My mother was young when she had me. At only eighteen, she was married with a newborn. In that order, I think. She soon divorced my father. I have no memories of them together in the same place. She remarried quickly and had my little sister…who would be my very best friend. My mother divorced again, remarried quickly and had my little brother who I haven’t really known since he was three. She divorced her third husband before I was 11, tearing her children apart. We were all split up, to live states away from each other. My baby brother, my little sister and I were never reunited under one roof as children. My siblings left to live with their fathers. My mother kept me. She remarried, she divorced.
Following the first three marriages, I was neglected. My mother’s priorities were finding the next man. My mother would find a boyfriend, we would moved in, they would break up, we would moved out. We would switch towns. My mother would find another boyfriend, we would move in, they would break up, we would move out. We would switch towns. Multiply by, oh, about 5. I continued to be neglected.
Then, finally, like with my siblings before me, she moved away. Even though I refused to move again, even though I had put down some type of roots, no matter how shallow, she still moved on, moving away from me. More than neglect, I had felt abandoned. It seemed so easy for her to leave me. Not yet out of school, I was left in a small town to depend on a few friends whose parents pitched in.
For so many years I’ve searched for something, anything my mother has taught me. How could she have had the time to teach me anything? When I remember the mom of my childhood, I remember her either sleeping or rushing out the door. She was always so busy. Busy marrying, or finding a boyfriend, or moving, or going out dancing while I stayed home all night alone or working her ass off at the NEXT job because she, again, had lost the last one.
Where were the lessons? What could I truly have learned from all of THAT?
I THOUGHT my mom taught me to be a good mother. Seriously. Uh, yeah, because I was going to be the exact opposite of her. My years and years worth of anger were going to pay off big time with me being exactly UNLIKE her. I can clearly remember saying, out loud, that being the opposite of her is going to make me a great mom. But it really exhausted me. Being the exact opposite of my mother, I martyred myself with my first child. Talk about the hovering mother: My child would not know one second of life without me being there for him, not one whimper before he would be scooped up and not one owie that wouldn’t be taken care of by me and no one else.
When I became a mother for the second time I relaxed a little. But the anger was still there, and now it was beginning to surface in a way unfamiliar to me. It couldn’t be seen, but my muscles were spinning like those toys where you push and push and push the button until the wheel spins so hard that sparks shoot off of it, out of control. One day, when I was eating cheese and crackers. I wondered if the knife I was using would stop the spinning. I wondered, “if I jabbed this knife into my thigh, would that make the spinning stop?” That was when my husband and I agreed I should talk to someone.
I uncovered lessons from my mother in the most unusual way. First lesson: my mother taught me about mental illness. Through therapy I learned about several conditions my mother could be suffering from and was able to let a lot of the anger and frustration spill away. I learned how a toxic past, never treated, can leave a lifetime of heartache in its wake. It was possible my mother was using the only tools she had, what tools weren‘t stripped away from her during her abusive past. So my mother taught me about people that are really trying to do the best they can. Truly the best they are actually capable of. Considering her own childhood, I believe my mother was doing HER best. And the farther I get from the anger and hurt, the more certain I become.
My mother taught me about setting boundaries and standards. The next step was to know where the boundaries were in our present relationship and I had to set the standard for that relationship. For so long I was so furious about the past and I kept looking for HER to do something to fix it. Not anymore. I was ready to do this myself and let go of the angry child still waiting on my mother to do it FOR me, waiting for her to do the impossible: change the past. I even stopped waiting for her to apologize. So my mother taught me to look inside myself, find the strength and courage to find my own peace and not depend on her or anyone else to do that for me.
My mother taught me to take risks. When changing the way I acted and reacted to past and present situations, I had to risk relationships. When you change, most will accept the, kind of, new you, but others may move away. And, if you’re really fortunate, they’ll embrace you, moving in closer than before. I’m happy to say, I have been fortunate. We both have fortunate.
My mother really has changed for the better throughout the years. It often makes me sad that my mother has never sought help that could make her mind healthier than she could ever imagine, help to begin healing the toxic build up from a devastating childhood. I’ve encouraged her speak to someone, but I cannot make her and I cannot heal her. I have to accept that she may never seek therapy. Because of that, I have learned another important lesson from my mother: If you care about someone, you have to meet them where they are.
How? How could I get those values out of that childhood? It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that they are in me, and mostly because of her.
I don’t know if she understands, but all of the things she never said have created a stronger me. All of the things she never said help me to be able to even slightly understand her, to be able to deal with her and to continue to move past some of the lingering hurt I still feel. The hurt is mine and the healing is my responsibility.
I have listened, over the years, to all of the things my mother never said.
A treasure of tools learned in an unconventional way.
Do your best. Take risks. Set standards. Meet people where they are. Make peace.
And I will add: Be compassionate. Be vulnerable.
Priceless lessons. I am the proud owner. And, because of my mom, I have them to pass on to my children.
I read this May 11th, to an audience at Unity Temple on the Plaza in Kansas City. There were so many people who came up to me after the KC’s first Listen To Your Mother show to say “me too” and “thank you for telling your story” and “I’m so happy to know I’m not the only one” and “our mothers are so similar, only my mother, now, is homeless”.
I was so proud of the women who stood on that stage with me, each telling their own unique stories. No words will ever be able to convey my feelings that evening. Ever. But I love those women, I loved the audience and I will always be grateful for being given the opportunity to share my story.
My mother is a very nice person. I know it has to be hard to hear things from your children that are less than flattering, but it was a story I have always felt needed to be shared. I really do try to meet her where she is. I love her, I forgive her and I continue to try and be a good daughter to her.