I couldn't find a Hallmark card to convey this message, so I'll have to put it into words myself:
Thank you for calling it quits. I'm totally serious. In fact, besides that award winning science project where we used a Hoover vacuum to replicate the destructive force of a tornado, it's the best thing you've ever done for me.
Once upon a time, my mom was the poster lady for the hyper-involved parent. She never made dinner or manned the bake sale, but nonetheless my childhood revolved around her. She ferried me between soccer practices because I had to be on four teams. She stayed up past midnight to drill me on my vocabulary words. And she always indulged my adolescent need for Delia's flares and pleated minis from the Limited Too. I learned to relish her attention and covet her validation. Even when I didn't want to play anymore, I dutifully took the field because she was there watching -- until she disappeared.
At the time, it felt like a switch had flipped, but looking back it was more of a gradual dimming, a fade from light to black. First she replaced our family-friendly SUV with a two-seat convertible that could barely hold our oversized L.L. Bean backpacks. From there she stopped helping with homework or appearing on the sidelines with Gatorade, and finally she just moved out. She eventually came back because she had to -- I had two younger siblings who had yet to enter high school, and my dad was the kind of man who would suddenly take off for a hiking trip in Peru, assuming the rest of us would manage without him. But even when she rematerialized, it was never like it was before. She divorced my dad, announcing she wanted to start over and do things just for herself. She mostly communicated with us by cell phone. By the time I'd graduated from college, she'd moved halfway across the country. Now she lives a bit closer but only communicates with me when it is essential, via text message.
I never quite asked for an explanation, nor have I ever completely understood how this transition happened. Still, I desperately hoped that there was something I could do to turn her back on. New batteries? Law school? Not eating? Quitting my job to be a nanny?
None of my misguided efforts to capture her attention, to recharge her desire to be my mother, worked, and she continued to move farther and father away -- both geographically and emotionally. Finally I was forced to come to a decision: either continue to self-destruct in the hope that she'd care, or stop for myself.
In my mid 20s, the decision should have probably been an easy one. I was an adult and shouldn't have needed my mom cheering me on. Yet, all I could feel was her absence. I wanted her back. Even thought I could clothe, drive and feed myself, I wanted her.
In the strangest way I began to identify with the children of deceased parents while also envying them. I felt like they had it easy: They had a neat and clean explanation for their missing parent, where I had an ugly question mark.
Would she come to my wedding? Would I want her there? Would she know my kids? Would I want her to?
In this past year, I've finally stopped asking.
Last weekend my brother graduated from college. My sister and I were there with our video cameras at the ready, cheering way too loudly and overwhelmed by how proud we were of him. We even felt a little responsible for his success as the baby of the family walked across the stage. Hadn't we unpacked him for his first day of college and called the bursar's office to find out if he was on track with his credits?
My mom was there too. We'd had no idea if she'd actually show up, but there she was. I felt miles away from her. She didn't really know what I was doing, who/if I was dating. She'd heard that I'd moved to Brooklyn and seemed concerned that I'd been overly generous with the self-tanner. I didn't listen when she talked about her job and tried not to care that it looked like she'd put on even more weight. I genuinely appreciated that she'd made the trip.
After the ceremony, she offered to drive my sister and me to the train station. We were pressed for time, and she weaved through the post-graduation traffic to get us there with minutes to spare. She said it was like the old days when she'd speed to get us to our games on time. It sort of was. Or I let her think it was. I haven't heard from her since and probably won't until there's another milestone that requires her attendance. And I've decided that's okay.
I don't know if it's a sad thing that I've been able to distance myself from her or a sign of progress. I know that by detaching I've been able to start negotiating adulthood on my own terms. I've been forced to make choices that are just for me. In other words, I've been doing for myself what she couldn't do with the three of us around. I hope that living for myself now will enable me one day to be a better mom than she was -- and I couldn't be more thankful.