Only two days to go until Mother’s Day, a holiday that evokes, at least for me, both joy and sadness. The joy came in 2006, when I gave birth to my daughter. That was when Mother’s Day became My Day, a nationally sanctioned opportunity to buy whatever I want for myself, eat an overabundance of carbs and bask in the adulation, however fleeting, showered on me from dawn to dusk. But along with the happiness comes a nagging melancholy because I don’t have a mom.
Perhaps I should clarify. I have a mother. She’s alive and resides, I believe, around the Baltimore area. She’s married to a man who had a heart transplant a few years ago. That’s about all I know about her and her life these days. And the reason why is because on January 20, 2008, about a year after I gave birth to my daughter, I made the decision to cut my mother out of my life completely.
It wasn’t an easy choice, or a popular one. If you ever want to see what an expression of surprise, dismay and disapproval looks like, tell someone you don’t speak to your mother. Estrangement. The word itself is enough to conjure up feelings of guilt and shame. Here are the responses I typically get after telling someone I don’t speak to my mother.
“You’ll regret it someday.”
“My mom died. I wish I could have had more time with her.”
“Forgive and forget.”
“Don’t you miss her?”
The truth is, no, I don’t miss her. I don’t miss the fights we had when she tried to force me to accept how another family member treated me poorly. I don’t miss worrying about another round of crushing credit card debt or bankruptcy. I don’t miss hearing that she got fired from another job or that there’s another boss who’s out to get her. And I don’t miss feeling like every man in her life is more important than her daughter.
When I said goodbye in 2008, it wasn’t easy. For months I lashed out at my husband. Decades of rage poured out of me, as I had no choice but to acknowledge how awful she’d been. She lied. She stole my money while I was serving in the Peace Corps. She manipulated and leaned on me in a way no mother should ever lean on her daughter. She used me. She made sure I was the one who found her when she attempted suicide. She laughed in my face when I told her that her boyfriend – a convicted rapist – was stalking me in my own home. For decades, I felt powerless and unlovable, mostly at the hands of my mother.
Before my first Mother’s Day as a mom, I would ask the question that many adult children of bad parents ask, which is “Why didn’t she love me?” I wanted – no I desperately needed – to know why I wasn’t worth protecting. What was wrong with me that she couldn’t love me the way she loved my brother or her abusive partners?
Then I had a baby. When that little girl slid out of my body and the doctor gently placed her on my belly, I felt a type of love I never knew existed. In my first few months as a mother, I realized that I would do anything to safeguard her wellbeing. Happily. I would guide, nurture and protect her. I would teach her how to love and be loved, to welcome kindness and be kind, and to understand that she brings something special to the world. As I came to discover what kind of parent I wanted to be, I knew it was time to let my own mother go.
I think my mother anticipated this happening. She knew that once I became a parent I’d have a fuller understanding of just how much she’d failed. Cutting her off triggered other issues. The rest of the family was – and is – angry with me, saying that I need to get over the past or recognize that her suffering was far worse than mine. Even worse, some continue, to this day, to say I barely suffered at all. But she knows the truth, as do I, which is that she crossed the line, many lines, that a mother should never cross.
Cutting off a parent is not easy and not the right choice for everyone. Most days, I’m aware that there is a hole in my life. But at the same time, I also feel an unmistakable sense of lightness. By letting go of her, I’m able to embrace love and caring from others in a way I never could before.
This Mother’s Day, as in years past, I’ll feel a bit sad about not having a mom in my life. But then I’ll think about what I do have, which is a family of my own that truly loves me. I’ll celebrate the peace of mind I gained after removing myself from a cycle of unending pain and anguish. And, best of all, I’ll gaze proudly into my daughter’s eyes, knowing that she’ll never see me feeling powerless, unlovable and dehumanized. Perhaps it’s not much to anyone else, but to me, it’s more than I ever could have imagined.
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