Why you should care
Because there are easier ways to save on Mother’s Day cards.
The author is a writer, performer and visual artist based in Melbourne, Australia.
My marriage is splintering. My baby’s just over a year old and my toddler nearly 3. They wake every single night — my older boy is asthmatic — and I’m the one who gets up to help them. My mother has a loving bond with my boys, and it’s good to have another pair of hands and someone to talk to. The tension between me and my husband escalates daily. He wants sex. I want to sleep for 200 years. He sulks.
It’s late. We’ve had visitors, we’ve been drinking. I’m demented with exhaustion and stress. The baby needs a bottle and the toddler demands a hug. My husband sits on the couch and my mother’s on the floor in front of him. There’s an undercurrent, something unspoken, between them. He’s massaging her shoulders. While I get my sons fed and ready for bed, I can see the massage is becoming something else. My husband and my mother are making out, in front of me, in my living room. Unable to deal with it, I ignore them. I should throw a pot of cold water over them, throw them out of the house and out of my life, but I’m so tired my face is falling off and my bones are crumbling, and this is too outrageous to even acknowledge.
“Fuck ’em,” I think. “They deserve each other.” I take myself off to bed but can’t sleep. I hear the door to the spare room where my mother sleeps open and close. I hear them go in. Eventually, my husband comes into our bedroom.
“So did you fuck her?”
“Did you want to?”
“No,” he says again.
In the morning my husband goes to work, and my mother and I pretend nothing has happened. This is the way of things in our family: hysterics when the cat’s tail gets caught in the door, but if your 16-year-old son takes off into the night in crisis or your 18-year-old daughter slashes her wrists, we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. Ours isn’t the only family like this, but with us the habit of denial runs especially deep.
Later, a friend asked, “Why don’t you have it out with her?” (My husband, by then, long gone.) Impossible — she’s pathologically incapable of assuming responsibility and would resort to attacking, crying or inventing excuses. Occasionally I’ve alluded to that night. Last year she wrote telling me she didn’t have sexual intercourse with my husband, and it was painful and unfair to be “falsely accused.”
It took a lot for me to understand my mother, and even more to forgive her.
When I told her I was writing this essay, she responded, “You do what you want to do. I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done, but I can’t go back to change anything.”
Then I got a second letter, begging me not to cut her out of my life, that she would always love me unconditionally. I answered, pointing out that whether or not penetration took place is entirely beside the point, and if I were going to cut her out of my life I would have done so already. One reason I didn’t is that my sons deserve to have a grandmother who adores them, so I chose to protect their relationship with her.
It took a lot for me to understand my mother, and even more to forgive her, but I’ve learned to see her behavior in a wider context. My mother’s been competing with other women all her life — starting with her own mother over her father’s affections, with me over my father, my boyfriends, my husband, and with her friends over any man around. She’s such a flawed bundle of insecurities that she even needed her children to find her sexually attractive, imposing herself on us in ways so murkily inappropriate we were left demolished, muted, unable to form any kind of response.
Such dysfunction, such emotional disconnection, such narcissism speaks of damage that goes very deep. “I can’t remember anything from before the age of 7,” she said once. “What does that tell you?” I asked, but she remained silent.
Yet. My mother is a warm, charming woman with a playful, accommodating nature; as long as you’re not one of her offspring in emotional distress, she’s generous, kind and helpful. And she’s proud of me — even if she’s never known where she stops and where I begin: “I bathe in reflected glory” is a favorite saying of hers.
Despite the things she’s done, she loves me, tainted though that love is. As long as I play happy and keep my pain to myself, we get on famously. I can stay connected to her because I see her clearly. I know what to expect, and, more importantly, what not to. I treasure the good things we retain. But I can never trust her, and love only goes so far without trust.
Buddhism teaches that our parents give us a body, and the rest is up to us. The spiritual teacher Miguel Ruiz established four agreements for a good life, and the second is: “Take nothing personally. People do what they do because of themselves.” The night she slept with my husband, my mother was driven by her ruined child-self, by the unformed, needy part of her that can’t know right from wrong. In healing my life, I’ve drawn on the wisdom and support offered by friends, daily meditation and practicing self-awareness without judgment — quiet noticing, if you will. My mother may never address the traumas she suffered — or those she caused in my life — but I choose compassion over anger, reflection over recrimination.