This past weekend, I admitted to a group of fellow dance moms that I burst into tears when my daughter was born, so very scared facing the reality that I would once again navigate the mother-daughter dynamic, as the elder this time. The group of them was shocked. After all, my daughter is lovely, full of verve and spunk, good humor, high energy, creativity, and initiative. I adore her, and we love each other dearly, going on 10 years strong.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want a daughter. We decided against learning the baby’s gender during my pregnancy. For all those months, I convinced myself I was having a boy, even though the pregnancy felt very different to me hormonally and physically. It was a breeze. I even felt pretty. I should have picked up on all those cues, but I ignored them. I didn’t want to think about what it would mean.
Given the puzzled looks from the dance moms, I found myself saying out loud, maybe even admitting to people, for the first time that I had an awful relationship with my own mother and I was terrified I would repeat it with my daughter, as if it was destiny, part of our DNA. I don’t even talk about this intimate fact to my best friends. It was as close to an out of body experience I’ve ever had, to finally hear myself saying those words out loud for the first time, after all these decades.
That’s when I was asked, “Do you still have a difficult relationship today with your Mom?” I heard myself saying quietly, “Oh, my mom died long ago, 30 years ago this April”, as if the status of our relationship just didn’t matter anymore.
What I didn’t reveal was how my relationship with my mother has fluctuated in every which direction over these 30 years, sometimes good, often full of anger, frequently loaded with remorse for not only what actually transpired between us but also what ought to have infused that most sacred of relationships. But mostly, sadly, after decades of self-reflection and some bouts of therapy, she and I are still mired in dysfunction, the two of us on opposite sides of the veil that separates life and death. Intellectually I know I should forgive her and move on, but the more I ponder our lives together, the more I struggle with what was.
I want what I never had. I want what will never be.
She was unable to give that to me. I don’t know how much of it was in her control.
I run the risk of coming across like a spoiled brat saying all this. I will catch endless hell from older cousins who worshipped and adored my mother. Their relationship with her was far, far different than mine. They have no idea what it was like for me.
For decades, I have struggled with the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother”. I have so far obeyed that commandment by staying largely silent. But staying silent means continuing to struggle. Is there any possible way to honor my mother specifically by talking about this? Did our relationship exist the way it did precisely so I can finally share this story and release the pain, not just for me but others? To help others feel less ostracized by their flawed parent-child dynamic?
50 years is a long time to shut up. Maybe time’s up. If I don’t write about it, no one, including my own daughter, will know what I went through and how it feels and how it informs the choices I deliberately make regarding our lives together every single day. Maybe it will resonate with other hurting daughters or open the eyes of some myopic mothers. Maybe I can help the motherless feel less alone. Maybe, just maybe, I can help daughters realize how fortunate they are when they have or had a good relationship with their mother.
My mother Katherine was beautiful, dark-haired, petite, gregarious, lively, feisty, self-assured, relatively independent, and stubborn. She grew up during the Depression, and eventually she and her mostly older siblings were abandoned by their alcoholic father, leaving the group of them to care for their own mother who didn’t work or speak English. My mom and her sisters adored her, but when grandma was hit by a car and left invalid, it was my mother, a 30-year-old wife with two young children and a third on the way, who was left to care for her.
My parents lived next door to grandma. She would scream in the middle of the night to be heard from one house to the next for my mother to come and carry her to the outhouse and then back into the house to bed. This went on for a few years until grandma died and my older brother was born. How do I know this? These events repeated in mom’s dreams for 25 years after grandma died. She would often wake with her heart racing, remembering with urgency how she had to check on her sweet, tiny mother.
Life was no doubt tough for my mom. She had her moments of fun and laughter, but life wasn’t easy. By the time I was born, she lost both of her parents, in-laws, and a few siblings. The siblings died too young, too soon, just as their adult lives were getting going, in the decade after World War II had ended and people were expecting to live happily ever after.
I was my parent’s 21st anniversary surprise. My oldest sister had just started high school and my brother was now six. At 45, Mom had pitched all of the baby gear and had to start over. She thought she was going through the change of life, but discovered she was pregnant in May. I was born a little over three months later in early September.
For the first five years of my life, my most vivid memories were hanging with my mom and her sister, my Aunt Nancy. It seemed we were always going for a car ride, visiting a local park, going shopping in downtown Wheeling, or hanging at home while they did each other’s hair. Both my mom and my aunt operated beauty shops in the basement of their respective homes.
I stayed at my aunt’s house a lot in those days. She never had a daughter. Her two oldest boys were already off to college at that point and her youngest was a teenager who was often at school whenever I visited. Then I started school so obviously the time with these two women was scaled back but I still stayed at my aunt’s house quite often.
When my mom and aunt weren’t physically together, they talked on the phone several times a day. The “pipeline’s hot today!” my Dad often remarked. My aunt’s number was dialed so often, I can still recite the rhythm of her telephone number, whirring on those old-fashioned rotary dial phones.
This went on until I was 10, when Aunt Nancy died after a relatively short illness in her mid-sixties. Mom was devastated. She was closer to her sister Nancy than any other human being, my father and her own children included. She lost the will to live. For the next 10 years of my life, my mother sat crying at the kitchen table, or crying herself to sleep on the sofa or in her bedroom. Untreated depression. It was shameful to admit you needed help. You simply didn’t seek treatment for depression back in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, unlike today.
When I look back at my early childhood I realize now that Aunt Nancy, who I loved dearly but who was one tough cookie, was the loving presence in my life. I don’t know if my mom was emotionally capable or, frankly, interested in being there for me. I know she recognized her obligation as my mother, but given how frequently my aunt stepped in, I’ve grown to question what the hell was actually happening in those early years of my life. It has taken me 50 years to realize this. And anyone who would know the real answer to my questions is dead.
From age 10-20, it was as if mom was incapable of loving me. Sure there were brief moments of normalcy but day in and day out, I heard how I was good for nothing, I couldn’t do anything right, and she wished she was dead. I’m not exaggerating. I have daily journals from this period that recount my experience.
She spent her weekday afternoons watching that sensational Phil Donahue show, and then projected her every last new-found fear onto me, without one spec of consideration for who I was and the values I already had cemented within me. It was humiliating and demoralizing. Honestly, my mother’s biggest expectation was that I would become barefoot and pregnant, totally dependent on others to care for me, and/or I would get AIDS.
I can’t begin to express how ridiculous this was.
Let me put who I was into perspective: I was a straight-A student nearly my entire academic career, a teacher’s pet repeatedly, president of nearly every club I could join since 5th grade on, marching band flag captain for three years, senior class salutatorian, high school homecoming queen, a college scholarship recipient several times over, a representative for our county in the Ohio Junior Miss program, a virgin who didn’t smoke or drink, a kid who went to bed at 9pm and didn’t abuse her 11pm weekend curfew when she had the good fortune to be out, an overwhelmingly sweet-natured girl, an obedient daughter, a self-starter, a weekly church-goer, and the only child left at home starting at age 11, leaving me to thoroughly clean the house top to bottom every Saturday. I also held a job from age 17 on. I didn’t do anything unless I gave it my best. I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college, but I knew I was going. It was a given in my mind that I would go for as long as I could remember. There was not one doubt in my mind that I would graduate college, leave the Ohio Valley where I grew up for good, and make a success of myself. I was that driven. I was that certain of it.
However the grief goggles my mother wore kept all the good that was me far out of focus. I know in my heart that I was a good kid. A sweet, smart, polite, driven albeit somewhat quiet kid. I used to think she became grief-stricken after my aunt died, but now I truly wonder if she was aggrieved as soon as she learned she was pregnant with me.
I’d love to tell you I was strong enough to hold my head high when she was living and delivering her daily downer expectations. I knew she was wrong about me. I told her she was wrong. I kept thinking, surely, she would realize her error and snap out of it. She never did. I tried to reason with her. I recounted my virtues to her countless times, in countless arguments, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t see me. She didn’t know me. She didn’t understand me. Whether she loved me is certainly debatable.
Right? I mean, hearing these endlessly critical words from my mother so often? I don’t know if she realized the long-term damage she was doing. She was running on auto-pilot that last decade of her life. But her tactic had the same effect that Donald Trump aims for. Hear a lie repeated often enough and you’ll start to believe it no matter how preposterous it is.
It eventually got to me. I went through frequent periods of untreated depression myself starting in high school. There came a day once where I got off the bus in the morning and marched my butt straight to my band director. Of all the teachers, I felt he might have understood what remained unspoken. He took one look at my tear-stained face, puffy eyelids, and red nose, then led me straight to the band office and shut the door so I could hide quietly, alone for a few hours to compose myself.
For decades, I have dissected my relationship with mom, crying rivers, wailing, fuming in anger, then whimpering for what never was, what seems to me countless other mothers and daughters have or had. For decades I have learned, to my horror and shame, what a loving mother-daughter relationship is supposed to look, feel, and sound like, from the outside. I’m like a pauper with her face and hands pressed against cold glass, staring at the shiny baubles in the window of a fancy store whose threshold I can never cross.
The grief of losing your mother is one thing. Losing her suddenly when you’re relatively young is yet another thing. But the grief of learning little by little what that most sacred of relationships is supposed to be like, should have been like, and never was, is ten thousand times worse.
Why couldn’t she love me and guide me? Why did she choose instead to mock how I looked? Why did she deliberately cut off my long hair time and again, butchering my haircuts to make me less attractive? Why is it she never once told me I was pretty? Why couldn’t she cheer my success? Why couldn’t she see any of that? Why couldn’t she tell me she was proud of me, lift me up even higher than I did on my own, when she saw what I wanted for my life, how I wanted to soar? Why couldn’t she foster with me what she had with her own mother? Why did she value her blood relatives more than her husband and the children she birthed? Why couldn’t she cultivate with me what she did with some of her nieces and nephews who saw her as a overwhelmingly loving, fun, demanding, yet bubbly matriarch fiercely dedicated to family!? The IRONY. Tell me why that woman showed up for my cousins and not for me?
Did she just run out of steam? Was I emotionally orphaned by my mother at birth?
She died suddenly when I was 20, during my junior spring semester at college. The last three-four months before she died, we were finally starting to get along a tiny bit. After two years away from home, maybe she started to miss me. Maybe she started to see that I was (still) a straight-A student, in a demanding honors program, living successfully in a clean apartment, having secured an internship and a job while going to school full-time, yet making enough money to responsibly pay my own rent and tuition, cook my own food, and pay my utilities. Maybe she could see my graduation on the horizon, and huh: maybe she realized I still hadn’t wound up pregnant and yes, I was AIDS-free.
I stayed in school that semester. My classmates were blown away by my tenacity. They assumed I would drop out. Wouldn’t anybody else under those circumstances? For starters, I didn’t have the money to waste on a semester of tuition without the grades to show for it. But I didn’t have the heart to tell my peers that her death was a big relief. No longer would I have to listen endlessly to anyone fully expecting me to be a worthless piece of crap.
I’ve been pretty lucky. In these 30 years since, I’ve only had two people try to push that bullshit on me, both times at work. One was a cocky boss who succeeded and I spiraled downward in such a way that it took me several years to recover. The second one was an arrogant bastard who couldn’t wait to misplace his blame on me and kick me when I was down just a couple of years ago. He helped jump-start the process all over again. This time the downward spiral lasted only about two years but I’m pretty sure it shaved 10 years off my life.
Needless to say, I approach my relationship with my own precious daughter differently in every possible way. That’s not what this essay is about, though.
Help wanted. I long for a mother, in that way that only mothers can, to witness my life, and notice how far I’ve come. To say she is proud of me. To say I’ve done good with where I started and what I had to work with. To tell me that I’m on the right track, or to gently coach me when I stray, when I need it. Gosh, to tell me that I’m pretty or lovely or kind. Anything. Anything a mother would say.
You have no idea how deafening the silence is.
I need a mom, a real mom. I am jealous but mostly insanely happy for those who enjoy that special bond. Doesn’t matter if it was for a short while or a lifetime. They had it and it is glorious to see that sort of love. It is so helpful to see these kinds of role models. I look everywhere for those role models.
I will bite my tongue whenever someone tells me what a great job my mother did raising me and how proud she must have been of me. No, no. She was ill. And I was a kid unable to help her. By the grace of God, I’m able to function somehow and hopefully she’s found peace where she is now. I worry about that. I worry that she will find no peace until I do. That’s why the relationship between mothers and daughters is sacred. It’s a forever thing. I must be able to forgive and move on. And in the way you are forced to do when your mother dies, I have moved on. And I have forgiven her. At least I try. I know she was only human with very limited resources to help her through her grief.
But I’m human too, and my heart is broken. I don’t let on. Really, it’s been 30 years…there is only so much you can dwell on it and try to be mentally healthy. I always thought it would get better with time. It doesn’t. The feelings just morph and roll endlessly like ocean waves in the open sea.
Still I know this help wanted ad of mine will never be answered, not on this side of the veil. And it won’t be needed once I get to the other side. From time to time, I’ve tried adopting women to be a mother to me, but after a while it feels forced, or worse, I am encroaching upon sacred territory, the real mother-daughter relationship these women actually have. I have learned there isn’t a sister, cousin, in-law, or friend who can fill my help wanted ad.
So I will sit here and rock with that ache for a lifetime longer and vow to do better with my own daughter. What else can I do?