Sarah had flung herself into the easy chair next to mine upon arriving home after a particularly difficult day at school. Then my fourteen-year-old daughter erupted, sobbing and screaming with frustration. I sat with her. After the flood abated, she sniffled, “Can I sit in your lap?” She draped her tall body over my smaller one, rested her head on my shoulder, and fell asleep in my arms. I sat perfectly still for more than an hour, breathing her in, feeling the weight of her, sensing her perch between child and adult. Relishing what might be the last time I would hold her this way.
I told this story to a gifted healer I fondly nicknamed “the fairy lady.” She asked me, “How did you learn to be a mother to your daughter?” I froze; the question had no answer and hundreds of responses simultaneously. The truth I uttered surprised me.
“I try to be the mother I wish I’d had.”
I want my daughter to experience fierce, deep, selfless mother-love—love that encircles her in safety and compassion and respect, love that holds space for her to venture out and learn her own truth, love that welcomes her back always, no matter what.
Three years ago, when Sarah was thirteen, my mother invited us to a program with live rabbits at her assisted living facility. Perhaps the only thing she, Sarah, and I shared was our fondness for animals. I agreed we would come, though for quite a while I had kept Sarah away from her. Witnessing my mother treat my daughter the way she had treated me when I was growing up made me nauseous and exhausted. I juggled acknowledging my mother’s abuse of me with shielding Sarah from those same subtle but damaging tactics—ones that left their victims feeling their souls bleeding but unable to explain why.
Because my mother had failed to arrive on time, we weren’t able to sit together. She insisted, “I want to sit next to my granddaughter. You never bring her to see me, so now it is my time with her.” I found a seat two rows ahead and looked back repeatedly to make sure all was well. Sarah was not fond of crowds, even sedate elderly ones, and she was less fond of her grandmother.
The program included an opportunity to pet and hold a variety of rabbits. While I enjoyed stroking a mellow gray and white lops bunny, I heard my mother’s rising voice behind me, “Now Sarah, hold that rabbit! What’s wrong with you? You love animals! Here, I’ll put it in your lap.” This was followed by Sarah’s panicked, “No Grammie, I don’t want to!” and the young 4-H volunteer’s, “No, Ma’am, we’re not allowed to let you pass the bunny to her, we have to do it.”
My mother wound up quickly. She held the black rabbit aloft and sneered her comments at the volunteer: “Oh, don’t be ridiculous! I’m perfectly capable of…” As the girl extracted it from her hands, she turned on Sarah: “Why can’t you just have a good time? What’s you’re problem, sourpuss? What’s wrong with you?”
I navigated the row of wheelchairs to intervene. I saw Sarah’s eyes brimming with tears, her effort to keep from losing her prodigious temper turning in on herself. I whispered vehemently, “Stop it, Mom. Stop it now. Sit here. I’m taking Sarah outside.” I used those few moments to calm Sarah before my mother tracked us. She launched her verbal assault the instant she spotted us at the far end of the porch—accusing Sarah of being ungrateful and no fun, and demanding that I answer why my daughter was behaving this way. “What’s wrong with her? ”
I guided us to a more private place to sit. With valiant politeness, Sarah complimented my mother’s necklace and offered her one of the sugar cookies she’d nabbed from the platter in the welcoming area. My mother now noticed Sarah’s new team sweatshirt, embroidered with her name and a soccer ball. So proud of having made varsity, she’d been wearing it daily for weeks. “Oh, you play soccer? I would like to come to one of your games,” my mother announced. I breathed in relief that the mood had shifted. Sarah was smiling. We’d talk through the rabbit fiasco later, on the way home.
With bright-eyed enthusiasm, Sarah had begun to talk about her team, the Tigers, when my mother interrupted, “They didn’t have soccer for girls when I was young. I would have liked to play.”
Sarah made appropriately compassionate sounds and continued, “I scored two goals in the game yesterday!”
My mother responded, “I played tennis. I loved tennis, but I can’t play anymore. Do you know I played until I was 81 years old! But look at me now. Getting old is hell. Why don’t you play tennis? You should play tennis.”
Sarah shrugged and told her, “I like soccer.”
My mother humphed and declared, “I’m going to give you my racquet. Everyone should play tennis. It’s a wonderful sport. Your mother played, but she stopped.” Then she turned on me, “I’m so disappointed you stopped playing. You should start again. It would help with your weight.” She seemed to have forgotten that I could barely walk with canes now, much less play tennis. “You and Sarah should join the Club. There are lovely people there. Just our sort.” Then she looked appraisingly at Sarah and declared, “You shouldn’t wear that sweatshirt. It makes you look like the side of a house. Not flattering at all. If you played tennis, you could wear pretty dresses, and all the boys would be after you! Wouldn’t you like that?!”
I felt the familiar sensations of the internal shredding my mother was so able to inflict with a cheerful smile, and horror as I witnessed my happily confident daughter shriveling under the onslaught that was so minor and so devastating at the same time.
“That’s it,” I announced while keeping eye contact with Sarah. “It’s time for us to go, Mom. I’ll see you later.” I took Sarah’s arm and walked her past the elevator to the stairs, a challenge for me but necessary if we were to escape without my mother following. Sarah’s tears and anger erupted before we’d managed to sign out and make a break for the car and home. It was the last time I would allow her to be exposed to my mother. She and I talked on the drive home, and for a long while afterward. I did my best to repair the damage, saying things I wished someone had said to me in the past.
I sacrificed my soul to my mother for most of my life. I didn’t know it with any degree of consciousness until after my father’s death. Somehow I’d bought into her story that he was the root of all our family’s problems. When he was gone, it dawned on me that I’d been hoodwinked. When I mentioned this to my mother’s brother, his rare honest response was, “Yes, well, your mother is enough to drive anyone to drink.”
I didn’t know. I really didn’t. I know I longed to be free of her. That I had recurring nightmares in which she chased me, intent on eating me. That I hid from her when I was hurt or sad, went to my friend Lisa’s mom for first aid when I had one of my frequent biking or climbing accidents, turned to near strangers hoping to make them allies in helping me survive my family. I carefully watched other children with their parents and saw what I wanted but didn’t have. I felt ashamed of myself, for I believed what I’d been taught: I had a great mother who loved me and knew what was best for me; I should be grateful; and my desire for anything other than what I had was due to my own selfishness.
It has only been in witnessing my daughter grow into the complex and wonderfully kind and creative person she is that I have begun to understand my childhood scars. For whatever unfathomable reasons, my mother adopted and used me as an opportunity to complete herself. She crafted me into what she wished she were in order to gain a twisted sort of psychic resolution to all the things in her life that made her unhappy. And I went along with it. In the early days because I had to, and later? I suppose I’d just been too well-trained. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself for not having had the courage to recognize and break free of the cage she constructed for me—the cage she convinced me would make me into the “right” kind of person.
My mother provided me with experiences I would not wish on another child. I claim little credit for who my daughter has become, other than my conscious determination to create for her a loving open space to explore her individuality and live true to her unique self.
Sarah told me recently about a school essay she’d been assigned: “What is home to you?” She said she didn’t want to write about a place because, “Home isn’t a place, Mom. It’s about a person. I wanted to write about YOU because you’re my home, but I didn’t because I already wrote an essay about you.” My heart flooded with joy that perhaps I’d actually succeeded in giving my daughter some of what I’d so desperately wanted but never had.
She wrote her essay about a dear friend in whom she has found a home. She now has enough confidence and security to risk meeting her needs and desires in relationship with another, and she has found a person who honors and respects her for who she is, a person who loves her. This is exactly as it should be, and I am filled with wonder. I hope that as she continues to grow up she will also find a way to be a home for and at home with herself.
© 2017 RedHawk Arts