For My Mother, On Mother's Day
I didn’t buy my mother a card this year.
It’s not because I couldn’t find one. Mother’s Day brings with it an onslaught of cards, advertisements, and social media posts. This time of year, it’s nearly impossible to flick on the TV or stroll through the aisles of Target without being confronted by some idealized portrayal of motherhood. Every time I do, an acidic mixture of grief, longing and – honestly – jealousy bubbles up in my heart. I ache to have the kind of mother we honor on Mother’s Day.
But I don’t.
This is something that’s taken me a long time to admit to myself. I spent most of my life being spoon-fed lies: I was lazy, I was ungrateful, I was too negative, I was always overreacting. Once, while folding jeans at my first job, a coworker told me how positive and kind she thought I was, and I remember being genuinely confused. Surely, she couldn’t be talking about me. I’d been duped into thinking that I was the problem and, if I could just fix what was wrong with me, life would smooth itself out.
For a long time, I lived in fear of my mother – her frightening anger, her displeasure that stung like a paper cut. I coped by obeying her confusing and contradictory rules. I placated her by apologizing when she ranted and raved. I made excuses and took the blame to conceal her bizarre behavior. I got excellent grades and worried myself physically sick when I didn’t. But it always seemed that the perfection I so desperately craved was a mirage that dissipated just as I grasped it.
The harder I tried to please her – to change her – the more I changed myself. Every time I laughed a little quieter, dressed a little differently, ate a little less, I became a bit smaller. If you occupy less space in the world, you become less noticeable – a much smaller target. But, eventually, you become something else: not a person, a thing to be possessed and controlled.
In films and TV shows, there’s often a moment when an abused character finally recognizes their situation, and it gives them the strength to flee at long last. It’s usually something obvious and egregious – a hurled fist, a violent fight – with a door slammed behind them like an epithet. For me, it was a sprawling collage of moments: a slow awakening from a coma. First, there is the fluttering of an eyelash, then the twitch of a fingertip, and so on. It’s a blind, aching, nonlinear journey. My dad, brothers and I each had to fumble toward our own clarity this way, but we all did it eventually.
My friend and former creative writing professor, Allison Backous Troy, once wrote that honoring someone means recognizing who they are as a human being, to tell the truth about who they are. And that means not flinching from the facts. You tell it with fear and trembling, she said, but you tell the truth. There was a time when this would have been anathema to me – accursed, deadly, impossible. But there is a season for everything, a time for every matter under heaven, and all seasons ultimately end.
Observing Mother’s Day, for me, will always be laced with irony. It’s a holiday where we are supposed to honor our mothers for who they made us to be, to acknowledge everything we are because of them. I, however, commemorate my mother for who she could not make me, for who I am in spite of her. I tell the truth of my mother because it’s real, and it’s a part of me, as much as the dark curls I inherited. But I will not let it make me in her image.
I am free indeed.