I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.Audre Lorde
Being a mother is a hard thing.
So is being a daughter.
My mother stopped talking to me the year I turned 26. I fell in love with a woman and after a year of accommodating my family’s discomfort, I told her that if my girlfriend wasn’t welcome at Thanksgiving dinner, then the two of us were going to go away for the long weekend and celebrate it on our own. My girlfriend wasn’t welcome and so we went away and spent four days in Monterey, just the two of us. The desired Christmas invite never appeared.
I had dared to make a demand and my mother didn’t like demands.
Sometime soon after my 30th birthday, my mother came back into my life. Along with my father and siblings and aunt and uncle. By then I had moved 750 miles away from them and when they all came to visit – to see the house my partner and I had purchased all on our own without even the help of late night calls to mom or dad for escrow advice – my mother handed me a couple small presents as soon as she got to the house from the airport. They were in green and red Christmas wrap. Neither one was from her.
Here, she said, these are from that Christmas you stood us up all those years ago. Then she walked toward the bathroom and said, as she made a loose fist with her left hand and twisted her wrist counter-clockwise, I’ll just twist the knife a little.
I took a breath in through my nose and looked at my girlfriend and then at my aunt and then up at the ceiling. I exhaled very quietly and sat down on the couch to open one of the gifts that was from my aunt, who was also there. Who could’ve just given them to me herself. One of the gifts was a candle. I thanked her, with my mom still out of the room, and then we went on with the weekend.
It went well. Mostly because I didn’t make demands. I wanted so desperately to have my family back and to have them accept me. As is. It went well, also, because I did as I said I would in the thank you card I had sent my parents months before after they sent me a birthday card out of the blue that year: I gave us all a clean slate, a fresh start.
Except. Nothing about motherhood, or being a daughter, comes fresh and clean except for the moment of birth and that first look into each other’s eyes. When we meet, the slate is as clean as it will ever be. Every moment after that singular, life changing moment is attached to all the ones that came before it and on and on and on until our relationships are weighted blankets that soothe us or lead aprons that hold us static.
My mother became lost to us all starting in the year I turned 33. The Jesus year. That biblical year of tests and doubts and betrayals, of crucifixion and rebirth, of miracles and belief and disappearances.
Bipolar is what they named it months later. Mania. Happening seemingly out of the blue in the year between her 50th and 51st birthdays.
Our family tried so hard to hold together but there was so much to endure. She tore us all apart verbally. She looked at my little nephew and called him a devil for looking like his grandfather. She secretly quit her medications and she attempted to kill our father before kicking him out of the house. So, so many more things that stretched the knit of our fabric. The fabric pulled and pulled and pulled until we couldn’t even tell what the shape had been to begin with anymore.
Five years later, my sister and I would spend some of the darkest – both literally and figuratively – weeks of my life cleaning up the aftermath of a murder and police investigation in that same house she’d thrown our dad out of, our childhood home. We were both horrified and relieved to be able to be in the house, since when we first got the news that there had been a murder, we didn’t know if mom had been there when it happened. She hadn’t. She had abandoned the house to a motley group of squatters when it all got too much for her to control.
She had amassed a new family and it, too, would not behave.
But she was safe.
Still lost to us. Whereabouts not completely known. But alive.
I sometimes think our family could have come back together then, in that spring before my 38th birthday, if my mother had found the strength to push past the unnecessary shame and humiliation of all she had done and allowed to happen. If only she had given herself some grace, something so foreign to her that I still can’t really imagine what it would be like to have my mother grab me and pull me close and tell me that no matter what I did, I was still loved and it would all be ok.
There’s a scene in the television series Enlightened where Diane Ladd’s character, the mother, tries to embrace her daughter, played by Laura Dern. Laura Dern is upset and can’t catch her breath. Diane Ladd leads her over to sit on the bed she’s been using after moving back into her mother’s house. Diane Ladd’s arms just hover behind her daughter’s shoulders. You can see her arms try to push inward and make contact with Laura Dern’s arms. Her hands go forward and pull back and forward again as Laura Dern’s body shifts with sobs. You can see the pain and fear fighting it out with the will and determination in every one of Diane Ladd’s facial expressions.
This moment, in my memory, is incredibly quiet and long and so hard to watch. I remembered the scene being held just long enough for me to have almost not been able to bear the feeling of watching it. When I rewatched it this weekend, this part of the scene is only a second to two.
She doesn’t hug her daughter, but she does push through the pain to put a hand on each shoulder and hold her like that. She grips tight, with a small space still between their bodies. Diane Ladd mouths comforting words, inaudibly. The pain on her face is so clear. Laura Dern’s character doesn’t see this all play out. It’s all behind her, out of her sight.
In my memory, Diane Ladd backed away and didn’t even touch Laura Dern, the pain too much for the mother to truly mother her child in pain, as though her fate is mine and mine is hers.
That scene haunts me. I’ve never seen my mother played out so precisely. The forcefield between us so lovingly, and sharply, displayed.
I had a daughter of my own after turning 41. The moment I held her in my arms, her body still living through its attachment to mine, the world became a miraculous and mysterious and dangerous and graceful place.
Motherhood changes you, they say. It does. The direction of that change can take so many different routes, though.
My daughter has met my mother. A few times.
Each time is like a new time for her and each time is awkward and painful and moving for me.
I used to send my mother cards with pictures of my daughter in them a couple of times a year. I think it’s been three years since I’ve done that.
I have mourned my mother many times in my life even though she is still alive.
I have forgiven my mother many, many times in my life.
And I have forgiven myself for not being a better daughter. Many, many times in my life. And. Yet. I don’t try to be a better one anymore.
It has gotten harder to forgive her in the last eight years since becoming a mother.
It has gotten much harder in the last few years as I piece together what in my life held me to someone abusive for so long.
Becoming a mother – having a daughter – has brought so much back to me about my own childhood. But not back like a weathered memory. Back like a jolt of electricity lighting up something I had forgotten. Or hadn’t seen fully illuminated before.
Healing from abuse has made it impossible to ignore the shape my mother carved out for me as a daughter.
So many things were just normal until I imagined saying them to my own daughter. Until I imagined being that way with my own daughter. Until I imagined what it would take for me to write off my own child. To lash out at her for simply existing.
Until I could hear the echoes of my mother’s words in the ones used by my daughter’s father.
For someone so smart, you sure are stupid.
You are so damn sensitive.
You better shut up or you’ll talk yourself right out of this family.
I’m only going to twist the knife a little.
I don’t remember much, specifically, about Mother’s Day when I was a child. I know we sometimes went to brunch and I can remember one year in particular where we put on our best dresses and went to a banquet room at the airport hotel – where my mother worked as a switchboard operator when I was very little, she liked to remind me – and had a glorious buffet breakfast at tables filled with fresh flower centerpieces. I remember trays full of fresh strawberries and heaping piles of fried potatoes.
All of the years spent missing my mother, of feeling it even more on the second Sunday of May, have far eclipsed the early memories where I’m sure I made construction paper cards and perhaps brought her coffee in bed at least once in all the years I lived with her.
Mother’s Day has been a complicated day for me for at least the last 30 years. Even when I did give Mother’s Day cards, picking them out was a long process of eliminating any that were so sincere she would think I was being snarky.
When I had my daughter I decided to redirect my energy into that version of Mother’s Day – of me as the mother – and make it not about loss but about a love that I never doubt, about a new connection. By my second Mother’s Day as a mother, I was deep in the confusion of emotional abuse and it became a prime day for my daughter’s father to ignore or to create quiet chaos. To make me feel unworthy in the most core ways.
By the time I was nearing my fourth Mother’s Day, I planned my own day and made it all happen.
I’m good at that by now. This will be my fourth Mother’s Day with her father out of the house. My home is peaceful. My daughter makes a card or a picture or a booklet and last year made me breakfast in bed for the first time: cocoa puffs and coffee. We have a quiet, restful day and there is no one to try to mess with that anymore.
I have a present-moment and forward-looking place to celebrate instead of an absence and a turn back into the years where this new clarity can burn like dry ice.
It’s still a complicated day and no matter what I create and protect, it always will be – I am finally accepting that now.
I have missed my mother for most of my (almost) fifty years. But that’s not all.
I became a mother in the middle of being conned. I spent years getting free and then years more in court trying to protect my child from the man I thought would be an amazing dad. I became a mother believing her dad and I would grow very old together only to spend years trying so hard to get myself and my daughter free from abuse.
There is a special kind of contradiction in the most beautiful thing in your life having come, directly, from the most scary and crippling thing.
My daughter will always be my daughter. And her father will always be the man who helped make her. I will always be her mother and my love is never diminished by his actions. But the memory of becoming a mother will always be tangled up in the story of me falling madly and desperately in love with an abuser.
My mother will always be my mother. And I will always be her daughter.
There is no version of my life where both of these things are not true.
This year will be the 50th Mother’s Day of my life and the idea that the baggage of all the ones before will someday evaporate is one I need to let go of so I can make room for the ache, for the missing, and stop trying to outrun it. There is no magic age where this baggage will drop out of scene for the next act.
I will always be the daughter who wished for that hug that didn’t come.
I will always, now, be the mother who can’t truly understand, no matter how much grace and kindness I extend, how hugging your own child could be painful.
I am the daughter who gives my mother grace. Much more than she gives herself, I am sure. I am not mad at her. That feeling went away with my 30s and as I am sliding into 50, I feel sad for her and also, increasingly, for little me. And also for big me who tried so hard to make her into something she was/is not, who tried to show her I was worthy of her full-force, double-arm-hug love.
Parenting has been a journey as much backward as forward for me. I did not fully understand that until it was already happening.
It is this way, especially, for those of us who spent our childhoods yearning. Who spent our early adulthoods wishing. Who have spent our middle years reconciling.
I sometimes think about how close the word mother is to smother and want to make sure I don’t squeeze my daughter too tight and fool myself that the constricting embrace will make little me feel loved. I watch the amount of letters – keep away that one little s – in order to not overdo the mothering as a reaction to my own loss.
But also: I will love her immensely no matter what, so she needs to know that and feel it. I have to trust that she will because that feeling is not a memory I have but is one I wish for her.
To mother is to both hold and to hover, not one or the other. Both in conjunction. Opposites working in tandem to both love and strengthen.
In this 50th year, as my child nears a decade on this earth, I am acutely aware that my job is to help her grow into a capable being completely separate from me and my care. I feel, acutely, as well, the ache that not being held in just this way caused in my life and how many ways it allowed me to lean on the wrong things, to cleave to the wrong people.
Mother, I will always love you and honor the way you worked tirelessly to make sure I had food and shelter when neither of those things were guaranteed. I will always be thankful that, at seventeen, you carried me with you and did what had to be done to survive.
I will probably always wish that I had been enough for you to break through the fear and the pain in order to embrace me – the full me – but I also know how impossibly hard that must have felt for you. At this age, I understand so much more of that feeling than I ever have before in my life.
I have channeled your tenacity and hardness more in the last few years than
I ever imagined I would need to and I also have to remember to only wear that when life absolutely demands it and not a second more.
I have fought for my daughter’s safety, but far more often I fight for her to know my softness. For her to never know what it is like to try to prove to a parent that they should love you, just because. Just as you are.
And I know, Mom, you do love me. I know. I really do. But I didn’t always.
I love you. And I would imagine that you don’t always know that, either. You, too, are a daughter so I hope you do know, in that primal way we have of knowing such things, that even when I pushed the hardest, I always loved you. That even in my silence, there is love.
To anyone else who has a complicated relationship with this holiday – and to my mother, wherever she is on this day – I won’t say happy Mother’s Day since, for so many of us, happy and mother don’t always lock together. I will say: I hope you mother yourself, today and all the other days, in a way that is full of grace and kindness and that you know that, if you got anything less than that as a child, it wasn’t because of you.