I have always envied women who have a great relationship with their mother. One where the mom sees them as a whole person, and doesn’t burden them with her own expectations and beliefs. A relationship based on mutual liking and respect and shared interests.
I did not have that with my mother. She did a good job: I am confident, well-educated, independent and had a very happy childhood. This is all despite the fact that she was burdened all her life with (untreated) anxiety and depression and spent more than half of her first 9 years in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. The suffering all around her and the hunger and the uncertainty of her family’s situation most certainly impacted her all the way to adulthood. And though my grandparents were successful and prosperous in Europe, they were just impoverished refugees here in the US. I don’t think my mom ever got over what could have been had they not been forced to flee and leave everything – including their elevated station in life – behind.
So through her life – and mine – my mom had some incredibly down times. When I was a kid she slept way more than other mothers. My dad was really the primary caretaker. He cooked, cleaned, did homework. My mom would come home from work as a teacher, go to sleep until dinner, and often go back to sleep when we were done. She hated the politics and bureaucracy of the public school she worked in would ruminate about it for hours. But despite her issues with the principal or other teachers she loved her students and loved teaching. For 35 years she poured her heart and soul into it. I think it was truly the most important thing to her. She loved watching kids learn and helping them discover what the world. Unfortunately, and for no reason other than anxiety, she was eternally fearful she would be fired and seriously overcompensated because of that. She would work while dreadfully ill, then have to spend a week or more in the hospital because of pleurisy or pneumonia. When she retired she had something like 3 years of sick time accumulated – but she never felt she was able to take any of it.
As I became an adult we grew apart. My mother wanted me to be successful and “prominent” in a field that had status. She REALLY wanted me to be an attorney. I became a Social Worker. She told me that my MSW was not a big accomplishment, she had met some pretty dumb social workers.
I married a man who, she informed me on my wedding day , I would always have to support financially. (PS – turned out to be hilariously untrue) I waited too long to have a baby. She felt it was because I couldn’t get my nose out of a book long enough to get to it. I moved into a house she hated…The list goes on. The only thing we did well together was shop. In that sphere we were friends and equals and she always did love my sense of style and individuality. To go to the mall or the outlets was a good day out, and did give me a sense that maybe, some how, we did belong together like a mother and daughter.
But, there’s been no shopping for a while. My mom has Alzheimer’s and is really sinking fast. She also has terrible brittle bones and fractures of her back and hips. My dad continues to take care of her like he has done for 50 years this July, but he anticipates that by then, or maybe a little later, she won’t know who he is. I see her every 2 weeks and she talks less and less each time. And she doesn’t really know who I am – though she called me by name yesterday and truly startled me. When I answered her, she gave me a blank look and that was that…but there’s a little bit of her in there somewhere.
I felt different at our visit yesterday. More forgiving, less frustrated and frankly, less angry. The reason was a dream I had Saturday morning that I woke up from sobbing. I was with Harry and he held me and soothed me until I stopped crying and fell back to sleep, but I couldn’t talk about it with him – I knew I would cry. Last night Jack and I took a walk. He has known my mom for 22 years this year – we met in October of 1993 – and he knows what she’s about. He has gotten so angry on my behalf at the way she has treated me, and has always supported me and backed me up. So I told him my dream – and this is it.
My mom is healthy and normal. She’s walking along side me – and our arms are linked and we’re talking. She asks me, “What do you think of how you’ve lived your life so far?” (This is something that the real-life mom would never think to ask). I tell her, “I’m proud of how I live my life, the choices I’ve made, the love I have and the love I give. I really like what I do…but I know I have disappointed you. You wanted me to set the world on fire, and frankly my life is pretty ordinary”. And the mom of my dreams said, “The world can set itself on fire. You just keep doing what you’re doing”.
And I think I woke up crying because I knew my mother would never say that to me. But Jack pointed out to me – I really said it to myself. And whatever happens I can give myself what I need. Deep inside I know what’s true, what’s real and important. As sad as it is – and I cried on the street telling Jack and I am crying while I write this – that is absolutely true.
So even though those words would never come from my mother’s lips – now or ever – she helped to plant the seeds inside me that allow me to see the that truth. As a mother she took me as far and she could and I think did a pretty good job of the rest. She could not always be there for me in the ways I wanted but I am grateful for the opportunity to understand that I don’t need external confirmation of what I already know. I can mother myself. And that’s OK.