So many women say that after they have children of their own, they turn to their mothers and apologize for all that they have put them through. They tell them that they understand how hard it is, what they must have experienced -- the worry, the selflessness, the sacrifice. They go on and on about how they respect their mothers so much more after they've become mothers themselves.
But what if motherhood puts an even greater distance between an already estranged mother-daughter relationship? What if it makes you feel even less connected to your mother, makes your understanding of her motives and choices during your childhood that much more elusive?
That was where I stood. During some of the most joyous days of my life, I was also filled with so much sadness and confusion.
Each Mother's Day, deeply conflicted emotions rise within me. I remember my annual trek to purchase a card for my mother for this spring celebration of all things maternal and feeling a knot in my stomach. I would peruse the best of what Hallmark had to offer and nothing felt right -- appropriate -- for what our relationship was like and for what I felt towards her. I would read lines such as, "You were always there for me," or, "Your unconditional love was always felt," and immediately put them back. I usually settled on something generic from the "Someone Special" category. I couldn't bring myself to hand my mother something that extolled all of her wonderful and loving parenting attributes... because that just wasn't my experience.
This annual, dreaded ritual was made even more difficult after I had my first child. For the first time in my life, unconditional love was more than just a phrase on a greeting card. It was something I felt deeply, with every fiber of my being, as soon as my daughter was placed in my arms. It was really one of those rare moments that turned out to be everything I imagined it would -- and could -- be, and the depth of my love for her only grew as she did.
In those first months, I grew more and more confused and angry. I felt as though I had been robbed of something that should have been mine at the most fundamental level. I just didn't understand it. How could my mother have treated me with so much cruelty and indifference when I was a child? I looked down at my daughter's sweet face and when I even thought of people being malicious towards her, it just broke my heart -- all I wanted to do was to protect her. For my entire life, the woman who was supposed to be genetically hardwired to protect me was the one I needed protection from.
I remember her saying things to me like, "I love you because I gave birth to you, but that doesn't mean I have to like you," when I was as young as 5 or 6. Looking back, I cry for that little girl that I used to be. My mother used to tell me how lucky I was to have her for a parent. She taught me tidiness by repeatedly emptying out the entire contents of my closet on my bedroom floor and making me refold it all if anything was out of place. She taught me not to be wasteful by making me eat cereal out of the garbage if I hadn't finished it all before I threw it out. She taught me patience by forcing me to sit cross-legged in the same spot in the middle of my bedroom for hours -- only letting me out a few minutes before my father walked in the door from work so he wouldn't suspect anything.
She taught me to be scared of motherhood for fear of continuing the cycle and becoming like her. And I was afraid. I told my husband that I was petrified of ever treating a child the way I had been treated. He assured me that the fact that I was aware of how horrible and destructive her behavior had been ensured in and of itself that I would break the cycle of abuse.
After I had my daughter and felt that rush of love for her, those concerns were alleviated, but new questions arose. Not only about how my mother could have treated me that way, but also about how I was going to have a relationship with her after I'd had this epiphany of my own. How was I going to allow her to have a relationship with my own child? Was I now risking my daughter's emotional health by allowing her around someone who was capable of such damage -- all the while seemingly unaware of just how wrong it was?
I have had periods of my life without contact with my mother -- years, at times -- and other stretches where we've had a relationship, alternately strained or with the equivalent of an emotional arm's-length between us on my part at even the most civil of times. I would never truly let her in -- I just couldn't bring myself to do that.
She has met both of my children and, for a time, was a caring and loving grandparent. Slowly but surely, the tides began to turn, and I began to see glimmers of the woman I knew as a child. My then-3-year-old daughter went from constantly asking to sleep over at her house to pleading with me not to send her there the moment my mother walked through the door. My husband and I had promised each other and ourselves that the moment the relationship became unhealthy for either my children or for me, we would walk away. And we did.
And I'm a better mother for it.
One of the other things my mother taught me was what danger feels like. She taught me what bullies look like. She taught me what hatred sounds like.
And through all of that, she taught me to recognize what unconditional love truly was when I finally knew it.
So maybe, just maybe, I was lucky to have her as a parent.