My therapist told me I had an “unnatural relationship” with my mother. Today, I’m okay with that.
This phrase has been buried in my mind, like a worm, burrowed deep into the recesses of my psyche. It has remained unearthed there for twenty years until recently when it was forced to the surface by a flood of tears.
Once surfaced, I had to make a final decision, did I agreed with her assessment?
My only experience of counseling was when I struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of my daughter. During one of the handful of sessions I had with the therapist, she made the suggestion that I may have had an “unnatural relationship” with my mother, that we were too close and my mother too demanding, as a consequence of having survived my mother’s abortion attempt and growing up in the shadow of my mother’s fears of losing me.
While the idea then seemed possible–who wouldn’t have an unnatural relationship with their mother under those circumstances–the thought of having an ‘unnatural’ anything, with anyone, let alone with my own mother, has paradoxically both haunted me and given me comfort.
I wanted more than anything to have a ‘normal’ relationship with my mom. I certainly did not want an ‘unnatural’ one. At times I believed our relationship to be a lovingly ‘good’ one, and then other times saw it as a suffocatingly ‘bad’ one. So I struggled with my own thoughts about the therapists’ assessment.
Ever since the therapists told me this, I had been unable to make a fully formed opinion of the statement, that is, until recently, when I held my mother in my arms while she took her last breath.
Reflecting back on that day, a delicately fresh four months ago, I can now say without hesitation, that, I agree with the therapists’ assessment. I am 100% certain that I had an “unnatural relationship” with my mother and no words can express how happy I am that I did.
Today my mother would have turned 62 years old. She was a young woman by most standards; her life was cut short by a life-time of suffering and pain. I continue to feel the pain of loss, so deeply, perhaps ‘unnaturally,’ as there was nothing natural about our relationship.
How could it have been?
Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours was based on unconditional love and life — where one’s mother relishes in the excitement of pregnancy, looks forward to welcoming a new life, happily celebrates life, and later, when the bonds of love have been forged, develops into a lifelong friendship. Through example, my mother taught me the meaning of unconditional love, and in turn, I have loved her (and others) in the same way. She was my best friend, confidant and the one person I knew ‘cared’ the most about me.
Unlike most mother-daughter relationships, ours was also based on death.
Death was always there from the start, beginning with my survival after her failed abortion–one that she was pressured into having because, as everyone knew, white unwed teenage girls in 1969 weren’t ‘supposed’ to have black babies. My birth was then viewed as a miracle — that by some unexplained way, I was spared from ‘death.’
The next source of my mother’s fear stemmed from my living. She believed in an Old Testament God, one that giveth and taketh away. In her mind, she was never deserving of this gift from God (my life). Therefore, she expected God would realize this and would unexpectedly take me away from her.
Throughout childhood, my mother would spend hours listening to me breath while I slept to make sure that I was still alive. Growing up, she obsessively worried for my safety, insisting on knowing exactly where I was going and the phone number of whomever I visited; she made me call before leaving one place and call again upon arriving at another (not as easy before cell phones); she wanted to know every person I spent time with, where they lived and who their parents were. Her concerns continued into my adult life.
In fact, there have only been a few times in my life where I have not spoken to my mother on a daily basis, only when I’ve traveled out of the country. Even then, whether traveling with my husband and daughter or for work, I have always given my mother my full travel details, as her deep-rooted fears made it nearly impossible not to give in to her requests.
While I do not think of God in the same way as my mother, I respected her views and tried my best to ‘live’ under her fears of my death.
But the irony of it is that, living under my mother’s persistent fears had a way of slowly chipping away at my own fear of death.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not purposely seek to engage in death defying acts. I have never wanted to bungee jump, hang glide or parachute out of an airplane. I have always taken a pragmatic approach to life and avoided unnecessary physical risks.
However, I do fully appreciate that life has but one stipulation, and that is, we must all die. This valuable life lesson, unintentionally learned from my mother’s fears, has made it possible for me to celebrate life, in all its technicolour glory.
As I celebrate my mother’s birth today by reflecting on the love she shared with me and others, I feel confident that those who knew my mom would agree that: when she lived, she lived to the fullest; when she loved, she loved wholeheartedly and when she gave, she gave wholly of herself.
My mother lived passionately with all of her heart.
While she was no saint, she did her best to cope with her fears. Despite that, she never lost her child-like innocence; she always sought to believe the best in others. Because of this, she motivated those around her to be better people.
These last ten years had not been kind to my mother — she suffered tremendously with unimaginable pain and fought to find the joy in living because of it. During this time, her fear of death slowly shifted from my death to her own. In this last year, we talked about her fear of dying and how she welcomed the sweet relief it would provide from a life filled with so much pain. It was love for her family that kept her going, kept her fighting.
When my mother unexpectedly suffered a brain aneurysm in late April, my daughter and I traveled 3000 miles in 24 hours to be with her in the States, giving us only 24 hours to say final our good byes. It was not enough time to think, plan or contemplate on what to do next. It was only enough time to act. But because of the foundation laid by our “unnatural relationship,” I was prepared to do what I believed my mother would have wanted.
I let my heart guide me, as it knew me and my mother’s “unnatural relationship” had conferred us many benefits. We had not wasted our time holding grudges or withholding our forgiveness from each other for past hurts. We had not wasted our time “not speaking” to each other, even when talking was inconvenient or when it hurt our pride to do so. No matter how much pain my mother was in, she endeavored to answer the phone whenever I called.
We had spent our time focused on living, the best we could, even if it meant living in the shadow of my mother’s fears.
Letting go of my mother was the hardest thing I have ever had to do and took every ounce of courage I had. No matter how much I loved my mother, and wanted to keep her alive, it was because of our “unnatural relationship” that I knew she was ready to die and find the peace she so rightly deserved.
When I held my mother in my arms listening to her last heart beat and feeling her last breath of air leave her body, I had made my final decision on therapists’ assessment.
While it’s taken me nearly twenty years to appreciate the power of the therapists’ words, I am glad she made me aware of having an “unnatural relationship” with my mom, and I thank her for it today.