I Left My Children When My Mental Health Failed

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The Lost Daughter, a recent Netflix movie, has my friends buzzing. For those that don’t know the film: A woman’s quiet seaside vacation takes an unsettling turn when her fixation on a young mother staying at a nearby villa awakens memories from her past.

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Some of my friends feel it’s too artsy; others feel it’s a masterpiece. But universally, they all recoil at Leda leaving her children for three years to 1) focus on her career, and 2) have an affair. They don’t see her as a good mother, but rather a woman who was ill-equipped to be a mother at all.

Time and again, viewers watch Leda struggle as she attempts to simultaneously care for her daughters and finish her work with little to no help from her husband, whose career comes first. It’s like distance learning that never ends — a nightmare situation most for most women I know.

My perspective is a bit different. I was both left by my mother, and I’ve been the mother leaving.

In my case, with my own children, I left not because I was overwhelmed by motherhood, but because I understood I was not able to care for them. After nearly two years of trying to be strong for my husband, James, as he dealt with a brain injury, depression, and PTSD, the discovery of his affair devastated me.

Until the moment I made the decision to leave, I didn’t realize how precariously dangerous my own mental health had become, and I worried that if my children witnessed me completely and utterly falling apart — after watching it happen to their father — it would harm them more than me leaving.

For roughly 8 weeks over the summer, I left them with my parents. It wasn’t abnormal for my boys to spend extended vacations in Northern Michigan with my parents, but I had never been away from them for that long. Normally, they’d fly out a week or two ahead of me, and so I framed it as a vacation — like a summer camp, only longer.

I left the night I discovered James’s affair and flew to Paris, France (I know, sounds nice). There, I hid from the world and refused all calls and texts, and nearly achieved my goal of simply disappearing from life. I fluctuated between wanting to die and fighting to live.

Eventually, James came to me, and we as we tried to figure out the status of our marriage, it became clear how mentally unstable I was.

James immediately found a therapist for me, but it took a year before I was diagnosed with bipolar depression and began appropriate treatment. (I want to note that James flew to Michigan several times while he was with me in Paris. It was only me who didn’t see the boys during this time.)

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Did I do the right thing, leaving my children?

At the young ages of 10, 8, and 5 they knew James had a “broken brain” and had had an affair, and they knew I was devastated. They understood we were trying to fix our family, and Papa and Ba-Miss were helping us. My boys also believed I would return even though when in the depths of depression, I didn’t know if I could.

By being away from me, they did not witness my early suicide attempts or self-destruction; they didn’t see my explosive rage as I tried to make sense of why James did what he did, and they never heard my devastating belief that the traffic accident which caused James’s brain injury and PTSD was my fault. We were able to shield them from all of that during those dark, early days.

Some of my readers feel I was wrong and that I left my children when they needed me most.

I disagree.

My kids were with the only people who love them as much as James or me — their grandparents. I provided a safe place for them when I could not be their rock. It may not seem like it, but I left because I loved my children.

Leda’s story in The Lost Daughter resonates with me. Like her, I’m in my mid-forties, and I too, look back and wonder about my decisions. I wonder if I replicated generational abandonment, leaving as my mother did, that will spiral down to my grandchildren. I worry about my illness passing on to my children. I worry and worry and worry.

It’s hard not to when women are repeatedly told good mothers don’t leave. Good mothers put their children’s needs first. Good mothers suck it up and make due. We must sacrifice for our children in every way — even if it crushes us and spirals out and hurts our children.

I wish we could change that narrative. Sometimes, what’s best is for a mother and her children is for her to step away — especially when she knows staying will cause more damage.

Some women aren’t meant to be mothers and don’t realize it until after their child is born. Some women have mental health issues. Some women just need a freaking break from the relentless demands of motherhood.

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It’s not our place to judge the decisions these women make about their own unique family situations.

In my case, I knew addressing my mental health issues was more important than physically being with my children. I put on my life jacket before putting on my boys’ so we could all stay afloat. Eight weeks with their grandparents is a blip compared to a life without their mother.

Thankfully, we all made it to shore. We survived the wreck and thrived.

My sons are young adults now, and I have close relationships with each of them.

My oldest two and I text or talk daily while they are away at college, and we love spending time together when they are home. We have successful relationships because over the years, as they’ve grown, we have openly discussed what our family went through and how it impacted us as individuals and as a family. We practice empathy and compassion toward each other and ourselves.

In the end, James and I managed to heal ourselves and marriage and provide the boys a stronger family foundation to flourish in. My stepping away protected the boys from seeing some of the unthinkable ugliness that I believe they would have struggled to bounce back from.

My sons understand I did what I did because I loved them and wanted to protect them. But most importantly, they know they are all my heart.

Mia’s memoir Always Yours, Bee, about her husband’s accident and her subsequent spiral into mental illness, was selected by BookBub as one of “15 Powerful Memoirs to Read in 2021.” She is also the author of the women’s fiction series, The Waterford Novels.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.