Content Warning: language, child abuse, suicidal thoughts
Five years ago, at nearly thirty years old, I ended my relationship with my mother. It was a choice, my choice, except for all the ways it wasn’t. I know the usual admonishments. Life is too short, forgive and forget, cherish your mother while you have her.
But I have never had a mother.
I remember standing in the Hallmark store in my early twenties, pulling my empty stroller with one hand and bouncing my increasingly antsy three year old on my hip, staring at an endless display of cards, my bottom lip clenched so firmly between my teeth I taste blood but can’t let it go.
Mom, where would I be without your love?
Mom, I owe you so much…
Mom, no one could ever replace you…
Fuck. Every year is like this. I pore over each and every card. Will she like this one? No funny cards. Nothing too short or she gets insulted, an insult on Mother’s Day will mean hours of relentless, angry phone calls outlining all the ways I’ve been a disappointment, a full voicemail box that alternates between sickly sweet messages to lure me in and seething ones that tell me to call back or I’ll be sorry. I don’t want that. I can’t stomach the lies of the sweeping, sentimental poems, cards that talk of devotion and gratitude. I hold them in my hands, turning them over, but I always put them back. I know these are the ones she wants. The best options, the cards that please her and don't put a pit in my stomach, are the ones where the daughter falls on her sword and admits she was a lousy child. If nothing else, I certainly feel like a failure as a daughter.
Mom, I know raising me was no picnic.
All my life, I never could figure out what my mother wanted from me. I always tried. I thought she was beautiful, fun, brilliant. I loved her. I wanted to make her happy. She seemed to hate me. My childhood was marked by her fury and disappointment, her unpredictability, her lack of care and concern. So, too, were my teenage years, and all of my twenties. I could tell story after story of her hands grabbing me harshly, of her face close to mine while she screamed and screamed, of being told to do one thing and doing it carefully, only to find the goal post had shifted and I was wrong again, impossibly stupid, incapable of doing anything right. I lived waiting for the next blow up.
I am only ten when my father moves out and the full weight of her abusive rage falls on me. I feel grown - after all, I put together meals for my brother and I to eat, I listen to my mom talk about grown up things - like the high school boyfriend who she says should have been our father. I am left to take care of myself a lot by now - but I’m not grown at all. I’m small, and I’m scared of her. She is always so mad at me. Sometimes I really don’t know why. I try to stand up for myself. I try not to be so sensitive, so dramatic. Sometimes I push back. I make straight A’s, I point out. I stay out of trouble, I get solos in concerts, I work so hard. Other adults like me. Please, Mom. I’m not so bad. I just want her to love me.
They don’t know you like I do, she sneers. No one who knows who you really are could ever like you, she tells me, and if I had known you would be this way, I would never have had you. Everyone feels sorry for her, she says, being stuck with me for a daughter. She berates me until I break and cry, she mocks me. I sob so hard I vomit. I remember her standing in the doorway of the bathroom, laughing and calling me a drama queen while I choke on my own sick. I deserve this, I think. I never do anything right.
When I’m twelve, I see how other kids feel with their parents. Their houses and clothes are clean. There isn't a bunch of food that's only for their brother and not them, their moms don’t make fun of them. Other moms are so happy with their kids, I think. I wonder what's wrong with me. I want to be out of my house as much as I can, I want to be with mothers who fix me snacks. I am amazed that my friends don’t get in trouble for all the things they did wrong without realizing it as soon as I leave.
My friends seem surprised when I talk about my mother. Some of them tell me it isn’t my fault and it doesn’t sound right.That they love me.That I'm a good person. I am sure they misunderstand, and I keep talking. I want to figure out how to make my mom happy, too. I tell other adults what is happening. I blame myself, I tell them I’m a bad kid. I ask how to fix it. They worry for me, because I’m not bad. They call her. She acts concerned, loving, like she is worried for me, too. She tells them we will go to counseling, that she doesn’t want me to feel that way. But we don’t. And she does.
My mother cautions me to stop talking, she tells me that everyone thinks I’m delusional, that she saved me from being locked in a mental institution this time - but that every person I tell thinks I need to be committed. No one believes she would ever be cruel to me, she says. I must be confused. I remember things wrong. It’s a good thing my friends and their parents like her so much. They are just being nice to me for her, she informs me, and there is something really wrong with me. I am scared. Am I crazy? This is bad.
I feel grown, so grown at twelve. I am already making my own plans to be out of there so she can be happy, I secretly wash my own underwear in the sink now so I don’t have to wear dirty ones to school even though I’m not allowed to touch the washing machine - I’m not a baby, I need to get over it, I think. But I am not grown. I am in sixth grade. I am small, and terrified, and I believe her. I am so ashamed I want to die. I will spend most of my life this way, fearful that someone will know me for who I am, that I can not accurately perceive reality, that all the affection and connection I find will be doomed to leave me. I am too broken, I think. I don’t belong here.
Mom, where would I be without your love?
These rages happen over and over again, forever. Her anger takes hours to fully unleash. She is never sorry. It is always my fault for making her mad, for never knowing better. She can say anything and everything to me that she wants, and I am to quietly take it. When I am fourteen, I yell back. I scream. Leave me alone, stop it, you bitch, I say, finally, meaning it. I am shocked at myself, terrified at my own mouth. My mother retreats. She is locked in her room, too angry with me to come out. She tells me I am a horrible child, that her heart condition (a heart condition I later learn she does not have and never did) is flaring up, and I have upset her so badly she might die. I am crying, begging her to come out, asking if she is ok. She hears my fear and doesn’t answer. Silence. I sob. Mommy, are you ok? I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry. Please, Mom. Just answer me. It feels like forever. She snaps back, bitterly, finally. Shut up.
I feel so relieved. I have not killed my mother after all. I can save this. I pace in the hallway. I write her a beautiful apology, a message full of all the love I think she wants from me, love I feel but just can’t seem to give her because she’s just so mad at me, all the time, no matter what. And why wouldn’t she be, after what I’ve said? I am a horrible, horrible child. No mother could love me. I fill two sheets of notebook paper and slide it under the door, the margins filled with hearts. The door opens, and for a second my own heart soars. Bits of torn paper come fluttering out, her green eyes are flashing and her jaw is clenched tight. My whole body freezes. I didn’t even read it, she tells me, and the door closes again. I wish more than anything that the earth would open up and swallow me whole, that I could disappear forever and ever. I think she might be happier if I am dead. I think maybe everyone would be. I think this is the solution, the way to fix it, and I want to die. These thoughts take a lifetime to shake.
Mom, I owe you so much…
I march to the register in the Hallmark store, self-deprecating card in hand, tears in my eyes, three year old on my hip. "I hate Mother’s Day," I blurt out to the clerk with a weak smile, self conscious of how long I’ve been there, of my bleeding lip and my glistening eyes. Her mouth gets tight and I feel her looking at me, looking at my daughter. My daughter, who has made me handprint art and crayon drawings in anticipation of this day, the child whose birth has brought me such joy hears me, too. Mommy? Mother’s Day doesn’t make you happy? Fuck, I think. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
This Mother’s Day is the sixth one I have spent free of the woman who was supposed to mother me, but didn’t. Our estrangement was an event that I didn’t foresee, a final straw when I had no idea my back could break. Her need and anger was so invasive, so threatening, so time consuming - I had to give up. Fifteen years of adulthood has proved my sanity, my ability to be known and be loved, and yet her rages could still make me feel small - but I'm not small. I am grown now, really grown, and I am done. With her. With being abused. I drew the boundaries I needed to keep myself safe, to move on with my life. I did it for my husband, for my children, for my friends, for my father and brother who love me so much, and for myself. I do not miss her. I do not feel regret. But I do feel grief, peculiar and deep. I feel all the hollows of the empty space where a mother belonged in my life, where a mother should still belong in my life. I feel the sorrow of being motherless, of a loss that wasn’t and is, of the road that I chose because I had no other choice. It’s better and less painful than all the alternatives. And I am healing because of it. Away from her, I am beginning to feel the love that others have for me - even after so many years of being told I was unloveable at my very core.
Mom, no one could ever replace you…
To tell you the truth, though - I still hate Mother’s Day.