The book begins like any other for children. A breakfast scene, a mother making pancakes for her daughter in a sun-filled kitchen. She helps her dress and tells her how “beautastic” she looks before sending her off to school with “a kiss and big smile.” But here, the mood shifts. Annie, the daughter, hopes that Mommy “is still smiling when [she] comes home” because “sometimes my mommy doesn’t smile at all.”
And it is no mistake that the tone and plot of the book changes with a shift in mood. Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell is the story of a child living with a mother suffering from bipolar disorder.
Indeed, when Annie returns home from school that afternoon, it is not smiling Mommy that greets her. Her mother yells at her to stop making noise, to get in the house, to ignore the neighbor’s inquires about her school day. Then she turns on the neighbor, accusing him of always spying on her.
And apparently this isn’t the first time, for once Annie gets inside, she follows a well-scripted plan. She calls her grandmother. “Mommy is yelling again,” she says. After her grandmother assures her she’s done nothing wrong, she tells her to go to the neighbor’s house until she comes to get her if she feels scared. When Annie tells her she’s not scared talking to her, she is to get her “secret snack without bothering Mommy.” But most importantly, to “think happy thoughts.”
The next day dawns much differently than the first. The rain pours down rather than sun through the windows. Annie is left to fend for herself, eating cold cereal rather than hot pancakes. But her friends help her brush out the knots she missed in her hair. They joke and laugh on their walk to school despite the raindrops.
True to her grandmother’s directive, Annie does manage to think happy thoughts. She says, “Sometimes my mommy has dark clouds inside her. I can’t stop the rain from falling, but I can find sunshine in my mind.”
How do we, as parents, ensure our child finds the sunshine in her mind – even when we simply cannot? Whether it’s from bipolar or another mental illness, how do we shield our children from the worst of the disease without also blocking out our love for them? Annie’s grandmother emphasizes that her “mother loves you even when she’s yelling.” She even goes so far as to say, “It’s okay for you to be angry. I know you love her too.” How do we teach this give and take and encourage our child’s healthy feelings in response to our unhealthy ones?
An author’s note before the story, which also provides important information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, states that “the ‘village’ that supports the children of the mentally ill – the grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors – can help foster within these fragile children a sense of security and hope that life can get better, and encourage self-esteem in the face of extremely trying situations.”
Is that how we parents support our children? By farming it out to the surrounding village when we can’t do it?
This book is directed toward the children of parents with mental illness. I’m looking at it through the lens of guilt and worry that comes from being a parent with mental illness. Perhaps I should take Grandma’s advice: have a healthy snack, look to the support of neighbors, and think happy thoughts. I feel terrible that my conditions keep me from being ‘the end all and be all’ for my children. But maybe I never was supposed to be anyway. Maybe it really does take a village.
At the very least, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry takes on the task of telling the story of one special little girl’s resilience in the face of great difficulty. And that’s a story a lot of kids out there really need to hear.