My mother was difficult. For one, my mother hated us making a fuss over her. You couldn’t buy her anything. Buy her an expensive outfit? She’d never wear it. Buy her flowers? She’d smile that I’m-supposed-to-be-nice-but-what-is-this? smile of hers. A few months later, you’d go to her house and see flowers in her garden ten times as beautiful as anything you could buy from a shop.
Shrimp and new underwear was all she really appreciated on Mother’s Day. Even then, she would – or, I should say, might – eat the shrimp, but the underwear would sit in her drawer. Over the course of the year, she would gradually replace her old panties with the new ones, but she never just threw out those old raggely panties , the way we always hoped she would. When she died in August 2009, we found the panties my sister Caroletta had bought her for Mother’s Day just three months prior, still unworn in her drawer. We all chuckled, because no one was surprised she hadn’t worn them yet. My oldest sister Cheryl took them, with our blessing. No sense in brand-new panties going to waste.
My mother was such an outstanding cook that cooking for her – at least for me – was out of the question. I could never cook anything she would find edible. I will never forget her telling me, about some shrimp I cooked in a manner not to her liking: “You can serve that to your kids. I’ll cook my own.”
Whenever I complained to my mother about babysitting issues, she always managed to slip in, “I never thought anyone could raise my kids as well as I could.” She knew that being a lawyer was the reward for all of her fighting to ensure I received a decent education in sub-par Detroit Public Schools. She knew that I, the primary breadwinner in my family, couldn’t quit my job to be a full-time mom. But she couldn’t stop herself from getting those little digs in, whenever she could.
When my daughter was born, my mother came to New York to help. And boy, did she. She stepped in and took over. The baby became hers – much to the baby’s delight, I might add. My mother viewed my nursing struggles as a joke. She looked at me with disdain as I struggled to get my then week-old daughter latched on properly. She watched in obvious disbelief when I had a lactation consultant come to my home. About the recommended football hold, my mother told the consultant, “That’s not how I held Carolyn when she nursed.”
I rolled my eyes. The consultant patiently explained that holding a newborn in the crook of one’s arm worked better with older babies who already knew how to latch themselves on, but not as well with newborns who were having trouble.
“Hmpf,” my mother said. After the consultant left, she told me I was “over-intellectualizing” breastfeeding.
I didn’t invite her to come back to New York when my son was born.
When other women I knew in college and law school quietly spoke of how hard days like Mother’s Day were for them, I had the nerve to join in. At the time, I didn’t understand why women whose mothers had been abusive, or trapped in addiction or mental illness, weren’t willing to welcome me, the daughter of the woman who spent her life fighting for me, into the sisterhood of abused daughters. I wasn’t abused, not even close. My mother was difficult, yes. But she was difficult in the way that mothers who care about their children are difficult. Having a mother who refused to eat my cooking hardly equates to the experiences of a woman whose mother was, and perhaps still is, absent or emotionally unavailable.
Watching my own kids deal with a father who is frequently absent, and who is emotionally abusive when he’s present, has made me more sympathetic than ever to the plight of people who grow up with – or without – difficult parents. I understand my kids’ ambivalence about days like their father’s birthday and Father’s Day. The combination of love, hope, and obligation animating their calls to their dad is heartbreaking to both watch and experience. Each time he resurfaces, we all hope that this is the time that he will finally take his parenting responsibilities seriously. This is when his love for his kids will finally trump his inexplicable hatred for me. This is when he will understand that his children need his consistency more than his occasional presence. When it fails, as it always does, we are disappointed. Each new disappointment cuts less deeply than the last, but does more damage. The scar tissue from prior disappointments is an imperfect barrier that tries to keep hurt out, but which also makes it harder to let love in.
I used to wish I had parents like my friends’ parents. Now, I wish my kids had parents like my parents. I wish my kids had a mother who wasn’t so consumed with her own career obligations that she had more time to focus on their needs, especially as they approach young adulthood. I wish my kids had a father who knew how to let himself care about them without those feelings getting snagged in the net of his twisted feelings about me.
Of all of the parenting failures I’ve committed, failing to give my kids the loving, trusting father they deserve will always be the one failure that bothers me the most.