On Being a Rad, Mad, Queer Mama, by Nina Packebush

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 I was eighteen years old when I gave birth to my son and discovered first-hand the very real dangers of being a marginalized mama. It was the mid 80’s and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum were bemoaning the high cost of unwed teenagers having babies. Headlines like, “Children Having Children” were splashed across every newsstand magazine. Sad faced teenage girls clutching babies, with falling down trailers or run-down apartments in the background, stared out from the covers. According to these articles the children of “children” faced a life of low education, poverty, prison, even rotting teeth, and of course it was society that bore the huge cost of these bastard children.

     I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. I learned very quickly how to play the game.  I learned very quickly that I wasn’t the right kind of parent.

    I began my life as a highly sensitive and sad child. My childhood memories are filled with crying fits that lasted for days, trying to hurt myself, though not fully understanding that it was intentional, and spending hours alone in my dark closet curled up in a tight ball. I was shy, quiet, mostly friendless, and bullied in school. The world was a rough place for me. In my twenties I was diagnosed with ADHD and later with clinical depression, it was suggested a few times that maybe I was bipolar, but I managed to stay mostly under the radar. As a young mom I had learned that it’s not safe to be honest. This lesson turned out to be very valuable to the survival of my family, and yet at the same time it created a deeply painful isolation.

     In 2003 I came out as queer and that coming out tossed me even further under the microscope of potentially unfit. Being queer is a little different than being gay or lesbian in the eyes of the mainstream. It’s a little shadier, a little more suspect.  I would find out that many of the things that define “queerness,” including a fluid gender expression, are also many of the things that the mainstream deems signs of mental instability. It became even harder to play the role of the “normal” mom.  

     Coming out as queer made me drunk on the excitement of finally discovering who I really was. I wore my queerness like a sparkly rainbow cape…and with that cape I flew hard and fast. But along with this intoxication of meeting myself for the first time, I also found myself with three children and no real way to make it financially, the loss of my house, my marriage and much of my family, and the deaths of several people close to me. My moods started to shift dramatically. I would stay up for days at a time drinking and sleeping with girls and then I would crash hard and dream of driving my car into the lake. Up and down I went.

     About a year into my coming out I found myself flying a friend, who was in a very extreme state, across the country to return her home. When we arrived on the east coast I found that nobody in her circle was willing to care for her and after six days I was forced to return home. My friend and I agreed that the only option was to check her into the hospital. It was profoundly traumatic for everyone involved, but there was one moment that stuck with me above all others. As we were getting ready to leave I found her pacing her room and silently crying. She was terrified because she only owned men’s underwear. She identifies as genderqueer (she uses female pronouns) and she knew firsthand, from previous encounters with the mental health system, that her gender expression would be seen as a severe symptom of her “mental illness.” It broke my heart and it sank in deep. Simply being who we are can be an incredibly dangerous thing sometimes, but especially when facing mental health professionals.

     That lesson stuck with me as I traveled along my path to self-identity while navigating the mental health system for both myself and my daughter. As my daughter transitioned from her teen years into adulthood she found herself traveling in and out of extreme states. As we worked our way through the mental health system I made sure I presented myself as “normal” as possible, never mentioning my own mental health background or the fact that I was queer. Being gender variant in my physical presentation, I made sure to keep a nice pair of “girl” jeans and a long sleeved “girl” blouse (long sleeves to hide my tattoos) tucked away in my drawer for all psychiatrist appointments or possible ER visits.  It was humiliating to have to go to appointments in “drag,” but it was also critical for our survival.

     I remember going to the NAMI Family to Family classes in an attempt to navigate my way through the maze of mental health “recovery.” It was the 4th or 5th class when the facilitators went into great detail on the symptoms of the various mental illnesses. They presented gender dysphoria as a sign of schizophrenia. When I spoke up I was told quite firmly that confusion about one’s gender was not always a sign of a serious mental illness, but it was in fact often a sign. I never returned to the classes, but I did leave with the deeply internalized message that it wasn’t safe to be me even more firmly settled in my gut.

     At the age of sixteen my daughter had given birth to a little boy and we were raising him in partnership. It made me incredibly nervous that her fragile mental state and young age would cause people in authority to start poking around. When Felix hit his 2nd year my daughter slid into a very unstable emotional place and the decision was made for me to take over as the primary caretaker of my grandson while she pursued “recovery.”

     By this time I was partnered with a woman, and even though I had learned my lesson about how to make myself appear to people in power, I wasn’t prepared for the first time we took Felix to the doctor. He was three years old, on state medical, and we were at a Community Health Clinic, a combination that causes everyone to assume that you lack certain life and parenting skills. The doctor walked in and we explained our relationship to little Felix. The doctor asked, in front of Felix, if the reason we had him was because his mother was on drugs. My body went numb, and then it surged with rage, but I knew to play the game. The fucking game. Rule number one of playing the game is presenting as “normal.” Rule number two is: Lie. Lie with sincerity and confidence. I calmly said that no, she was not on drugs. I explained that she had been very physically ill and was unable to take care of him at this time, but that she loved him very much and saw him daily. The doctor looked at me and at my partner, then down at little Felix.

     Felix has always been very gender fluid and we have just allowed him to be who he is. That day he was wearing flowered leggings and had on nail polish.  The doctor motioned to his nails and pants and said, “Are you okay with this?” The rage slid quickly into fear. How had I overlooked this? I knew enough to make myself look normal, but it had never occurred to me that I had to stifle a three-year-old just to keep that microscope off of us, and I should have known better than to come with my partner. I’m sure in the doctor’s eyes these two dykes were trying to make this little boy gay. I was just so thankful that this doctor knew nothing or my own mental health background or that of my daughter’s. I was so thankful that I had known enough to lie to her and tell her my daughter had a physical illness, but what if I hadn’t? Had I told her the truth about myself and my daughter I can only imagine the conclusions she would have drawn and the possible ramifications of those conclusions

     Being “crazy” makes parenthood a uniquely dangerous thing, add on being queer, or a person of color, or poor, or too young, or in any way marginalized and being a “crazy” parent ups the danger significantly. This pressure, judgment, and extreme scrutiny only piles on more stress which in turn creates greater emotional trauma, which in turn affects our ability to not only function in this world and parent effectively, but it also makes it difficult to safely seek help when we need it. And sometimes we really need it. I remember how my daughter and I would rehearse the things she would say to her psychiatrist before her appointments. We were always vigilant that one wrong word could be twisted into her being unfit or dangerous in his eyes. When a “crazy” teen mom and a “crazy” queer granny are raising a little boy you have to think hard about every word you say

     I believe the only way  to change this is for parents who are dealing with psych stuff, especially marginalized mothers, to start speaking out, to come together, and to let others know that they aren’t alone. Still it’s scary. I feel that it’s absolutely critical for people to tell their stories with raw honesty, and mostly I do, but I also know that sometimes raw honesty can backfire. It sucks and it isn’t fair and this enforced silence hurts us and it hurts our kids. If you’re reading this and you’re a “mad” parent that’s trying to navigate the system, just please know you aren’t alone. Write your story, speak up, reach out, and hey, email me. Let’s talk because community can make all the difference…for us and for our kids.

  • Nina Packebush is a rad queer mama and granny. She has written for numerous publications and is currently focusing most of her attention on radical mental health activism. She is a just about to launch a blog for mad-identified, queer parents and grandparents and for the parents of mad-identified kids. Please come and join her at: http://thegrannychronicles.wordpress.com/.