This essay is an excerpt from a memoir she is hoping to publish soon, "I Can't Take Care of You."
I once heard someone say that kids born in the 1970s are the least-parented generation. I believe it. From the Easy Bake Oven in our closet that my sister and I used to make Shrinky Dinks and melt Barbie heads to the wood-burning kit my brother got for Christmas one year that he threatened to brand us with if we didn’t do his chores, we were chronically unsupervised. I still remember the exhilarating freedom of being kicked out of the house right after breakfast on a summer morning and told to, “Stick together and be home before dark.”
And yet, as I pushed into my teenage years and actively ignored my mother, a big part of me longed for her. I resented the hours she worked, the way she let me shrug and tell her I was okay without probing further.
I made her feel stupid and unnecessary because I wanted my independence but I secretly hoped that she would somehow find a way to force herself in. By the time I left for college, I had decided she wasn’t interested and convinced myself that it would be best if I gave up hoping.
I embarked on my new adult life with a chip on my shoulder, believing that my mother didn’t do all the things she was “supposed” to do for me when I was a kid. I was angry that she left me to my own devices so much, that she relied on me to help raise my younger sister, that she wasn’t there for me emotionally when I struggled. And then I had children of my own and began to understand what a delicate dance it is to be a mother; how hard it is to ever truly believe that I know what I’m doing, to accurately assess what impact it might have on my daughters and what they’re thinking and feeling. What if I mischaracterized my mother and her true intentions? What if I am being incredibly unfair to her?
What if I mischaracterized my mother and her true intentions? What if I am being incredibly unfair to her?
I can’t ask her now. My mother has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t usually remember that she has a daughter. But as the mother of a very strong- willed, independent, stoic daughter of my own, I’m starting to see it from my mom’s perspective.
Yesterday, I took the dog for a walk. The morning air was clear, the leaves were just beginning to turn, the sidewalk was littered with chestnut husks.
We wandered toward the elementary school just as the kids ran out for recess and as the joyful squeals rose into the air, I thought about childhood, about how hard I have tried over the years to give my children the idyllic, ideal childhood I always wanted but didn’t get.
An old familiar resentment rose in my throat like heartburn and I kicked a rock in my path, hard.
Now that my mother is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, I have lost hope that she might be there as a sounding board, as emotional support, as the mother I always wanted. At every stage of my life, I crafted some image of what it might look like to have a close mother-daughter relationship.
When I was planning my wedding, I wanted to know what it was like for Mom to plan hers but she couldn’t remember. When my girls were born, I wondered what she remembered of childbirth and raising a newborn, but she didn’t have much to say. When my oldest was struggling with anxiety, I desperately wanted to call Mom and ask her what to do, but although I remember having anxiety as a teenager, I had to admit that I never confided in Mom, so how could she possibly know what to do?
Maybe some of her reluctance to dispense advice and commiserate was because I pushed her away so hard as a teen. Maybe she felt so burned by my rejection that she didn’t want to risk being shoved away again. And, even if she wasn’t struggling to remember simple things, I question whether I would have called her to ask for anything, or if I would have played that same old story in my head about her not caring enough. I am painfully aware now what it takes to be both a human being and a mother. I am more painfully aware that I never allowed my mother to be both at the same time.
What it takes to be a mother
The dog stops to pee and a lump forms in my throat. How many years did I waste being angry with her for not giving me the mother-daughter relationship I thought I wanted?
I’m pretty sure she didn’t get the life she envisioned, either — this Catholic school girl who finally got a reprieve from raising her younger siblings by going to college and getting married. Her first marriage ended in a fiery burst of anger after years of infidelity, and the second one was built on a foundation of half-truths and sleight of hand. She worked hard for years at a job that didn’t offer her a comfortable retirement and she was hit with Alzheimer’s before she turned 70.
She raised three kids mostly alone on a paltry budget. Who am I to resent her? How ridiculous is it to aspire to some fairy tale story of what my life ought to have been?
Nobody ever told me what it would be like to be a mom and want my mom. I’m not sure it would have mattered, though. Nobody ever said that extending my adolescent independent streak well into my 30s, never asking my mom’s advice or opinion on anything, wouldn’t get me anywhere noteworthy. They never said that by the time I realized how nice it would have been to have her ear when I was feeling confused or panicky, it might be too late.
As Mom sinks deeper into her own mind and her memories peel off a few at a time, I am left feeling orphaned and ashamed. Assuming she understands what is happening to her, she is probably scared to death. I am faced with the knowledge that it may be up to me to comfort her when what I really want is to cry on her shoulder instead. I am left with the thought that it is terribly ironic that I refused to seek her comfort or advice when I had the opportunity and now I am angry that I have to offer her what I wanted.
Is this what compassion is made of? Can I heal myself by letting go of resentment? Can I admit that it never protected me from anything except having a relationship with my mother?
Lately, I call her every few days to check in and she is always thrilled to hear from me. At this point, she still recognizes my voice and I am grateful. It is sometimes hard to find topics of conversation because she can’t remember what she did yesterday or whether she has seen any good movies lately. Her world is pretty much in the moment. The last time I called, I was going through a rough patch at work and asked her if I could vent.
“Sure! Tell me what’s happening.” She perked up as soon as I asked.
I suddenly remembered the part of Mom’s life where she was a real estate agent for 30 years and something magical happened. As I ranted about the business situation I found myself in — at odds with someone who was trying to get me to do something I wasn’t comfortable doing — Mom made all the right noises in all the right places. When I lamented that I thought the entire deal would soon crumble, I recalled all of the sales Mom worked on for weeks that suddenly fell apart for some small reason.
“How did you handle that? Did it make you crazy to work so hard for so long on something and have the other agent just screech to a halt? It must have been so hard!”
“Hmm, well, yes, I guess it was. But you deserve to stick to your guns. You can’t let this deal happen if you don’t feel good about it. You deserve to have it go just the way you want it to. Don’t let him bully you.”
“Thanks, Mom. It’s frustrating, but I do have to hold firm boundaries. Thanks for letting me dominate the conversation and vent.”
“Oh, honey, thank you! You just made my day, calling and talking to me. You can call and vent anytime. I love hearing from you!”
God, the lump in my throat. Maybe it isn’t too late, after all. Maybe it’s just in time. Maybe this is the perfect way to show my daughters how much I love them, by opening myself up to an authentic, caring relationship with my own mother and accepting her for the person she is, and learning how to do that with them, too. Maybe mothering isn’t about dishes and cold medicine and driving kids from place to place as much as it is about stopping to listen and letting my kids and my mom know they’re not alone.