Anyone who knows me knows I have a complicated, confusing, and ultimately toxic relationship with my mother. Anyone who knows me knows her negative influences, viewpoints, and behaviors have shaped some of the worst parts of me, the parts I wish I could just burn away with a kitchen torch and forget ever existed. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve attempted countless times to reconcile to no avail.
I could write essays upon essays about the pain and childish longing I’ve learned to bury—were you one of the unfortunate few in my creative nonfiction undergrad classes, you’ve probably be subjected to my mommy (and daddy) issues more than a few times.
That’s not what this is.
Instead of writing about the mother who carried and birthed me, I want to write about the mother who tried to raise me. She did, in fact, raise me, despite the efforts of my birth mother to thwart her. (To be clear—I’m not adopted. I just feel there’s more to being a mother than simply giving birth.)
Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and amid the sea of old photos, paragraphs of appreciation and praise, and genuine love flooding every form of social media, I had nothing to say. I’ve been so indoctrinated by my family and society at large to view my birth mother as my mother, and unfortunately, she is not a mother I could ever celebrate without overwhelming bitter resentment. Echoes of “but she’s your mother,” from others, and from her, “I am your only mother,” resonate, unbidden, every year. Nothing sparks my anger more than those electronic Hallmark knock-offs of circulating posts.
To those who have lost their beloved mothers, I’m sorry if I appear ungrateful. My birth mother is still alive, and I choose to keep her out of my life for my own emotional well-being.
To those who have loving mothers, I’m sorry if you don’t understand how I feel.
To those who have toxic mothers, I understand.
Taking a step away from the bombardment, I have to remind myself of the validity of my experiences. Regardless of what my birth mother says, regardless of what society says, I know who my mother is. I might not know who she was in her youth or who she might have become had she seen me grow up, but I know who she was to me when I was young and needed a mother who did more than simply birth me.
I’ve said, “I don’t love my mother,” as a direct rebellion against the pressures of accepting an abuser back into my life, but I realize that I do love my mother. She just isn’t the mother everyone wants me to love.
So many paragraphs of context and explanation to come to this: I want to write about my grandmother.
I don’t talk about my grandmother. Perhaps a passing comment of, “My grandmother raised me,” here or there; and even that has only become a familiar, easily accessible thought within the last few years. My grandparents, both of whom assumed the most pivotal parental roles in my life, have become a compilation of photos, memories, and experiences so sacred I hardly breathe a word of their importance. I don’t know if this is to protect myself from scrutiny or criticism, or some fear of tarnishing their memory the more I discuss them. Maybe I’m most afraid of indulging too deeply in my consuming love for them and recognizing I am part of their legacy—perhaps even the most shameful part.
I am one of five grandchildren, but I’m the only one who lived with them. After my birth mother left my birth (biological?) father, she returned to her parents’ house and never left. She’d never intended to raise a child “alone,” though with the support of her elder sister, my aunt, and my grandparents, she was hardly as alone as she insists. Retried grandparents meant free babysitting while working. Grandparents with retirement money meant extra support when paychecks were small. Emotional isolation, perhaps—my birth mother was never, and still isn’t, well understood by anyone—but never alone in the parenting of her child.
I think this is where things went awry.
My birth mother was never particularly fit to be a mother. Responsibility was never her strength, and I doubt anyone can argue how much of a responsibility a child is. My grandparents certainly knew, having raised three children of their own; and having raised her, they probably knew more keenly than anyone just how ill-equipped my birth mother was to raise a child. They carried the brunt of the parenting burden, an arrangement no one particularly enjoyed. My grandparents, again, shouldered the responsibility of their daughter’s irresponsibility (this statement warrants its own essay, I’m sure), and my birth mother struggled to “be an adult” under the rule and roof of her parents. The biggest and, by far, the most important difference between them was how they handled this undesirable and frustrating situation: my grandparents loved me; my birth mother resented me. They were able to separate the child from the responsibility the child presented; and she was not.
Because my birth mother was beholden to her parents’ rules, restrictions, and influence, of course the perceptive child recognizes the power dynamic. Without it ever being explained, I knew my grandparents were in charge, not my birth mother. Ergo, I never ever considered or viewed my birth mother as my mother. Like with siblings, were my birth mother to fall into abusive patterns, my grandparents intervened. Like with siblings, my birth mother argued who was at fault in the confrontation—“She won’t stop crying!” or something equally ridiculous—and my grandparents ultimately separated us; they’d send her away and tend to the wailing child.
It wasn’t the best, and I’m sure their constant interference with my birth mother’s parenting only stifled her potential to learn and grow as a parent (if the potential was ever there). It certainly stopped me from ever perceiving her as a parental or authoritative figure. Sure, she donned the tile of “mother,” but she was not the matriarch of the household.
Come Mother’s Day in school, projects were only designed for a single recipient—a mug, a card, a clay figure—and my instinct was to gift these things to my grandmother. But even at such a young age, I knew who my mother was supposed to be, and that woman demanded I treat her as society decreed. “I gave birth to you. I am your mother.” Gifts went to her in an effort to appease her ever present anger, and the world at large. I always felt guilty I couldn’t do the same for my grandmother. I never had an extra mug or an extra clay figure made in class. I only had cards and some gnawing ball of remorse and shame I could never shake.
It’s still there. I’m writing this the day after Mother’s Day; not the day of.
More context, more explanation.
Here’s what I know about my grandmother.
- She was born on August 4th sometime around 1933. (I only know this because of a Google’d obituary and hasty math.)
- She was one of several children. (I only know this because there were several names attached to “aunt” and “uncle” from her side of the family—none of which I remember).
- She met my grandfather through her brother; they served in the Marines together.
- She had red hair.
- She played women’s softball, and even coached my birth mother’s team.
- She had a very successful career in the insurance industry, an industry that, at the time, was almost completely dominated by men.
- She had a very close and loving relationship with her mother, my Great-Grandma Smith.
- She was a semi-professional bowler.
- She and my grandfather played Bingo every Wednesday and Friday night—I gave them trinkets as good luck charms.
- She drank her coffee black, with maybe a sugar or two.
- She smoked.
- She loved to read. Later in life, she did puzzles.
- She drank a screwdriver every day after work. She even let me taste it once—it was just orange juice to me.
- She had a pair of bright red high heels that I loved using to play dress up.
- She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when I was somewhere between the ages of five and seven.
- She retired shortly after her diagnosis.
- She died nearly two years to the day of my grandfather’s death at the age of 67—she’d be nearly 83 today.
- She loved me so immensely, to this day, I can’t fathom it.
Of course, there are other things I know about her as well; her less savory qualities. Qualities she and I would probably argue and debate were she alive today. She was very conservative, though not religious. She was a bigot and had a lot of prejudices. Though she never approved of the men of color my aunt dated or how one of her nephews was gay, she didn’t speak ill of them, and showed them nothing but kindness. She didn’t have a concept of varying gender identities, but a strict paradigm of gender roles. She didn’t understand why my birth mother insisted on wearing boys’ clothes. Admirable to an extent, I believe, but still a product of her time.
I like to think her compassion would win out over her misguided beliefs were I able to discuss them with her, because she was, in fact, compassionate. Despite struggling and striving and succeeding in a man’s world, where women could show no weakness, she managed to protect and maintain her soft heart. Also, she loved me.
She taught me my letters and practiced my numbers through a game of Bank Teller with money snatched from the Monopoly set.
She helped me dye Easter eggs in ceramic mugs despite the cleaning she’d have to do to use them for coffee the next morning.
She napped with me when I was little. She’d rub my back until I fell asleep.
She hated my Ninja Turtles and Transformers (she called them monster toys), but she bought them for me anyway.
She helped me bake cookies for Santa and showed me how to press the fork into the peanut butter ones so they’d have ridges in the middle.
She let me raid her closet for dress up.
I never let myself miss her because I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what to do with the ache or the hole in my chest or the onslaught of “what if’s” that fuck me up for days at a time.
She loved me most, and I am my own biggest shame.
The last two years of her life, when her Parkinson’s Disease had her crippled and disoriented, when this proud, powerful woman was reduced to relying on others in ways she’d never wanted or expected to, when her husband was dead and gone, my birth mother became her primary care giver. In a house haunted by the loss of my grandfather and my grandmother slowly become a ghost herself, I was young and scared and neglected because everyone was too involved with their own grief to help me with mine. My birth mother hated my grandmother. My birth mother wished my grandmother had died instead of my grandfather. My birth mother made this well known and told anyone who would listen. Including me.
The last two years of her life, I avoided her, because spending time with her meant facing my birth mother’s wrath. The last two years of her life, I watched my birth mother abuse her—throw her around, bruise her, say nasty things to her—and never spoke up, because I was scared of my birth mother’s anger. The last two years of her life, she didn’t understand why I stopped talking to her, stopped spending time with her, had so little patience with her. The last two years of her life, she thought I hated her. And I didn’t. I never did. I loved her just as much as she loved me, but I was twelve and didn’t know how to tell her. I didn’t know how to watch her lose her memory and repeat herself in an endless loop of tears and rambling. I didn’t know how to process her hurt for losing her husband when I couldn’t process my hurt for losing my grandfather, the man who was my father as she was my mother.
I didn’t know.
I didn’t fucking know.
Sometimes I wonder what she’d think of me now.
I abandoned an education in respectable psychology for not-so-reliable writing. I have tattoos and a lip ring. I’m very liberal and identify as bisexual. I’ve had premarital sex. I never wear high heels because they hurt my feet, and I prefer pants or slacks to skirts. I have, however, stopped biting my nails—a habit of mine she hated—so maybe she’d be proud of that.
That, honestly, is the only thing I’m sure of.
I don’t know if she’d like or accept my husband. I don’t know if she’d like my dogs, or how I dress, or how I’ve decorated my house. I don’t know if she’d like my cooking, or if she’d be willing to visit me during the holidays, or if I’d still have a home to go back to if she were still alive.
But then I remember how I treated her, and none of it matters. Because when it mattered most, I failed. I was young, I was alone, I was scared, but I still failed. She still died thinking I hated her.
I think this, above all else, is the hardest part of Mother’s Day for me. Forget the hollow Hallmark cards and the empty circling social media posts. Forget how my birth mother is terrible and society keeps trying to force me to accept her back into my life. Forget everything. Fuck it all.
My grandmother was my mother. And my mother died thinking I hated her.
It’s been sixteen years since she died, and this is the first time I’ve written about her. It’s been sixteen years, and I focus on my birth mother, because anger is easier than shame. It’s easier to focus on how I was resented and abused and righteously defend myself than it is to focus on how I was loved and cherished and grapple with how I squandered it.
So, mom—my real mother—Happy Mother’s Day.
I’m sorry I couldn’t love you more.