When she was a toddler, my oldest girl would give these squeeze-the-life-out-of-you hugs. It was as though she wanted to compress all the welling-up passion and emotion and energy she felt into a tiny ball – a nuclear reactor in the center of her heart – and transmit it to me. She’d grit her teeth and squeeze until her arms turned red. I’d feel her core muscles tense and tighten and she’d hold her breath – all available energy put into this act of transmitting her love.
These days, she’s less physical in her affection, but as I tuck her in at night, she often squeals with the same intense energy. I love you, I love you, I love you so much! And as I walk out of her room at night, the last thing I usually hear is her telling me I’m the best mom in the whole world.
It takes my breath away. I know someday she’ll tell me she hates me and slam the door in my face. It’s a right of passage every mother of girls goes through, I hear. And I don’t think she’s mistaken ‘best’ with ‘perfect.’ God knows we tussle and have our moments and I have reasons to apologize to her at least 23 times a day. But in that moment before she falls asleep, the world is outside and for just a second it’s just the two of us, orbiting each other in our own little universe. And in that moment she tells me I’m all she needs out of a mama.
And I wonder what that’s like.
In my own childhood, I don’t recall ever looking at my mom and thinking that just for a moment, it was just the two of us, orbiting each other in our own little universe. In fact, I always knew my father was her only sun; her only True North. I sometimes roll my eyes and say, with some degree of exasperation, “she’d walk off a cliff if he told her too.” But in the pit of my stomach, way down deep where I’m most honest, the chilling truth of the matter is I’m not joking. He just hasn’t yet asked.
I never felt like my mom would choose me over my father. In fact, I can think of only one crystal-clear moment when our needs were put in front of his. In a terrifying plane ride, in which my mentally ill father was flying his small, personal aircraft higher and higher in an attempt to evade the military jets he believed to be trailing him, she saw my brother and I grow woozy from a lack of oxygen. And she demanded he put the plane on the ground. I can think of plenty of other moments when I craved that same feeling of safety and stability she offered in that moment. But when I try to think about moments when mom went toe-to-toe with dad and I felt shielded and protected by her, that is the singular instance which comes to my mind.
I tell myself there must be more. There simply must! They must be hidden behind closed doors in my memory. Perhaps we were shielded in that way of mothers that prevents a child from ever knowing anything was amiss. Don’t misunderstand me: I always have known she loved me. In fact, for most of my junior high and high school years, I believed I had an ideal home. There were often hot-baked cookies after school, and I never recall going to bed hungry or waking up to no breakfast or opening a drawer and finding it empty of clean underwear. I don’t remember any basic needs going unmet. Some of my high school friends would tell you… she was enviably good at doing these things. The resident “Mrs. Cleaver” who not only had hot cookies when you came home, but would happily make a different sort if someone happened to say they didn’t like raisins in their oatmeal cookies.
And I do have happy memories… picking out fabrics together in Wal-Mart and she sewing up my designs for throw pillows for my new dorm room bed. Making baby leg warmers together out of knee high socks for Cora. Last week, I pulled out a recipe book she assembled for me… hand-written favorites from family and friends. And the tears burn my eyes even as I think about these memories. I miss who I wanted her to be. Because here it is: demonstrating love and care isn’t the same as deep connection. And outside of a few moments, I never felt connected to her because she only had room for my dad…
I remember one time I was having trouble with friends at school. My mom suggested I call my grandmother in Washington to talk about it. At the time, I thought nothing of such a suggestion. It was normal and to this day, when I’m having a hard time and I just need to feel safe and loved and heard, I call my grandma. (The fact that I can still do this in my late-thirties is one of the greatest blessings in my life.) But having daughters of my own now, I know if we were in the same situation, I’d pull out a favorite blanket, snuggle close to them on the couch and ask them how they’re feeling. Even when it came to the more trivial, I knew my mom wouldn’t keep a secret from my dad, so my solution was to never share things I didn’t want my dad to know… as a result, we didn’t talk too much about my burgeoning interest in makeup, boys, my period, or really any other feminine right of passage in my early teen years. In fact, she heard about my relationship with Jacob, my first and only boyfriend, from a friend at least 6 months after we started dating.
These memories lead me down an aching path of wishing I’d had the kind of mother my daughter believes she has. Because truth be told, I so often feel like I don’t have the skillset for this parenting gig. As I watch my friends parent, it seems so many draw from deep, deep reserves… reserves formed throughout their childhoods in relationship with stable, emotionally-present (not perfect) parents. And these days, many of them even pick up the phone when they have a question. (I know I’m probably overstating what this relationship is like for many adults. But it’s the truth of how I feel.)
As I think about my lack and their plenty, scarcity morphs to fear and it curls around my throat. If I don’t have those reserves, what might I be lacking? What are my girls missing? I can “meet needs” with the best of them, but how do I develop an emotionally intimate relationship with my daughters when I never had one with my own mom?
And then I find myself riding the seas of the most complex emotions imaginable when it comes to my mom. Anger. Why is she so weak? Why does she let him dictate every step of her life? Abandonment. Were my brothers and me not worth standing on her own two feet? What kind of mother chooses her husband over her children? Sadness. She must feel so alone and broken and sad. The loneliness must feel like the edge of a looming dark, dark pit… God, please keep her from falling in. Grief over the profound loss. Who was my mom? Did I ever really know HER? Why can’t I remember? What would it have been like to have the kind of mom my daughter believes me to be? Confusion. What happened to her to make her like this? I know she wants our relationship to be different too. Why can’t we figure out a way to get back to each other?
It took me nearly a year and a half of counseling to arrive at this heartbreaking reality: Truth be told, I don’t miss the mother I lost 3 years ago very much. That woman, in all her complexity and woundedness, demanded we lay down all our lives at the feet of her husband, my father, and I still can’t bare to go back into that relationship on those terms.
But I deeply miss the mom I wish I had.
I missed and I miss having a mom who made me feel safe.
I missed and I miss having a mom who made me feel heard.
I missed and I miss having a mom who knew who she was and let me in so I could know that woman too.
It was never about the cookies. The wave of grief crashes and I ride it down. But then I’m coming up for air. And as undeniable as the brokenness is, the tenderness of God is equally apparent. I have felt the mother-heart-of-God filling in my empty spaces and cracks. The empty space of “the mother I never had” has been filled by the tangible presence of my grandma and my mother-in-law and my aunts and my girlfriends and a small army of church ladies who welcomed me with open arms and open hearts. It may not be my mom, but these are the women I can call or text when I need parenting advice or a recipe for brownies or just to cry and pray my way through hard things. The empty space of not knowing what it felt like to have a deep mother/daughter connection is being filled with my own two daughters. If this kind of connection is like a beautiful footpath connecting two isolated mountain towns, I’m still seeing all the beauty. I’m just starting on the other end.
Mother’s Day is such a complex day. All it takes is watching someone in the greeting card aisle to realize how complicated this day is. We pick up card after card, struggling to know what to say when greeting card words transform complex, multidimensional people — with wounds and grief and sorrow and loss and failures and joys and hopes and fears who still did their best — into flat categories.
I’d be ok if we skipped Mother’s Day entirely.
It’s a day of unmet expectations (AKA premeditated resentments) for so many women who still find themselves with the same hungry children, the same dirty dishes, and the same laundry piles they face every other day of the week. It’s a day of deep sorrow and longing for women who’ve never heard anyone call them mama or for mamas who lost their babies too soon. And then there are all of us grown-up-children avoiding greeting card aisles… whether you’re missing the mother you never had or the one who was gone too soon, Mother’s Day can feel like peeling a scab off a wound. Truth be told, so many of us dance between several of these roles today. I’m a mom who nurses her own “mother-wounds” and feels the loss extra keenly today. I’m also the mom who is celebrated and showered in hugs and kisses, and I’m the mom who doesn’t get a “day off” from this thing we call life.
In the midst of it all, here’s what I know to be true: Today is hard. I miss my mama. I wish we could go back to the very beginning and start over. I wish she could have been something more to me. My own girls are little right now and still believe me to be “the best mom in the world.” At one time, I believed the same thing to be true of my mama. But sometimes I’m mean and sometimes I’m selfish and sometimes I check-out and can’t give them what they need. And someday I’m going to transform in their eyes from this flat, one-dimensional “best mom in the world” to a complicated woman with sorrows and losses and failures who still did her best. And I hope in that moment, when they remember their childhood and weigh it all, they’ll remember how much I loved them. I hope it’s enough.
And it is. I know deep down it will be.
Because even in my own story, it’s enough. Enough isn’t always what we want, though, is it? We want more. So mom, if you ever read this. I want you to know everything I’ve said here is true. I wish we’d had something more. But it’s OK. You did your best and you gave it your all and to this day, when I think of your enchiladas, I feel that warm feeling of home creep through my bones. And it is enough. Certainly not all that either of us wanted. But it is enough. You were enough. If I’ve learned anything in my parenting journey so far, it’s that God is always multiplying my paltry loaves and fishes into plenty. I offer what I can, and somehow he has transformed it into enough for my girls. And you undoubtedly offered what you could, and he transformed it into enough for me.
I’m not going to lie: On days like today I shake my fists at the sky and I wish it were more. But I’m ok. I’m walking through life with a limp and a broken place in my heart, and I know you are too. But I love me. I love the woman I’m becoming, in all my complexity and brokenness. And in some ways, I’m starting to see it’s these wounds that make me who I am, so how could I despise them? How could I despise you? I hope the same for you. I hope you can love you. Someday we’ll both be whole again. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Love ya.