There’s a picture of me sitting on my mother’s lap when I’m about nine months old. I’m smiling. My mother is smiling. If you only saw this photo, you would imagine a typical childhood: normal ups and downs, normal lives, hard times perhaps, but a loving relationship nonetheless.

You need to imagine harder. Darker. Wider. Outside your own experience, if your experience was good.

This is the true story of my relationship with my mother: behind the photo is her mental illness. A mental illness in hiding. It’s hidden in the gin she has when she gets home from work. It’s hidden in the jobs she doesn’t get, the friends she can’t keep, the relatives she won’t talk to. It’s hidden in all the events that go on at home that we’re not supposed to tell anyone about. But most of all, it is hidden from her. She can’t see it in herself, and thinks it’s everyone else.

I loved being around my mother in public. Out there, she was like the other mothers I saw. She said the right things. She smiled. She was kind. If it was a day when we were going to be out a lot, I would wake up relaxed, knowing that nothing scary would happen.

In private, though, the other mother came out. The one I was afraid of. While this mother could be relied on for basic sustenance, the other things crucial to raising children – unconditional love, appropriate responses, support – were largely absent. She had a line we could not cross – and if we did, we became her enemies rather than her children.

Some believe that adult children who cut off, or are distant from, their parents are selfish, or ungrateful. I reject this. I don’t think we owe our parents a relationship if they were cruel to us.

When I was 18 I started crossing the line, and our relationship did not recover. I naively brought up the past and questioned why things had happened as they did. She told me coldly that I was making everything up and was crazy, and I felt a trickle of terror wrinkle down my spine. I never brought it up again, but the past remains there between us.

Now I have enough distance to see her as a profoundly damaged person – like her parents. I am not the first daughter to go through this in my mother’s line. I am the fourth. My great-grandmother hated my grandmother. My grandmother emigrated to New Zealand. My mother hated my grandmother. She cut her off completely, severing any ties she had to me, her granddaughter.

Now it’s my turn, and I too have a daughter. Between us, we could be the fourth and fifth, and if my daughter has a daughter, the sixth, unless we are able to change the pattern. Currently my daughter is in contact with my parents, albeit at a distance because we live far away.

I know the pattern will repeat if I’m not careful. I sometimes don’t know what appropriate boundaries are regarding what to tell my daughter and what to keep back, and this reminds me of my mother who made me her confidante at 11 years old. All I can do is try to do better.

Some believe that adult children who cut off, or are distant from, their parents are selfish, or ungrateful. I reject this. I don’t think we owe our parents a relationship if they were cruel to us.

But at the same time, I wonder if I have to follow the pain of generations of estrangement. Is there such a thing as fate? Is fate genetics? Perhaps my mother shouldn’t have had children. Perhaps the women in my family just aren’t capable of being good mothers.

I look at the pattern and I know it’s my choice. I feel as if I’ve been given a superhuman task but without any of the superpowers: it’s incredibly hard not to repeat the actions of past generations and cut off my mother completely.

I have been left damaged by my childhood, with mild PTSD among other things. Being around my mother brings on panic attacks. My past experiences have led to my own issues with mental health, but unlike my mother I can acknowledge this and seek support. I live in a culture and time in which it is safe to do so.

I look at my daughter and I know the action I take is something that she will always remember.

And I don’t know. I really don’t know what to do.

By All Light with a Piece of Dark

Twitter: @katiepeheakoe