Today’s post is about mothers. Well…my mother to be exact. We’ve had a rocky relationship. You see, she didn’t raise me and when I say she didn’t raise me I mean that I can count on my hand (just one hand, not both) how many times I saw her as a child after my parents divorced. When I was 13, I boarded a plane to visit her in New York City. I remember the excitement and fear that I felt; excitement at seeing her again and in a new big city that I had never visited before but also fear. Would she know me? Would I know her? Would we get along? Would she like me?
That last one was so important to me. Already I was the butt of many jokes at school. I was bullied by the other children to the point that every night I’d cry myself to sleep and wish that I was somebody, anybody but me. I was convinced that I was unlikeable. I mean what else could possibly cause the other children to torment me relentlessly. It mattered to me that my own mother might see something in me that she liked. As I stepped off the plane, it was with a big sigh of relief that I instantly spotted her, recognized her despite the 6 years that had passed since I last saw her. I approached her with trepidation but hope and then she said it. The first words out of her mouth after not seeing her daughter for 6 years. “You’re fat.”
You’re fat. Fat. Fat. Fat. I couldn’t tell you much about my trip, because I don’t really remember that much. But her first words I remember vividly because they cut me to my core. The idea that the first thing my mother would see about me was the fat on my body was the confirmation I needed that I was indeed unlikeable. Nothing else mattered because I was fat.
Over the years, I’ve pushed those feelings deep down inside me. They are still there but I’ve learned that it’s not socially acceptable to express true self-hatred; that nobody really wants to hear about how broken you really are. In this society we seem to encourage self-degradation, fat talk is pretty prevalent, but nobody really wants to listen to the pain, the gut-wrenching sadness that comes from not loving ourselves.
There were more trips and visits with mom and before each one I would steel myself for her insults and the criticism, the incessant criticisms. It didn’t seem that I could do anything right. It didn’t matter how hard I worked in school; it didn’t matter that I was compassionate and kind; it didn’t matter that I tried hard to be a good person and mother. Nothing was good enough.
Between visits, I found myself avoiding her phone calls, waiting months to call her back. It wasn’t that I was trying to punish her for her cruelty; it was just that I didn’t have the energy to pursue a relationship with someone who clearly didn’t seem to think there was anything redeemable about me.
Last month she visited. My sister had just delivered her baby and mom flew out to stay with her for three weeks. Three weeks is a long time to visit. If things had gone smoothly, mother would have stayed at my sister’s the entire time. But things didn’t go smoothly and she ended up at my apartment. And there we were again. Mother and daughter. We sat around and watched my daughter play. At first, I thought I could escape her critical eye; she was so focused on other matters. I was deluding myself. Within two days, the criticisms started.
I didn’t pick after myself or my family quickly enough. I had too much garbage and junk in my home. I didn’t wipe down counters or bathtubs after use. I didn’t use a liner in the bathroom trashcan. I let my daughter leave out her dinosaur toys for one too many nights in a row. I wasn’t thin enough. None of these were unforgiveable or huge crimes but the constant nit-picking was exhausting. I nodded my head not even attempting to defend myself. Yes, Momma. Yes, Momma. I know, Momma. I’ll try harder, Momma.
Every once in a while she would stop and just look at me. I have no idea what she was thinking. Perhaps she was annoyed that I was so agreeable. Perhaps she thought I was ignoring her. Perhaps she was in a fighting mood and wanted me to argue with her. Perhaps she was wondering how her own daughter could be so unlike her. It is pointless though to try to delve into somebody else’s mind; it’s hard enough to get in our own heads.
And then one day she said something that shifted something for me. She was in the middle of criticizing me for some infraction. I can’t remember what it was. I was nodding my head; I was tired. I almost missed that her tone had changed.
“Robin, I didn’t go to school; I don’t know about school, books, learning. I know how to live, that is all I know. I know how to live. I didn’t raise you. This is all I can do. I can teach you how to live. Teach you how to make life easier.”
I won’t pretend that our relationship dramatically changed over these few words, but I will say that suddenly I understood something that I had never understood before. As much as her criticisms hurt, they have never been about me. They are words from a mother who never raised her daughters, who doesn’t know how to relate to them beyond “helping” them. In her mind, she is not criticizing as much as she is trying to impart wisdom. It’s the only way she knows how to be a mother.
I tried to remember her words for the rest of the visit. I held onto them when she would nit-pick about my weight, my parenting, and my housekeeping skills. I listened intently. I asked her to come back to teach me to make Kimchi. She smiled and agreed that the next time she visited we would get a jar and she would show me. And then she left. My house was quiet again or as quiet as it can be with a 5 year old child living in it. The next day when she called, I felt the familiar urge to ignore her phone call, but I made an effort to pick up the phone. And when she called again the next day, I picked up the phone again. My mom is never going to change. I cannot undue the past or the fact that her criticisms still sting. All I can do is remember her words. She wants to teach me to live so my life is easier. I may not like the way the message is delivered but the message is still one of love, the only love my mother knows how to give. She just wants my life to be easier. I can live with that.