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?