The mother in my mirror

So much for my arrival at peace during my recent trip home. I ended it with an enormous blow out with my mother on our last full day, and I left barely saying good bye.

My relationship with my mother had always been both stormy and full of love. I am her life and for this I am both grateful and resentful. She simultaneously thinks I am the greatest thing that ever happened to her and the most imperfect creature she could have created. She wants the best for me while being dissatisfied that I can’t be the best. She wants me to see the world but never leave her side. Maybe many of you can relate…maybe there are many daughters out there that can relate.

Our life together has been full of paradoxes. We’d shop and eat and bond together and have the best time but can end a conversation with screaming and doors slamming (me, not her). One look, one word, one less than flattering tone and I feel destroyed. In the five days after we got back, I continued to cry daily, waking up in the middle of the night with knots in my stomach. I’d felt so wounded by her words and absolutely powerless as to how to cope or change the situation.

And I talked to girlfriends. “She’s not going to change, so it is up to you to change.” The first time I heard this advice I was infuriated. How little she understood me! And I tried to explain myself to her. “But…but…” Still she held firm. “Things were different in our parents’ time,” she reminded me.

Four days later, another friend said, “You’re just butting your head against the wall. She is not going to change. You need to learn to accept her.” This time I nodded.

Six days later, I stopped crying. I knew what I had to do. I will try to accept her.

I had picked up a book about mothers and daughters and gotten as far as the introduction. But it was enough to get me thinking in a way I hadn’t before. Our mothers are a composite of strengths and weaknesses, the book said, a product of their times, a product of the way they had been mothered. Of course. So obvious and so trite as I quote it. Like me, my mother is human. Flawed. A product of generations of well-intended but imperfect mothering. It was only last week that it hit me that my mother was raised by a single mother in a household of three children in rural China. She had never laid eyes on her father. There is so much about her and my grandmother that I don’t know and that I don’t appreciate.

My mother had wanted me to look like a movie star. To go to Harvard. To be a mother of two even more beautiful and perfect children, preferably a boy and a girl. To marry and have my own family but be mainly loyal and close to her. It was not so easy for me. As a graduate student in education, I realized I had fit the profiles of the children we were studying: “at risk.” I had grown up an at-risk child, a prime target to be a school drop out, a teen pregnancy or a substance abuser. My mother had such huge, seemingly impossible dreams for me to reach. Couldn’t she see that just being able to get through each day without hating myself was achievement enough?

And what were my expectations of my mother? That she not only overcome poverty, immigration to an unfamiliar country and language barriers but also convert herself into an upper-middle class, surburban American Carol Brady mom. For years I had been resentful that she didn’t tell me “I love you” or hug me or have heart-to-hearts with me. If only she had been more emotionally in tune, I thought, more “western,” I would have turned out better. How ironic; in my quest for perfection, I chose to blame my mom for my failure to achieve it.

But I’ve turned out well, haven’t I? I mean, given the circumstances. Or in spite of the circumstances. I’ve turned out alright: self-aware, well educated and happy. My mother (and father) had done the best they knew how. In fact, they did what, to me now as a mother, was beyond human.

I had placed such impossible expectations on my mother, been so unforgiving of her humanness and imperfections and even of her culture. I had felt frustrated all these years that she couldn’t see me and yet I am realizing now that I never “saw” her either. And I have heaped all of this onto no one but her…not my dad, not my brother, not my friends. I sometimes feel that I do the same to Max, but hopefully not to Fred. As Fred gets older, I wonder if he will have the same expectations of me. How will he view me? Will it be different because he is a son rather than a daughter?

I talked to my mother for the first time a week-and-a-half after I got back. As angry as I had been at first, I was simultaneously troubled by how I had alienated her. I know our rift would devastate her. But I couldn’t talk to her. And when I picked up the phone I was still curt, but I stayed on the line. She called again yesterday, thanking me for the DVD player I had earlier agreed to help her order. Our conversation was a little better.

I doubt if we will ever see eye-to-eye on some things, and I am sure that I will continue to feel irritated if not infuriated from time to time. But I am hoping that my attempts to think of her differently will make some impact on our relationship at this late stage in her life. For the first time, I want to make things better and to make the best of our time together before it’s too late.

If it is not overly personal to share here, what is your relationship with your mother like? If it was/is difficult, how have you coped? Do you think your feelings toward your mother have impacted the kind of mother you are today?

12 thoughts on “The mother in my mirror

  1. Oh, what a topic! Let me say that our relationships with our moms are similar. My husband tells me to accept her, to change my behavior. I try. It helps. But she can zing me like no one else. I think it’s because she matters so very much to me. Even when I hate our relationship.
    She once told me that she still argues with her ma (who died 20+years ago). I hope I find peace with my mom while she’s here.

  2. Cecilia, this is such a moving post. It really touched my heart, as I am currently having some issues with my own mother. (How is it that she can’t realize how much she has wounded me?!)

    You are a smart, wonderful woman. I hope that you can cut your mother some slack while maintaining your honor and dignity for yourself. (And I hope the exact same thing for myself and my mother.)

    Oh, relationships are just so hard sometimes!

  3. My feelings about my mother. I could fill a book. But I won’t pollute your beautiful site here.

    I haven’t coped. After 30 years of therapy, I still can’t come to terms with neglect, emotional abuse, and detachment.

    That’s why we lived with my grandmother from birth on.
    Some people should not have children, but that’s life.

    You are such a balanced, open minded woman. I don’t know how you do it. I truly don’t.

    You are wonderful and I love you.

  4. Hi there,

    First, I wanted to thank you again for coming over to my blog to read The Empress’ guest post!

    My relationship with my mom is tenuous. Always difficult. We argue a lot, criticize one another, and have a hard time talking through things. This will always be the way….

    I wish I had more time to write, but I could go on and on and on…lol!

    Wonderful post!
    Erin @ The Mother Load

  5. I’m going to stick my neck out here Cecilia and say this: your friends are undoubtedly right, that your mother will not change. Where I totally disagree with them however is in saying that you must therefore change. Why? You are a great person, living a good life, with a husband you love and a son you are a wonderful mother to. If that is not good enough for your mother then shame on her. No parent should expect to live out their own dreams vicariously through their child. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is to cherish and celebrate them for who and what they are. Even if your mother had a hard childhood, that is no excuse. Quite the opposite in my view as I would have thought when she had children of her own she would simply want the very best for them.

    So I would simply end this Cecilia by saying be you, have the courage to tell your mother that you are who you are and she accepts that or she does not.

  6. I love this post — so rich and vital. The details in my relationship with my mom are different from yours but the mix of love and vulnerability are there. Just THINKING that my mom thinks I’m fat, or that she prefers her sister and her kids to me and mine, can make me so sad sometimes. At the same time I’m terrified about what my daughters will think of me, someday or now. When my older girl pretends to be me and says, “Go play with X and Y, I need to rest” or says I’m not as energetic as her dad, or that I don’t play with her as much now that she has a little sister, I wince. It’s true and it hurts. Thank you for tackling and sharing this hard stuff with so much honesty.

  7. Cecilia, this was a very lovely and very courageous post to write. It is very hard to describe the complicated relationships we have with our family. I also have a strained relationship with my mom. And she lives with us. In fact I think living with us is what has put extraordinary pressure on our relationship that didn’t use to be there. I wish there was something I could do to make it better. Acceptance is a good place to start. But it is not as easy as the word is to say. I really appreciate to writing so candidly about your relationship and I wish you and your mom the very best. Thank you for making me think more about my relationship with my own mother and what I can do to make it better.

  8. I am so fortunate that my mother is one of my closest friends. I rely on her for advice, support, motivation … and she is always there. I only hope that I’m the same kind of mother to my children. Sometimes I do feel like I’m expecting too much of them or correcting them in ways that will lead to bigger, harder-to-mend hurts later on. It’s such a tough balancing act, and I’m sorry your mother fell on the wrong side of it. I think you’re exactly right to accept her as she is and live your own life as the mother, wife, and professional you have worked hard to become.

  9. Cecilia. Wow. This made me wonder if we both might have benefited from putting our mom cards on the table in the common room, oh, 22 years ago. This post resonated with me to the point of tears.

    We have a little bit in common (as we discovered all those years ago) – The mom from rural China. The immigrant mom. The undemonstrative mom. I have had those door slamming times with mine – and they were pretty much always due to my perception that she was disappointed (to put it lightly) in a choice I made or a path I took. Incredibly painful stuff.

    I have to check myself still – at age 41 with three kids – to calm myself down when she and I are not seeing eye to eye. I have developed ways of coping, but part of me feels bereft because we will never have an intimate relationship – I honestly do not think it is possible. I have made peace with the fact that she’s not the “friend” mom – I have chalked that up to her traditional Chinese way of being.

    At the end of the day, I love the grandmother that she has become and marvel at her gentle affection for my kids – it really has been our saving grace.

    Love to you, old friend.

  10. Cecilia – boy do I know how you feel. (And I’m so glad you directed me here – I don’t know how I missed this!!! I’m blaming Google Reader for this 🙂

    I desperately want my mom to accept me for who I am, and although she does because she doesn’t really have a choice, it still hurts me when she wants me to lie when we’re in Malaysia – “don’t tell people you’re not married” “don’t tell our family the age gap between you two” (My Guy is a lot younger) and when I was divorced no one really knew about it until I was pregnant with my daughter and only then my mom was forced to tell my family that I had been separated from my ex for some time now and that I “married” someone else. UGH.

    I acquiesced to her requests for one reason only: She is the one living there now, not me. And she is the one who has to deal with wagging tongues so I didn’t want to be the reason she’s miserable. But it did/does hurt that she’s never on my side. Product of another time/culture for sure.

    My mom is also quick to point out flaws. In fact, she’s a quiet woman but when she does say something, her remarks are often negative, and it’s tiring. I’ve snapped at her a few times, asking her to start pointing out the positive first and to stop dwelling on the negative. It’s so ingrained that I don’t think she even realizes she does that but when she was with me after my daughter was born, I was concerned with the influence that will have on her.

    My mom is scheduled to join us for good next year as a family and I have to say, as much as I love her, I am ill at ease. I respect her and am eternally grateful for the sacrifices she made for me so I try to understand her but when it comes to my own kid(s), I am a little less tolerant of her critiques and old-fashioned advice. And I know there are going to be MANY clashes. I don’t look forward to that part of it, but I also know my girl will benefit from having another doting family member around since we have barely a handful of them here.

    Sorry for rambling. As you can see, we have LOTS to discuss here about our mothers. Perhaps we should take it off the comments section from now 🙂 As I’ve said before, feel free to reach out to me personally if you ever need to talk because I know exactly where you’re coming from.

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