It’s a question I’ve been hearing for most of my life. The short answer is “I don’t know.”
Although we’ve sent text messages to each other, the last time I saw my mother was December 25, 2015. This past Christmas, she mailed a gift. The return address listed a post office box in a city 45 minutes away from where I live.
Growing up, my mom told me stories about how she would pick me up from elementary school, and how the teachers and other parents thought she was my babysitter; the parents and teachers at my dance school didn’t think I had a mother; she said the moms at my church thought my father was a single dad. I was rumored to be a motherless child.
At 21 years old, my mother became motherless. Her mom died of cancer. So naturally, when I entered my 20s, I also feared losing my mom to cancer, or to a car crash, or in some other untimely catastrophe. The truth is that I lost her much earlier.
I think I was around 10-years-old when my mom decided to stop being a full-time mom. The first and most memorable evidence I have of this was having to take my school picture and her not being available to do my hair. I tried to learn how to use a curling iron on myself the morning of picture day. I had only practiced on my dolls before then. I tried to give myself a bang and a bun, but I didn’t know where bangs were supposed to begin or end on my head. I didn’t know how hot to make a curling iron. I didn’t know how to get close enough to my roots to straighten them out without burning myself. In short, I looked a mess.
My mom started working second shift during my elementary school years, so when I was getting out of school, she was on her way to work. When she got out of work, I was already in bed. This meant that my grandfather brought me to school in the mornings, and would pick me up from school, or my mom would drop me off at my friend’s house until my dad could pick up after he got out of his first-shift job. As a result, my mom missed a lot in terms of my daily activities and conversations, such as what was going on at school, who my friends were, and what happened in dance class, but to her credit, she was around for the big stuff, like dance competitions and family vacations.
So now 25 years later, we don’t know each other very well. I don’t really know her intimately. She still doesn’t know who my closest friends are. When I got laid off from work, I didn’t call her, and she doesn’t know that my closest friend and I didn’t speak for almost three years.
My dad is the one person who stays on me about my mom. He said our lack of connection really bothers him. “You only get one mom,” he said. But I haven’t figured out how to mend a relationship with someone who doesn’t see their actions as a source of pain for me. For instance, I talked to my mom about being a “no call no show” at my 30th birthday party, a party she committed to going to even up to a few hours before the event. But as the night went on, all I heard was “Where’s your mom?” When I brought it up to her at a later time, she said that I needed to let things go. My mother had a knack for making a victim feel like an aggressor.
With the exception of my most recent birthday party and Christmas breakfast, I’ve stopped trying to make plans with my mom. I got tired of inviting her to places and her not showing up. She offered to meet me at the gym once last year, but then canceled before our scheduled date. She didn’t reschedule or postpone…just canceled.
I’ve been most successful with inviting my mother to church. It’s the one activity I can almost guarantee she won’t back out of. Her father was a pastor, and she spent many days of her childhood there. It seems to be where she’s most comfortable. My mom became an ordained minister while I was in college, and during her trial sermon, she preached in a soft voice about an ostracized woman. It was incredible. I invited a friend to come with me, and she was in tears. It was one of the few times I was able to puff my chest out and be a proud daughter. But that all came to an end when she left her role on the church’s ministerial team shortly thereafter. As far as I know, she didn’t preach again for about 10 years.
Years ago, my mom wasn’t always so distant. I remember having fun with her…a lot of fun. I remember singing along to Whitney Houston songs with her – the ones off that cassette with the orange cover where Whitney was wearing a slicked back ponytail. The other day in grocery store I heard “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” Hearing that song took me out of the juice aisle and right back into my mom’s old, blue, Toyota Corolla SR5.
Another time, I remember walking in on my mom while she was getting ready for work one day. She was blasting Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” and doing all of these dances from the late 80s. She dipped and bopped in her ripped jeans with colored tights underneath that matched her purple sweater. I thought she was the coolest mom ever. I miss those days, when she was happy, and she seemed like she really enjoyed being a mom. She used to carry a camera in her purse so that she could take pictures of me at any given moment. I didn’t really like that part, but I miss the spirit of that mother. I don’t know where that spirit went.
She once told me that mental health issues were prevalent on her side of the family, but I wasn’t sure why she was telling me that.
A couple of years ago, my mom invited me to go to the Easter service at her church in Long Island. When we got to the church, she started crying and telling the lady sitting next to her about some personal things going on in her life. I realized that my mom was living in fear. After church, my mom told me what she told the lady about the incident, but I couldn’t put the details together in my head, no matter how many questions I asked. The story wasn’t making sense to me. I asked her if she contacted the police. She said she did, but they asked her if she had a history of mental health issues instead of helping her.
Because the details were so fuzzy to me, and I because I wanted to get to the bottom of this, I asked my mom to come to a therapy session with me. I don’t know if I did the right thing. By the end of the therapy session, my mom was telling me how much I negatively impacted her life…how she never wanted children and her birth control failed her. She told me and the therapist that she struggled financially because my ex-husband and I stayed with her for a year – three years prior to the therapy session. My mom’s words stung.
I’m sure if anyone ever asked her about her saying these things, she would say that’s not exactly what she said or that I took what she said out of context. Maybe I would believe that too if she didn’t repeat these things to me at a later time or to her friends who also told me what she said.
I decided at that it hurt too much to keep trying to repair my relationship with her. I told myself that if she wanted to communicate or try to make our relationship better I would be open to that, but I would not initiate anymore dates or try to figure out what was going on in her personal life because those things seemed to push her away.
I am certain that most people have complicated relationships with at least one of their parents. Our good and bad relationships with them help us decide who we want to be in this world.
As a result of my relationship with my mom, I’ve learned to work hard, because she did. I’ve valued my friendships, because I’ve seen my mom give up on many of hers. I’ve forced myself to participate in social gatherings, for fear of letting other people down or becoming a recluse. I’ve been very open about my personal experiences, as a result of being so mystified by my mother. I’ve cared about how I made people feel more than I cared about being right. I’ve wanted to believe the best about people, and I’ve apologized to people. I’ve also learned to stop seeking relationships with emotionally unavailable people in an attempt to try to win them over and to stop accepting whatever mediocre relationships that others have offered me.
When we arrived to this Earth, we were all given a package, similar to a cable-internet-phone bundle. I got the “distance mother bundle,” which included a distant mom of course, but it also included an indulgent father and grandfather, a grandmother, who showed me the fancier things in life, and an aunt, who loves me like her own daughter.
No one’s package is perfect, but every package comes with some good. We can also upgrade our packages along the way. Although I’ve resented the absence of my mother, I’ve had so many phenomenal women come into my life and show me how to be a stand-up woman. Perhaps if my mother was everything I wanted her to be, I would have missed out on many important relationships and valuable life lessons.