My mother was an autonomous being: and she was still a crappy mom
As mother day looms over me, I find myself wanting to express a feeling which I find scantily represented in the obligatory Mother’s Day lit that circulates so predictably this time of year. That feeling is this: My mother was a shitty mom by her own choice, and I am sick of pretending she wasn’t.
I understand, to some extent, why this is not the type of writing you find on Facebook every May: after all, Mother’s Day is the time to celebrate those women or people who birthed or raised you in some regard, not to elaborate on all the things your mother did wrong. In recent years, I have noticed several people on my social media feeds pen shout-outs to their brethren and sistren who have lost their mothers and thus have had to find some way to stomach or ignore or not totally break down from the relentless reminders of their motherless status every May — a sentiment I truly appreciate, as I go through this every June when I am reminded, 10 years after my father’s passing, that Father’s Day has arrived once more. Similarly, there are those of us who have survived extremely abusive and neglectful behavior on the part of our mothers who feel equally lost and hurt and abandoned on Mother’s Day, even as our mothers continue to live. It is for these people that I write this essay. Every year I watch people post beautiful, touching commemorations to their mothers on Facebook and Instagram, and I would be lying if I said each didn’t feel like some discreet barb between my shoe and my sock. The intention of these posts is obviously not to hurt me, but they hurt me all the same as they remind me of the space between the love that I needed and the love that I received, of all the things my mother never was to me, and most importantly, of all the things my mother CHOSE not to be to me.
In our culture, we have a tendency to treat mothers, as we do most women, as binary characters: either as angels to be emulated or as monsters to be vilified. As an outspoken reproductive justice advocate, I tiptoe around the idea of lambasting any woman for her parenting skills or choices. But this year, as I dive into a personally unprecedented level of vulnerability and honesty, I am sick to death of pussyfooting: my mother was a shitty mom, largely due to circumstances that were within her control. For the past decade, I have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours in solo and family therapy, in ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) support groups, in drunken conversations with friends, and in deeply depressive states of journaling trying to understand my mother, to forgive her, to see the intergenerational trauma that she endured and passed on to me. And believe me: I have made INCREDIBLE progress in this regard. I recognize that internally and externally I have resources that my mother did not have access to, and understand that if she had had access to them, she would likely have been a better parent and person. I recognize that she was largely mimicking behaviors that her parents had displayed to her. I recognize that her and I were raised in different times and in different places, and that these contrasting details matter, a TON. But by the same token, I have also done enough healing and reflecting and feeling and aging to recognize, painfully, that in spite of these circumstances, my mother was still an autonomous being; and by extension, many of the terrible things she said and did to me as a child were choices that she herself made.
For as far back as I can remember, my mother was a wicked drunk. Functional enough to hold down a part-time job (that she was only able to keep due to the graces of her union, which protected her from getting fired even though she called out hungover at least once a week), but heavy enough that by the time I got home from school every day, she was slurring-her-words drunk, occasionally falling-down drunk, once even so drunk that she passed out on the toilet and broke her ankle drunk (and yes — I was the one who had to flush the toilet, pull up her pants, and put her to bed). Her husband was dying. She had no local family. She had a “disease” (I struggle with the idea of treating addiction as some involuntary condition, but I won’t dive into that now). But here’s the thing: My father was dying. My nuclear family consisted of a dying father, two abusive brothers, and a mother too drunk to care for herself, let alone anyone else. I was half her age. And I still was able to pull it together and get through my days, cleaning up her vomit and acing most of my classes. Clearly, my parents were not much better-equipped than hers. Assuredly, my mental health problems were no less significant or dramatic. It is impossible to compare the experiences of one individual to another and use each person’s differing response to a situation as evidence of some deficit of care or effort, I know. And yet — it is equally unfair to presume that someone’s actions are entirely beyond their control due to past experiences or trauma. When we enforce the very real notion that each of us is an autonomous being, we simultaneously reaffirm a less uplifting but equally accurate truth: that sometimes, autonomous people make terrible decisions, even when they know their decisions can and will hurt others.
In the past few weeks, I have found myself mulling over the same question again and again:
At what point do we, as children of abusive parents, acknowledge that even as our parents were multifaceted beings with problems and experiences that we do not fully comprehend, they also sometimes made very conscious choices to hurt and abandon us?
So much literature and counseling and support groups encourage us to view our parents as wounded children themselves, to recognize that they would have given us what we needed if they just could have. And I get why: in addition to being true to some extent, this perspective is also instrumental in allowing us to forgive behaviors that were unspeakable and impossible to justify by any other emotional or logical standard. I know from my own experience that learning to view my mother as a victim of her own parents helped me heal some wounds and create more heart-space around my mother. I did so much emotional lifting in my early-mid-twenties around my family trauma and mother issues, and while I still sometimes go to therapy and often use writing as a means of expunging the hurts that linger, the intensity of the pain has subsided in a permanent way. This relief has given me some much-needed emotional distance from my childhood experiences — enough to now look back with a more impartial gaze and rightfully surmise that, ‘Yeah. Still — that woman did me dirty.’ My uncle, always woefully well-intentioned, used to tell me, “Your mother did the best she could.” And at 30 years old, with years of work and healing and anger and processing and life-lived under my belt, I feel totally confident in saying, “No. She actually didn’t.”
We can both acknowledge the pain that our parents endured as children and simultaneously hold them accountable for their actions. These are not mutually exclusive concepts. My mother did not have a safe or stable or loving upbringing — but that doesn’t give her free range to tell my 8-year-old self that the beatings my eldest brother rained upon me were justified, or that my father “loved me more than you” when I was three weeks into my grieving process. Some of ya’ll might be reading this and thinking, ‘Duh,’ but I assure you, holding these two concepts in balance is a new thing for me. I used to hate my mother. Then, I swung towards feeling sorry for her. Now, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, which I think is probably healthy but still painful. It still hurts. It hurts to look back and realize that my mother had choices at many points, and that she so frequently chose to hurt and abandon me. I no longer feel the need to therapize that or explain it away. It happened, she did it, and I’m still alive.
This is not an indictment of my mother, and I do not want to pretend that she was some hideous, unloving monster. She was both loving and hurtful. She fed me and changed my diapers and drove me to school and taught me to read even as she drank herself half-to-death, called me names, and told me that no one would love me. She wasn’t one part of a binary ideation — she was a dozen different things at once, some painful, some lovely. She was a normal, complicated human being. And so am I. So even as I have grown into this strong, independent-to-a-fault, take-no-bullshit woman that I am, I still wish, even now, that my mother had showed up in what probably sounds like really trivial ways. I wish she had come to my school plays more. I wish she had come to my track meets. I wish she would have picked me up from rehearsal, just once, instead of being passed out drunk. I wish she had cared that my GPA was always above 3.7. I wish she had comforted me through my breakups, or had more to say about my college acceptance letters than “I’m not paying for it.”
For all of the children, whether grown or small or some messy combination of the two who are scanning social media today and feeling the echoes of these or similar longings: it is ok to be upset today. It is ok to grieve today. It is ok to be mad as hell at your mother. It is ok to both love her and hate her. It is ok to recognize that she was a victim and villain, that some of the painful things she did to you were by unhealthy learned behaviors, and some were done by selfish or even sadistic motivations. And perhaps most importantly, it is ok to be honest about these things. You do not need to protect your mother. You do not need to justify her behavior, or censor your words because they upset people who think that today is only a day to honor mothers. You also deserve to be honored today. You survived, and continue to survive, and I for one would like to commend you for that. It’s ok. It’s all ok.
We all ok.