To the Mothers Who Are Not ThereLeah Campbell
Tonight was a rough night for my little girl. She was tired; she didn’t feel well; she was over-stimulated. All at once, these came to a head for my soon-to-be three-year-old, and the result was a child who fought, flailed, cried, and yelled until she wore herself out and finally collapsed asleep in my arms.
It was the kind of night that left me feeling a bit like collapsing myself.
But here’s the thing: I was there. I stuck it out. I showed up.
It’s something I vowed to do the day I first held my daughter in my arms: To keep showing up, no matter how hard doing so might become. To be the mother who would actually be present and involved. The mother who would stick it out through the tough stuff and keep on fighting. Fighting for our relationship, fighting for her, and fighting for everything I never had.
I’m told that once upon a time, my own mother was actually pretty devoted and loving in her role as well — that there was a point when she would have done just about anything for my brother and I. And I know for a fact that she certainly sacrificed parts of herself in those early years of motherhood.
But unfortunately, I don’t really have a lot of those memories.
There are blips, of course. I remember her reading me Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I remember days spent in the kitchen baking. I remember making homemade ice cream together, and I remember the guitar she used to bring out every once and a while to play for me. I remember being sick one night and being allowed to stay up to watch Cocoon with her. And I remember that one of her favorite songs was “Anytime You Need a Friend,” and that she used to sing it all the time.
That’s about the extent of my good memories, though. Beyond that, I remember that shortly after she and my dad divorced when I was eight years old, she moved her first girlfriend in with us. I remember that no one ever explained to either my brother nor I what that meant, and that it was actually a neighbor who told me my mother was a lesbian. I remember that when I asked her about that at the mall a few days later, she said, “So what if I am?” And then she walked away, leaving me standing there, feeling alone and confused.
I remember that when her first girlfriend turned out to be volatile and cruel, she took my brother and I to a hotel one night to get away. Her new girlfriend met us there for the very first time, spending the night in my mother’s bed and moving in with us just a few days later.
Seemingly overnight, my mother stopped seeing me. She stopped engaging with me. She stopped doing anything and everything beyond throwing herself fully into this new life. A life I now understand she had probably denied herself for a very long time, and a life I am so compassionate towards and in support of. But a life that apparently, for my mother, couldn’t co-exist with her ability to continue showing up for me.
I was 13 years old when it was decided that it would probably be best if my father took full custody of me. And I remember, after he came over and hastily packed my belongings into trash bags, that we left her house without there being an ounce of remorse on her behalf. It was like she was simply glad to be free of the burden of parenting.
Less than a block away, my father had to pull over and hold me close to him as I sobbed big, giant tears, in between gasps of, “She … didn’t … fight … for … me! She … doesn’t … care.”
Over the next 10 years, my mother made weak attempts at maintaining a relationship with me. A random Christmas present here, an appearance at a soccer game there. But for the most part, she was simply gone. Too busy. Too distracted. Too devoted to her own life to care much about mine.
I was 26 years old before she made any kind of real effort to re-enter my life. She did so then by first sending a Facebook friend request, which I promptly denied. A few weeks later, she sent an e-mail. Her words on my screen seemed genuine and sincere. It was the very first time she had acknowledged any kind of wrongdoing, and while it was a watered down version of her true offenses that she admitted to, it was at least a glimpse of the remorse I had been so heartbroken not to see the day we had driven away.
The problem? By the time it finally came, I was an adult who had fought through my fair share of brokenness. But I had somehow managed to come out the other side pretty stable, even happy with how my life had turned out. And while she had played a big part in the breaking of me, she hadn’t been around for any of the healing. Or any of the worst nights. Now that I was finally in a good place, I didn’t feel like there was any room for her in my life anymore.
Long gone were the days I had spent wishing for my mother to show up. By this point, I was indifferent to the very idea of her; far more afraid of the damage she could do to my life if I let her back in than what it might mean if I never did.
The sad part is, I do feel sorry for her. I do believe that she probably regrets the choices she made, and that she very likely does wish she could fix us. But she was out of my life for longer than she was in it.
Some damage just can’t ever be undone.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I’ve noticed what seems to be a rise in non-custodial mothers. Parents in general, I’m sure, but it’s the mothers who always stand out to me the most.
The mothers who choose not to be there.
These mothers often have their reasons: They are pursuing an education or career; they are chasing love; they are struggling to fight addiction or mental illness. I’ve seen different variations of this story again and again. Many seem to think that one day, they’ll fight to get their children back. They call frequently, visit when they can, and rely on Skype and FaceTime to keep in touch. And they tell themselves that’s enough.
That their children will understand.
All of these mothers are amazing at justifying why they are not there for the day-to-day of parenting and why it isn’t that big a deal that they’re not. Some even seem to think they are better mothers because of the distance. Because of the lessons they are teaching their children in the pursuit of their own bliss. But the reality is, even for the child who is putting on a brave face and saying he or she understands, there is always the gnawing ache of abandonment there. I can tell you from experience that they absolutely feel the effects of being left behind. Of not being as important as whatever it is their mother is chasing instead of showing up for them. That time is so fleeting, and walking away from those childhood years can irreparably damage both the child and that relationship in ways that can’t ever be recovered from. Some choices just can’t be taken back, and not being in your child’s life on a regular basis is one of them.
This is what we, the children who were left behind, wish that our parents had known. And it’s a message I wish that I could somehow shake into the mothers who are not there today. Not from a place of judgment or meanness, but from a place of wanting to save them from the fate I am sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my own mother regrets today.
I would like to believe that if she could go back now — if she could show up, even on the days that were hard or draining beyond belief — she would.
And perhaps those broken years of mine could have been avoided altogether.
But at least today I can say, I’m a better mother for it now.
The kind of mother who will never discount the power of simply showing up.