Tag Archives: mother

To the Woman Who Taught Me of Compromise and Courage

8 May

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who decided that being there to wake me up and make me breakfast and pick me up from school and take me to extra math lessons and tuck me in at night were more important than maintaining an untarnished sanity. I knew about the yelling at night, but I didn’t understand the compromises until later.

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who taught me how eyes speak and the turn of a head threatens and the grasp of a man’s hand about his silverware tells you the degree of appeasement you will be serving that night for dinner. Happy Mother’s Day to the woman whose sharp and endless questions fueled by the anxiety to just keep me safe taught me to be prepared, to think ahead, to see not just the road before me but the seven hundred ways it could be different. I may have inherited the endless chatter and vice-grip-on-the-heart of your invisible traveling companions, but at least I know how to answer their whispers.

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who’s shown me that heroes do not always come with laurels. They are found instead in years of loaded dishwashers; bags under the eyes and wrinkles frowning about the mouth from a tongue kept too long; the silent ferocity of a mind that knows better but is trapped behind a white picket fence of housewife civility; a backstory unknown till long after one’s own has been collected. I got a clean page; still, I mourn your palimpsest.

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman ineffably practical who saw my books with titles with words like “wizards” and feared my proclivity for the fantastic and the magical, till you insisted one day on reading “this Harry Potter” and after hitting the last page asked if perhaps you could borrow the next one, after it came out, and I’d finished reading it. Just so long as I didn’t tell you any spoilers before.

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who raised me in care and caution but has not begrudged me my edges and little bits of reckless. Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who laid in my skin the practice of being hidden and invisible and yet blesses the ways I have chosen to make that skin stand out. Happy Mother’s Day to the woman who for all her practice in dustbowl acceptability didn’t even bat an eye when I told her I like girls as well as guys, and who answered with confused silence when I asked if she’d have been so supportive if I’d told her back when I was young, because she did not understand how, loving me for me, there could have been any other option.

Happy Mother’s Day to the woman whose jawline I’ve started to see when I glance in the mirror, especially back when I’d cut my hair short, and stripped it blond. I am not yet accustomed to the idea of looking anything like you, but I will not begrudge my face its ancestry. The jawline is strong, and a graceful one, even if we do sometimes clench it too hard.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Advertisements

My Mom Is Not My Best Friend

10 May

My mother is not my best friend. And that’s okay. The concept of who my mother is has changed in my life over time, as I think it should have.  As a kid, my mom was that great mass of maternalness that gets epitomized in Baby Muppet’s mother-human-thing-character, a body wearing a dress tall with a nice voice who’s tall enough that her head is somewhere off the top of the screen and all you can really see are her legs and the tray of cookies she’s bringing into the room. My mom was my mommy – dinner-making, school uniform-buying, rule-creating, playdate-arranging woman who took me out to Gloria Jeans Coffee for hot chocolate with whipped cream and cinnamon flakes on top on my days off school. She was the Adult And Thus Essentially God who brought me to the pediatrician the zillion times I had strep throat, forced me to wear sunscreen when I was too young to understand the words “Irish complexion,” and for god knows what reason took on what must have been the hell of running my elementary school Brownie troupe. As it goes with most kids, for me in my childhood, my mom was a set of actions and routines and a few shades of mannerisms. I loved her, I needed her, but I had close to zero understanding of her as a person.

Puberty hit, and I’m pretty sure neither of us understood the other as a person for a solid five years or so. With my flush of preteen hormones came the genetic ticking time bomb of mental health predisposition, with anorexia and OCD taking the lead. It was me and my brain against the world. (Well, it was really my brain against me and the world, but I wouldn’t know that until something like a decade later when I was three years into therapy.)

As I fell into a world of misconceived misperceptions and my mother tried to fix it all with tough love and no science or psychology, our relationship devolved into secrecy and butting wills. With my mom not really having a background in psychology or science, I don’t know all of what went through my mother’s head during those years, but I imagine it was something like “WHY IS MY CHILD BREAKING WHY WON’T SHE JUST DO WHAT I SAY WHY CAN’T I FIX IT FUCK FUCK FUCK.” My brain, in the meantime, was going “SEE HOW SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND SHE’S TELLING YOU TO DO WRONG THINGS SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYTHING WILL BREAK IF YOU DON’T DO THIS WHY WON’T SHE JUST TRUST YOU SHE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT SHE’S TALKING ABOUT.”

Lovely, lovely communication there.

My early teen years were not pleasant. Combined with friendlessness at school and expectations all around of high-achievement, my developing mistrust of my well-meaning mother and growing resentment toward other family members led to a lot of walls and broken battleground. Things were wrong. My brain scrambled desperately to fix them in maladaptive ways. My mother tried in her own misinformed way to fix it as well. Everything was terrible. My mother was not my best friend. From within my eventually clinically depressed brain, she was barely even someone I liked.

It’s entirely justified if that sentiment were mutual.

Adulthood, or the mini-adulthood that is college, at least, offered some respite. I got both better and worse, but there was greater communication that happened. I mean, there kind of has to be when your daughter winds up in a treatment facility. You kinda have to talk about what’s happening for real, at least a little bit more, then.

I got to understanding my brain more, and it got harder for it to pull one over on me. I don’t know what changed for my mom, but she started backing off of mama bear mode and started interacting with me on a more peer level. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, we started understanding each other as adults.

And honestly, I don’t even think I mean in some gushy, and-all-was-well way. I’d go home for a visit over the summer, and find out that my mom’s favorite band is PINK FUCKING FLOYD. And then she’d just suddenly rattle off the lyrics to some rap song. And then she’d tell me about how she put herself through a few years of college while working full time because she wanted the education for herself even though her mother didn’t. And I’d tell her about how I’d gone on birth control (at that point in order to regulate my unruly menstrual un-cycle, but my mother’s immediate response was “OH GOOD YOU CAN HAVE SEX NOW!”) and about how sucky vet school applications are and about how I adopted a snake (she was less okay with that than the birth control). With my mother’s mama bear a little bit more tamed, I can now ask her for advice on things like renting a car and how to do taxes, and, I mostly trust that she’s not going to jump into let-me-do-everything-for-you-oh-child-of-mine mode where I feel like respect for my own competence goes flying out the window. No, I feel like now, in her eyes, I am an adult. I can see her, the adult, more now too. I like her. I hope she likes me. I think we’re something like friends.

But not best friends. Which is good, because that’s not what I need her to be.

I need her to tell me to put on sunscreen when I delude myself I won’t burn. I need her to sit down and have hot chocolate with whipped cream and cinnamon flakes on top. I need her to somehow sometimes know more about old school rock than I do.

I just need her to be my mom.

Parents

27 Jun

I don’t write normal parents. Not that I write parental figures with seven limbs, or serial killer tendencies. I just don’t write “traditional,” functional relationships between parental figures.

Yeah, hi there Freud. I see you smirking over there in a corner.

The more I’ve written, the more I’ve come to notice about my abnormal parent figures. The fathers, for example – most of the time, they just don’t exist. My earliest stories, written in the big, round handwriting of an eight or nine year old, they just didn’t have father figures in them. The absence wasn’t a key component; it just was. Without explanation or ado. It was just the norm for my characters, something they didn’t think twice about.

Makes sense, seeing how for a very long stretch of my life, it was something I didn’t think twice about either. Business trips, golf trips, hunting trips, gambling trips, affair trips. My father’s presence was an anomaly, not a rule. I simply didn’t know how to write about present fathers. I had no material.

Mothers, however… Even before I hit puberty, they got a broader ranger of characterization. They were present, for one thing. Sometimes, they were caring. Or neutral, at the very least. NPC’s there for the main character to interact with, if not exactly salient actors in and of themselves. Other times, though…

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three pieces of writing with abusive mother figures in them. Around thirteen or so, I spent my nights angrily scratching out a story of a nineteenth-century, Sarah-the-little-princess-esque near-orphan girl whose central conflict was with a physically abusive mother. The narrative was basically F. H. Burnett’s novel boiled down to a purely familial relationship. The horrid school teacher became a sort of evil stepmother figure – minus the “step.”

Abusive mother figures have shown up again and again in my writing. Left alone to parent because of an inexplicably absent husband, they take out their anger of what life has dealt them on the children life has dealt them as well. They cause silence in their daughters. They cause their girls to withdraw and go insane. They yell. They hit. They degrade.

They are not my mother.

My mother has always been more of a passive victim, or inactive co-conspirator at worst, in my eyes. My worries around her have been of the protective sort. When it came to the battles between her and my father, my mother is always the one I have sided with. I have been frustrated with my mother, yes, but more for her inactivity. She has accepted my father’s maelstrom. She has not fought back. Even when I needed her to.

And yet she, in her many literary representations, is the one that I have made the abuser.

Perhaps it’s because in some way, I do hold her responsible. She didn’t stop my father. She taught me to shut up and keep quiet about it. She passed on a sense that I must just deal with whatever shit I’m served. That having someone and taking their blows, emotional or otherwise, is better than having no one.

Over the course of my childhood, I asked her again and again to do something about this father of mine. Tried to make it clear how it was hurting me. Hurting my younger sister. Hurting her.

Her response was largely to shove her head in the sand.

With the life experience and therapy and psychology education that I now have at 23, I can rationalize her actions. I understand victimization. I understand co-dependency. I understand the fear that leaving something bad will only result in something worse. I understand. I do.

But I think that growing up, and perhaps even now, some part of me still holds her responsible.

Why not write father figures that are abusive? Why not assign the blame where blame is more truthfully do? The defensive answer is that it’s my writing, and I’ll do whatever I damn well please, thank you very much.

The more truthful answer is that I’m not sure I could handle it. Not sure I want to have to handle it. I already dealt with one abusive father, thank you very much. Why would I create even more, in my writing? I have a mother that I love. That I want in my life. Even with all of her fretting. So even if I write a culpable mother figure in my stories, I still have a less culpable one to return to.

I cannot say the same of my father.

So much of writing is a sort of authorial wish-fulfillment. While 99% of my narratives barely involve a father figure at all, the 1% that do feature fathers that look nothing like my own. In a YA manuscript I begun writing at the the age of 14 and have been editing ever since, there is a father figure that I am fairly shocked by. He is calm and gentle. Scholarly and patient. Quiet and fiercely caring. He cares for both his daughter and his wife. He might disagree with his well-meaning but overly-fretful wife sometimes (the fictional mother who comes closest to my own), but he does not belittle her.

Ah, hello there, fairy tale father.

I find it somewhat comforting to know that in the narrative that contains the most real version of my own mother, I would assign her a partner much better than the one she’s got. Even with all of the frustration I channel at her through those other less-realistic mother figures, when it comes down to the “real” her, I would wish her more happiness than what she has, rather than punishment. I want better for her.

I want better for myself.

Misogyny, Misandry, and Father’s Day

15 Jun

I hate Father’s Day. I by no means hate fathers. I don’t even really hate my father. I just hate the nationally celebrated day that will overstuff my Facebook and Twitter feeds and force me to think over and over again about the complicated relationship I’ve had since, well, ever with that terrible, wonderful, intimidating word. Father.

Honestly, I’m pretty confused about how I happened. Yes, yes, I do technically know how I happened. I have two heterosexual, reasonably fertile parents with differently sexed genitalia. I remember that talk my school gave us back in sixth grade. But as for the why of that how – I am confused, since I’m generally under the impression that my parents have been fighting since before I was even born. But apparently passion, like humans and their human relationships, is a complicated thing.

And so I was born, thanks to the complicatedness of existence. Naturally, that meant that my existence has been consequentially complicated too.

I know that there were good times with my father while I was growing up. Afternoons of hide and seek, nights of my father’s consenting to play barbies before bed. My dad is the reason I was thrown into the water and turned into such an aqueous creature so early on. There were giggles and smiles.

But there were tears, too. Oh so many, many tears. And I, built for better or for worse to register the negative over the positive, tend to remember those tears first and foremost. I was three or four the first time I encountered the word “divorce.” My parents were shouting it at each other downstairs in the kitchen. I heard them from my hiding place, crouched just around the corner at the top of the stairs, where they couldn’t see me. I heard my father shouting, his yells deep and growling. I heard my mother shriek back, her words shrill and defensive. Even at three, I knew that one of those timbres was the one with the threat, and one of them was not. My mother’s yelling carries hysteria. My father’s yelling carries violence. His is the anger that has always scared me more.

Now, at the age of 23, I understand that my father is human, a damaged individual with a backstory of dysfunction that explains so much of his threats and narcissism and alcoholism and distance. He is doing the best he can with what he himself was given to work with. But at the age of three, that higher reasoning hadn’t kicked in yet. All I knew was that my father, the man I was supposed to believe was there to protect me, was someone of whom I was deeply, deeply afraid. And while that is something I have come to understand, it is not something I can yet entirely forgive.

I grew up living in fear. The man who taught me that promises are important with the force behind the words he used to tell me that he would always keep them is also the man who taught me more with his actions just why that is when he broke oh so many of them. The man who said he would always be there for me, no matter what, is also the man I would come to think of as “the bachelor who happens to be married to my mother” because of how often he was away on business, golf trips, hunting vacations, or affairs.

I am so much of who I am because of having preferred the counter examples to him. I am trusting because my father is manipulative. I am a giver because my father is a salesman. I am a pacifist because my father is a predator. I am widely accepting because my father can only believe that what he wants is right. I will ask for help because my father will keep on blundering ahead. I am supportive because my father is so critical. I lack so much self-confidence because my father is so self-assured.

I am perhaps equal parts broken and strong because of how I have reacted to my father’s lessons, direct or otherwise. I have spent a lifetime trying to defend who I am as a woman because of the man who acted as if women are nothing more than pretty tools for his disposal. I grew up expecting to be assaulted, in one way or another.

And yet, his misogyny has not instilled in me an equal misandry. Yes, for much of my life, I was flat-out afraid of males. My all-girls school education and sheltered childhood spared me having to interact with guys on any sort of regular basis. But the occasional visit from male neighbors, or uncles, or cousins, or, you know, going to a restaurant and having to talk to a male server – I was routinely petrified.

A slow introduction to the male half of the human race and a college education at a male-heavy college where I was the only girl in the room often enough that I eventually stopped noticing has helped a bit, but there is still some amount of inherent distrust in me. I was taught, by action rather than doctrine, that males are a people who could very, very easily hurt me. Physically or otherwise.

And yet, I have also grown up craving male attention. Approval. Affection. The things that I did not at all register sufficiently getting from my father. It was somewhere around middle school when I first realized just how desperately I was searching for a surrogate father. I had a male music teacher, and after I’d used an untraditional medium for a project in his music appreciation class, I asked him over and over again, for something like a week, whether or not that had been okay. The answer was obviously yes, every time. I stopped asking after I realized, in a moment of horror, that I was continuing to ask the same question of this music teacher not because I was still unsure of whether or not how I’d done the project had actually been okay, but because I knew that it was, and I wanted to hear the music teacher say that. I wanted to hear him tell me that yes, it had been a good idea. Yes, it had been okay. Yes, I was okay. Yes, he approved of me.

Hello, daddy issues.

I have since worked very, very hard to pull back those daddy-seeking tendrils. There’s been a lot of therapy.

And yet, somehow, I continue to become close to males who treat me in some way or other like my father did. I actively try not to, try to make friends and lovers of the guys who display qualities that I value, rather than qualities I grew up fearing. Still, I too often wind up with quick-tempered, stormy friends. Guys who will say things with their words and never follow through with their actions. Recently, I realized that I was staying with a guy who completely ignored me because I feared my emotional turmoil of a life would be harder without the paltry reassurance I got from that flimsy titular relationship than it was with it.

In other words, I was staying with him for the exact same reason my mother has stayed with my father. Down to the very words she’d used to explain it to me.

We broke up shortly thereafter.

So. Father’s Day. Such a complicated day for me. “Father” is the word for the man who gave me my first real taste of misogyny. “Father” is the word for the man who made me seek so desperately a desire to find his counterexample, rather than falling into easy misandry. “Father” is the word for the man who was causative for so many of the bricks that build me, and for the cracks in them as well. “Father” is the word for the thing I view with equal parts despisement and yearning.

“Father” is a word that has only ever been associated with the word “happy” in a negative sense. So how can I not hate the phrase “Happy Father’s Day?” There is so much unfulfilled wishing in that phrase for me. So much history, so many complications and contradictions.

I find it difficult to wish people an oxymoron.

The Fear of What Comes Next

18 Aug

Recently, there was a Times article entitled ‘Having It All Without Having Children.’ I haven’t read the entire piece, but my impression is that it generally discusses views on having children and why that is or is not a good idea for various couples and how attitudes are changing about the “selfishness” of child-free couples.

Now, since I haven’t actually read the entire article I can’t guarantee this, but I got the feeling that it probably didn’t cover a few of the reasons that women I’ve known have had for being hesitant to have children. Reasons that will cause most people to just shut their mouths and nod.

But I also thought of the women I’ve known who could have had those same reasons and went ahead and had children anyway. And honestly, I think those women are incredibly brave. To decide to take the risk and have another kid after a couple already has one child born with autism or blindness or leukemia… To decide to try again, and again and again and again, after the trauma of miscarrying… To decide to invest a piece of what made your soul and your biology in another person when you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder or bulimia… I’m not sure I could make those decisions.

And so this is a poem for all those women who have stared in the face of the fear of what comes next, and had a child anyway. And this is a poem, too, for all those who have known that fear and quietly, determinedly said no, I will not.

empty swing

The Fear of What Comes Next

You look at me and wonder –
what if it would turn out just like you?
You think about the nights you have lost,
rocking me in a cradle, colicky and cold
beyond any warmth the touch of your fingers would give.
You think about the moments upon moments of delusion,
when you hoped that this was just a phase,
and the little face looking back at you would smile some day,
and call you mama.
You wonder if the next one, like me, would never, not once,
be able to say that word.
You decided you will not give nature and chance
any more cruel opportunity.

You look at me and wonder –
what if it would turn out just like you?
You think about the nights you have lost,
staring bleary-eyed at that reflection in the mirror,
across the sink, over the pill bottles your shaky hand fingers.
You think about the moments upon moments of delusion,
when you hoped that this was just a phase,
and the nakedness looking back at you would smile some day,
and call you unbroken.
You wonder if the next one, like me, would never, not once,
be able to say that word.
You decided you will not give nature and chance
any more cruel opportunity.

And so they turn away from him, with that damn hopeful look in his eyes,
and say it’s late. Perhaps in the morning.