Awake in the Dream House


This memoir explores the complex dynamics of a family affected by a mother’s postpartum mental illness. It captures the charm and bleakness of rural New England in the 1950s and ’60s, the innate spirituality of children, and the ways that love and compassion grow up through the cracks and around the edges of difficult circumstances.

From Awake in the Dream House:

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot in the last two days,” my friend JoAnn says, looking at me pointedly. She picked me up at the Albany airport a few hours ago and now we’re on the sun porch in her house in Rhinebeck.  I’m here from Iowa City for a nine day visit.  JoAnn takes a copy of the New York Times that was sitting on the table and hands it to me.   “Look at this,” she says.

On the front page of yesterday’s paper is a headline, “Thinking of Ways to Harm Her:  New Findings on Timing and Range of Maternal Mental Illness.”

“And there was another piece about the same thing in today’s paper,” JoAnn says, handing me the Tuesday edition of the Times.

I sit down and read straight through both stories while JoAnn goes off and does something in the house.  It makes me feel a little light headed, a little sick to my stomach, to see the information right there in black and white in the New York Times.  The Tuesday story is the one that gets to me the most.   That story has details about mothers, what they felt, what they did, how they couldn’t connect to their babies, didn’t like their babies or want to have anything to do with them, because of postpartum mental illness.   He was in the bathtub and I thought of how if I just held his head under the water for a few minutes it would solve all the problems, one mother said.  He burst into tears whenever I came into the room, another woman, looking back after being “cured” of the illness, said about her baby.

I feel stunned – surprised and moved and amazed — to be reading those things reported so neutrally – neutrally and with compassion toward the mothers – in the New York Times.  Not told the way bits and pieces of my own story were told to me by my father when I was a kid, as if there is something wrong, morally wrong, with a mother who wants nothing to do with her own child, who neglects one kid’s needs for the other’s, who considers drowning her kids.

Your mother rejected you, my father told me, repeatedly, when I was a kid.  Once when you were a baby, he told me in his grudging way – grudging toward my mother, as if he held a grudge against her for doing that stuff to me – your mother put you out on the cold sun porch in the winter so your crying wouldn’t wake up your sister.  I had to rescue you after she went to bed.

There was a story like that in the New York Times too, one woman saying she was obsessed by worry that her new baby’s crying would wake up the older sibling.   Maybe that was even the one who considered holding the baby’s face under water for a few minutes.

There was almost no mention in the Times stories about what happens to the children, just that one little line about the baby bursting into tears when his mother came in the room, and this, so dry and clinical it barely registers on the page:  “Studies indicate that maternal stress may undermine women’s ability to bond with or care for their children, and that children’s emotional and cognitive health may suffer as a result.”

And there was even less discussion about the slippery, shape-shifting nature of the truth, no acknowledgment that people with their traumas and distortions, their rage and shame and self-loathing, hardly ever fit cleanly and clearly into box-like diagnoses.  No mention of the confusing blurry nature of mental illness itself, of the fact that mental illness often makes people do things that hurt people, things we would normally think of as “bad” — and what are those of us who have been on the receiving end of those harmful things, supposed to do with that?

Still, when I read those pieces about maternal mental illness that day in JoAnn’s house, I could sense it, like the pea hidden underneath the enormous pile of mattresses in the fairy tale the Princess and the Pea — the truth, the real truth about my life:  My mother and I were both victims of her postpartum mental illness.

Visit CNN Online for more from Mary Allen on being the daughter of a mother with maternal mental illness.