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One of the earliest memories I have of my mother is of her reaching underneath the tablecloth during dinner, grasping the flesh on my upper thigh with her long, richly painted fingernails, and digging in until I bled. I suppose it was a shock to me the first time it happened, but I learned to expect it, so that all she had to do was look at me after a while and I instinctively reached to cover my legs with my hands. Her family and friends always marveled at how well-behaved I was and, to this day, my mother loves to brag about what a flawless child I was — always quiet, always clean and always pleasant — she could bring me anywhere!

Although I felt resentful of her coercive methods, I did not know any other way. And I spent enormous amounts of energy trying to please her. I worked hard in school, won awards when possible, brought home perfect report cards. I took up the violin in the third grade, at my mother’s insistence, even though I really wanted to try the flute. I went to the prom with the boy my mother told me she most wished to see in the pictures afterwards, and accepted a scholarship to the state university, although I preferred to enroll elsewhere, because my father said it would be better for my mother if they didn’t have to pay for my education. I didn’t even think of it as a sacrifice. It was just the way of my world that her desires trumped mine.  


Still, my mother was often unhappy with me. I struggled in college because after a lifetime of working to please her I had no idea who I was. I changed my major late junior year (from Pre-Med to English Literature) and she was furious. I will never forget how she sobbed while we walked back to the car on the day of my graduation, “If only you had a gold tassel!” I remember watching friends celebrating with their families across the parking lot and feeling as if I were going to collapse.


I continued to try to please, unsuccessfully, into my twenties and early thirties. Perhaps it is not surprising that my mother did not approve of my marriage but I continued to try to forge a better relationship with her even after she and my father broke my heart by refusing to attend my marriage ceremony.


As I grew older, and got to know other women from other families, I could not help but compare their mothers to mine. I wished I had a mother I could shop with, who might teach me how to baste a turkey or give me advice on how to keep the down quilt from sliding around too much inside the duvet cover. It seemed like everyone else had that, and I kept trying to think of different ways I could change myself so that I could have it too.


When I found out I was pregnant at the age of thirty-five, the first thing I did was imagine having a girl because I hoped to create the mother-daughter relationship I always dreamed of. I was surprised a few months later, however, to learn that I was actually having a boy, at which point I realized it was probably for the best because I was bound to have put too much pressure on a potential mother-daughter relationship.  


But I was surprised by something else entirely when I brought my son home from the hospital and my mother came to visit. It happened as I was standing in front of the stove in my baby blue Garnet Hill nightgown, scrambling eggs for my mother’s breakfast while holding my wailing newborn in one arm, my lower parts still aching from an ugly episiotomy and my breasts sore from struggling to feed. I looked down at my baby’s anguished face and then over at my mother sitting on the couch, her feet tucked neatly under her pink, floral kimono as she sat watching Judge Judy, alternately nodding and shaking her head at the screen. 


It was in that moment that I realized I was taking care of them both!


And it was in the very next moment that I realized that I had always been taking care of her, and that it was ludicrous for me to ever expect to get any support (emotional or otherwise) from her because she had, long ago, become so used to getting her needs met by me. Although I had been to therapy and studied psychology in school, I had never truly grasped the depth of my mother’s neediness until I experienced the need of my child. Only then was I able to genuinely comprehend the extent to which I had been born into an emotional void, a void I had instinctively and unwittingly been filling since I’d drawn my first breath. 


The birth of my son gave me the gift of clear sight, a gift which prompted me to stop trying to get my needs met by someone whose needs were actually greater than my own and to begin the process of allowing other people into my life, people who were genuinely able to help. 


I had put off having a child for many years because I felt emotionally ill-equipped, and I was right about that, in some sense. But what I couldn’t have known was that giving birth to a child was the only event that would propel me from one emotional level, where I felt stuck, to the next, where I was able to begin to move forward and grow. 


Last week, thirteen years after the birth of my child, my mother came to visit. While she sat happily in the front yard garden of my new house enjoying the glass of wine I had just poured for her, she, once again, told the story of what a perfect child I had been before pausing significantly and adding, “up until college.” 


While I can’t say that I’m not hurt every time I hear this, I have a different perspective now. Where in the past her words would have sent me spiraling into a deep depression (because I interpreted them as an expression of my failings) now I understand the words in a new way — as the articulation of something intangible that my mother lacks, something which I am in no way obligated to supply.  

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