Life Only Gets Harder, or Silver Plungers at a Pre-K Graduation

The day has too much anxiety when I wake up—too many unnamable fears pulsing—shockwaves of reasonless guilt jolting my thoughts. So I prep Zoe that afternoon: “My brain is really sick today—”

“So, you can’t come,” she finishes the sentence for me. She’s five, and already I can hear the disappointment in her voice. It’s the same disappointment I had with my mother, which mutated into resentment when her illness morphed into an excuse. I’ve spent my entire life not wanting to be her, yet here I am, three mood disorders into motherhood feeling I cannot possibly be the mother Zoe needs.

“No,” I say. “I just need some extra support to be there. My bubble might be big, so I might need space. If it’s super noisy and I ask you to be quiet, please listen.”

“Oh, okay!” She perks up. “Don’t forget your pills too.” 

She talks about filling my bucket and not dumping it out, and I smile wearily at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “Yes, I will need help filling my bucket.”

“Because your brain likes to dump it out.”

“Yes.” 

I often wonder if knowing I am mentally ill puts a burden on her. She already has this desire to take care of me, a desire I had with my mother that thrust me toward adulthood too soon. I don’t want her to watch me have panic attacks at school functions and no longer tell me about them because she wants to spare me. I dread the idea she’ll lose her playful spirit taking care of a suicidal mother. I never wanted her to navigate these challenges.

I pick up Kris and swap seats so he can drive us to Zoe’s graduation.

“We have to sing. There’s a big audience,” Zoe says. “That’s scary.”

“I understand being scared sometimes,” Kris says.

“Mommy’s brain lies about scary things. Is mine lying too?”

“Being afraid to sing for a crowd is a valid fear,” I say. “Just look at me and Daddy and pretend we’re the only ones there.”

In truth, I cannot be her mother without her understanding I am ill. I will need her help, her compassion when I fall short, but mostly I want her to recognize my illnesses do not diminish my love. My mother didn’t make this distinction. Often her illnesses overruled: “You should know better than to ask me to come to that. Don’t be sad at me.” 

“I’ve spent my entire life not wanting to be her, yet here I am, three mood disorders into motherhood feeling I cannot possibly be the mother Zoe needs.”

Maybe it’s because of my mother that motherhood is an identity I have a hard time grasping. I am a Mandy who has a Zoe. I adore her, delight in her, but I am not the homemade-brownie, homeroom mom. I am the use-the-medical-terminology-for-body-parts mom. I am the walk-around-nude-in the-house mom. I’m the it’s-your-body and yes-I’ll-buy-your-first-tattoo mom. I am the mom who, once you can do it for yourself, almost never does it for you again, who believes in using profanity shamelessly but also in teaching there are “no bad words, just bad places to use them.” Once, when Zoe was crying in a tantrum about life being so hard for her, my response was “Yes, exactly! And life only gets harder!” That’s me.

But I’m also the kind of mother who needs help from her five-year-old. What kind is that? And where is the line when support becomes burden? 

Hand-in-hand, we walk into the school cafeteria. Kris leaves to find a bathroom, and I scan the room. Lunch tables have been folded into audience benches, and chairs with student names wait on the stage. Toilet plungers, spray painted silver, outline the center aisle and are linked together with long strands of ribbon. Three mothers stand guard over a back table, on which a popcorn machine, trays of cupcakes, goodie bags, and plaques sit. 

Plaques, really? 

I run my tongue along my teeth and sit down.

Other parents are taking pictures of their children in tiny ties and vests, Sunday dresses, and hairbows. Zoe is wearing owl leggings and a wrinkled Pokemon T-shirt, what she had picked that morning. 

The parents cry and fill their children’s hands with balloons and teddy bears and flowers, their little arms spilling with gifts. I glance at my and Zoe’s hands. Empty. 

“I will need her help, her compassion when I fall short, but mostly I want her to recognize my illnesses do not diminish my love.”

Tears begin to pool my eyes, and an invisible corset tights around my chest. I feel the world around me swell into giants as I shrink. 

“Is it okay I didn’t bring you any gifts for your graduation?” It’s a moment of weakness. Logically, I understand she probably didn’t even notice, but now I have asked and ensured she will. 

“Yes. Can I hug you? A kiss?” She pecks my hand and runs off to get ready.

I fold myself across my legs, staring at the cafeteria floor tiles’ wavy patterns. 

It’s pre-k graduation, people. It’s not college. It’s really not that big of a deal, but because you teachers and parents and kids have made it to be this big deal, you’ve convinced my daughter it is. 

Now I’m here without a present. 

Without a camera.

Without even dressing up. 

Oh! But not without a Xanax. 

“I see the long procession of years ahead where I will be compared to and analyzed by other mothers, where I will be the goth/emo kid among the cheerleaders yet again.”

I open my bag, pop a pill in my mouth, eyeing a balding father who gives me a face, and fold back over, placing my head between my knees to focus on my breath. 

Kris sits next to me, runs his hand along my curled back. “I bet there’s not a mother here who reads Harry Potter every night for bedtime. No other mother sits with her kid after a long school day to teach her daughter first grade math. She’s reading and writing and telling stories. She constantly speaks her mind because you taught her not to back down.”

I turn my head toward him, dots in my vision. 

Logically, his words make sense, but emotions (and my body’s hyperbolic reaction to those emotions) are powerful lies. 

So I cry. Because it’s all I have. Because life only ever gets harder. 

Two mothers kneel between the painted plungers and begin to unroll red felt. 

Oh my god, a red carpet. 

I see the long procession of years ahead where I will be compared to and analyzed by other mothers, where I will be the goth/emo kid among the cheerleaders yet again. Thirteen more years of empty hands and red carpets lined with spray painted plungers. 

“These bitches.”

Kris bristles but continues: “Mandy, Zoe might remember you were sick today. But what she’ll really remember is you came anyway.”

Grand music begins, and we notice Zoe across the cafeteria in line, dancing in an electric blue gown and hat, her face a smile so wide her eyes disappear: my smile smiling back at me. Her class walks along the seats and up the red carpet. She waves at us, blows kisses. 

“Life only ever gets harder. Somehow people manage. But we manage so much better when kindness is there too.”

She’s always reminding me. When she goes to Little Gym, her class is a combination of doing what the teacher instructs and running or waving or yelling to tell me how much she loves me. I sometimes wonder if she can see right into my vulnerability and wants to reassure me. And other times I think I’m too sensitive, and she’s just so happy to be doing something she loves that she feels the need to love-bomb me. (I mean, I do that when I’m drunk.)

Zoe’s quick to support me, which I both love and hate. It’s not her responsibility. But she’s such a kind child, and that’s all I’ve ever hoped for her: kindness. Life only ever gets harder. Somehow people manage. But we manage so much better when kindness is there too. 

She twists back and forth as the class sings: “I wish I had a little red box to put my mommy in. I’d take her out and muah, muah, muah, and put her back again.” They sing another about being a little graduate to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot.” 

In many ways, I am jealous of her, of how much she has that I didn’t. What twisted logic! Within this passage, I have wondered if I’m a good mother, but I must be because I’m jealous of how she’s growing up. Right? The complex minute-by-minute, dueling self-doubt of mood disorders is so tedious. It’s hard to think.

Her lone hand above the line of swaying children, Zoe makes the ASL sign for “I love you” and shakes it.  

I raise mine, shake it back. 

I love you with my everything. 

The preppy moms step on the stage with giant gift baskets for the teachers. They pass out copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, certificates, the gift bags, and plaques to the children. Everyone moves toward the back tables for sugar and popcorn.

Zoe bounces back, her arms spilling with goods. She inspects my face, sets her things down. She curls her arm around mine and rests her head against me. “See, Momma, I do get a present.”

Mandy Brown (she/her) is a queer Central Texas writer, a 2019 Poetry Half-Marathon winner, and the 2013 recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Tillie Olsen Fellowship. Her work has been published in Bartleby Snopes, Writers Resist, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and more. Mandy currently teaches at an alternative school for high-risk students and loves it! Read more at mandyalyssbrown.weebly.com.