Mother's Day - Surviving to Thriving

My mother passed away a few years ago. I’ve marked a few Mothers’ Days without her. Or not, really.  I was without her for so many years, before she died.

But I get ahead of myself. Let me rewind.

As we draw closer to Mother’s Day, everyone likes to deify mamas. Hell, I’m a mama, myself.  I want that, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

As a child, like so many of us, I yearned for my mother’s approval and love—and for her to teach me so many things—and she did do that.  She was my maternal mentor, but not in the way we like to think.

She taught me how to set a table and dress up and French braid my hair and cook and how to pace a meal and, definitely, how to marry, up, at least one station.  But she also taught me to subvert my instincts and to doubt my experience—to deny my needs and desires.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them, all?  Well, it wasn’t my mother and God bless her, she knew it.

Even as a child, I saw her, first hand.  She knew that I knew she was a self-absorbed, narcissist who married and had children, ultimately, because of the freedom she thought it would give her.

Every college girl’s dream, right? Having a house on the water with a big wooden fence around the front and two kids and all the money she could ever spend. Though my dad’s business couldn’t quite support that lifestyle and she was so disappointed in him for not making her dream come true.

I always knew she was a troubled person.  But she was so perfect-in-public I just shut up and shut down.  It was when I had my son that I really understood this truth—that she was not well.  She truly was a tortured soul.

Over the years, she taught me the end result of triangulation or coalition-building and the outright lie of looking perfect in the lily-white robes of social standing.  I also learned—because she was the family bully—that if I didn’t comply, if I didn’t apologize and make nice to smooth over her bad behavior, I would end up living with the biting sting of rejection from the entire family.

The Birthday Party

Fast forward to my son’s one-year birthday party. A friend of mine attended who was pregnant, just completing her first trimester as a first-time mother.  Just a few weeks before, her own mother committed suicide. It was nothing but tragic during what should have been a supremely happy time.  I was so grateful she felt up to attending this milestone birthday party.

Instead of my mother expressing condolences, she ignored that altogether and asked my friend how her pregnancy was progressing.  My friend, who knew my mother very well, replied kindly, “I’m at that stage in my pregnancy where my regular clothes don’t fit anymore but I’m not quite ready for maternity wear.  I just feel big.”

Without missing a beat, my mom said, “Well, as long as you don’t get as fat as Jacquie.  She just got huge and ate her way through her entire pregnancy.”

Oh. My. God.

Understandably, the room stilled.

I just waved my hands in the air and also waved off the moment by saying, “Oh, mom, thank goodness you taught me about that weight loss program, it was such a lifeline these past few months to get my body back.” Or, some such dribble.

The very next day, the neighbors brought me over a bouquet of flowers, the mother and daughter duo came as emissaries from their entire family, to apologize that they didn’t intervene or at least pull her aside, later.  I let them off the hook by rightfully saying it was simply not their place to do so, and did the best I could to assuage the guilt of these kind folks.

Did you get that lesson?  If not, here it is, again…

It took me another couple of years to really get that she was a saboteur, not a savior. I’d wanted her to be my positive role model so badly. By this time, I’d gone back to work and my son got sick with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) at daycare, later developing asthma symptoms whenever he came down with a cold. He loved his little friends and I loved my job, so we worked on balancing things, learning that if he spent Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays at home, he did fine and stayed well.

I needed help from her, as a mother, or so I thought. In order to get her help I had to buy it. I had to pay for her gas card, cell phone, buy her groceries and whatever else she would randomly ask for.

All for the privilege of her criticism—of me or others—whenever she was with me.

By this time, I’d gone through enough counseling to know that I was in BIG trouble when she observed, one afternoon, “You know, you’ve made this all work out, great, for you. You have a job, a beautiful house, a successful husband and a son. I mean you really have it all.”

We went to lunch, at some point, and she hit me up, again.

“You know,” she said as I tucked my wee little man next to me when he fell off to sleep in my lap at the table. “You are a really good mother.  I didn’t think you could do it because you’re such a selfish person, but you really are a good mother.”

The long suffering soul that I was, back then, I was not surprised by her back-handed compliment. Took me no time at all to reply, graciously.

“Maybe I haven’t thanked you, properly, mom. I became the mother I am, today, because of you.  Everything I ever learned about what kind of mother I wanted to be, I learned from you.  I really owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you, mom.”

To which she puffed up like a peacock. And, while I didn’t mean it, I meant it. A few minutes later, she was smart enough to question it, herself.

“You know, I could take what you said a different way.”

Yeah, I bet she could. Of all people, she knew who she was.

“Ah, mom,” I encouraged her. “Take this as the heartfelt compliment as it is. I am grateful to you.”

I did owe her a debt of gratitude.

My son wasn’t born with a job. He wasn’t assigned adult-level motivations at the ripe old age of two. He just got to be a child. And I knew, for sure, my mother was totally f**ked up.

That Moment Marking “Before” and “After”

Immediately after that, I came home from work one Friday afternoon that she’d watched my son and the house was filled with cigarette smoke. My mom, who stopped smoking several months earlier following gallbladder surgery, suddenly started smoking again. It was as if she sucked in two whole packs of Marlboro’s in my house, with the windows closed, in front of my asthmatic son. I put my precious son in the care of an unstable woman. I so desperately wanted her support that I put him in actual danger.

I opened all the windows and doors and politely asked her to leave. It took me the whole weekend to calm down enough to talk with her. In that conversation, I spoke rationally (thanks to the help of my counselor who coached me) and explained she was welcome, any time, but while she was at my house she could not smoke.  I also fired her and hired a groovy granny to watch my son on Wednesdays.

My mom became so enraged, she told me that since I thought my life was so perfect, over the years she’d come to resent me so much that she actually hated me.

Which I completely knew was NOT true. She just was angry and lashing out, bless her heart.

Then she promptly denied ever having said those hurtful things or having put my son in danger and went about the business of coalition-building among our entire family and also the extended group of relatives, neighbors and friends I grew up with.

Suffice to say, my growth and development exercise over this period in my life was to simply let her go. To reach toward my own future—the one right for me once I wasn’t spending all my time focused on pleasing or placating my narcissistic mother—and certainly not the one that looked good on paper.

I also had to make peace within myself, about my life choices, and to quell the actual heartburn I felt at my mother’s treatment of me. Real healing happened when I became my own loving, maternal mentor.  And, also by loving my son in healthy, supportive ways.  Every day, my prayer is to be a positive influence as he makes his way to manhood.  Some days are better than others but I am a work, in progress, thank heavens.

Serendipity: That Wonderful Thing Never Expected

Four years before she passed away, my mother suffered a series of three strokes over Father’s Day weekend. My sister discovered her on that next Monday. These strokes were centered in the hippocampus region of her brain, the part governing personality.

As she adjusted to the new normal, something miraculous happened.  Not only did she survive, she became the sweetest thing.

I mean, seriously, like one of the kindest, funniest, nicest souls you could ever meet.

She was unable to live alone anymore—and so finally realized her dream of living like actual royalty at one of those fancy schmancy memory care centers. The staff regularly made her the star of their show.  Whether featuring her in their newsletter or by one or another of the staff members doting on her.

It was just adorable.

After all those years of a hate-filled heart, it was all just…gone…in an instant. I was blessed to visit her and spend time with her like this. After truly letting go of needing her to be anything but just who she was—I was completely blessed by her presence in my life.

What a beautiful soul. What a loving, beautiful soul. I was greeted by the very truth that when someone is hurtful or cruel, they are hurt or broken or tortured, themselves. As the old saying goes, hurt people hurt other people. It’s their pain and sadly so.

While it may, indeed, be directed at you, it has absolutely nothing to do with you. You might (probably) need to step away to save yourself and those closest to you. Oftentimes, they can’t see it—whatever IT is—whether its mental illness, substance abuse, or the long-term after effects of childhood trauma, or even PTSD following war or job-related stress, whatever.

Let me say that, clearly. You cannot save anyone from that type of pain. They have to want to save themselves and do the work by following their own steps to recovery. You can (and should) be a loving and supportive presence but you are most certainly not to be anything more than that.

Surviving to Thriving

Long before I became a PR professional, I knew I possessed a poet’s soul.  Whenever I considered a sunrise or sunset, I wanted to write about it. As if in expressing those feelings, it would somehow make all things good and right in the world, at large.

My mom would say, “You’re going to write one of those Joan Crawford tell-all-type stories, like Mommy Dearest,” then promptly rattled off a million reasons why I should never pursue a writing career.  Her main premise in all of it being that I’d be poor for the rest of my life.

Well, funny, but I laugh at her and with her, about my calling, now. In truth, my writing may just be total falderal. That’s not why I do it.

I write this in tribute to my beautiful, tragic, misunderstood mother, who did the very best she could.  I was supremely blessed by her, from beginning to end. She taught me a LOT. The insights she offered are gentler, now, and will continue for the rest of my life.

Happy Mother’s Day, to everyone. Whether you are a mother or have one. May it be a day of gratitude for all you learned along the way—the good and the not-so-good. May it help you, if you are a survivor. May all those experiences transform you. May they accompany you on a journey as a positive influence and a cooperative, constant companion, forever.  May you thrive not despite, but because of the experiences that shaped you.

Proudly designed by Advantage Advertising, Inc.
PO Box 2685, Gig Harbor, Washington 98335
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram