Unrequited Mother’s Love Day

As I work on my current book, I’m remembering my childhood. In order to understand my beliefs and approach to life today, why I’ve made the choices I have, I must dig deep and ask: How did I become who I am? Who shaped my emotional and intellectual growth as a child? What experiences took that mostly-formed lump of clay and molded, sculpted, carved and whittled the young-adult me over the next several decades into the human I am now?

In my first book, when I inserted myself into the story (the memoir portion of what is otherwise a biography of Boeing test pilots), I did so to illustrate my father’s wonderful parenting skills. I focused on the happy family memories and intentionally left out most of the negative ones. I wanted that book to focus on him, so I rarely mentioned my mother and didn’t mention my step-mother at all. When I did mention my mother, it was to briefly describe a couple of key times in my young adult life when she wasn’t supportive, and even then, only as a way to illustrate how my father was supportive.

Oh, the things I didn’t include in that book. While I admired and adored my father, privately I often said his only fault was his horrible taste in wives.

Now, diving back into those childhood memories, the struggle is real because so many have meaning that was well beyond my childhood grasp. My hindsight isn’t always 20/20, but it’s way clearer than it was when I was a young adult, infused today with so much hard-earned knowledge and experience. I now know I didn’t have the nurturing mother I needed, the mother so many of my friends had. But her mothering was my normal. It took time for me to acquire the tools to question it and deal with the fallout.

I now know my mother was a narcissist, what’s referred to at the ignoring type. No warmth, no empathy, everything about plumping her ego and sense of self. She provided care, but didn’t nurture us. I now understand that I went into family law to protect my inner child by protecting the children in my caseload from their own parent(s). For me, family law shined a harsh and unforgiving light on the myriad ways families are dysfunctional, how parents can and do fail their children, usually as a result of some deficit in themselves (mental health, drug addiction, unhealed trauma from their own childhoods). Kids are collateral damage in family law wars and I felt called to buffer the blows.

Still, in the face of all that dysfunction in my professional caseload, I chose to wear blinders when it came to my own experience and my own family. In my twenties, thirties and forties, life was just easier that way. I grew up with this overarching message from my mother: We’re the perfect family. Who was I to contradict her? How dare I contradict her?

I now know that’s how narcissistic parents operate. They need to believe themselves exceptional, perfect even, to prop up their fragile egos. Their children must reflect that perfection back onto them and to the outside world by also being perfect. The pressure is subtle but constant, infused in every conversation. Don’t screw up. Don’t say anything bad about the family. Don’t show emotion. Achieve and make the family proud. Oh, and did you hear about so-and-so’s kid, arrested for drugs? That would never happen in our family. We’re special.

***

A few days ago, I had a disturbing dream. I rarely dream about family members, especially my mother, who died by choice in 2019 at the age of ninety-three. But in this dream, my mother intentionally set my house on fire, engulfing it in bright, hot flames reaching for the stars.

Hard to imagine a clearer clue that my subconscious is struggling mightily, not only with memories of my difficult relationship with my mother, but how to write about them in my current book. Part of that challenge is the cultural stigma experienced by those of us – especially daughters – who as adults choose to set boundaries and keep our mothers at arm’s length or even completely remove them from our lives in order to maintain our own emotional well-being. Bad, ungrateful daughter.

But reflect and write I must. I’m convinced, after finally confronting my less-than-perfect upbringing and admitting that my mother was a narcissist, she’s an unavoidable part of my story. A dark, deeply uncomfortable part that helps explain why I struggle to trust people, why I doubt myself and procrastinate, why I believe I’m unlovable, why I made certain significant lifestyle choices, and most importantly, why in 2005 at the age of 49, to put distance between me and her, I left all I knew and loved in Seattle and forged a new life for myself in Idaho, a life that focused on the things I can trust: dogs, and nature.

My mother’s response, when I told her of my plans to move, still rings in my head: Why on earth would you want to do that?

Because my very survival depended on it.

***

Yesterday was Mother’s Day in the U.S. It’s a holiday I began dreading in my twenties, and not just because of the over-the-top commercialization surrounding it. I knew, deep down, I was faking it every year when I purchased the cards, flowers, brunches, and gifts for my mother.

It doesn’t matter that I’m in my sixties now. It doesn’t matter that my mother has been dead for a few years. Still, every Mother’s Day – assaulted by all the ads and in recent years, the tributes to mothers on social media – I feel ashamed, less than, and guilty, because despite all my efforts, I just can’t like my mother and I don’t miss her. Does that make me a monster? What’s wrong with me?

No. And nothing.

I am lovable, after all. It’s okay to not like a parent who never wanted me and couldn’t love me.

So. I propose making the Monday after Mother’s Day a special day for those of us who didn’t have wonderful, nurturing mothers: Unrequited Mother’s Love Day. (Unrequited love = love that is not returned or rewarded.)

This would be a day of healing for those of us who cringe every year as the marketing lead-up to Mother’s Day swamps all forms of media, making us wonder why we didn’t have that idealized relationship with our own mother? Making us feel guilty that we didn’t, that it must be our fault as the child in the relationship because, come on, all moms are heroes who sacrifice and devote their entire lives to us, right?

A day of reflection and self-care for those of us who spent way too many years trying to convince ourselves that we should want to celebrate our mothers, but felt hollow trying to do so, maybe without really understanding why. I mean, they gave birth to us, right? Maybe they even did a great job of keeping us fed and clothed. So why don’t we adore our mothers like so many of our friends do theirs, or as described in the avalanche of testimonies and memes friends toss into our social media newsfeeds on Mother’s Day?

A day of education, for all those who were lucky enough to have a nurturing, supportive mother and simply assume everyone else did, too. A day for those of us who didn’t, and are tired of biting our tongues and restraining our fingers on the keyboard as we withhold our truest feelings on Mother’s Day so as not to upset all the happy children of loving mothers. A day for us to speak our truth, making others aware that there’s nothing sacred about the mother-child relationship, that some mothers are wonderful but some mothers cause a tremendous amount of damage in their children and it’s not the child’s fault.

A day of support and community, for those of us ostracized by our culture (and frequently our own families) for taking the incredibly difficult step of protecting ourselves from a toxic mother or whose mothers simply didn’t have the life skills and tools to nurture them.

A day when the pain, shame, guilt, grief and sorrow we feel because our mothers didn’t love and support us is acknowledged and accepted.

A day when we forgive ourselves because, it turns out, we are lovable and we are enough.

A day of celebration when we offer each other high fives because we survived.

A day when we give ourselves flowers if we want to.

11 thoughts on “Unrequited Mother’s Love Day”

  1. I love the pictures. I, too, had a desperately self-absorbed mom and she had substance abuse “issues.” She was also the only person in the family to whom bad things happened. My dad’s illness happened to HER (for example). This Mother’s Day I just turned my attention to the great moms I know and moved on. It has taken me a LONG time to deal with the, I dunno, “ick” of my mom and now? Fuck her. Sorry, but… I was tremendously fortunate in the other women in my life — mostly her sisters — who loved me and worked hard to help me see the truth about my mom, truth I KNEW but had been brainwashed or browbeaten into not seeing. I remember the night my Aunt Jo said, “I want to talk to you about your mom, Martha Ann.” All the things I KNEW but buried or denied (my mom was the goddess of gaslighting) came out of my Aunt’s mouth. “Those things really happened, honey, and they were not fair to you.” Just writing that makes me want to cry.

    And then came the day my Aunt Jo was driving (we were in Billings) and she was approaching the turn to the cemetery where my mom (and dad) are buried. It was the summer after my mom died. “Do you want to stop in and see your mom’s grave?” She looked at me and laughed. “No, I guess not.” My mom’s abuse did not stop until after she died. The woman wrote an abusive will.

    Thankfully I, like you, had a loving father who was on my side.

    I guess we get what we get, I guess. My therapist gave me an exercise to look at the good things I got “from” my mom, things like resilience, strength, determination to exist (no small “gift”), love of nature (in fact). “You survived it,” said my therapist, “and you have some damage to deal with but you are independent, not addicted, not angry. You haven’t repeated that behavior with anyone. Somehow in all that you learned to define and be yourself and the person you are is a good person.” There was more. In spite of my mom’s treatment of me I still do the things I love to do — I’m still an artist, I’m still a writer. Some little creature inside of me relentlessly flipped the bird at that woman both the woman herself, and the one who still lives inside of me.

    Dogs and nature NEVER betray us or make us feel like less. If anything they draw out the best in us and teach us about reliability, redemption and love. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Martha, thank you for this wonderful, honest comment. I’m sad that you “get” what I described, but love that you do. None of us should feel alone, as we often do among the hoopla of Mother’s Day. Give your Bear and Teddy hugs from me tonight. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry you grew up in that environment. I think I can put myself in your shoes a bit. It really makes you wonder what your dad saw in her, but that sort of thing happens rather frequently. I went through a five year period living with a girlfriend who was just a horrible person… to me and everybody else. People couldn’t figure out how I got so brainwashed by her. Humans! hard to understand.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Humans! hard to understand.” Boy, is that an understatement! But it’s also what so many of us find intriguing and compelling. Like a car wreck on the side of the highway – hard to look away.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good Grief. Families. Mothers, Fathers, Sisters…I wish I had a Hallmark type family but I’m not sure they really
    exist. Thank goodness you had a great nurturing dad but with crappy choices for the women he chose to marry. It’s ok to say you really didn’t like your mom. I can recite numerous stabs to my heart by both dad and mom. They just didn’t know what nurturing was either. This was a hard piece to write as you are putting your “bad daughter” feeling out there. Well, I for one applaud you. Dad was a pain in the ass and just got mean as he got older. Mom was too self-absorbed to really talk to me like an adult. My best to you. You are brave like your test-pilot dad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shelle. I try to live a life that would make my father proud.

      Families are so…challenging. Like me, you got to see way too many of the dysfunctional types in your work at the courthouse. Maybe it’s time we stopped idealizing The American Family portrayed in those Hallmark cards because the reality is far different and that makes too many of us feel ashamed and unworthy.

      Like

  4. Not all mothers are sweet and caring. Thanks for baring your soul in this post about how you were parented by your mother in particular. It’s so hard to live around someone whose world revolves around themselves. A child may feel like they are never good enough. I see why you went into family law and the families you supported were lucky to work with you.

    Like

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