depression, moods, mothering, reflections

on feeling like a failure

It happens every year, though every year it catches me by surprise. Those of you with jobs—real jobs, the kind that come with vacation pay and 401ks and profit-sharing—know nothing of this, but those who walk alongside me in the freelancer lane can probably relate. It’s once-reliable checks that now arrive days (or weeks) late because the HR person took a few days off for the holidays and there didn’t seem to be any reason to process silly invoices before she left for her (paid) vacation to (insert sunny climate here). Meanwhile, my anxiety level does go to 11, as the joke goes, and with it my depression plummets, because if there is one thing that makes me feel like a failure, it’s the thought that on the 1st of the month I won’t have the money to pay my rent.


I’ve always said my definition of “success” in NYC was simple: able to pay my rent, enough food to eat, and subway fare. It’s a pretty basic definition. Sometimes the food was ramen noodles with a tablespoon of peanut butter for “dessert,” and I went to bed still hungry. But it was “enough” to keep going. And sometimes subway fare was scraped together by looking for loose change in drawers and pocketbooks, backpacks and under the bed. There were a few times I ashamedly called my brother to help with my $125 weekly rent that first year, but then he got married and had his own family to support. Now, 3-1/2 years into the whole enterprise, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to ask for help. Last year I didn’t have to worry about the freelancer holiday conundrum, because I had one of those “real” jobs. Until I didn’t, and I ended up back in this lane again, one I’ve been in far longer than I’ve either wanted or intended to be.


There’s another area in my life in which I am often judged as a success or (more often) a failure: motherhood. I try to avoid thinking about it. We all know what society says, what my ex thinks, what his fiancée believes. I have a document from one guardianship hearing to tell me exactly what they think of me, which I read once and then filed way to forget about. I rarely, if ever, talk about the specific circumstances surrounding what happened to cause me to become a noncustodial mother. And only once, in a cumulative five years of therapy in the eight since I’ve gotten sober, have I talked with a therapist about how that makes me feel as a mother. That session was so difficult I couldn’t get out of bed for three days afterward, and we agreed to table the issue. That was nine months ago, and we haven’t come close to broaching it since. That is to say: it is the most painful thing in the world for me to talk about. And, yes, anything I think/fear about myself is worse than anything you can say to me in the comments (go ahead, it’s happened already and, yes, I know who makes those comments).


Am I a good mother? Am I a “good enough” mother? Am I even a mother? Who knows? I do the best I can with what I’ve been allowed (yes, allowed) to have.

Did I fight for my children? Did I try to get custody of them? What happened? (This was asked of me today, not out of malice, but curiosity.) Yes, and no, and yes, and it depends. I trusted someone to behave honorably and, by the time it became clear he wouldn’t, I was busy getting sober and healthy and figured he’d come to his senses at some point, that I just needed to show him how unreasonable he was being. But by then, it was easy to brand me as the one who had always been running away, and in a sense I had been, so why wouldn’t that last time be interpreted any differently? After all, who wants to trust a drunk who so easily trusts her children in the hands of a man who’s betrayed her?


It was so easy to change my definition of success when I moved to New York, to come up with a different idea, specific to my context, that made me feel I was doing OK because I was doing the best I could and making do with what I had. It was so easy to feel I’d accomplished something just by existing in circumstances that make other people buckle and run back to Ohio, or Nebraska, within the space of six months.

But I could probably be in therapy until I’m 103 years old and my children, should they still be alive, are elderly themselves, and I don’t know that I’d be able to relieve myself of the idea that a good mother would have done things differently. What things, I don’t know. Things. If I could only get through the pain and talk about it, maybe I’d figure out what they are. But that one session in the therapist’s office that had me laid up for three days was a doozy. How can one person be expected to walk through that? Maybe some things are better covered up with quippy statements glossing over so much and revealing nothing: I’m showing my kids what it’s like to have a mom who takes risks, follows her dreams, isn’t afraid to be spontaneous. We have fun together, explore the world. Maybe one day they’ll want to live near me.

Meanwhile, inside, it’s a hollow, sad space, one I hope they don’t ever know exists. I don’t want them to know how sad I am to be this kind of mom, to have had so much of their lives taken from me. Now: does that make me a better mom, to hide from them my devastation? Is any absolution possible, or will I spend my life answering innocuous questions about what happened to get me to this point?


And all of this, today, is exacerbated by hormones and lack of sleep and being sick and feeling generally vulnerable and… checking my bank balance. And realizing that if the damn check I’ve been expecting to be deposited for nearly a month (and would have been deposited, probably, today, if not for the holiday) doesn’t get put in my account on Monday, then… well, rent’s going to get pretty interesting. And I may have to do something I haven’t done in the 25 years since I’ve left home: call my dad and ask for help. And—poof!—there goes my “success” in New York.

It goes deeper, too. Even once that check is deposited, it’s back to the hustle of finding work and checking my email 500 times a day to be the first person to reply to emails my temp agency sends out so I can grab the work. It’s sending out dozens of job applications every week to try and land a FT job (and being tired of the trying). It’s knowing I come across as a confident, competent, intelligent person (and I guess I am), but occasionally I just want to have a meltdown (hello, here it is!) and freak out and say I’m worried things aren’t going to get any better, this is the time things won’t magically come together for me as they have so many other times before. I walk through life with the faith/hope that everything is going to work out for me. But what if I’m an idiot for believing that? What if this time, things really do dry up, and I’m done for? (Yeah, I’m great at catastrophizing during a meltdown.)

And, also, why is it that my personal life is fabulous when my professional life sucks and vice versa? Why can’t everything in my life be great at the same time? What do other people do that they can have happy, pain-free lives without depending on medication or seeing a therapist or staying sober? It’s: how do I get through the holidays without wanting to jump off a bridge (no, I’m not going to; it’s metaphorical), and why do I have to miss everyone so much?


Right now, though, it’s about knowing when to shut up. This is a meltdown, and who knows if I’ll leave this post up for long. It’s been a really long day, with lots of unknowns in my life, and I don’t do well with uncertainty. I’ll have a good cry, and I’ll take a hot bath, and I’ll make a cup of tea, and I’ll read a good book. And then I’ll get a good night’s sleep. I can’t change anything tonight except me. And all of that is a good start.