Motherless By Choice
Living without my mother is hard, but it’s easier than living with her
It’s been four years since I last spoke with my mother. I may never speak to her again.
There is no easy way to say, “I’m estranged from my mother.” It’s even harder to say, “I’ve cut my mother out of my life,” clarifying that you are the one who has severed the bond. Say it to anyone, friend or stranger, and a certain light you hadn’t even noticed fades from their eyes, every time. Smiles falter or grow forced. Mothers give so much to their children that a justification for estrangement must be staggering: some monstrous abuse that outweighs all the love and self-sacrifice inherent in parenting. Only someone selfish and heartless could cut off a mother who loved them — right?
When I was in high school, I slept most nights on the living room floor. I wanted to sleep in my bed, of course, but my mother had rules for us, rules we could not disobey without consequences. One rule was that she controlled who was allowed to enter which rooms, and when. For example, over time, the right to go upstairs — to enter our bedrooms for any reason, or to use the upstairs bathroom to bathe — became rarer and rarer. (Years earlier, my father had first been banished to the first floor, and then to the basement, before leaving our house altogether.) The spaces in which we were allowed to move slowly shrank.
As we entered our teens, home life got worse for my sister and me. Concerned, anonymous people began to place calls to social services. Each call meant disruption to our household, punctuated by unpredictable visits from a social worker named Sam, a tall, quietly friendly man with an unusually deep dimple in his chin. Into that dimple I poured all of my hatred and fear.
I don’t recall my mother ever saying that Sam, or those who had asked him to come, were wrong to worry about our welfare. Instead, her outbursts of gibbering rage focused on how hard she had it, how she worked like a n***** every day, how the deck was stacked against her, and how we’d better not say anything to Sam that criticized her in the slightest. As flawed as she was, she said, she was our best shot for a happy life. “They’ll take you away and put you with some fucking foster family who’ll leave you to rot,” she’d howl. One of her favored punishments was having us stand perfectly still in the middle of the kitchen floor for hours as she went about her day, bellowing at us like a wounded beast when her outrage bubbled over at having to load the washing machine, or perform some other household chore. For me, she threw in an extra threat: “And no foster family is going to pay for you to go to college, so you can kiss that goodbye.”
She must have known that college was already cemented in my mind as my escape route, the best way out for a bright girl who threw herself into her schoolwork because she was literally not allowed outside the house for any other reason. When she had her anger under control, my mother devoted her deepest affection to my intellect. She flattered me by telling me how much smarter I was than my sister, my father; how unusual my gifts were; how I needed careful nurturing, only the best opportunities, which of course she was uniquely qualified to identify. It was her and me against the world, as she depicted it; it was either college and my mother, or neither.
So I got pretty good at lying, and at going numb during unpredictable outbursts, and at telling myself it wasn’t so bad. She wanted the best for me — how could that be abuse? Ignore the incoherent howling, the overturned furniture and hurled dishes, the nights spent on the floor, denied permission to leave that room. It was nothing I couldn’t handle. I soon became my mother’s greatest defender, seeing Sam and his ilk as genuine threats to my future. She molded me into that role; she needed a defender, because she didn’t really have anyone else.
“She’s your mother; you’ll want to reconnect someday.” The words are so universal I can’t even point to a specific person who said them; it is all the world that tells me. Typically, I’m told I’ll change my mind in one of two scenarios: if I have children, or when she is dying. Maybe they are right. Maybe I will deeply regret cutting those ties, when I myself bring new life into this world and realize… what? That I never want to do to my child what my mother did to me? That I never want a child of mine to suffer, and doubt herself, and learn to lie and helplessly obey the way I did? That the very moment I thought my mother might pose any threat to my child, she would be back out of my life again?
The other scenario, that hallowed image of deathbed reconciliation… that one is difficult to dismiss. I might want to see my mother again, some hypothetical, far-distant day. But the few people I’ve trusted with details of my past — details I may never put in writing, at least not writing for public consumption — they don’t say “She’s your mother.” They say, “Are you sure? Are you sure you’d want to see her, even if you knew it was your last chance?” They hear all that daughter-love, all that yearning to do the right thing by the person who carried me for nine months, and weigh it against what I have told them of her. And for every person I’ve told, the scales do not balance.
So I don’t know. Maybe I will never see my mother again. A vast silent nothing opens in me when I think of it.
I didn’t talk about my past for a long time, not only because it was too raw, but because there was always a haunting feeling that her rage and her infinite rules weren’t good enough reason to justify estrangement. Maybe if I had physical scars, I’d feel vindicated. Maybe if she hadn’t reminded us so often how much easier her life would be if we’d never been born, the words sinking deep into our unconscious as we swayed in place mutely on the kitchen floor — maybe then I wouldn’t wonder whether I was the problem after all. Maybe, most importantly, if she hadn’t been so loving when she had a good day — and good days weren’t that rare. Surely an abusive parent was all bad, all the time, and she wasn’t. I knew my mother loved me and wanted good things for me. How does a grown child reconcile this love, twisted as it may be, with the need to escape their harmful influence?
I don’t tell most people the reasons why my mother is not in my life, or anyway I don’t tell them everything. To me, the past is a space that now only I have access to, a place she no longer dictates for me. I alone hold the keys, and I grant access to very few. Who else is there to share it with? I know a few people also estranged from their mothers, and to have that shared experience is validating, but it’s not as though we want to dive into the topic regularly. For a time I relieved my stress and sorrow on Mother’s Day by hanging out with a friend whose mother had passed away suddenly. This was the closest I had to someone who could understand my complicated feelings about that holiday — someone whose mother was dead.
The space the past occupies remains mostly empty, save for occasional exchanges between my sister and me, brief because even today that space is haunted for us, unpleasant to dwell in. Do you ever get nightmares about Mom? Yeah, I do. End of conversation. We don’t describe the nightmares. We don’t mention that they never stopped.
As I learned to define my own space apart from my mother, I found it had to be absolute. I used to get calls that paralyzed me with dread; I changed my number. I used to see her during the holidays; that ended after my grandfather passed, and she initiated a bitter inheritance war with my aunt, leading to their estrangement as well. I don’t know what my mother does for holidays now. Maybe she spends them with the family of her boyfriend, a man who once snuck up behind me, kissed me on the space between my shoulder and neck, and gave me a strange look when I turned, startled. I don’t know if she’s with him anymore. I don’t know much of anything about her.
In the wake of the gradual collapse of my mother’s entire side of the family, I reached out to my aunt; now I stay with her every Christmas. I reached out to the scattered members of my father’s side as well, who’d fallen out of the habit of celebrating holidays together, though not for acrimonious reasons. I talked about bringing lonely, farflung members of that side together in Indiana for the holidays: now that post-Christmas meet-up has become an annual tradition with 15+ guests.
And still I worry: it’s not enough family. It’s not enough to make up for what I lost.
I graduate college this May. I am 30; I went back to school as an adult, to finish my bachelor’s degree at last. My father’s family will share the day with me; my friends are planning celebrations as well. The first time I tried college — still her good, obedient girl — I cracked from the stress and dropped out. I had moved all the way across the state, but still she sought to control my space. I remember my sister calling to warn me that my mother was driving across the state, on the spur of the moment, leaving the younger daughter she cared little for in order to hunt down the older one she was still determined to control. I escaped to a space ungoverned by her, a friend’s dorm room, and slept there all weekend as she roamed campus looking for me.
I did not return to her space; I carved out a space of my own. I worked hard and saved money. I moved to New York. I got into a better school, on my own merits, despite her predictions. I stayed close to my family and I made good friends. I now know it wasn’t true: I didn’t need her to succeed in college, in life. I can hold my head up high and say, “I did it all without you.” The words reverberate, though, as though spoken aloud in a great wide room, completely empty. Without you.