You might think that having a fulfilling relationship with your mother gets easier with age. This seems intuitive to women these days as we have more templates to choose from when forming intimate bonds with people in our lives. Having a fulfilling adult relationship with your mother offers profound life epiphanies -- but for many of us, that bond doesn't just happen. We don't innately know how to form it, and instinct doesn't push us toward it. It takes work.
My mother, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement who danced at Woodstock, protested the Vietnam War, visited the pyramids in Egypt, witnessed Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King speak, is in many ways my heroine. She put herself through a master's program in education while my sister and I were in grade school and worked two full-time jobs, yet she still managed to make her children her number one priority. She nurtured our talents, gave us validation and affection, and made us feel we could always talk to her about anything because she loved us unconditionally.
To really understand my mother, you have to know that she's both a 60s liberal and a strict Italian Catholic. She may have been a flower child with the blown-glass love beads to prove it, but she was also raised by a mother who emigrated from Sicily at the age of 19 to marry my grandfather, a man she'd never met. This bit of ancestry helps explain why, as rebellious as my mother was, she also ardently believed, perhaps in spite of her progressive political stance, that the family was the center of a woman's life.
That was until the divorce. When my father came out and left her for another man, my mother was devastated. Not only was her marriage over, she also had to cope with the destruction of her ideal of the nuclear family. She was deeply disillusioned, a 40-something divorcee who'd been deceived. My mother was so ashamed that she kept the truth hidden from my grandmother, who must have been disillusioned about family promises herself: As the wife of a Brooklyn cobbler, she received neither the wealth nor social status stipulated in her arranged marriage.
For my grandmother, this kind of disappointment was a woman's lot. That belief was probably related to my grandmother's love of gambling. She played the Lotto daily, always choosing numbers with significance in her own life --her wedding anniversary, the birthdays of her children and grandchildren. She never won a dime. Coming of age in the 60s, my mother was less of an innocent and more of an agent in her own life than her mother had been. But the divorce still nearly destroyed her.
Watching the shame of my mother's situation unravel her her unnerved me. I was just about to move away to college and somewhere along the way presumably enter adulthood. In the throes of a landslide separation from my adolescence, home, and family, I was also seeing a new side to my mother: victim.
It was as though our roles suddenly reversed. My mother needed me when all I wanted was freedom. Her crisis became mine. I hated the thought of her being alone, and because she'd always been the "cool" mom -- permissive when it came to things like drinking, dressing, and boys -- I took her with me to parties and introduced her to my friends. I should note that growing up as a somewhat privileged kid in New York, I ran with a slightly older crowd. It was the mid-90s, so the term didn't exist then, but she was a MILF. Nothing Dina-Lindsay Lohan inappropriate happened, but I was ambivalent about this new dynamic between us. On the one hand, having a cool mom made me cool by association. There was no denying that she was a hit with the crowd I'd fallen into -- after all, she'd skanked at a Bob Marley show. On the other hand, I feared and pitied her situation: the level of betrayal she experienced suggested that in some ways she might be an innocent when it came to men. I resented her for letting a man have this kind of impact on her life. I was pissed that I had to share my friends, my partying, my freedom. I was angry that at 17, I had to emotionally carry someone else - especially when that person was my mother.
Now that I'm more of an "adult" -- I pay taxes, have survived rejection, occasionally catch myself uttering the words "kids these days," -- I have the hindsight to see my mother as a person distinct from me. With this separation, which perhaps only time and experience could provide, I can look at her and what she's lived through and is living through now with empathy that had previously eluded me. She may have made mistakes, and perhaps at times she wasn't the role model she intended to be, but she did the best she could with her circumstances.
Women in our 20s and 30s are at a unique point in history. We've been raised by mothers who either participated in or at the very least witnessed the events of the 1970s Women's Movement. As daughters, we read about this recent history in junior high. We are more educated, better paid, and have more sexual freedoms than at any other time in modern history. I think my work, as a woman of this generation, and as a daughter, is to seek relationships that are expansive rather than stifling, innovative rather than retro, and that includes my bond with my mom.
For my sake, and for the sake of the child I might have one day, I'm rebuilding our relationship as one that allows for mutual respect and understanding. I'm trying to really get my mother's realities, past and present. This newfound way of relating to my mother feels authentic, joyful, and unexpectedly cool. And it's taught me that in general, when you allow yourself to be open to broader roles, you end up experiencing more fulfilling relationships -- even with the most complex of women, like your mother.