Written by Jennifer St John
I turn the key in the charming wooden door of my studio. Even this small action puts a smile on my face. Opening this door makes me feel alive! Alive in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. The ink on the lease agreement is only a month old but things are really coming along nicely. A small renovation refreshed the space and transformed the six hundred square feet into a working studio and office space. Sunlight streams through the large glass windows at the front of the street level building: for an artisan, it’s the kind of natural light you fall in love with.
I say ‘Hi Mom and Dad’ as I pass an oversized wall hung picture of my parents. Clearly taken in the seventies - they are young, Mom is laughing, and my Dad has his tongue stuck out. I love this picture of them. With this space, I am in the next phase of launching my business, “Marnie & Michael”, an artisan shop meets mental health initiative. My Mom was undiagnosed and untreated with mental illness until her early fifties. She became a Mother at seventeen-years old, so our entire life has been affected by her mental health struggles. This is my way of ‘paying it forward’.
This isn’t my first rodeo as a business owner, but it is an entirely different experience with two children in tow (one of whom has higher-than-average needs), and a husband who’s barely around due to his work schedule. I have a very strong desire to have an identity outside of my wife/partner/mother roles and I know I have to find a way to make this work. And if it’s not too much to ask for, having time for a little selfcare would be nice too!
I was artistic from a young age and was always a strong student. Mom had drilled into my head that College was the way to go – get an actual skill so you can be employable. I did a three-year Interior Design program and then I was spit out into the world and started at the bottom. I worked my ass off at a great commercial design firm and didn’t heed the warnings of wiser co-workers when it was suggested I make sure I didn’t burn out. Which, of course, I did…
With my interest in film making and my design background, I secured two internships at a local film and television production company. One in the art department and one as a Producer Assistant. I fell in love with the business side of Producing and was soon starting my own film and television company with my business partner, Erin. Over the next several years, we produced projects for both regional and national broadcasters, successfully raising and managing six figure budgets and distributing content around the world.
I did all of this while trying to manage my relationship with my Mom. Our childhood was especially chaotic and traumatic, leaving my sisters and I with a large weight to carry from a young age. The mania consuming Mom resulted in drastic highs and lows. All anyone saw were her unhealthy coping mechanisms with drugs, alcohol and reckless relationships. We grew up surrounded by shame and secrecy, never being able to fully share the reality of our situation with anyone. My Dad tried to hang on with love and babies, but it slipped through his fingers. He would continue to try and reconcile with her for the rest of our childhood, at times successful but always short lived.
Before I left home, we had eighteen different addresses and I attended eight different schools in two different countries. Nothing felt constant or stable in our lives. In her unhealthy state, Mom was very good at getting us involved in fighting her battles and always made sure we took her side. This usually meant coercing us to turn on someone we loved, like our Father, my older sister or a family member. I honed an intense ‘flight or fight’ instinct, learned the art of fierce independence, took myself very seriously, and constantly sought peoples’ approval, all while never fully trusting anyone completely.
In adulthood, it felt like my relationship with Mom was always in ‘push-and-pull’ mode. She would go from leaving me crying, feeling like shit to then filling me with love. When I was twenty years old, while driving intoxicated she was in a car accident and ended up breaking her neck. As usual, she wasn’t charged, which was infuriating and dangerous as her behaviours grew in audacity and frequency. My oldest sister was pregnant and spent the three-hour drive to the hospital preparing herself to potentially deal with family members of someone Mom had injured or killed. During her recovery, Mom asked me through tears how it was possible that my sisters and I were still by her side? This was the closest she ever came to taking responsibility for the trauma and abuse we experienced growing up. I had great hopes this was her ‘rock bottom’ but I was wrong.
*** You can read the rest of this chapter in the MOMPRENEUR MEMOIRS book co-authored by 'Marnie and Michael' founder, Jennifer St John. Available through Amazon - Kindle or hard copy version (available next week).