We're All Mad Here: Parenting While Crazy

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

One particularly interesting, troubling, and recurrent depiction of mental illness in pop culture comes up in the handling of of mentally ill or cognitively impaired parents, where the traditional parent/child roles are reversed to advance a storyline. It is notable that this often involves a mentally ill mother, to underscore the idea that the parent is somehow failing at social obligations as a result of mental illness—mothers are for mothering, not for being ill, after all.

So many works of pop culture include some variation of this storyline; mother slips with a knife in the kitchen, mother lies in bed and won’t move, mother becomes irrational and erratic, sometimes, in an extreme case, mother succeeds at a suicide attempt or kills a child. Father carts her off to the hospital and there is much somber discussion before he returns, alone. Visits are promised but never occur. Sometimes mother is ushered offstage at this point, never to appear again. Sometimes she comes back after her time away, a fragile version of herself whom everyone must tiptoe around.

Pop culture tells us a number of dangerous things about parenting and mental illness, particularly when it comes to mothering. Parenting, we are told, is simply not possible with mental illness. It’s too dangerous: You will break your children or you will abandon them in their hour of need. You are too unstable to be trusted with the tremendous responsibility of childrearing, unless you are willing to abide by very strict rules for the management of your condition.

Betty Draper on Mad Men experiences a period of depression that causes her to snap at her children and neglect them. A lot of viewers read this as pure selfishness, and it became a bit of turnoff for some of her former fans; she’s being a bitch, why won’t she snap out of it, how come she’s wallowing so much? Others read her depression as situational, and a response to the pressures of her era and the frustrations of her marriage, but sometimes this reading was tinged with irritation; why didn’t she leave if she was so unhappy?

On South Riding, an adaptation of the book of the same name that aired earlier this year, one of the most important characters is also one of the most absent; Muriel is mentally ill and lives in an institution, and her daughter is depicted as bereft without her. She’s nervous, edgy, and shows signs of mental illness herself, with her father largely neglecting her, haunted by memories of his wife. The absent parent is one depiction of mental illness, where we see that a character is fundamentally damaged and broken by lack of a parental figure.

Muriel on South Riding, dancing in a dream sequence.

White Oleander shows another take on mentally ill parenting, with Ingrid very much present until she goes to jail for murder. Astrid is depicted in a continually put-upon role. She has to be the responsible adult, in charge of making sure basic household needs are met because her mother is too busy spinning off into the stratosphere. All she wants is a “real mother” and Ingrid is depicted as cold and selfish, too wrapped up in herself to do anything for her daughter.

Mental illness is also implied in Push, later adapted into Precious, where the storyline suggests that Mary is mentally ill and attributes her parenting failures to this. Given that Mary is also abusive, this sets a very dangerous precedent; there is a hint that abusiveness is the result of mental illness. Perhaps that mentally ill parents are unsafe and dangerous, inherently, because of their conditions.

Cognitive impairments, while not specifically examples of mental illness, also show the ways that the reversal of parent/child roles in a disability context can be played out. On The West Wing, CJ’s father struggles with Alzheimer’s, and CJ in turn struggles with her relationship with her father, frustrated by the consequences of his illness and almost angry at him for being sick. Buffy used the role reversal as a tool in the fifth season in the storyline with Joyce, underscoring the fact that even the Slayer can’t defeat everything by disabling her mother. Joyce goes from a confident, loving, assertive figure to a shell of her former self.

Joyce from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, looking like a concerned parent.

This handling of mental illness tends to present it as something out of control, scary, and dangerous. And also very, very selfish. Mentally ill people in pop culture are often deeply self-absorbed, wrapped up in themselves and their disorders, which means they have no time for anyone else. When it comes to parents, pop culture implies that mentally ill parents are too broken and damaged to possibly provide the level of care and support their children need. When this is the understanding of mental illness that many people have, it sets dangerous precedents.

Finding positive depictions of mentally ill parents is an uphill struggle, let alone depictions of parents who are members of Mad Pride movement, who may reject conventional treatment approaches to mental illness. For people with mental illness who want to be or are parents, pop culture provides ample reminders that this is a bad idea and should be reconsidered. For people without mental illness, pop culture provides ample judgment fodder and this can be a big problem when those people are decision-makers, the people who, for example, get to evaluate whether a parent should be allowed to keep a child after a report to child services expressing concern, or who sit in judgment on a jury.

(Many thanks to abby jean for her help with this post!)

Previously: We’re All Mad Here: Case Studies in Crazy Cartoon Characters

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20 Comments Have Been Posted


Thank you so much for writing this! This is something I have internalized so much to the point of pretending I don't want children because I'm afraid both that people will think of me this way and also that I WILL be like this. I often feel like I'm being selfish for focusing on my mental health when my depression and anxiety are extra high. I think it also causes me to do a lot of distancing - I think it's interesting how these views affect those with mental illnesses as well.
It reminds me of when I almost turned down a chance at what is a pretty great relationship because I didn't want anyone to "have to deal with me". It makes me sad to think about.

Thanks for this post

This is a great post! Depictions of mentally ill parents, especially mothers, NEVER show all the gray areas in between extremes. I have a mother with an anxiety disorder; she goes to therapy, she takes medication (or used to, at least, I'm not sure about now) and she's also a great mom. Problems with her disorder usually arose when one of her children was having problems at school and she had to meet with teachers to discuss us; things got worse for her and us when my dad left, and I remember her crying on the phone one night explaining to our theater director why my sister had skipped rehearsal (she also has anxiety problems). But I have many more memories of my mom facing her anxiety and dealing with people confidently; it was exhausting for her (something I didn't know until years later), it was draining, it was scary, but she did it because parenting came first. Why doesn't our culture showcase THIS kind of story? I think it would be relatable for a lot of people, and it's certainly more uplifting and hopeful than "mental illness damages/kills you/your children."

Wow, this is such an

Wow, this is such an important topic that I am so glad to see still in the public realm of discussion. Thank you for keeping this issue alive. Bringing these media stereotypes to the forefront of cultural awareness is so important to working through the issues behind them, or caused because of them. So many people are so afraid to even discuss this topic seriously, for fear of what, I wonder, being marked crazy themselves?

what about Tara?

How about The United States of Tara? I have only watched the first season, but that show I feel depicts a family dealing with an fairly extreme mental illness pretty well. There is a lot of love and understanding. Of course there is drama around Taras parenting abilities and sometimes she makes huge mistakes, but her family never forces her to be absent.

I agree

That's what I was thinking as I read the article, too. I've been hesitant to watch the show, worrying about how it would depict mental illness, so I was hoping the author would mention it. Does that show do a good job of depicting a well-rounded, non-stereotypical view of living (and parenting) with a mental illness?

I thought so. Tara was a

I thought so. Tara was a great mother on the show. She was loving and always made sure her kids were taken care of.

Now the actual portrayal of the mental illness (DID) is a whole other issue. But Tara as a mother, great but imperfect, like any parent.

United States of Tara

Season One was great. Season two had its moments. But season three was a trainwreck that pulled out every negative trope about multiplicity and was very, very offensive. It was so sad to see such a great series completely ruined by the writer's ignorance. So, my recommendation is to just watch season one, and maybe season two.

I'm a member of a multiple system and for a while we really liked it, even if the portrayal of DID was overly clinical and was not really an accurate representation of what our lives are like, but season three really upset us.

next to normal

surprising that you don't mention it. it is a broadway musical featuring a mentally ill mother and the plot is focused around the way she deals with the death of her first child. powerful, but wrong in a lot of ways. I'd be interested in your take on it.

South Riding, while it

South Riding, while it purported to be about strong women, ended up being about anything but. What angered me most about the series was its portrayal of David Morrissey's character and his wife. While I agree that its presentation of her mental illness was problematic at best, it disturbed me infinitely more that she was not equipped to have children (something that is very true of a number of women; their bodies are not up to the stress of the hormones that pregnancy brings, and yet they have been convinced to have children anyway, often because of a husband's fundamentalist religious convictions, and it has resulted in the woman's suicide or in the death of her children), and yet he raped her, got her pregnant, subsequently destroying whatever equilibrium she had because her body could not handle the hormonal onslaught, and yet the whole push of the story after that was that he should be forgiven because it was not REALLY his fault!!! There is reality in the idea not only that some women's bodies are not up to the rigours of pregnancy, but also the idea that some men simply do not either realise/believe/care about this because they see women as nothing but a vessel for carrying children. Having written this, I am furious all over again.

Bottom line is, I think education surrounding notions of mental illness are sloppy at best, utterly dangerous at worst. We not only need better education about how different illnesses operate, but also a push for real empathy when it comes to the sufferings of others.

What's left over

I think there's a huge spectrum of mental illness that can't be lumped together as 'mental illness on TV". Serious mental illness will destroy lives. Depression, schizophrenia, OCD, narcissism, etc etc all vary in severity and method of treatment. It's not surprising that TV would choose the more dramatic illnesses and follow the more severe effects of these parent/child interactions. However, there are MANY examples of less severe depression, slight OCD, and somewhat manic tendencies in parents in TV and movies. They make for quirky and more interesting characters. A parent who is successfully managing their mental illness is different from someone who may not recognize they are ill or who is currently in treatment. Depressed parents do commit suicide, fathers with alzheimers do get unexpectedly angry and insult their children, manic mothers do leave for days on end. It's terrible to have a parent like that. My father suffered from untreated mental illness my entire childhood. I think if he was aware enough to see himself and his behavior reflected in a character on TV, he could have decided to seek treatment or maybe forgo having kids at all.

"we're all crazy" belittles serious mental illness

Gotta say, I really disagree with the writer of this article. There are many different kinds and stages of mental illness and any attempt to lump them all together is ignorant to the point of dangerous. I can only assume she means the kind of "mental illness" of someone who has been diagnosed with something, gotten it under control, but continues to exhibit mild symptoms. Someone in the throws of a mental illness can be completely out of control and extremely dangerous and may need to leave the family environment in order to get better and protect the other family members. I think most shows that depict this process are actually helpful in showing people that mental illness is something that is common and needs to be acknowledged and treated. Just saying "it's OK, we're all crazy" belittles the plight of someone suffering from a serious imbalance or delusional state as well as everyone who has to deal with that person. If you don't like the labeling that is used by psychologists to identify problems and treat them, fine. That is all relative, it's not an exact science, but the problems still exist and ignoring them is not a healthy option.

thank you...i think the term

thank you...i think the term "mental illness" is hugely overused...because when your only parent has schizoaffective disorder UNTREATED your entire childhood (which completely ended before age 12) as well as being an alcoholic , you know the difference between :we're all mad here" and severe mental illness...and there are still many hells that the severely ill can create for children...

The Importance Of Mad Pride

Thank you for your article, as someone with a psychiatric disability (or mental illness) I know in the future I may be not allowed to adopt a child because of my depression and anxiety disorders, whether they are treated or not. Parents (and people in general) with mental illnesses are stereotypically shown as violent, dangerous and less intelligent (hence the reversal of parent/child roles). In fact people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than any other segment of the population: we are actually much more likely to be victims of violence. There is absolutely no evidence that people with mental illnesses are less intelligent than average. In addition, mental illnesses are almost always lumped together as a single entity (and always to the most theatrical and violent extreme) in media representations - not as separate disorders, etc, including infinite degrees and variations. The mainstream media's simplistic and medieval understanding of mental illness leads to the kind of political rhetoric that still ostracizes and demonizes people with mental illnesses, and makes many afraid to come out of the “crazy” closet for fear of losing their jobs, friends and livelihoods.


The Thirteenth Tale

Another example of a portrayal of a mother with mental illness is in The Thirteenth Tale, the 2006 novel by Diane Setterfield. The mother's inability to participate in her daughter's life because of extreme, and untreated, mental illness forces the father to be the "single" parent. Why is it that single-father families happen so often in fiction and are so rare in the real world?

Another take on why the mentally ill mother is so common in fiction is that it's our era's adaptation of the traditional orphan motif in coming of age stories. In the Victorian novel when most people were raised in two-parent households, children had to be orphaned before they could go on to meet their fate (ex: Oliver Twist). Now, perhaps, children only have to lose the mother in order to achieve orphan status because it's assumed the father is already missing. Basically, I see the prevalence of mentally ill mothers not so much as a comment on mental illness, but as a comment on the all-important role many mothers play in raising their children alone.

Any thoughts?

Looking at myself...

I've personally suffered from depression since I was 9 and was diagnosed bipolar when I was 17 when I went running down the highway butt ass naked proclaiming I was the Virgin Mary. (I jest because that's how I've learned to deal with it.) I've never been violent in my "crazy" but I've always been terrified that I might become violent. Maybe because that's what I've always been shown. Even before I was diagnosed bipolar I vowed that I would never have children because I didn't want to damage them, and surely having a mentally ill mother would be damaging. Not that I've changed my opinion after reading this of course but it's made me start to rethink why that is my opinion.

I cannot thank you enough for doing this series. I've always felt like I had to separate the feminist from the illness, that I could only care about or think about one at a time, I'm glad to see that that's not the case at all. <3

Some of us were abused by a mentally ill parent

While I am an advocate for the mentally ill and I appreciate your take on the issue, I think your article is incomplete without making reference to the fact that some types of mental illness put parents at higher risk of abusing or neglecting their children.

My mother was institutionalized several times as a teenager and young adult, before she met my father. By the time I was 4 years old, she had already begun abusing me. She abused my brother as well. And her mother, my grandmother, abused me, too.

When my mother was institutionalized 10 years ago, when I was about 28 years old, the intake psychiatrist confirmed what I had known for several years - that she likely has Borderline Personality Disorder. This explained her tendency to be rageful, to the point of throwing objects at me, screaming cruel words at me and denying me presence at the dinner table for several nights in a row.

My mother was severely abused as a child (her mother was mentally ill and killed herself in her early 60s), and it explains why she has personality disorders as an adult (I now know that in addition to BPD, she has NPD, as well as some symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia). I have developed some compassion for her, because I can see how her childhood abuse created the mental illness she has as an adult. She did not want to be violent or have psychotic episodes, they were part of her mental illness; whenever anyone pointed out her behavior to her, she didn't remember any of her violent words or physical actions. Her mental illness created a kind of amnesia.

I'm sharing this to remind the author and readers that some mental disorders, left untreated, do pose harm to children. I and my brother are living proof of that. If parents with untreated mental illness were identified when children were young (or better, before they had children...) , a lot of childhood innocence and safety could be gained.

Thank you for acknowledging abuse by a mentally ill parent

Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your words--my mother is undiagnosed, but has many traits of Borderline Personality Disorder, and comprehending how difficult this experience is and how great the need for validation is, I sincerely thank you for sharing your story.

I find a lot of comfort in reading and research- Christine Lawson's "Understanding the Borderline Mother" was a very valuable resource for me.

I got here through a link

I got here through a link someone left in a comment on my blog post, which was about my wanting to be a parent although I have several mental conditions. (ADHD, Aspergers, depression and anxiety.) I think part of the way society sees parents with mental illness is due to how mental illness was treated in the past. My grandmother had paranoid schizphrenia. She was "put away" by my grandfather, and spent most of her adult life in and out of institutions. When she was at home, her kids resented her. Back then the only treatment options were thorazine and electroshock therapy. Now there are so many more options, and people with a mental illness are allowed to have more control over their own treatment. I think it is perfectly reasonable that a parent with a mental illness could handle managing their own condition while also being a good parent. But the old stories of a child watching his mother get carted away in the middle of the night, never to be seen again, is probably so much more dramatic and interesting to the media!

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