I wrote this piece to offer on another site which was soliciting writing on the topic of mothers and how they shaped our lives. How do we celebrate our mothers? I wrote this piece I offer below and then realized that it wasn't the right kind of response to that solicitation as well as being too long. I can't call it a celebration. I wrote some more and decided to include it here. Here is my story of my mother and what I remember that was positive and some that is negative about her being my mother:
I would love to talk about a mother who shaped my life although I wish that it wasn't my mother that I had to talk about.
I have such difficult feelings about attempting to share a story about my mother in the context of her being a woman who shaped my life. I hope that I have shaped my own life more than allowed her to shape it. Being brought up by a person who has a mental illness means that it would not be healthy to let that person shape you. But I don't think that parents shape children as much as we have been led to believe.
I think that we are given the basic materials from our genetics and then, if we have been given love, good physical care, and exposure to the rest of the world, we are shaped or shape ourselves through the influence of many forces: our genetic heritage, our will, our health, our society, our peers, some luck, and yes, somewhat our parents but not to the extent that we have been led to believe. (Unless we have been sequestered with mentally unhealthy parents with no exposure to the world. Then we might become the brainwashed children of the racist and religious fanatics that we see in the news. Those who scream hatred towards people they've never met.)
When I was a small child, I loved my mother. I am sure that she loved me to the best of her ability. Yes, she loved me although as I grew up, her emotions seemed to be mixed on that point. I appreciate her having loved me.
I remember when I was a little girl going to a corner candy store to buy her a Sugardaddy to give to her for Mother's Day. At that time my concept of a great present was a Sugardaddy bought with my allowance money. I remember picking flowers for her to show my love. I remember later, when I was an adult, trying to find the right card and the perfect present for her for Mother's Day. I wanted to buy a card that was caring but not effusive, a card that didn't lie about my opinion of my mother as a mother. A vase I bought for her when I was young was thrown by her to the floor and smashed when she was having an argument with my father. Why did she have to smash that vase? I suppose from her perspective, why not? It was handy.
As an adult I loved her but from a distance. As an adult I feel uncomfortable with the thought of being hugged or touched by my mother.
My mother was and is mentally ill. When I was a child, she spent several years in a psychiatric hospital. My memories include her unexpected rages, deep depression, despondency, paranoia, bad decisions, manipulativeness, drinking, lying, repeated voluntary hospitalizations, and so many suicide attempts and threats that I lost count. I have felt ashamed of her. I was ashamed of her when she acted rude, drunk, illogical, paranoid, out of control, foolish, and mean. I didn't want to introduce her as my mother.
I feel ashamed of her and ashamed of my shame. I know that her mental illness is not a choice that she made although there are times when I have asked the Universe how anyone could choose to want to be this way. As though she chooses this. Sometimes it has seemed as though it was a deliberate choice but no one would choose the conditions from which she suffers.
My question for myself is how do I celebrate my mother? This is a hard question for me.
I am looking back and thinking about what my mother did right. She did a good job of cooking most of the time. I remember fondly the slow cooked baked beans that she made in the deep well cooker on the stove. Also the New England boiled dinners with corned beef and cabbage and carrots. The packages of foil wrapped triangles of cheese that were in the refrigerator. The dates filled with peanut butter that she made for holidays. The times she made candy on the stove and used a thermometer to tell when it was just right. The popcorn balls covered with caramel.
I appreciate her allowing me to have pet cats and mice and letting me put insect eggs in jars on the window sill in my room. I know that there are fine mothers out there in the world who would not have let their kids have so much latitude with having pets and keeping insects in the house. Together we raised purebred Siamese cats when I was a teenager for a few years. Our female Siamese had some kittens with knots and kinks in their tails that I thought were cute. We were careful to place our kittens with people who were caring about their individual dispositions as some of our kittens had fragile personalities. Not unlike my mother's.
I appreciated too that my mother didn't censor the books that I read. Although it might have been that she didn't familiarize herself with the subject matter. Books were my escape when I was a child from the unpleasantness that was happening in our home between my parents, one being mentally ill and the other alcoholic and addicted to gambling. I was allowed to read Anatomy of a Murder when I was in my early teens. I recall a lovely religious neighbor woman being shocked by my carrying that book along with my school books. I hadn't thought of it in a long time until I saw the movie based on the book on TV. It shocks me that my mother did let me read that book when I was a young teenager. Yet I still appreciate the freedom I had in choosing what I read.
I wanted to have a mother about whom I could feel proud. I was proud of how pretty she looked in photographs when she was young. I was proud of her trying her hand at oil painting. I recall her copying Van Gogh's self portrait and working on landscapes at the park.
A good memory I have is of my mother playing the piano. I love the sound of piano music. We had a piano in the dining room. A stand up model in a dark finish. My mother taught herself to play. I am sure that her playing the piano wasn't outstanding but to my ears it sounded wonderful. Compared to the chaos and conflict that occurred in the house, the sound of the piano was a mellow pleasant sweet sound, a soothing space of time when conflict didn't happen. I had no bad associations with the sound of piano music. When my parents divorced and sold their house, the piano was sold too. My mother didn't take it to her next house. I don't know why.
I have one negative associated with my mother and the piano. My mother thought that it would be good if I learned to play the piano too. However, I had no talent or desire to learn to play a musical instrument (other than in my teen years a brief failed attempt to learn the guitar which was in vogue at the time.)
The piano teacher lived in a house that was a short walk down the hill on another street. I took piano lessons there and hated every minute of it. I walked home after piano lessons crying. I hated it so much! Other than playing Chopsticks which my mother taught me, I retained nothing about piano playing except the memory of my anger and despair at having to take lessons and my obstinacy in refusing to learn how to play. I love to listen to the piano but refused to learn to play.
My mother has not been on my side for most of my life. I believe that this was because she was looking for someone to take care of her and she hoped that I would be the one to do it. I have been a disappointment. Her own mother was a cold woman who was harsh, strange, and was said to be physically abusive to her children and to have been delusional. My grandmother paid little attention to my mother when she was growing up. My grandmother had wanted a boy as her first born and my mother wasn't a boy.
My mother is very needy although she does things that drive away people who try to help her. Yet she is unaware of what she does that creates this distance between her and the world.
There was a period of ten years beginning in her late sixties when my mother changed her attitude towards me. It helped that she was going to Alcoholics Anonymous then. For about ten years I experienced what it feels like to have a mother who acts and talks like a mother. It was after I had gone through a workshop and therapy for Adult Children of Alcoholics. I had written a letter confronting my mother's brother with his covert sexual abuse of me when I was a child and later when I was a young woman. When my mother heard of my letter, she made a turnaround in her attitude towards me. She suddenly identified with me and acted protective.
I was forty-five when I experienced this feeling of having a real mother for the first time in my adult life. She expressed some irritation at her brother for his behavior. At one point she even gave me money which she could not really afford as a gesture of recompense for the experiences that I had been through when I was a child. I didn't need the money but appreciated her sincere effort to do something to show me her regret over past behavior and decisions.
When she turned eighty my mother reverted to her previous attitude towards me of perpetual disappointment and rage. I don't know if she reverted because her memory failed her and she forgot about her positive feelings for me or if she was developing dementia or if it was that she couldn't get to AA meetings because of physical problems and didn't have the influence of that Twelve Step group to maintain her healthier attitude. I felt as though I was losing my mother all over again. However, I treasure the gentle fond memory of ten years of having had a mother who was on my side and who acted as though she loved me. I celebrate that memory as I mourn the loss of my mother for most of my life to mental illness.
PS: The photos in this post are of my mother. And, as a point of information for those of you who also have loved ones with a mental illness, there is a treatment called Dialectical Behavior Therapy that is said to be helpful with some who have conditions like the ones that my mother has.