All over the Internet this weekend there will be tributes to mothers, and this will be one of them. This one will be a little different, I suspect. This one is about a mother-daughter relationship that was troubled for more than fifty years. If that last sentence resonates with you, then this post may offer you hope.
From the time I was a small, small girl, I knew my mother was more beautiful than any other mothers I knew. Her beauty set her apart, made her special in my eyes, like the princesses in the fairy tales I read. More than anything, I wanted to please her. And for more than fifty years, I believed I fell short.
Mother had been athletic in her youth, and I was a bookworm. She had been the life of the party, and I was happier playing quietly by myself or with just one friend. She was neat, and I was messy. We were different in too many ways to count.
Mother sewed beautifully. She kept my sister and me in pretty dresses and spent hours with pin curls and perms, trying to manage my straight, fine hair. Somehow I got the idea that I wasn’t pretty enough to suit her, that she did these things so I wouldn’t embarrass her in front of her friends.
In contrast to my sweet-natured grandmother, who seemed pleased to have me around, Mother's no-nonsense approach seemed harsh. She was quick to scold and quick to set me straight when I got too full of myself. She took care of me, so I knew she loved me on some level, but I didn't think she liked me very much.
When I was 14, Mother married a man she’d known for only three weeks. She uprooted us from our grandparents’ home in Missouri and moved us to Texas, and I was angrier with her than I’d ever known it was possible to be. Neither of us knew at the time that 14 is a particularly nasty age under the best of circumstances, and we didn’t have much nice to say to each other for the next four years. I had a bad attitude, and Mother had a tongue that could slice a person in two with a couple of well-placed words. We were angry with each other more often than not, and we were both too stubborn to consider the other person's point of view.
At 18, when I got a marriage proposal, I jumped on it. I told Mother I was getting married in a week and moving away, and I was hurt at her eagerness to make wedding arrangements. I had hoped she'd try to talk me out of it. In hindsight, I realize that it must have seemed an answer to her prayers. With two more teenage girls and a three-year-old boy in the house, she needed the extra room. I married and left home with the clothes from my closet, a suitcase full of hurt and anger, and a desperate need to be loved. My expectations were unrealistic, and the marriage was a disaster.
Two kids and seven years later, I married a second time, this time to a man whose career kept us moving across the country. This marriage was better, certainly more peaceful, and I learned more about love and trust than I'd ever known before.
As I traveled around the country with my family in those years, I kept in touch with my mother. We were bonded by our relationship, but we weren’t close. Our letters to each other were chatty, exchanging news but never sharing feelings. I loved Mother, but I felt less vulnerable by keeping her at a distance.
In the late ‘70s, my husband and I moved our family closer than we’d been before to the town where my mother lived. Only three hours away, we could visit more frequently. Those visits were good because I could spend time with my family, but I could still get home in just a few hours if feelings got too intense. I listened more than I talked on those visits, and sometimes, on the drive home, I’d think about the fact that Mother didn’t know one thing more about me at the end of the visit than she did at the beginning. I wondered if she realized that.
My second marriage ended in the early ‘80s, then both my children grew up and left home. I began to focus on my career. I loved my job and excelled at it. I took continuing education courses, attended seminars, and buried myself in self-help books, trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted out of life. I had relationships with a series of men and learned something from each of them. I began to grow into my own skin. Somewhere along the way, I realized that it’s okay to be imperfect, that, all things considered, I’d turned out okay.
Once I began to cut myself some slack, I found I was able to do the same for others. My job at that time included traveling a couple of times each month, trips that would take me through my mother’s town. I’d leave after work, spend the night with Mother, and complete the trip early the next morning. We supplemented these visits with weekly long-distance phone calls, and we began to really know each other. The more comfortable I became with the woman I’d grown up to be, the more comfortable I became with Mother. My walls began to crumble, and my stifled anger began to dissipate.
One thing I wanted more than anything was to hear Mother say, “I love you.” She could write it, but she couldn’t say the words out loud. She couldn’t even say, when prompted, “I love you, too.” I was in my fifties by the time I figured out that she did love me, even if she didn’t always show it in the usual ways, and I was in my mid- to late-fifties when I heard her say the words for the first time. It was a moment that affected me profoundly. We hugged afterwards, but neither of us mentioned the significance of the moment.
My stepfather (the man who’d moved us to Texas) died in 1996. He and Mother had been married 39 years at that time, in stark contradiction to what 14-year-old me had seen as an impulsive action with no thought on Mother’s part as to the consequences. Mother had never lived alone, and she seemed lost in some ways after Daddy died. Ironically, it was when she was lost that I finally found her.
For the first time in our lives, Mother and I had hours alone on our visits. We set the mother and daughter roles aside and talked with each other as one woman to another. I learned about her early life and the dreams and expectations she’d had as a young woman. I learned how her dreams had been shattered, her trust broken, and how she’d resolved to protect her own daughters from the disappointments and disillusionments that had made her cynical and bitter. As Mother talked about different periods of her life, I remembered incidents from those same periods and re-evaluated them in the context of what Mother had been experiencing at the time. Like an old-western hanging judge, I'd made decisions about her without hearing all the evidence.
For example, Mother had always discouraged me from having any big ideas. She valued practicality, and whenever I’d come close to "flying," she'd verbally clip my wings to keep me earthbound. Until I got to know her better, I’d always felt she was being spiteful when she damped my enthusiasm. It had never occurred to me she’d done it to protect me, to keep me from falling too far and too hard. She never explained this to me, but I figured it out from listening to her talk about her own life, her own hopes and fears. I still think her cautious approach was a mistake, but understanding it changed my way of thinking about it.
Mother learned more about me, too, during the talks we had in her last years. She had apparently assumed that my dreams were the same as hers, and that to find myself in middle age without a man in my life must be terribly disappointing. She wanted that for me, to keep me safe. Through our talks, she grew to understand that I’m contented on my own and don't feel incomplete because I don't have a mate. Her acceptance of that fact put a stop to the inquiries about the state of my love life, questions that I'd perceived as veiled criticisms.
The trouble in my relationship with my mother had been born of expectations, the expectations each of us had for ourselves and for each other. I feel so stupid sometimes that it took me so long to drop my expectations of what a mother “should be” and accept her and love her for who she was. We wasted so much time.
I’m forever grateful for our last few years together. I learned to love Mother with an open heart, imperfect as she was and as I am, to know her as the fun person her friends knew and the caring person she was with her youngest grandchildren. I’m thankful that we had the time to untangle the misunderstandings we’d had without the necessity of rehashing them. She's gone from this planet, but I’m happy that I feel her spirit with me as often as I do. It's hard to explain to people that I feel closer to Mother now than I did for many years while she was alive.
Every year, on Mother’s Day, I used to struggle with finding the right card. The messages on most of them included words like “sweet” and “kind” and “thoughtful,” and those words seemed insincere. I wanted a card that dispensed with syrupy sentiment and said some clear version of “Happy Mother’s Day, I hope you know I love you.” If you find yourself looking for that same kind of card, then this post has been written with you in mind. Here's some unsolicited advice:
Set reasonable expectations for yourself and use those as your guidelines for how you live your life. Sometimes we give our mothers (and their words) more power over us than they should have: more power than our mothers know they have and, in fact, more power than they want. So don’t worry so much about whether or not you meet your mother's expectations.
If you want your relationship with your mother to be better, focus instead on the expectations you have for her. Ask yourself if they’re fair. I know there’s a wide range of mothers, from the worst to the best, and I don’t know which kind you have. But is there any chance you’ve set your expectations too high? Would your relationship improve if you could take a step back and measure your mother on the same scale you use to measure your friends? Can you take a look at the whole woman your mother is, not just the part of her that’s all tangled up with you?
All I ask is that you think about it. Don’t waste as much time as I did. Someone has to take the first step, and if somehow you turned out to be the one who's better emotionally equipped to do it, then it might as well be you. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there who know they've made mistakes and to all the nearly perfect ones who have set the bar so high for the rest of us. I hope our children know that all of us are doing the best we can.
To my own mom: I appreciate you, I miss you, and I’ll love you always. I know you know I can feel you with me, and I know you know it delights me. Happy Mother’s Day.