Thursday, May 10, 2012

My mother-daughter history

Many bloggers I follow have been writing about their mothers this week... and though I'd like to add a similar tribute, I almost always feel a little stymied when it comes to being objective enough to do so. Or to be loving enough to gaze back at my relationship with Mom with anywhere close to the kind of devotion one would expect for such an exercise. Today, however, a blogger wrote about the difficulties of her relationship, then another commented how freeing it was to read that post--and opened up about her own difficult relationship with her mom, and I thought...well, I realized, like with all things, that I'm not alone in this world.

Here's the thing. I had a happy childhood.  In many ways, it was idyllic. My parents not only loved each other and us, they were consistent in their discipline with us and NEVER fought with each other. I do not exaggerate when I write that. Ask any of my siblings--my parents NEVER fought. Neither of them every stomped out of the house or slept on the couch or raised their voice in anger toward the other. There were plenty of raised voices--or perhaps I should say, my mom raised her voice plenty--but not at my dad.

We were expected not to raise our voices either. EVER. Talking back, slamming doors in anger (or even when not angry) stomping out of the room, or being snotty in any way was simply NOT tolerated in our house. And not one of us ever pushed the limit as far as I can remember (and I have a pretty good memory).

So life was smooth. Easy enough. We went on camping trips, to the family cabin on Whidbey Island, vacations to see relatives, and spent a whole lot of time at WSU athletic events.  And until I was a pre-teen, I thought my family was just about as perfect as a family could be. Far better than most, to tell the truth. I didn't have restrictions, had never been grounded (my parents didn't use that form of discipline, which they didn't fine to be effective) and was almost always given money when I asked for it.

But something happened when I turned 12 or 13. I can't put my finger on a specific event, but sometime during that year, which was 7th grade for me, I stopped loving my mother and began to merely tolerate her. The change in me did not manifest itself in changed behavior, at least not externally. But it created what I've always called the "Walking out of the Room" syndrome. That is, even though my body was still there, and appeared to be listening while Mom lectured me, I had really walked out of the room. This 'technique' served me well in many and varied situations through out all the years I lived with her, and many more when I brought children home whom she felt the right (and need!) to discipline since they were, "IN MY HOUSE!"

I realized at 12 that my mother was different than other mothers. Irregular. Even that she wanted to be me, if that makes sense. Wanted to live vicariously through me. She always tried to flirt in her clumsy way with whichever boys who happened to walk into our house, and even tried it on the telephone. She was intensely interested in my social life, and manipulated to improve it, often to my great chagrin.  And Mom could be mercurial. Placing blame on one of us for something because we were handy. At least that was often how it felt.

And it only got worse the older I got. Her feelings were easily bruised when we didn't agree with her, when we actually used the brains she taught us to use, when we did things differently than she did. By the time I became a parent, it was lethal being in the same house together--especially when that house was hers. She felt our differences implied that she was a terrible mother.  "You already weaned E? I must have been terrible for letting you nurse so long." Or, "You let the children get into bed when they're afraid in the night? I must have been a terrible mother for never allowing that with you."  These things said in a different way might sound like teasing. Trust me, they were not! On my part, I simply had no patience for her, and--to my shame--was so committed to telling the truth, I often confronted her with behaviors I felt were wrong. And, because of that wounded self, she took each confrontation as a gun shot to her psyche, which only made me MORE frustrated--"It's NOT about you, it's about your action," I'd tell her. Relentlessly.

She had rules out the kazoo, and control issues about her control issues. But more than these things, which might have looked differently on someone else, I just plain throught her strange. There, I said it outloud. I thought my mother was weird. Strange, irregular. I didn't understand her, and barely wanted to try. I would gird my loins whenever a visit was drawing near, not because I was afraid she wouldn't approve of me. She often didn't--but because I could NEVER fill the gap where her heart and self-confidence presumably once resided. It was just too big, too needy, TOO everything. And her needs shut something off in me. Continually. Always.

And then my father died. And she got worse before she got better. No, that's not it. She simply got worse and never got better.  A whole lot worse. Then the five minute conversations about my disapproval (which now I'm not proud us) there were longer and less-easy-to-forgive ones. There was one really terrible one, which is too complicated to explain but ended with my sisters and me standing in her kitchen as she, leaning against a counter in her nightgown without her glasses on, cried bone-marrow deep tears and accused us of never having loved her. Accused the world of never having loved her. We tried, the daughters who'd once sat on her lap, called her Mommy and listened to her tell stories with a wonderful ability of voice and charm to tell her how wrong she was. I remember how sick to my stomach I felt. At the truth of her accusations and her need to say them at all. But also, if I'm being completely honest, at her need for such assurance from her children. I am shamed to admit that, considering the truth of her words. Ultimately, later that night, alone downstairs in a bed next to my sisters I finally began to pray that I be able to actually, completely LOVE her before she died.

It was a huge breakthrough for me. To love my mother after a lifetime of merely enduring her, to even pray for such a thing--what a revelation that I could even pray this. Only God could reveal such a thought. And He began that work in me that hard night. The sense that NO ONE should die feeling unloved by another person on this planet is what first began to take root. I will not tell you that it happened in a flash, that I got up the next morning and loved her. By no means was this the truth. In fact, it happened so slowly I didn't even see it coming.  But I remember when it was finally, surprisingly true.

The morning my oldest child graduated from college (which must have been six years later) my mother was sitting on a chair in E's apartment, confused about the day's events. I knelt in front of her, put my hand on her knee, and soothed her agitation. And there it was. LOVE. Independently--without a second's hesitation--touching her, that was love. Staring up into her face and worrying about her, that was also love. It would have knocked me to my knees if I hadn't been already on them.  And from there until the end of her life, though there were still moments of irritation (her character hadn't changed), I loved her. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know for certain that my mother was loved in TRUTH by a human being before she died.

So this week, as I think about Mother's Day, I think of the bookends of my life, when love for my mother came back to where it began. When, though love didn't fill the long, hard middle, it filled out the end. And that, thank God, is His work in our relationship. Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I miss you.


Pamela M. Steiner said...

That took a lot of courage. I am so glad for you that you were able to find that place of "healing" in your heart before your mother left this earth. You may have been the instrument of her finding some modicum of peace in her own heart. Thank you for being open and honest in your feelings today. I can imagine there are others finding the courage to reach out in love as a result. God bless you...and have a blessed Mother's Day.

jeskmom said...

Thank you, Pamela. It did take courage, but it also flowed off my fingers more easily than I'd imagined it would. It also made my sister cry because she knows as well as anyone what the battle has been.