Posts Tagged ‘depression’

Pen Pal Project

Motherhood is not a competition

Read Reva’s last letter here.

March 9, 2015

My desk

Dear Reva,

It’s been a wild week around here as we all get organized for our first March Break vacation as a newly constituted family of three. Or not exactly three, because my parents have decided that this is the year to take everyone to Disney, which means that the entire Hilton clan (youngest member aged 6 weeks) is heading to Orlando on the weekend. It will be crazy and exhausting and distracting and warm. And I can’t wait.

I’m feeling better, thanks. Another February is over, and we are all still standing. This is cause for celebration, and a ritual burning of Palo Santo wood (thanks for that, too).

You asked in your last letter about depression. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, although I wasn’t diagnosed until my late twenties (while articling at a law firm, not coincidentally). My own terror of mental illness prevented me from getting treatment for many years, and one of my few regrets in life is that I wasted so much time pretending that I was perfectly fine. Even still, I told very few people during my high-powered career years, and during my marriage. Self-employment as a writer and marital separation have been very freeing in this sense, as the consequences of external disapproval are relatively minimal.

And speaking of external disapproval, let’s talk about motherhood.

I’d love to hear more about what your ‘good mother’ looks like. I think we all come to motherhood with a factory setting, a series of built-in expectations that we’ve imported from our own families, and created in opposition to our own families, and absorbed from the culture around us (The Cosby Show, ironically, springs to mind).

I happen to think that any mother who provides the necessaries of life (food, shelter, clothing), and who makes her children feel loved and safe, is a ‘good mother’. Does anyone seriously disagree with me on this point? No? In that case, I think we should stop beating ourselves up over the things we believe we are failing at as parents (cooking perfect family meals seven nights a week, producing musical prodigies, organizing elaborate camping trips) and celebrate the things we do well.

For example, I don’t ski. I don’t like skiing. I don’t like the cold. I don’t like driving for hours in bad weather to find a place where it is even possible to ski in the flatlands of Ontario. But I’m Canadian, so for a long time I obsessed over the idea that my children should learn to ski. I looked into programs for them, and tried to encourage my kids to sign up for them. But you know what? They aren’t interested in skiing (or in hockey, for that matter). Call it nature, call it nurture, it doesn’t matter. They are Canadian children who don’t ski (or play hockey).

So be it. They like reading, and I care more about that.

I love being a mother of sons. I grew up in a house of girls, one of three sisters, and went to a girls’ school and a girls’ camp, so my parenting has an anthropological quality sometimes. Have you seen Boyhood yet? You must. It is stunning for many reasons, one of which is the emergence, in real time, of a man from the body of a boy. But it also captures the depth of a relationship between a mother and her son, and suggests, eloquently, that you can make a lot of mistakes as a parent and still produce great kids, just by being a steady and loving presence in their lives. It’s wistful and heartbreaking and harrowing and comforting, all at the same time – not a bad description of motherhood itself, come to think of it.

Motherhood is not a competition. It’s a relationship. To be a good mother, you need to use what is best in you – your strengths, your talents, your joys – to cultivate a relationship that brings out the best in your children. Focus on what you love and do well and let the rest go.

Have a great March Break.



pen pal, Kate Hilton


Pen Pal Project

Faith and the Polar Vortex

william blake, ancient of days, inspiration, creativity, God
William Blake, The Ancient of Days

February 24, 2015

Toronto, depths of winter


Dear Reva,

The deep freeze persists. Just leaving the house to get the groceries or do the after-school pick-up feels like a polar expedition. We are living in the Canada of Canadian Tire commercials, and of the American imagination. I have a friend who has built an igloo in her backyard.

February does, of course, offer the pleasure of huddling in your soon-to-be former home, organizing your taxes, working out the details of your separation agreement, and contemplating the remnants of your shattered domesticity, for those who enjoy such activities.

Perhaps I should mention, since we’re tackling some socially awkward topics this week, that February blues come in a rather dark shade for me. Depression and anxiety simply adore February. It is their favorite time of the year.

So. You want to talk about God.

As Marilla Cuthbert famously said (in the film version of Anne of Green Gables, though not the book): “To despair is to turn your back on God.” It is a bad idea to turn your back on someone before giving Him a good long look; I suppose that is why every person I’ve met (or read) who has struggled with depression has also struggled with the big existential questions.

For the record, I did grow up going to church, in a low-key Protestant congregation, but I’ve never been a believer. I’m not a great joiner, either, and I tend to get prickly when people tell me what to think. I’ve always preferred the crisp certainty of the visible, ‘rational’ world to the messy excesses of spirituality in all its forms.

Consequently, religion has played no role in my parenting. I have occasionally felt that this is a gap in my children’s education. So much of human history is about the clash of religious traditions that I sometimes wonder how my children will make sense of it all without any personal experience of religious life (other than holiday celebrations, carefully stripped of any sacred overtones).

In the past few years, I’ve become much more open to conversations about spirituality. Part of this shift is a function of life stage, I’m sure; we focus more intensely on these questions as we age. But I recognize, too, that the search for more meaningful and creative work has changed my approach to, and probably my expectations of, other aspects of my life.

Have you read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning? I read it for the first time recently, and it is extraordinary. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist from Vienna, was sent to Auschwitz as a slave laborer, and survived. From that experience, Frankl developed a theory about how people can find meaning in life, even in the most desperate circumstances: through work, through love or through courage and dignity in the face of adversity. Frankl believed, based on his observations in the concentration camp, that this sense of meaning, of belief in something larger and more important than the present moment, was more essential to survival than food or medicine.

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

That’s a pretty strong vote for faith. And while I wouldn’t put myself in the mystical camp just yet, I’ve traveled a long way from where I started. Engaging your creativity will do that, as anyone who makes art will tell you. Art is hard work – I would never want to suggest otherwise – but creativity itself is mysterious and inexplicable, even to the artist. It is both within and yet somehow beyond our physical selves. In this sense it is a lot like love. Or even, dare I say it, like faith.



Link to Reva’s last letter:

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