In The Middle
“In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Sacrifice, poise, exasperation, laughter, defeat, gentleness, exhaustion, conviction. Mother.
My mother left when I was four. And it wasn’t the last time. Much of what I know was told to me, so I don’t have a clear timeline. There are probably several discrepancies that were created between the retelling of those events and my juvenile memory, so I apologize, but that’s not even what this is about. This is about the birth of my identity. This is about how someone else’s mistakes became a reflection of my worth -- how disappointment began to spell unwanted.
I wish I could tell you when the first pangs of that insidious emotion (unwanted) crept in. I guess however old you are when you understand that everything you do is a choice -- that her choices led to her exodus from my life. My daughter is three. We talk a lot about making good choices, so I probably felt it right away. As a mother, I think a lot about the relationship between my daughter and I. I think about how my thoughts toward, my words to, and my actions to and around her, will affect her for the rest of her life. I have a keen awareness of how delicate her identity is so I go out of my way to nurture it. And when I think about the choices that my own mother made, it makes me indignant. Did she think about those things? Did she think about how it would affect me? Why wasn’t I worth the self-control it took to deny her flesh? How could she (as I was gaining the confidence to walk and communicate and feed myself) not? And yet, at the core of that indignation, is my broken heart. As a toddler, I was at the genesis of my independence -- of my identity. And right there, as far as I knew, lay the appraisal of my worth. Or rather, lack thereof.
The earliest memory I have of our relationship (and by memory, I mean not a retelling) is kindergarten. Though it was short-lived, a judge granted my mother full-time custody of me. My tiny heart could barely contain the excitement of being with the idealized version of my mother. Every daydream, every longing, every hope was going to be exceeded. And even if it wasn’t, I still wanted her. However, what was joy, quickly became fear. At the end of school days when I didn’t receive a happy duck (for good behavior) I would beg my teachers for ways that I could earn it before I went home. My mother would spank me several times and then put me in a dark corner near the entryway where old spider webs would wisp around as air flowed from the thin space beneath the door. This, from a woman I had only recently been reacquainted with. A woman who had not fully introduce me to her love yet, who did not help me to understand that even though her discipline was harsh, her love was stronger. In recent conversations, I’ve heard the pain in her voice as she apologized for her inability to manage her anger in those days. How overwhelmed she was with parenting and life. I truly believe that she loved me with everything in her, but balancing those two things is hard even when you’ve had an ideal upbringing.
So much of her childhood was flooded with pain. I probably couldn’t do it justice to share it here and I won’t try. That’s her story to tell. What I do know, what she has told me through her words and actions: she feels unknown. We both do. And we both crave to be known. By others, but most specifically, by each other. But there were then (when I was only five years old) and there are now, years of separation that need to be bridged before we could/can get there. Every bridge that we have attempted to traverse toward one another has been burned down by her frustration with my misunderstanding of her. She would go from zero to sixty in our arguments about things that felt so insignificant, things that were based in principle rather than wrong done, crushing me with her words -- using every lie that I believed about myself to prove that I wasn’t worthy of her love. And (in hindsight) I don’t think she meant or believed them. But I did. And that mattered. She made me feel like I could never understand her. And that felt unfair because she was so sure that she knew me. She’d said as much. But here’s what I struggled with: even if she knew me innately, what I needed her to acknowledge was that that initial breach in trust meant that there were barriers to get through. It wasn’t going to be easy. I have lied to myself enough, attempted the relationship enough, to know that. Yet, each attempt began with us hoping that we could start fresh and being met with the the raw pain of the past. We needed each other, but the frustration caused by that hindrance, time and again, left us at a stalemate. She responded with rage at my lack of trust in her and I responded by shutting down and shutting her out. I kept telling myself that if she had (known me) she would have recognized my lack of cutting words returned, my begging for her to stop, my silence, as love. Maybe not the understanding of who this woman was, but a powerful love, despite that. And I think (and I could be totally wrong) that her anger wasn’t at me, rather herself. A lack of forgiveness toward herself for making those early mistakes.
I think that now, as a mother, I can fully appreciate the agony associated with the daily small failings. And these are early days yet. Some days, I feel like I’ve got it in the bag. Like this mom game couldn’t possibly get easier. But other days (most days) I have no idea what I’m doing. And on those days, I feel like it’s painfully obvious to the world and my daughter, that I’m terrible at this thing. I’m trying things that used to work and don’t anymore. I’m distracted. I’m tired. I’m frustrated. And my insecurity about how badly I’m failing, turns into anger toward her for not being easier. For not responding to my parenting in a way that plays to my abilities. Parenting is like that. Even if you know your child, even if you know what is good for them and know how to put it into action, even if your expression of love is flawless, you could end up at a stalemate. Timing, wording, receptiveness, emotion. So many factors play into the healing process. But a steadfast love, a love that is willing to weather the storm, will wait for an open door.
I have tiptoed toward being known by her and by others only to be so completely misunderstood that I have questioned if I really am who I claim to be or if they’re right. And that’s a scary place to be. Particularly when my identity wasn’t centered in Truth. When so much of it was founded in what I hoped would satisfy others. I was, after all, operating on a working belief that I was unwanted. For years, that word played in my head like a broken record. Its noise was louder than the genuine love that others offered. Louder than my need. Louder than my worth.
I would feel the sting of the past at the most unexpected moments. It would creep up when I’d hear my friends talk about the amazing relationships they had with their mothers. Or when I needed to feel mothered and I’d remember the three years that had passed since we last spoke. And I’d release it again. Sometimes good boundaries mean releasing the relationship until both have found their own healing. Through therapy and the maturity that comes with life experience, I was able to forgive and find peace. I began to understand that the choices she made early in my life weren’t about me. They were about her. But even then, I was afraid to reach out. Afraid of what it would mean to open that door again. Until I experienced a pain so great, it caused me to cast that aside. I needed a comfort that only my mother could offer. I needed words that only she could utter. So I turned the knob on that dilapidated home where our relationship lie dormant and called her name. And she answered.
Every day, when I pick up my daughter from school, she sees me and immediately screams “MAMAAAAA!!” As if she hasn’t seen me in years. It gives me the most joyous feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s like every small fail I had that morning with her was completely forgotten and I was once again restored to perfection. This time, in that first moment of reconnection with my mom, that’s how it was for me. Whatever imperfection she possessed was wiped clean because this time, I was ready to experience our healing together. The relationship between us this time, is still so new. I don’t know where this story ends. I hope that as I continue to unravel who I am, she is doing the samend that together, we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.