Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I am happily married, gainfully employed, a loving and fulfilled mother. There is plenty for which I am grateful. There is, however, a hole: my mother has always been unkind to me, and even now, all these years and therapy sessions later, it hurts awfully.
Some background: My mother was very young when she had me. I joke — because humor has helped me a lot over the years — that I was a guest at her wedding. When she walked down the aisle with my father, he wore a deer in the headlights look and a too-big suit coat and tie. She wore white vinyl go-go boots and a soft pink mini dress with a bump, which was me.
My mother was beautiful. She was the life of the party. She won beauty pageants and sang on stages in floor length emerald velvet green dresses that were slit up to here. Until she got pregnant in her senior year in college, I don't think she ever gave a thought to becoming a mother.
Life was hard after I was born. My parents — the shame of their families for this out-of-wedlock birth — were turned out by their parents, and they struggled to get by. We lived in the basement of a family friend for years. My mother became a school teacher. She went to work two weeks after my birth. My father shelved his dream of journalism to take a job that would support his sudden family.
my mother has always been unkind to me, and even now, all these years and therapy sessions later, it hurts awfully.
My father, though flawed, always made me feel loved. From my earliest memories, I remember knowing that my mother didn't like me. I grew up afraid of her rages, saddened that she compared me unfavorably to other people's daughters when I would have done anything in the world to win her praise. I was convinced that having children must ruin your life, because she told me often that I ruined hers.
I thought that having my own children might help me better understand how my mother treated me. But motherhood and the extra chambers that it opened in my heart for my child has only left me mystified at how any parent could treat a child as my mother did me.
I have learned to protect myself from her. I have given myself permission to stay away from her. I see her rarely. When I do, as I did recently, she meets my low expectations, says terrible things to me, and I leave and spend the next few days shaking off the emotional fug and asking myself why I bothered. (I should note that I have two younger siblings, and she is not this way with them. I suppose I have the distinction of having ended her life as she knew it.)
But still, when I'm walking alone or taking a long swim, as my mind cycles through its thoughts, I always land on her and the question: Why couldn't she love me?
When I feel strong, I tell myself that I have other blessings and should focus on those. But when I am being completely honest with myself, I feel a great sadness. So my question, via that long preamble, is: How do you let your mother go, the woman who gave you life, when she isn't dead yet?
A Motherless Child
Dear Motherless Child,
I am so sorry for what you’ve suffered and continue to suffer. And I wish had a ready answer for you. But the truth is I don’t. The sorrow you’re describing is simply too fundamental to cast away. It seems to me something you’re going to have to manage. Or, to put it more precisely, it seems to me something you are managing — with remarkable courage and grace.
The sad truth is that becoming a parent, and a mother specifically, doesn’t guarantee that those “extra chambers” of the heart open up. Sometimes, the pressures of parenthood — combined with the weaknesses and fears we bring to it—have the opposite effect. In the case of your mother, it sounds like she turned her self-hatred and disappointment against you. Even now, she is unable to be the mother you wish for and deserve.
But it’s important to realize that you are, in fact, that mother. This is how your letter begins:
I am happily married, gainfully employed, a loving and fulfilled mother. There is plenty for which I am grateful.
In the most profound sense, you have let your mother go, by rejecting the life of thwarted rage that she led. Instead, you have built a life of deep meaning, gratitude, and connectedness.
This, I suspect, is precisely why you find it hard to turn your back on your mother entirely. Because there is some small but inextricable part of you that wishes to remain connected to your mother. Sadly, this connection takes the form of having to experience the disappointment that marked her life. After all, this is precisely how interacting with your mother makes you feel.
There is no 'solution' to this dilemma. It’s just something you have to recognize as a heartbreaking and undeserved truth particular to your life.
The psychological term for this pattern is called “repetition compulsion,” the human tendency to return to the past by playing out the dynamics of early relationships.
The absolutely incredible thing about your life, Motherless, is that you’ve refused to allow the destructive patterns in your maternal relationship to infect your marriage or your relationship with your children or your work. You have survived your mother’s cruelties in all these crucial ways.
So yes, a part of you keeps hoping she’ll shape up. But another part of you simply doesn’t want to let her go, wants to be close to her, and accepts that the only way for this to happen is on her wounded terms. There is no “solution” to this dilemma. It’s just something you have to recognize as a heartbreaking and undeserved truth particular to your life.
Your letter shows remarkable empathy toward your mother, the recognition that her own ambitions were cut short by having children.
It may be that your mother will never be able to express this kind of empathy and love for you. That will be her loss as well as yours.
My partner over on Dear Sugar Radio, the amazing Cheryl Strayed, talks a lot about how every parent is a teacher. Sometimes they teach us through positive examples. And other times they teach us through their misdeeds and failings. What matters is that we learn from both sets of examples, as you have so heroically.
Author's note: As it should happen, we just did a Dear Sugar Radio episode on this very topic! [Listen below] Because I think every person on earth deals with the ghost of their own parents when they become parents. Hopefully, they find ways to be as compassionate as Motherless Child. I’ll be curious to hear what folks have to say, especially those who have troubled relationships with their mothers. Please leave comments below and, of course, send your own questions along, the more detailed the better.