It’s Mother’s Day and everyone’s posting pictures on social media feeds of themselves as children with their much-adored moms. It’s a sweet gesture and I hope those moms feel the love and maybe have a giggle at long-ago hairstyles and the behind-the-scenes madness it probably took to get that shot. (As a mother of a young child, I know just the circus of a family photo session!) But it’s bittersweet for me, even sparking a flash of jealousy, or two.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore my daughter. She is the light of my life. She brings me joy. Having her has helped me find a voice I never had before. All those statements would be cliché if they weren’t truly and deeply true. Opening myself up to being a mother; carrying that pregnancy in my body; knowing the thrills and chills of motherhood has been one of the most fulfilling, messy, magical, scary, beautiful experiences of my life. To know my daughter and to have the honor of parenting her is a healing act for me on an almost daily basis.
But damn it if I still cringe at Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, I have only known my daughter for three years and I’ve spent almost 37 years being someone else’s daughter. Healing takes time.
So, as I scroll through happy photos and the sentimental statuses of friends who love their mothers, I do feel a little jealous and a little pain in my heart. I’m sure I could summon a dusty memory from my childhood that doesn’t reek with drama and hurt, but to me it would feel false to post that publicly. It would present an image to the world that was incomplete and a daresay just this side of false. Oh, the memory would be real, of course. But to single it out, plucking it strategically from a voluminous catalog of disappointment, betrayal, neglect, and attacks on my innocence — that would feel like a lie. A convenient lie. One I told the world for a long time, because that’s so much easier than admitting the truth. My mother was not a good parent. And in ways too intense and too upsetting to share, her actions showed me that she did not like me, and quite possibly didn’t love me.
Now, most of the time I can safely walk through my life and not give this old wound much thought. When my daughter bounds into the room, her golden hair bouncing in the light and her face illuminated with happiness, my heart swells and everything bad about my life before her disappears into a foggy and ever-distant past. We go on adventures. We even have little conversations now that she’s mastering simple-sentence structures. I see the world more and more through her eyes. I encourage her to marvel and experiment and study this existence. And as she does, I see her wonder and amazement and it feels like the old scar tissue melts down a little more with each of those moments. Love is a healing tonic, a salve to the wounds. It binds. Its heals. It allows us to grow. And I am so grateful for that. I am so deeply grateful for my daughter and to be her mom.
And then as Mother’s Day approaches I find I have a sort of cognitive dissonance. My daughter is not quite old enough to know what it means, beyond making me a crafted present at school. (Which I adore beyond all my other possessions.) Perhaps when she’s older it will change. I don’t know. But for now, as I pass the displays every damn place I go and see the ads during all my favorite shows (truly, I’m the last person on the planet without a DVR), it just grows and grows. I manage to put it off and put it out of my mind as long as possible. My mind keeps forgetting about it and then I have to remind myself to remember it. (I do have a mother-in-law, after all.) And then in the final count-down, those last days before Mother’s Day, it just consumes every place I go whether in the real world or online. And I feel sort of trapped by all the people sharing warm, happy memories. I feel like I’m claustrophobic and trapped in a tight space.
Worst of all, I feel like if I talk about it with anyone but my closest loved ones — who already know the pains and the whys — that people will think less of me. How is it that having a bad parent makes you the bad child? Why is it that having a bad mother means I’m a bad daughter? Why do the kids have to bear the mistakes of the parents — like scarlet As on our chests. Right where our hearts were ripped out.
You can’t go on Facebook on Mother’s Day and say, “I’m glad you’re all having a wonderful Mother’s Day. Just thought you should know, this just reminds me what a shitty mom I had. Thanks.”
It wouldn’t be a very nice thing. It would be passive-aggressive. And why should I dampen anyone else’s good time? That’s not fair. But it’s also not fair to me — and all the kids like me, and I know you are out there — that we have to just endure the collective emotional dump of these myopic holidays. (Father’s Day is an equally painful landmine for many.)
Maybe if there weren’t emotional landmines around already, it would be easier. Just a few days ago, I gave testimony at the Nevada Legislature in favor of a comprehensive sex education bill. Many people who oppose the bill had testified about how pregnancy was the consequence, the punishment, for teens who did not practice abstinence. More than one mother — I know they were mothers because they all made sure to mention how many children and grandchildren they had — got up and said that if teens made the mistake of having sex, then they should have to live with the consequences. Because that will make a person really love their baby! One woman talked about how her daughter had gotten into drugs and sex and then became pregnant and how having that baby forced her to get clean and straighten out her life. If that actually happened, good for that person. More importantly, good for that baby. Because if having a child is a life-sentence for the mom, guess what, it’s no less a life-sentence for the kid!
I should know, I’m one of those babies of a teen mom.
So, I testified about the hardships of growing up with a teen mom. I talked about our poverty. The lack of choices my mother had because of her limited education. But I also talked about how deeply flawed she was and ill-equipped to be a quality parent. I talked about the emotional scars she left. And, in the context of sex education, I told the legislators that the kids like me deserve quality information, because we might not have anyone else in our lives who will give it to us. But it was not easy to do, to talk about these things in the public square, so to speak. I cried during my testimony, which I found to be extremely embarrassing. I am not a public crying type. And I suppose it shows how deep the shame of being the child of a teen mom is. 36 years later, I still feel the shame that society has placed on both her and me. After all, I’m the product of the “sin.” I’m the living, breathing scarlet A on my mother’s chest.
A couple days later, I was shopping for groceries and passed a display of flowers. (Mother’s Day, in case you forgot!) I stopped a moment and looked at the pretty flowers. There was a basket of tulips — orange and pink. They looked so bright and cheery. I had a sudden flashback to memories of my mom planting tulips along the side of our house. I adored those tulips. But that sweet memory gets polluted by another, adjacent, memory of the man who sexually abused me. He brought me tulips once, because they were my favorite. And I have felt a little ill whenever I see a tulip ever since. But on this day in the grocery store, standing still in front of the pots of flowers, I just marveled at the beauty even as the conflicting and terrible memories washed over me. Maybe tulips could have been one bright memory with my mother, but it got destroyed by someone else. And then I had a little inner dialogue with myself. Maybe I could reclaim them. Look at how pretty they are! But if I bought them and brought them home and all I thought about was the pain every time I saw them — that’s like bringing pain right into my house. Why do that? I couldn’t decide if I was strong enough to reclaim it. And I wasn’t willing to take that chance. So I walked away.
That’s the thing about troubled childhoods. Those memories and pains bubble up to the surface all the time, no matter what day it is. There are these little moments all the time. Being the survivor of sexual abuse, I know that all too well. I mean, how innocent are tulips? And yet, if I see them, I feel angry. I’ve been through a lot of therapy and read lots of books. I could probably do some kind of reverse-aversion therapy to tulips. I’m sure over time I could condition my mind to make new memories and welcome them back in again. But sometimes I just have to give myself a pass. I have so many other, more important things, to tackle. Maybe I just have to let little things like tulips slide by.
Unfortunately for me, one of the bigger things I have to deal with is that Mother’s Day is not going away. And now that I’m a mom, I want to embrace this holiday. I want to build new, better, happy memories. I want to focus on the positive. So that is the reverse-aversion therapy I’m focusing on today.
I wish I was alone in this, but I know I’m not. I know some of you are going through the same things. And I didn’t even touch on those who lost their mother; the women who wanted to have a baby and couldn’t; and so many others. Mother’s Day might be about celebrating moms, but that idea can be a painful one to a silently suffering minority. We watch your joy and we bide our time until it’s over.
My wish for everyone out there is that we can all find some peace. I hear people say, “Let go of the past.” And I wonder, how do I get it to let go of me? I have forgiven all I am capable of forgiving. I have let go of all I can un-grasp. But there’s no walking away from the scars. Like a bad knee that aches when it rains, the scars hurt sometimes. To deny that hurt is a lie. But I think it is possible to somehow find a kind of peace with it. We can acknowledge it. We can sit with it. And I think at the point when we stop judging ourselves for the pain we feel (why can’t I just let this go?) then a kind of peace can settle in.
In the meantime, I’m going to go hug my daughter. And I’m going to try and “like” all the happy mom memories I see today. Because I am glad that there are so many good moms out there. That’s a good thing. It gives me hope.