For every 10 women who post memes and tender Internet quips about Mother's day, I know statistically there will be several who struggle with the painful reminder of what their reality is. This post is for those women. You are not alone. There are articles and support for women everywhere who struggle with everything from infertility to losing mothers to illness. When it comes to mothers who chose to leave, there is next to nothing.
Invariably, in my own life, I am constantly asked about my mother. This was especially prominent while going through my divorce a couple years ago. I'm never sure why the onus falls on the child. It is constant on social media where old friends who remember my mother a certain way, wonder about her long absence and disconnection from her children and the communities where she once lived. They expect concrete answers from me and I have none. I have no ill-will or ongoing resentment. I figure sometimes the universe knows better than we do and moves people in and out of our lives. I have learned not to run after them. I genuinely hope that people find peace and happiness whatever their journey is, my mother included.
The truth is that from just after my kindergarten year, during my parent's separation, I went back and forth between homes that were just a few blocks away from one another. Shortly afterward, a custody arrangement was set in stone and myself and 3 siblings moved in permanently with my Dad and stepmother. We were raised a country apart from 2 sisters who were assigned to my mother. We had been living on the Canada/US border and moved a short distance away to the Vancouver area.
My mother chose to leave. She chose not to live in close proximity to her children or be part of their everyday lives. She literally dropped us off at my Dad's front door and drove away. She moved to the States. We saw her 3 times a year for visitation. As the oldest of my 2 younger siblings, I was in charge of navigating the flights from Seattle to Salt Lake City with whatever stops and connections they happened to entail, beginning at age 10 (and I credit those years for helping me be an adept traveller now). I've also been through a divorce and understand the frame of mind that comes with that kind of strain. But in motherhood, "the real magic is keeping on when all you want to do is run".*
By the time I was 15, my 13 year old sister and 12 year old brother and I were sent to live with her for the last few years of adolescence. We knew trappings of her. We knew she was a skilled homemaker and adept at providing for physical needs while unaware of emotional ones. After all, we had not lived near one another for 5 years. Children love and cling to their mothers regardless of dynamics because that is what we are psychologically hardwired to do. Fissures began to form and the adjustment from moving between 2 countries during the high school years was quite evident. I barely knew any kids from divorced families. And I discovered that through her beauty and charm, which my mother has always been abundant in, she made a life of mattering most to those who mattered least: neighbours, the church congregation, the check out lady at the grocery store, fill in the blank.
Eventually, the 3 of us, as teenagers, returned to Canada.
Years ago, Dr. Laura Schlessinger used an analogy in one of her books that resonated with me so deeply that I have never forgotten it (I am paraphrasing here). She described coming home every day to a cat sitting in the front hall. What you really want and need is a dog, but you have a cat. And every day, like a robot, you ask the cat to fetch, sit, roll over, go on a walk. It sits there and looks at you. And every day you are disappointed and frustrated. Until the day you walk in and say, "Ooooh, you're a cat. Hmmm. So maybe you can sit on my lap and purr but the other ideas will have to go. You can't be what I need so I have accept the reality of the situation and stop torturing myself".
My children don't know their grandmother. She married a man she met on the Internet nearly a decade ago and has failed to keep any regular contact. She has embraced her new husband's grown children because she has the luxury of pretence and no history with them. Amongst her own biological children, she has been absent during divorce, moves, grandchildren's graduation and times of hospitization and life threatening illnesses. She didn't show up to her mother's funeral. And years ago when her father died, she prohibited us from attending for reasons unknown. And no, this is not due to any precarious situation. This is by choice.
A little over a year ago, while stopping to say hello to a relative on our way home from a road trip, I was passed the phone, not knowing she was on the other end. I was polite but it had been a long time. She demanded information on my ex-husband and detailed the damage my divorce would incur, knowing nothing about it. And I realized nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change because sound Psychology states that personalities remain consistent across the lifespan. And the best indicator of future behaviour will always be past behaviour. The cat will never be the dog.
Healthy minded readers may be puzzled by these things and fail to comprehend them. But some of you will, through your experience. I want to share my own experience of hope. Because when you step away from the madness, the peace begins to come. You have it in yourself to draw your own mothering inspiration without a concrete example. Pay attention to your intuition. And if you feel you are lacking, there are resources, counsellors and friends who can help. You have the choice to chart your own journey, even when it feels uphill and arduous without support. My mother had all sorts of ideas about what I was to become based on "inspiration and revelation". None of them have held true. But my own list of what not to do, my own desire to gain an advanced degree, to carve out a meaningful profession that allowed me to put my children first and my ability to live a peaceful life have come. Yes, those things were harder won than they might have been if I had been endowed with a solid self-esteem, advice on what to look for in a partner, the ability to practice self-compassion or a myriad of other things. All roads lead to Rome, some just take a little longer than others.
There are strong, kind women in our communities. I also look to the examples of women like Jane Goodall and some of the academic advisors I had during my Master's degree. These women are not substitutes but they have made a profound difference through life lessons and solid advice and it has been enough to steer me where I needed to go. I have also had great discussions with my doctor that emphasized the importance of asking what was best for me, rather than considering everyone else first. Something I had not been taught.
Maybe Mother's day would be better celebrated as a beautiful marker of how far you've come. I believe sometimes life gives us challenges because the universe trusts us to be the "enders" of certain behaviours. Think of all the insecurities you have eliminated in the lives of your children. I have 2 daughters, one curvaceous and petite and one tall and lithe. I have watched with pride as they embrace their uniqueness, talents and physical beauty without judgment or limitation. I cannot take credit for this but I do know that I chose to end the rhetoric I heard my entire life about weight, size, and retrograde female stereotypes. My children know that love is not a meritocracy, that nothing they do will change how I feel about them, even if their choice itself happens to be an unfortunate one.
Take the time to think about which behaviours you have been the ender of in your life and where you have succeeded by listening to your own voice. If you are a mother, auntie, friend or caregiver, remember you are the bright spot in someone else's life. Embrace what you have learned from your experience rather than focusing on what you think is missing because you ARE enough, right now, just as you are. Set yourself free.
May your journey, no matter which route gets you there, be beautiful.
* Call the Midwife Series 5, episode 5: Nurse Phyllis to Roseanne.