This six word question sadly sums up my lifelong relationship with my mother. We had what I would call a tolerate-hate relationship. We never quite made it to the love-hate stage that most of my friends profess to share with their mothers.
My mother was the kind to provide the necessities and hold back on the emotions. I had plenty of clothes and shoes. Lived in a nice neighborhood and attended a fine school. What I didn’t have was the warmth, the hugs, the I love you’s that I’d witnessed when hanging out at my friends home.
I was the one who was never good enough. I grew up thinking that criticism was what mothers did to their daughters.
As I grew older, the criticism grew bolder. As if high school wasn’t hard enough, my self esteem continued to plummet as I witnessed the relationships of my friends and their mothers. They had fun. My friends glowed when they talked about their moms and how they were loved. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was it so hard for my mom to be like them. To be loving and warm. I spent my high school years observing relationships between my friends and their moms. I loved to spend the night with my friends as their naturally affectionate moms took me under their wings and showed me what it could feel like to be loved.
High school ended and college began. I couldn’t wait to get away. To be with roommates who became family and to find a way to recover my worth. Once again, I observed the relationships between my new friends and their moms. Fun, loving and normal. I tried to make excuses for my Mom. Too busy, too stressed. The more I tried to find reasons, the more it became apparent to me that I would never have the type of relationship I craved. Other Moms visited campus. Lunch dates were made. My Mom never set foot on campus. Not really caring what my college life was like or how I was handling the stresses of impending adulthood. I was jealous of what I never had or as I’ve come to realize would never have.
College turned to marriage. A big mistake. My roommates were all leaving. Starting new lives with the men of their dreams. I made the choice of marriage. Searching for Mr. Goodbar versus going home to a toxic environment were the only choices I had at the time. So marriage it was.
Being married in the Catholic Church was a given. My mom was what I called a black and white Catholic. There was no room for grey. Only perfection. I was far from perfect. I was grey. My marriage lasted for seven years and produced two children. I remember walking into my Mom’s house to tell her of my husband’s cheating behavior. I was a mess. I unrealistically expected comfort. How foolish. I felt like I’d been slapped when I heard her words. If I’d been a better wife, he would never have strayed. Slap, slap, slap. My body reacted to her words as I walked out the door feeling abandoned by everyone.
I could feel myself building the wall around my heart. It was me and the boys against the world. Years passed and now the criticism was directed toward my boys. In spite of it all I kept trying to please her. To be the daughter I thought would make her happy. I was a professional. We lived in a nice neighborhood. My kids went to private school. Still, I felt nothing but her scrutiny whenever she would visit. Now my boys were feeling the same anxiety that I felt knowing their grandmother was coming. Once again, I tried to make excuses for her unloving, critical behavior. After each visit my boys would say how happy they were that I wasn’t like my Mom.
Time went on. My sons became men. My mother continued to be cold, hard and critical. I remember visiting a Hallmark store trying to find a card for Mother’s Day. Card after card left me in tears. All stating things I’d never experienced. My mom wasn’t my best friend. She wasn’t my greatest supporter. She wasn’t there when I needed a loving, non critical mother. What does an adult daughter do? I kept trying to please. To suck it up. To keep my heartbreak to myself when words were said that would shatter me to my core.
I remember moving into a beautiful home. Meeting a wonderful man. Thinking life was just perfect. Feeling like the happiest girl in the world. I invited my mother over for Mother’s Day lunch. I moved into my house in April and was so excited for her approval. Even as an adult woman, I craved her acceptance and desperately needed her to show me that she cared. I remember my heart sinking as she told me she figured it out. We were sitting at my kitchen island eating lunch. I was trying to keep the conversation light and easy. She looked directly at me and said, “You went against God.” I remember hearing the words, but not quite getting their meaning. Then as if I’d been struck by lightening, I got it. I was the Catholic girl who was divorced. Oh my God. The embarrassment I put my perfectly Catholic mother through. That’s it. I went against God and my mother was just like God.
The last straw came after the sudden death of my youngest son. He became addicted to prescription drugs after a back injury and subsequent surgery. In other words, he was an addict. I was in a state of shock, numb and trying to deal with a grief that washed over me sucking the breath out of my body. I thought if anything would change my mother’s behavior this would be it. The loss of my son, her grandson. My hope of finally having a mother who cared. Who showed me love and shared my grief was shattered like glass hitting a concrete floor.
I was writing his obituary when the first call came. Her words, “Don’t mention me in the obituary,” sliced through my heart like a jagged knife. My mind fighting the screams coming from my soul. She cared more about what people thought than losing her grandson, my precious child. The stigma of addiction stronger than a grandmother’s love. My eyes were slowly opening to the woman I called mother.
The second call came the very next day. I’d become accustomed to the cold tone of voice, to the “I’ve been thinking” that her sentences would start with before she nailed you. Never in my wildest dreams did I think she would tell me what a horrible person I was for not telling the X who broke my world and scarred my boys where the service was being held. Again, the knife cutting deeper into my heart.
My mother never set foot in my home in the fourteen days after my son’s death. During that time I was surrounded by friends and the wonderful man I married. Lifelong friends, who knew my mother for what she was and helped me during those first dark days. The time passed and my mother continued on with her life. Her volunteer work, her friends. Anyone but her mourning daughter.
Then the holidays hit. The first without my son. No call on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Nothing telling me she was thinking of me and my grief. Silence as I mourned the son who was no more. We have a holiday tradition of serving kielbasa and horseradish every Christmas. For me this tradition was too painful to continue. But the horseradish had already been delivered to my mother.
Three days after Christmas, the call I’d been waiting for finally came. Once again, the little girl in me hoping for the mother I’ve longed for my entire life. The one who would tell me she loved me. That she was sorry for being so cold, for not being the mother I deserved. Sorry for not being there for me after my son died. Instead I got the cold tone and the question that would finally make me realize my mother for who she was and would always be. Those six words summed up a lifetime of my struggle to be the daughter she wanted. Those years I sucked it up and let her words sting my heart. Those years I let her make me feel ugly, unloveable and a total embarrassment. The years I bit my tongue out of respect. Never wanting to hurt her feelings. Her main concern not being her daughter grieving her child, but what to do with the horseradish.