What is the single most intense, fraught, infuriating and rewarding relationship in your life? For many women, the answer is a no-brainer: the one we have with our mothers. Mother-daughter bonds are a notoriously complex soup of emotion, and no wonder. All that love, pressure and desire to please, mixed up with the need to find and define who we are, often in opposition to the women who gave us life. And that's the simplest, most ordinary scenario.
Jackie Kennedy once said if a woman failed her children, she failed, period. My mother failed in spectacular fashion. I was three when she packed up my brother and me and signed on as organist for a traveling tent preacher. When we reached school age, she shuffled us off to live with a series of (mostly) well-meaning religious nuts. We reunited with her only to find the preacher had become our part-time step dad. The other part of the time he lived with his wife and five kids. Our lives were the stuff of country songs, not the newer, happier pop style tunes, but the twangy, broke-down country blues they no longer play on the radio.
I've spent years trying to come to terms with my mother, working my way through stages of desperation, denial, anger, indifference and grief. Accompanied by therapy, lots of therapy.
Years of argument ensued as I tried to get her leave the preacher and establish a normal life. The frustration of that time led organically into the relief of denial. During this stage, I pretended we were normal. My mother and I engaged in intensive retail therapy. She felt less guilty, and I felt like the best-dressed girl in school. Sometime in my twenties, the shopping high wore off, and anger moved in. I threw my mother out of my house for volunteering to wash the dishes that spilled from the sink. The therapy sessions she paid for enabled me to spot a passive aggressive power play dressed up as helpful housekeeping. Yeah, right. Exhausted by the emotional roller coaster of anger, I rolled quietly through a long era of indifference. I was able to spend days with my mother while barely registering her existence. We coasted here for years. Until my mother was diagnosed first with Alzheimer's and then with terminal lymphoma. The lack of a future with my mother enabled me to set down the giant luggage of the past.
Suddenly all I wanted to do was brush her hair.
I could not bear to define my mother solely by her failure. It made me too sad. Motivated wholly by selfishness, I began to reconsider the legacy this passionate, highly narcissistic woman might leave behind. As it turns out, there are things I admire in my mother, and they are the same things I admire in other strong, willful women. She chose a highly unconventional life when everything in society conspired to keep her from it. She could have lived a classic 1950s existence with a "Leave it to Beaver" house, two kids and a husband who came home at the end of the day, but instead she chose to follow her passion for God, love and music. It was a choice similar to the one made by men of that era all the time (see any episode of "Mad Men"). Gender aside, with a different upbringing, my mother might have become an accomplished pianist, an artist or a writer. I know from experience they way in which creative professions whittle away family time. In many ways my mother's choices were my own writ large.
I, too, chose a life that was and is outside of convention. As a young single mom, I didn't attend college until my early twenties. I became a writer instead of a nurse or teacher or any of the other careers well-meaning mentors tried to push me towards. How many times did I choose school, work or even the love of a man over my daughter's immediate need for attention? I'm not excusing my mom. A woman who leaves her children for a few hours a day does not equal a woman who abandons her children for months at time.
My mother's attempt to realize her dreams and the weird life that resulted from them became literally the raw material from which I forged my life as a writer. With that realization comes gratitude and the willingness to acknowledge what has always been present in our relationship and what will ultimately, I hope, be our final stage: love.