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Janice Airhart

My mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia shortly after my birth in 1953 until her death in 1966, leaving strangers and acquaintances to provide examples in becoming a woman and mother. MOTHER OF MY INVENTION: A MOTHERLESS DAUGHTER MEMOIR explores the challenges of growing up motherless, while overcoming the stigma of mental illness and the fear of inheriting an incurable disease.

I was still an infant when my mother was committed to a Louisiana asylum. Schizophrenia dulled her personality and impaired her ability to mother her three children. Cutting-edge treatments of the era only made things worse. I could pretend I was like my first-grade classmates until Mother came home to live with us for a few months and spun out of control in a frightening, public display of psychotic delusion.Beyond a few, sometimes frightening memories of my mother during short visits home, there’s scant evidence to prove she existed. From childhood, I secretly studied artifacts and photos for the presence of a living, breathing mother, but they revealed little. My family was so traumatized they wouldn’t speak of her; it seemed dangerous to ask. Mother’s death, when I was thirteen, left me feeling only guilty relief at no longer having to explain her absence. I could simply say she’d died.

My father soon remarried and moved us to a new home across town, what seemed like an alien universe. When he abdicated his parenting role, with its stated and unstated rules, to my new stepmother, it was another loss. I felt dumped, and alone, in a foreign environment. Keeping me sane were an older sister and the women of the church I’d known my whole life. These godly women provided a sense of belonging.

When I became a mother at nineteen, I wasn’t prepared mentally or emotionally. In addition, my fear of developing schizophrenia now extended to my children. The anxiety initiated a renewed search for my heritage, resulting in mostly dead ends. Breaking the pact of silence with my father, traveling cross-country to question an aunt, seeking a hypnotist to dislodge memories, and obtaining my mother’s hospital records didn’t satisfy. The mother I invented from tangential evidence gave no comfort or motherly advice.

Despite failures, pursuing and embracing new experiences taught me to become a competent and compassionate human being. Professional and volunteer activities fulfilled me—in some ways mothered me.

Three days before her death, Mother wrote a lighthearted letter to my father, professing her love for us all. Despite the years of hellish hospitalization and treatment, she expressed surprising humanity, in near-poetic words. This is the legacy I choose.

While writing my story, I struggled with incomplete memories, yet I persevered in finding the truth I needed: Persistent, life-long efforts to uncover my mother’s identity have themselves shaped me. In the end, the harrowing search for my mother—fraught with fears, stigma, and disappointing dead ends—facilitated a more satisfying quest for self-discovery.

Janice Airhart has been a medical technologist, biomedical research tech, freelance writer and editor, science teacher to pregnant teens, bioscience program representative, and adjunct English professor. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Sun, The Science Teacher, Lutheran Woman Today, Concho River Review, Story Circle Network’s Real Women Write 2019 and 2021 anthologies, and One Woman’s Day blog. Her memoir, Mother of My Invention won the Minerva Rising 2021 Memoir Contest and was released in November 2022. Airhart is currently working on a second memoir about her later life career teaching science to teen moms.

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