working full-time. 

As a youth peer I worked from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week, eating up all my energy and time. I would arrive home tired, not able to give the best version of myself to my family. I struggle with the idea of moments turning into memories, and time passing by too quickly before my eyes. I struggle, too, with the thought of having regrets for not being a present mother, which is the norm nowadays.

With the support of my fiancé, I decided to take a step back and be a full-time mom and part-time professional. I decided to take a leap and put my two weeks’ notice at a job that discriminated against me and where there was no longer any room for professional growth. I took that leap because I was continuously working on building someone else’s dream and not my own, and I truly dreaded the moment my daughters would say, “Mommy was always working.” I want to be the one to raise them, teach them new things, and watch them grow. I took that leap for my mental health, because I recognized that as much as I wanted to, I can’t be perfect at everything. I was a full-time professional, part-time mom, per-diem wife/daughter/sister/aunt, and about 1% me. I needed self-care and nurturing in the form of nurturing my home. 

I will take the summer off to give my daughters a healthier and more present me while also opening a way to try to indulge into my creativity and try to build my own dreams. I asked my fiancé for guidance. Talking about our children, and my professional opportunities awaiting my decision, he replied, , “Eventually our daughters will leave us and our home, and then what would you be left with?” That struck me—because deep inside, I knew he was right. Yet my response was still: “Exactly! They will leave us, eventually, and the time with them will never return…”

My heart broke, and a knot in my throat emerged. As my eyes burned and I struggled to breathe, I realized that making the sacrifice to be away a little longer than part-time hours would eventually help them in the future. Because beyond creating a path for myself, I will be creating a path for them so they won’t have to struggle and suffer like I have—and my mother did, and grandmothers before her. 

Now I am at a new beginning, with a better perspective and bigger mindset.  It is not about the quantity, but the quality of the time spent with your child.

I’ve seen this in the families I’ve worked with and in my own family—juggling full-time jobs while taking care of their loved ones and, at the same time, carrying the burdens of racism, poverty, and other forms of deprivation that wither you down. I take my hat off, because I am aware it is not easy. 

To them I give some advice: Do not give up on your children, even if they push you away, for growing up can be overwhelming and confusing. Add to that the obligations we have to a demanding survival society, which complicates everything; your kids have no idea or experience on how to bridge the gap between you and them. They spend so much time at a distance that we must do something every day that makes them feel, heard, seen, validated, and valued. 

We cannot not be the best version of ourselves to others unless we are at peace with ourselves. Break the ice with a positive statement and open-ended approach. A simple “I miss you” can do that.

It can be trial and error but at the end of the day, youth are humans as are we—and all they want is love, peace, to be heard, and to be seen. To them, it may be more about quality, not the quantity.  

***

Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

***

Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is so important on so many levels. Being a parent is a sacred responsibility that’s been relegated to the sidelines because today so many parents can barely survive financially, while the 1% hire nannies to raise their kids. But everyone pays the price in the end.

    Report comment

LEAVE A REPLY