When I was young, I gravitated toward friends who had struggles with their mothers. I felt overwhelmed by my difficulties with my mom, and needed orientation from others with similar experiences.
Over the years, I’ve been startled to see many friends gradually resolving their conflicts and coming to appreciate their moms—most of whom turned out to be not all that awful. For me, mom-trouble wasn’t a phase, but a permanent condition.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that bad mothers must exist; otherwise there’d be no bell curve of nurturing motherhood. Some people are the offspring of those moms. As angst-ridden teens, these kids might look and sound just like other angst-ridden teens. The difference is that the mere passage of time, the natural progression into maturity, won’t fix things. In other words, not everyone will—or should—look back eventually and say, “Ah, now I see things from Mom’s point of view. She was right, after all.”
My mom was tough from early on. Very rejecting of two of my sisters, she clung to me for emotional support. Despite her divisive and inappropriate parenting, as a child I viewed Mom as the saner of my two parents, because of my father’s explosive temper.
After my parents’ divorce, Mom became increasingly blaming and unstable, lashing out at us and sometimes barely leaving her bed. There wasn’t much to eat around the house. Finally, when I was sixteen, she evicted me and my two younger sisters from the family home so that she could rent it out and go on an extended car trip.
It was then that my father, who had recently lost his retail store and livelihood, sued for custody. Practically destitute and drowning in business debt, he took his lawyer’s advice and scrambled for work, landing a job at a fast food joint. In 1971, men were simply not awarded sole custody of their children. Dad won. That was what the court thought of our mother.
I wish I could say that Mom got help, came to her senses, tried to make things right. Instead, she was so furious about my father having gotten custody that she barely spoke to me for a number of years. Eventually she returned to Berkeley—only to make a permanent move to New York as soon as my sisters and I started having children of our own. Contact was infrequent and often painful as Mom kept up old behaviors.
And at 87, back in Oakland now, she’s still keeping up those behaviors, though with somewhat less frequency—and more pharmaceutical intervention. My current relationship with her, while sweet, is the product of my emotional distance, not resolution.
So how is it that year after year, I make the trek to the card store, wading through racks of “You’re my inspiration” and “Your love has meant so much to me” to find a suitable marker of the occasion? Like all my efforts in my mother’s behalf, the card is partly about loyalty to my sisters, who’d have more of a burden if I weren’t pulling my weight. Really, the card is for them as much as for her.
A simple floral picture with the barest of messages would be best—or perhaps no message at all. That way, I’ll have something to write.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Love, Lisa.”
Published in The Piedmont Post, May 5, 2010