Most of us would agree that at some point or another, we've had our mothers' hearts in the palm of our hands. And we can say this with absolute certainty. After all, we're the ones who tore them out in the first place.
Take the time I attempted to call my mom from a school parking lot when I was teaching in Hartford. I was pregnant with my second, and I needed to know if she could babysit my 1-year-old, Tyler, the next day. Although I could hear her voice when she answered, she couldn't hear mine. I shrugged it off as a faulty connection, hung up and started driving. And that's when the ringing began.
As the highway traffic roared past me on both sides, she tried calling me back, hitting redial throughout my commute like a teenage girl trying to win concert tickets. I flicked off the phone and tried to refrain from hurling it alongside Route 91.
By the time I got home, there were three messages on my phone. The first one resonated like a frantic 911 call. "Merri? Why did you call me and hang up? Are you OK? Is Tyler OK? Can you call me right when you get home?" The next message, also from my mom, was full of defeat. "Merri, I can't understand why you're not answering your phone. I feel like you're in some kind of trouble, or that you need me to pick Tyler up from daycare. Please call me." The third was from my husband, Doug. "You'd better call your mother," he said. "She called me at work looking for you."
In exasperation, I sighed and made a solemn oath to the bump in my belly: "Eva, if I ever do this to you, I will yank out my own tongue and slap myself with it."
I probably should have breathed deep and counted to 10 before dialing, but I knew 10 more seconds would be enough time for her to post "Merri, where are you?!?" on all of Connecticut's Interstate electronic billboards.
When she picked up the phone in a fraction of a second, I unleashed an era of lingering teenage frustration into her ear, culminating with my oath to my unborn child.
"Ha! That's what you think," she responded. "You're not going to believe how much she will worry you. I can't wait!"
"OK," I countered, "Maybe when she's 16 and crowd surfing at a Marilyn Manson reunion tour. But not 35!"
Back and forth we went, until I remembered the reason why I was calling her in the first place. I still needed a baby-sitter.
As usual, she came through for me, taking a day off work to play Supernanny. I came home to find Tyler happy and fed and the house sparkling from top to bottom. "She even cleaned the blades on the ceiling fan," Doug reported, mystified. On the counter was a new spring jacket and sneakers for Tyler, along with some maternity finds for my meager wardrobe. I was overcome with guilt for the way I'd spoken to her the day before. I listened to her speech about why our house is a hazard and how the dog fur was probably going to make her sick. I gushed with gratitude and kissed her goodbye.
My guilt was compounded after she came down with Doug's 72-hour stomach bug, which sapped them of every fluid ounce in their bodies. "I still say it's the dog hair," she sniffed into the phone from her sickbed. "I've never been this ill in my life. I don't think I can come over anymore unless you get rid of those dogs." I swallowed.
For as long as I can remember, this has been the pattern between me and my mother. She annoys me, I am mean and horrible to her, I realize I need something, she comes through, I feel guilty. I always thought once I became a mother it would all change, but it hasn't turned out that way. I am still trying to figure out why I am overly kind to everyone on the planet except the one person who loves me unconditionally and has always had my back.
My sister and me growing up with our mom in the '70s
My mother wanted to protect me from the world and all its evils. Growing up, I endured endless snippets from her encyclopedia of horror stories, like the time a child was kidnapped from a kind-looking stranger bearing the misinformation that her mom was in the hospital. Or, as I approached the age of my driver's license, all the young girls who were abducted by men parked in vans with sliding doors, who lie in wait in their backseats or who lurked beneath their cars ready to slash their ankles.
When I was out with my friends, I was always the first one to be dropped off, my curfew a full hour earlier than the rest of them (an eon in teenage terms). I'd always come home to find her waiting up for me, and if I was late, I'd find that she'd aged a decade per minute, brain frazzled from counting ambulances, eyes squinted in the light, hair flying in every direction. Amidst her empty threats that I'd soon find myself kicked out on the street, I'd roll my eyes, storm downstairs in my basement bedroom, slam the door, climb back out through my window and rejoin my friends. Not that we had anything left to do, mind you, but it was the principle of the matter.
Beyond that, I spent most of my time on the other side of the window. I was grounded for most of my teenage existence, my telephone and the cable wire in my TV confiscated. My adolescence was completely devoid of motivation and productivity, homework left undone and a bedroom in disarray, dirty laundry shoved under the bed and half-eaten food transforming into science projects on my dressers (another point of contention between me and my mom, whose house is forever tidied, scoured and disinfected). I think back about all the time I wasted during those years, daydreaming away rather than enjoying my youth or actualizing my potential. Both parents worked full-time, and for many of those years my mom took classes at night toward her bachelor's (and later on, master's) degree. Year after year, I slipped by with my underachieving ways with much complaint from my parents but little consequence.
It must have been frustrating for my mother to raise a daughter who was the antithesis of her very nature. My mother is ambitious and smart in way I could never dream to be. In every facet of her life, she could be fierce and ready to take on any battle -- except with me. A disciplinarian she was not, and if there were any boundaries, I stepped over them all the time. When my father got home, she would issue a detailed account of all my transgressions, along with a line-by-line recap of every hostile and disrespectful word that'd come out of my mouth. My father would listen until he could no longer contain his anger, but when he stepped up to administer discipline, my mother would jump in to save me. "You back her every time," he'd yell over her contradictions, and I would crouch at the bottom of the stairs and listen as their struggle turned from me toward each other.
When their argument ended, I would slip back into my room, turn up my music and lock the door, dreading the inevitable follow-up visit from my mother. When I couldn't be bothered to open the door, she would plant herself on the other side and begin listing all the errors of my ways and how I needed to fix them. I'd listen in stubborn silence as her anger melted into despair, when she would crumple in heart-broken heap, reminding me how much she'd done for me and how I'd never appreciated anything.
The more desperate her efforts to be close, the more disgusted I'd become, and the more distance I'd create. That is, until my next emotional crisis, or the next time I needed her.
The saga continues to this day. To my horror, there are times I still hear my own voice get whiny when I talk to my mother, still expecting her to kiss all my problems and make them better. Even today, she offers to fight my battles: "What's that? The manager won't give you your money back? Let me call him. He'll give you back every penny!"
Despite her good intentions, over the years I've come to blame her for failing to raise me strong and independent like many other women I admire. I am still my own worst enemy, looking over my shoulder for ankle-slashers, hopes and dreams tucked away in fear of some impending doom. I decided my mother was at fault each time I felt like I didn't grow up to be exactly the person I wanted to become.
But now that I'm a mother, I see things differently. I remember the look of hurt and confusion on Tyler's face when, at 3 years old, one of his older peers pushed him down, and how much I wanted to shriek his defense in the boy's face. I remember when Eva, now in kindergarten, came home, face streaked with tears, because her best friend didn't want to play with her at recess. And then I realized what must be the shortest road to heartbreak this world has to offer. What could be more excruciating than sitting back and watching your children get hurt? Who could allow their own babies to lay victim to a cruel, relentless world, even if surviving could make them that much stronger?
It finally dawned on me that my mother never acted out of any desire to stunt my growth or make me crazy. I realized that every time she worried, preached, advised, defended, lost her temper, lapsed, pushed, nagged and smothered, she did it out of love. And it was a love that could never dissipate, no matter how often I ignored, rebelled, neglected, protested, disrespected, used or tortured her. I can't imagine that anyone on this planet has loved me as much.
Perhaps the time has finally come to stop blaming my mother. If I was insecure, maybe it was because of my lack of confidence despite her efforts to build it. If she did indeed plant the seeds of my paranoia, perhaps I am old enough now where I can make my own decisions about the world and how I choose to see it. Maybe she was overprotective because I never bothered to fend for myself. Maybe my errant nature was a result not of her lack of discipline, but my lack of self-control. Maybe she couldn't force me to become motivated and do well in school because I was too lazy and stubborn. If she didn't spend enough time tracking down my performance, maybe it was because she was busy working and going to school to support her family and earn my college tuition. And maybe I was so detached not because she drove me away, but because I refused to let her in.
Instead of pointing fingers, it's time to thank my mom for turning me into the kind of mother who loves her own children unconditionally, who would do anything to protect them and cherishes every part of them for who they are, not who they can be.
And so, after all these years, I have finally arrived at a pinnacle of self-realization. For all the turmoil in our relationship, for all my short-comings and for everything that didn't work out quite the way I'd planned, I have finally forgiven my mother. Now, if only I could be sure that she has forgiven me.