It’s Mother’s Day and this photo popped up in my Facebook memories. That picture reflects a rare moment of peace during those teen years when my mother and I were constantly at odds. Her face shows it. She could barely crack a smile. I was excited about leading the flag corps in the marching band on a beautiful sunny day and the homecoming dance later that night.
She had me at 45, so that makes her 60 in this photo. Part of our troubles was the drastic age difference – two generations separating us rather than one. Part of it was her depression that swept in like a tsunami when her best friend and sister, my Aunt Nancy, died five years earlier. She had nothing left to live for after that. Not me, not her other kids, not her husband nor her grandchildren.
At home? Her care for me was overpowered by her unrelenting fear for me; she always expected me to succumb to the worst, whatever sensational crap Phil Donahue shilled out earlier in the day. She expected me to fall victim to AIDS for example, even though I was a virgin, as if I was clueless and stupid.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I was obedient and kind, sweet and studious, a straight A student who attended church, didn’t drink or do drugs, didn’t carouse at all hours of the night, and cleaned house regularly. I was president of this, that, and the other in high school, active in every club I could participate in. Nothing was good enough, though.
It was so demoralizing how she couldn’t see me for who I was and celebrate that. She died just a few years after this picture was taken, after I left for college. We never had a chance to heal our relationship. She never got to see how I turned out, that the core of who I am now was present even then. She didn’t see me. She didn’t really want me. She certainly didn’t care enough to live for me. She was definitely ready to go when she did, dying suddenly of an aneurysm.
No. She didn’t get to see that I turned out ok, way way way more than ok.
And I have had people tell me over the years, “Oh, she loved you. And she sees you now.” Maybe that’s true. But I don’t feel it. Not at all.
This was my experience being on the receiving end of mothering. My aunts were relatively distant, and much older than me anyway, like mom. I never knew my grandmothers; they were born in the 1880s and died long before I was born. Mom was my role model, and she didn’t believe in me.
I often wonder what it would be like to be loved in an uplifting, nurturing way, how I might have turned out, who I might have been had it happened. Maybe I would be able to connect with people on a more intimate level than I do.
I’ll never know. Mother’s Day brings a certain kind of undeniable pain, pain I rarely talk about. I can’t pretend this didn’t happen, though.
I can’t pretend I’m not jealous either, over the incredible relationships so many of you enjoyed and still do. Don’t get me wrong: I am incredibly happy for my friends who have this experience. It’s just….the cognitive dissonance over the years, learning what a nurturing mother-daughter relationship is supposed to feel like versus what I experienced is a shock.
And how I ache for my friends who are starting to lose their beautiful mothers 30+ years after I did. I saw the love between you both all these many years. I grieve for you. That kind of love, even though it changes form, is a forever kind of love. That’s how it should be. And I worry that I can’t be much of an emotional support for you at these times because your grief is undoubtedly more acute, far different than mine.
I don’t talk about my grief. It comes up on Mother’s Day, and occasionally on her birthday and every now and then when I am reminded of the physical and emotional scars she left in her wake.
It’s a double-edged sword talking about my grief. My approach for the first 25 years after her death was silence. You know, my attempt along the lines of “Honor thy father and thy mother.” I try hard to find things to honor, and harder yet to find things to smile about, so mostly I don’t talk about her.
Yet I’ve learned that keeping your feelings bottled up is not healthy. It’s human to talk. It’s human to feel.
And well, I write. I write to express, I write to understand. And finally I write to share, because I’ve learned it helps other people feel not quite so alone and freakish.
So if this resonates with you, be comforted in knowing that no, not everyone gushes with overflowing love and warmth for the woman that raised them. Sometimes the only emotion that remains is grief for what could have been, what should have been. I can’t tell you how many times I cried over what was. I’ve had to learn to accept it.
Besides, she knew then, in that photo, that I was a writer, five years already. She read my diaries while I was at school, so I learned long ago there was no such thing as privacy. My privacy was violated constantly. My concept of trust was betrayed from the get-go. What difference does it make if I write about her now?
What’s that they say about writers? If you don’t want a writer to say bad things about you, you should have treated them better. LOL
If you know someone who had this experience, know that they are struggling today. Struggling to reconcile their experience with what feels like everyone else’s. Struggling with the loss of the person who is supposed to be your #1 cheerleader, your #1 confidant, your rock. Your mom. Struggling with the loss of what never was: that love, those words of wisdom, the laughs, the pride, the hugs, the inside jokes, the forgiveness, and the help that comes with seeing you graduate college, start your career, get married, buy a house, have a child, have another, and get promoted.
It’s not all bad though. Even though this is what I chose to write about today, it isn’t 100% of my focus. I channel nearly everything I’ve got into being the best mom I can possibly be to my three. Let nothing but love and support flow from here on out and celebrate the beautiful humans I get to mother, with the best father on the planet.
I hope it’s enough.