As a child, I developed a picture of the ideal mom. This fictitious character was young and beautiful, fair and generous, intelligent and energetic; basically, she was Mary Poppins.

Sometimes I would see a mom who matched my ideal, and I wished she were my mom. My fantasy grew out of contempt for the reality I was living. My own mother was the opposite of my ideal. I knew no good mother would cut her child’s fingernails until they bled or yank her child’s arm so hard it felt like it was being detached from the shoulder.

The practically perfect mom would not scream at her kids, nor lie and manipulate them. And she most definitely would never allow strange, unsavory men into her home.

A Way Out

I was lucky. By the age of fourteen, I had the good fortune to move in with my sister’s mother-in-law, Peggy. She was plump, loud, fun, caring, an excellent cook and hilarious. Not my ideal mom, but in many ways, she was better. She made me cookies, listened to me ramble, took care of me when I was sick and spoiled me in all the ways a mom should. I loved Peggy.

It was easy because she loved me first.

The contrast between the two women who raised me couldn’t have been starker. And my feelings toward them were radically polarized. I hated one and loved the other. I saw no reason to forgive my mom because she never apologized.

For anything. Ever.

I held onto my bitterness because I thought it was justifiable. My mom had earned my hatred just as Peggy had earned my love. I knew who I wanted to be like when I became a mom. But how far can an apple fall from a tree? A mile? A hundred miles?

I wish.

Throw-ups and Pee and Tantrums

At the age of twenty-five I had my first child, a playful baby boy. I had a powerful desire to spend as much time with him as possible. When the opportunity came for me to quit my job, I took it. Soon I had another baby, a high-spirited girl. Everything seemed so … reasonable. My kids were two-and-a-half years apart. I potty-trained my son before my daughter was born. I got them on a good nap and bedtime schedule. Easy-peasy.

Except when it wasn’t. It was hard. Harder than any other job I’d ever had. And I wasn’t getting paid. My kids threw up on me, peed on me, threw numerous tantrums and sometimes screamed for over an hour. On top of that, I became extremely lonely. When I hung around other moms, they all talked about their kids. I never wanted to talk about my kids. I longed to talk about anything except my offspring. Now, instead of wanting to spend time with my children, I wanted to escape them.

My dissatisfaction with this situation grew until I snapped. I had what is traditionally known as a nervous breakdown. The tension began in the middle of the day, but I contained myself (sort of) until my kids went to bed. Then I blacked out. I didn’t lose consciousness. I just have no memory of what happened. It’s a blank.

My husband remembers the incident very clearly. According to him I threw anything within reach. Then I curled into the fetal position and yelled, “I hate you,” over and over again. When I calmed down, all I could do was hold myself and shake or pace back and forth. I knew I was not mentally stable.

Finding the Missing Piece

Then next day I sought professional help. What followed was months of therapy. I tried medication, but for me the side effects outweighed the benefits.

As I sat in my therapist’s office, I spent a lot of time talking about my mom—her many shopping sprees, her yelling, the spontaneous trips she took us on, and the men she let into our house. After a while my counselor said, “I think your mother may have been bipolar.” This sounded more than reasonable given her behavior. The diagnosis was like a missing puzzle piece that suddenly put the whole picture into focus.

Weeks passed, and I spent lots of time crying in the bathroom. After crying for a few minutes, I would have to blow my nose. I remembered my mom spending a lot of time in the bathroom and hearing her frequently blow her nose. Could she have been crying? She had plenty of reason to.

I began to consider my mom’s exhaustion and many illnesses. While they are not an excuse for bad parenting, they are certainly a reason for pity. My attitude toward my mom began to soften. I began to crave mercy for her just as I craved it for myself. It had become clear to me I was not a perfect mom. I hoped my husband and kids would forgive my many shortcomings. And in that hope, I couldn’t help but forgive my mom.

I share this with everyone because I cannot share it with my mother. She died of cancer shortly before I found out I was pregnant with my first child. My oldest is 11 now, and I tell him the truth: “My mom was in a lot of pain, and she took it out on other people, but God still loves her.” One day, I hope to see her in her right mind, knowing she is loved.

In the meantime, I will still emulate Peggy in every way I can. When I cannot, I remind myself that there are many different types of good moms, and some of them are nothing like Mary Poppins. When I fail to be a good mom, I know I am already forgiven. I apologize and try again.