I went on Facebook this morning to wish all my friends a happy Mother’s Day. And then I had to just turn it off. There was only one post I could handle, which was from Adrienne Jones, who writes No Points for Style, a blog about parenting a child with significant mental health issues. Her post said:
For those who want to be mothers but are not,
For those who are mothers and whose children have passed on,
For the mothers who are alienated or separated from their children,
I wish you peace and love on this painful day.
She left out the children who are alienated from their mothers, but you get the point. Mother’s Day isn’t a ball of happiness for a lot of people.
Most things about Mother’s Day, I adore. I adore spending time with my husband and our four amazing kids. This morning, they made me breakfast: crumpets with homemade blueberry sauce (turns out when you put frozen blueberries in the microwave, they kind of explode into sauce), a banana, and impossibly weak coffee. It was delicious. I love the handmade gifts that my kids make in school with their teachers and at home together as a team of four: a paper teacup with a real bag of tea in it; a photo frame; coffee filter flowers.
My “big present” was a new video game that we can all play together: Just Dance 4. It has a fairly hilarious mix of songs: Moves Like Jagger, Call Me Maybe, Never Gonna Give You Up. Ubisoft just Rickrolled my Mother’s Day.
Today I will call my stepmother. We will call my husband’s mom, and his stepmom.
I won’t be calling my mom.
My mom passed away in 2004, but I didn’t find out until five years later. We had been estranged since 1994. I found out because I was working on a family tree project on the website Ancestry; when I plugged in my mother’s name, a green leaf “hint” popped up: her name was on the Social Security Death Registry.
It was the weirdest thing. In a “normal” situation like this, you’d, you know, tell people, I guess. I didn’t even wake up my husband. What was I supposed to do? “Honey! Wake up! My mother died! Five years ago!” I figured it could wait until morning. I did email my dad, who happened to be awake and online. He had pretty much the same reaction; he waited until the morning to tell his wife, my stepmom, who has been a better grandmother to my children than my biological mother ever could have been.
My mother was an alcoholic, and a mean drunk. She was abusive, and brought abusive people into my life. She did the best she could, but she was psychologically very damaged from her own upbringing, and various things that happened in her life that went ignored and untreated.
I’m not angry any more. I believe my mother did the best she could with the emotional resources she had. However, there’s a concept in psychology that refers to “good enough mothering.” My mother did the best she could, but the thing is, it wasn’t good enough. Not her fault. Still crappy.
I intended to go on Facebook and wish my friends a happy Mother’s Day. I intended to put something funny on my blog’s Facebook page; it’s what I do. But what I saw was a constant stream of not just my friends with their kids, but my friends with their moms. Facebook profile pictures were changed to black-and-white photos of moms gazing adoringly at babies, faded color photos of mothers of the bride with daughters, glowing in white gowns.
I have a photo of my mother and me from 1976, before the drinking started, when she was damaged but not yet irretrievably so. But what kind of Facebook caption would I put on that? “Here is a photo of my mother and me, before she became a raging alcoholic.” I mean, that’s kind of a downer.
I got ripped off.
I’m incredibly fortunate that I had, and have, some phenomenal mother figures in my life. When I was in high school, I lived with my best friend’s family for about two years. They treated me as one of their own; a fourth daughter. I worked for my local newspaper when I was a teenager; a couple of the editors there took me under their wings. My stepmom has been there for me, unwavering. She has come to help when each of my children was born. She loves my kids full-on. My husband’s mom and stepmom both have a strong presence in my life. My mother-in-law is slipping into dementia, but she loves our kids even when she can’t remember their names. I talk to my husband’s stepmom at least once a week; she’s my go-to with parenting questions, health questions, mental health questions.
These are incredible, strong, smart, beautiful women, and I am so grateful for them that I feel guilty for thinking, “this isn’t enough.” But a mother figure is not, in fact, a mother. My stepmom has a daughter that is fully and biologically her own. My half-sister has a spectacularly close relationship with her mom, and it’s a relationship I’ll never have. My mother-in-law has six kids; my husband’s stepmom has three kids. My best friend from high school has two sisters; I am not actually one of them. I don’t begrudge them those relationships, but I covet them nonetheless.
I am next in line. I am not the same. I am less than.
My mother came from a long, long line of people who self-medicated depression with alcohol. I remember my grandparents starting their day with screwdrivers, which they referred to as a “pick-me-up.” At lunch, they switched to gin and tonics. Evening called for whiskey “nightcaps.” There was an appropriate drink for each hour of the day, it seemed. This was normal. This was what American grandparents did.
My dad’s parents, my British grandparents, drank coffee in the morning and tea the rest of the day. Presumably they were wired, but they were never drunk. I think they may had a glass of sherry in the evenings, with a bite of Cadbury chocolate. I didn’t see them very often, but I certainly never saw them drunk.
I never saw my mother’s parents not drunk.
At some point, my mother’s social drinking turned into hard drinking. Secret drinking. No-longer-functioning-as-a-parent drinking. She could go to work, and hold it together, and come home, and drink. That was all. I was in charge of everything else.
Looking back, it’s difficult to tell exactly what was wrong, because alcoholism can mimic the signs of manic depression. She had times when her behavior was definitely manic: those were the times when she would impulsively adopt animals (which would never be fed); when she would go on rants that were genuinely hilarious; when money slipped from her fingers like water. The mania was fun, and terrifying.
And there were the times when the inertia of depression took over. At least then I knew she would stay put, not leave the house, not drive us further into debt. For a few hours, at least I knew what to expect. Otherwise, my mother was predictably unpredictable.
It wasn’t all bad. I have good memories: drinking coffee together in the morning before school. Drinking vodka tonics together at a local bar. Laughing about how crazy our family was. She was a brutally funny woman, and I get my sense of humor from her. I work hard to rein in the viciousness–it comes too easily to me.
I shouldn’t have happy memories of drinking with my mother at a bar when I was 14. My older daughters are 12 now; I can’t imagine doing such a thing with them in two years. I’m pretty sure the bartender knew I was underage; I don’t think he had any idea how ridiculously young I was. I can only assume that I displayed a confidence not usually seen in 14-year-olds when I said things like, “you can put her drink on my tab.”
Nothing about that was normal, but it seemed perfectly normal at the time. You don’t question the things you grow up with; it’s like questioning whether or not you’re supposed to breathe air. I knew that none of my friends had bar tabs, and if they did, their moms wouldn’t be putting their drinks on those tabs. But when you grow up with an alcoholic parent, this is just how it is.
At least when we drank together, in public, she kept things in check. At home, things spun into darkness. Her judgments were scathing; her use of sarcasm was unparalleled in its ability to slice me to the core. I could never get used to it. I never became jaded enough, able to say, “it’s the alcohol talking.” My skin was never thick enough because my own mother was saying horrible, horrible things to me, about me. It wasn’t the alcohol talking: the words came out of her mouth, not the bargain-price bottle of vodka.
I got out, I grew up, I survived. I moved out the first time when I was 14, not because I started to notice how not normal my life was, but because my friend’s house was so much calmer. There was routine in their lives, and no one ever randomly started screaming obscenities. Also, their house smelled good, like laundry detergent and popcorn and fresh air.
I moved out for good when I was 16.
When I read on the Social Security Death Index that she had died, I didn’t feel sad. I was simply relieved. I’d been away from her for a decade but her voice was still in my head, still criticizing me.
There have been a small handful of times that I missed my mother. Sometimes I’ll think of something that she would have thought was funny. She would have loved the night that President Obama was elected. Mostly, though, there have been times when I missed the idea of a mother. The mother that was supposed to be there at my wedding, or when I had my babies. The mother that other people have.
Most of the time, I don’t even think about her. This is partly because I’ve done a crapton of therapy, and partly because I’m kind of busy chasing after four kids, writing full-time, and triumphing on LEGO Lord of the Rings. Most of the time, everything is fine. But right now my Facebook feed is full of photos from the 1970s, of moms who gave a crap about their children and their lives and didn’t escape into a bottle every night, and I’m jealous as hell.
I’m even jealous of the posts about moms who have passed away. I am jealous of their legitimate mourning. Jealous that they had the kind of mother they actually miss.
I got ripped off.
(Photo Credit: Joslyn Gray family photo)
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