As promised, here’s Part 2 of the Frankel Files:
Part 2: Mommy Dearest
The secondary plot (to the main event: marriage on the rocks) on last night’s episode, Paradise Found, was Bethenny’s birthday. And while many women struggle with negative feelings about birthdays because of aging, that doesn’t seem to be Bethenny’s problem. Her problem is a Mommy Problem. She and her mother share the same birthday. But since they are estranged (and Bethenny has talked about having a very difficult childhood and issues of deep neglect from her mother), her birthday just starts the wheels of emotional crisis spinning.
I can relate. And I’m willing to bet that more people do (even if they don’t want to admit it).
While I don’t share the same birthday as my mother, I do not have a relationship with her. There are many reasons for this, but the chief among them is that it was a toxic relationship in my life. It wouldn’t be fair to go into all the nitty gritty here, but suffice it to say that my mother did not raise me even though I lived in the same house as her. I raised myself. And even though we shared a home and genetic material, it was pretty clear to me from a very early age that the teenage accident of my conception was, to her, the biggest mistake of her life. I know, because she told me (and many other people), and often. Believe me, it was no secret.
And so, when I knew that I wanted to get pregnant (because my daughter was very much planned and wanted), I knew I had to end old harmful habits, like my relationship with my mother. It was an incredibly difficult decision that I wrestled with for months. But in the end, I knew I couldn’t move forward unless we could wipe the slate clean.
Now that I am a mother myself, I can see my own childhood with new eyes — something we see Bethenny do often on her show, too. You start to wonder, “Did my mother have this same loving feeling about me?” Or sometimes, “Why didn’t my mother have this same feeling about me?” It’s hard to not wonder sometimes. But it’s also a kind of torture to wonder. If you decide that, yes, my mother did love me at some point and show me motherly affection… then you wonder why it stopped or changed. If you decide that she never felt that way toward you, it’s a dagger to the heart. (Truth, in fact, does hurt.) And you can never really know either way.
When I was pregnant some members of my family gave me the hard sell on mending fences with my mother. One family member even told me I was a terrible daughter and was robbing my mother of her chance to be a grandmother. That was a hard conversation. And it was unfair. My mother is not entitled to have a relationship with me or my child. As Bethenny said last night, just because someone is biologically related to you, it doesn’t mean they have to be in your life.
I know there are a lot of you out there who had similar experiences growing up. Judging from the e-mails I get, there are a lot of you out there who were hurt deeply by one or both of your parents. As you can see, I understand that pain. A lot of people ask me for advice about whether or not to cut off a parent from their lives. I don’t know if there is a clear-cut blueprint or checklist to know if that is the right decision for a person. I know people who have gone the opposite way as me and kept up a relationship with a difficult parent for the sake of the grandparent/grandchild experience. Obviously, that is not what I decided to do. But I don’t think either way is the “right” choice. It’s only whether it is right for you. Sometimes there is just too much broken in a relationship and it can’t be fixed. In other cases, you can just learn to ignore or accept the things that hurt you. For me, there were certain factors that had to be addressed before any relationship could resume. Since my mother was unwilling to go there, that was that. But even more important than my relationship with my mother, I now see (as a mother myself) that the stress and heartache of a bad parent/child relationship is not the dynamic I want to model for my child. Do I really want to teach my daughter that it’s okay for someone (even if they are family) to treat you badly? Hurt you?
Cutting ties with a parent is never an easy or even a popular decision. (My decision is still controversial in my own family.) In fact, there are many times I choose not to discuss it because the societal expectation is that we all worship our parents, specifically mothers, unconditionally. People with good childhoods and nice families find it inconceivable! And even people with dysfunctional backgrounds get uncomfortable, because it makes them question their decision to continue on as they are. (For the record, I don’t judge.) But when people judge me for my decision, what they are not seeing is the heartache that preceded it. And in many cases, they are looking at the situation with parent-goggles. They see the ideal parents (or even their own parents) and they don’t understand that not all parents are like that. If you haven’t experienced bad parenting or witnessed it, maybe it’s hard to imagine what that’s like. But it exists!
What I tell people is this: Parenting is only transformational if you want it to be. If you don’t want to be a parent or have no tools to be a good parent (and no desire to get them), then you won’t be a good parent. Parenthood is not a magical crown that imbues you with good-parenting powers. You have to want it. You have to work at it. We all fall short. But the difference between the “normal” imperfection of your average parent and the train-wreck that is bad parenting is pronounced. And painful. And just because we are all somebody’s child, it doesn’t mean that we have to be chained to them forever.
My birthday wish for Bethenny is that she can learn to embrace a new chapter on birthdays. Maybe we never really let go of the old ties. But we can learn to celebrate the new ones! These days, I feel like my daughter’s birthday is my birthday, because I feel like my life is marked so much more by the passing of her time and her growth than my own. And, after all, the difference between age one and age two is huge. The difference between 35 and 36? Eh, not so much. Furthermore, I almost think of her birthday as a re-birthday for me. It was the day my life changed forever and I got the honor of becoming a mother to an amazing girl! And as I mother her, I almost get the chance to re-mother myself. I get to be an architect of someone’s childhood now. And I take that very seriously. Every time she bounds into a room, her blonde hair bouncing and a smile beaming across her face, my heart skips a beat. Because her joy heals me. Because being the mother to her that I never had is healing and a miracle and joy personified.
Trust your instincts. And embrace the power of the path you take.