Happy Mother’s Day, from Your Estranged Daughter

Mother’s Day is difficult for me.

I was homeschooled until the second half of 8th grade, something that would never have been possible had my well-educated mother not been willing to spend all day, every day with me and my younger brothers. She drove us everywhere, said “yes” nearly every time I asked to have friends over, taught me as much as anyone, and, I’m sure, knew me better than most, maybe better than anyone.

All the same, I don’t think of us as ever having been close, and I remember very few quintessential Mother-Daughter Experiences shared by the two of us.

She read aloud to me every night until I was 10 years old, at which point my impatience took over, and I finished Tuck Everlasting on my own. She brought me to the cosmetics department of the Macy’s in San Francisco when I was 13, and let one of the women there apply makeup to my eyes and cheeks and lips. Afterwards, she offered to buy me what had been used, if I thought I would continue to use it; I said no, I didn’t think I would, and that was the end of that. She comforted me after I got my first period ““ at the time, I was at least as distraught by the thought that I might stop growing as I was by the fact that I was bleeding, and that I would continue to do so every month for the next several decades.

These are the memories that stand out, while everything else about our relationship during the first 17 years of my life fades to the background, overshadowed by both my adolescent self-absorption and my ongoing devotion to my louder, funnier, and more passionate father.

Then, in the fall of what would have been my senior year of high school, had I not dropped out and gone to work instead (another story for another time), my mom began to drink more than recreationally. The gin unleashed a bitterness that I can’t imagine was new, and I became her primary target. She would call me a bitch and tell me that I was wasting my time, that there was no reason to be proud of anything I was doing.

One night, she sneered that the children’s and young adult books I loved so much “didn’t count,” that I never read any “real books, like Beloved.” In all likelihood, this example of a “real book” was as random as they come, but to this day, I haven’t been able to stomach more than 15-20 pages of Toni Morrison, despite having been assigned at least three of her novels by various college professors.

Another night, she locked herself in the bathroom and called the police, claiming that I posed a physical threat and that an officer should be sent to our house to intervene. This was the first night I ran away, calling on my friend and soon-to-be boyfriend to pick me up at the BART station and bring me to his house so that I could spend the night anywhere but with my mom.

She’d attack me with a precision that only a parent can have, and in the several months it took for my dad to acknowledge that these were more than simple mother-daughter squabbles, she effectively destroyed whatever tenuous relationship we’d had. Even my move to an East Coast college wasn’t enough to save us, as I was never able to make it through more than half a vacation without effectively being kicked back out of the house due to our inability to coexist.

Thus, at this point in my life, I can’t help but think of myself as an estranged daughter. I text and call and email my dad at least once a week, but I haven’t spoken to my mom in close to two years, not since I last visited my family in California. Before that, I rarely spoke to her while I was at school, and I explicitly asked that she not attend my college graduation, because I couldn’t trust that she wouldn’t make me feel terrible.

In August 2009, not even a month after the last time I saw her, my mom was forced by circumstance to meet with a psychiatrist. He promptly diagnosed her with Bipolar II + alcoholism, a surprise to no one, least of all to me. On the one hand, I’m relieved to be given a name for what’s happened to her, a name that comes with prescriptions and the possibility, however small, of change. On the other hand, I’m bothered by the idea that something so complex and far-reaching could be labeled so neatly, as though there, that’s done, now we can move on.

And Mother’s Day is difficult for me. It’s a day on which I’m forcefully reminded of what I don’t have, and of how this came to be. At the same time, it’s a day on which I’m inevitably plagued by an extra dose of guilt, because surely I bear some responsibility for everything that’s happened.

My mom was 24 years old when she married my dad, who was 26, and I was born just six months later. I’ve always known that she was relatively young at the time, but it wasn’t until last July, when I myself turned 24, that I began to understand just how much she must have given up to raise me at all, let alone the way that she did.

She’d graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, which she’d chosen over Princeton and Yale after scoring double 800s on the SAT and graduating from the Manhattan prep school that is the real world equivalent of Gossip Girl’s Constance Billard. She’d planned to pursue a literary career, one that would eventually produce the next Great American Novel. As improbable as this may have been, it seems she never really had the opportunity to give it a fair shot.

Maybe if she’d sent me to a shitty public school, rather than keeping me home where I could flourish as the precocious, bookish person I’ve always been. Maybe if my dad had chosen a more conventional career path, rather than starting his own business and relying on her to be his partner in that as well as in marriage. Maybe if she’d been less generous with her time and energy, and instead demanded that we all give her the space necessary to do more than mother.

Ultimately, I have no way of knowing what she needed, because these are things we’ve never talked about, and in this moment, I feel like an ungrateful wench for questioning her choices when for more than half my life, they facilitated a relatively charmed and privileged upbringing. All the same, I can’t help but think that maybe, if she’d been more selfish, perhaps she wouldn’t have been so sad and bitter by the time I was old enough for us to begin learning how to be friends.

And I wish we could be friends. I wish I knew how to trust her to be there for me with love and advice when I need it. I wish I knew how to talk to her, so that I could do more than speculate about how she felt when she was my age and about how she feels now. I wish I knew how to let go of the past and be a real daughter on Mother’s Day, sending flowers, and a card that would read,

With love from your first, only, and always daughter,

By Anna H.

TV Heroines of Choice: Buffy Summers, Veronica Mars, and Kara Thrace. I love young adult literature, smart TV, Oakland A's baseball, and the city of Chicago. Hi!

32 replies on “Happy Mother’s Day, from Your Estranged Daughter”

thank you for this.

for the first 20 years of my life, my mother was furious at the world for no particular reason. she pretty much destroyed our family through an awful divorce, financially ruining my father, and turning her three kids into anxious, ragey weird people.

we are working to rebuild our relationship, and truthfully all members of my family get along much better now that we’re all adults and live separately. my mother has admitted that she became a truly monsterous person to everyone around her for years and she sees now how it pushed us all away. i love my mother and i know she loves me. now, we’re learning to like each other as well.

I didn’t talk to my mom from right after my 18th birthday to right before my 20th. She cheated on my dad when I was 17 with a close family friend, then moved out taking my sister with her. She couldn’t understand why I’d be upset with her when this was an issue between my parents, so she became convinced that I was being brainwashed by my dad, my aunts & uncles & cousins (her side of the family).
It culminated in her calling me fat and a whore, etc and I stopped talking to her.
I talk to her now, because she did apologize to me, but it’s mostly for the benefit of my sisters. She makes their lives hell if I’m not present enough and rather than place the blame for her behavior on her, they blame me.
I called her on Mother’s Day, but didn’t go to her house because I was just there for Easter/her birthday, and my nephew’s birthday and it’s wayyy too much within a month. I love my dad to death and I haven’t seen him since the beginning of April – but that’s not the way she thinks.

Wow, that was a powerful essay. First of all, I want to tell you that your pain is real and deserves to be acknowledged. I’m also going to say something else, and only you can know if it’s the right message for you and your mom, but please think about reaching out to her. Not because you owe her, or you should feel guilty, but because it seemed to me as I read this that you miss her very much. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the vibe I got.

My mom and I have had our own complicated relationship, and I spent most of my twenties barely talking to her. Maybe that’s what you need too, and if it is, I honor that. But I have to tell you that the older I got—and I’m much older than you— the more things I went through myself, and the more I realized that life is just complicated. We do the best with what we have been given, and sometimes that’s not very good. I’m so glad that people gave me a second chance, and I’m glad I gave my mom a second chance.

Our relationship is not perfect, but I count her as one of my best friends now. If you had told me I would be writing that at 24, I would have laughed my ass off at you. I hope whatever you do, you find some peace about this.

Your words are those of a caring and understanding daughter. I homeschooled my daughter and sometimes I miss the academic life I was pursuing in order to stay home . I allow myself to see the inequities between my life and my partner’s. I wonder if your mother ever allowed herself to do that. We live in a society that forces women to be silent about their lives or be punished. Yes, we are making our beds and our children’s beds, but that doesn’t mean we have to like doing it everyday. I’m making peace with my decision everyday, turning it over and seeing it thru different reflections and different lights. I think it will always be this way. I hope for you that both you and your mother find the tools you need to break through the silence of your relationship and in so doing, destroy pieces of the monolithic silence that women and daughters suffer in our culture.

This was a great post Anna and I thank you so much for writing it. My mom is a narcissist and one who is emotionally distant. I don’t want to call or talk to her this Mother’s Day….I may not want to ever again. Its taken so many years for me to realize that it was her all those years, not me. It was always her.

Bipolar II is not something I associate with being a serious jerk. My best friend has suffered from bipolar II for such a long time and she is the emotionally empathic person I know. Ditto for another woman I know. I just wonder sometimes: Maybe my friends are misdiagnosed as Bipolar II.

I’m certainly not an expert, but based on what I know, Bipolar II is manageable with treatment. The difficulty in my mom’s case is the “+ alcoholism,” which routinely gets in the way of her taking the prescriptions she needs not to lose her shit on a regular basis.

During college, after a particularly awful summer at home, I told a counselor about an awful incident with my mom that had been eating away at me and causing huge amounts of guilt. He looked at me and just said “You were the kid. It’s not your fault. She was supposed to be the adult” and I just broke down crying because the message I was constantly getting from my dad and siblings was that I needed to work harder at being a good daughter, that it was my fault for not getting along with her, that I just needed to accept that she was difficult and adjust to it and avoid all of the triggers that would make her angry. Having someone tell me that she was supposed to be the adult and I was allowed to be the kid was incredibly freeing and different.

So when I read you say that you bear some of the responsibility, I just wanted to make sure someone said to you that she was the adult, she was the parent. You were the kid. It wasn’t your responsibility, even as a teenager or college student. It was hers.

Thanks for posting this. My mom and I are close, but I am not close with my father. I didn’t speak to him for three years and we do not speak often even now. I think it’s difficult to acknowledge when a parent is in the wrong and so often the pressure is put on the child to reconcile when some responsibility is on the parent. I managed, through oodles of therapy, to put together some sort of relationship, but it’ll never be close, and I don’t often think of my father fondly if at all.

Thank you for this post. I don’t know exactly how to convey this, but it means a lot that you are so self-aware of this relationship with your mom. I don’t know if you’re planning on have kids yourself, but I grew up with a father who was estranged from his own (abusive, alcoholic, mentally ill) dad and the effect its had on our relationship is irreparable. The shadow of my dad’s dad is always present in our relationship; almost every family function or one-on-one conversation ends with some drunken nightmarish tale of his father.

It makes me so incredibly sad that my dad’s relationship with his father has destroyed ours; I think it’s incredibly important to be aware when you have an abnormal relationship with a parent, deal with it, and work as hard as your can to move past it. It’s something I’m still working on. Thank you for sharing your story, and reminding me that I’m not alone in this.

I do want children of my own, particularly a daughter. I think part of this is that growing up, I desperately wanted a sister. (I’m the oldest of four, with three younger brothers.) Another part is that I want to be able to share everything I’ve loved with another person and have the joy and, dare I say it, fulfillment of watching my contributions to her life shape the woman she becomes. And the thing is, I know that this second part is because of the positive contributions to my life that my mom made, particularly for the first 10ish years.

That said, I also worry that it would somehow be wrong of me to have children, because I know that while I’m different from my mom in so many ways, I’m also vulnerable to her genetics, to her Bipolar disorder, to her alcoholism. I like to think that I’m stronger than any of that, that I’d be able to take care of myself to the point of being able to also take care of my children, but what if I weren’t? I doubt anyone makes a conscious choice to give in to their weaknesses; I am sure that my mom did not.

I’m sorry that your relationship with your dad is so fraught by his past; I hope you’ve been able to have a more “normal” relationship with you mother, to balance it out. I know that I would have been hurt much more by my mom were it not for my close relationship with my dad, and I know that this is why, for all his faults, I continue to keep him on a shiny DAD pedestal.

I think that being aware of what you are doing is HUGE. My mother and I had a terrible, terrible relationship throughout high school and college. She had a ton of therapy, and eventually, we forged a relationship, and now I can even say that we are close. A lot of what you write about your mother is similar to what I think mine went through, generally – a complete and total subversion of self for children, combined with some mental illness, and…it was pretty ugly. I have a daughter now myself. I am choosing to give up certain things, but also choosing to keep certain things, even if it means I can’t be there 100% for her all the time. I am hopeful that this will help stave off some of the issues that are certainly inherited. Also, I’m in therapy NOW, instead of in 20 years.

Life is a cycle, abuse begets abuse, etc., but being aware, I’m convinced, makes a huge, huge difference.

Thank you so much for posting this, Anna! It’s a lovely post, and I’m throwing my two cents in on the familial strife.

My parents gave me everything I could sanely want as a kid – music lessons, summer camps, pets, amazing vacations. I apparently was pretty cold to my mother as a young child, but I only have memory of my bratty pre-teen years. I tried to balance it by being as helpful as possible once I was old enough to comprehend I was being awful. As I got older, and more so after I left for college, it was like they lost interest in actually listening to me. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve explained to my mother what I do (i.e., “I dig in the dirt and plant trees for salmon”) only to be told that I don’t care about animals any more. And that bit about saying I didn’t care for animals was a joke so she could try to persuade me to give my sister my invitation to an anthropology forum. And that I speak too much in jargon and she doesn’t want to interrupt me to ask questions because then I’ll “be aggressive about it.” My father has sided with my mother, and just tells me that I should accept her behavior because separating myself from the family is ‘a sad path.’

I’ve had fights with my mother over her treatment of me, and I just get told how I ‘perceived things wrong.’ I’m getting married soon, and it is definitely challenging to decide if I even want her present – I’m scared she’ll just be angry through the affair, as it’s not going to be a Jewish ceremony. (She also hates my ninja-quiet boyfriend, but that’s another giant mess.)

I know I got off on the lucky side, but it’s definitely frustrating. Thank you for reminding me, as many of us need this weekend, that it’s not all on our shoulders.

For a long time I wished my mom would just stop attacking me, blaming me for the discord between us, for the way I was as a child (difficult, angry) . I thought if I explained to her what I needed from the relationship, how she could change her feelings of hate and stop criticising me we could be friends ! I tried to changer her for 20 years. Then, last summer, she attacked my daughter, restrained her and would not give her back, because she would call Child Services , they would take her away because we were bad parents. That’s when I realised I had to step away, for the safety of my children. With some distance, I grew to realise that I needed to stop hoping she would one day become the mother I needed. She was who she was, and no effort from me would change her, make her understand me. And furthermore, I realised what she did to me as a child was unfair. That I was not to blame for being an angry child at 8 years old, for the anorexia which has plagued my life since I was 12 (which she never noticed) . I was a child trying to cope.
I do not speak with her anymore, my energies go to healing that part of me which is motherless and to my family. She has sued me for visitation rights with my daughters 9which is Quebec law), she has won 1 weekend a month and it is very, very hard to drop off my kids to her house.
I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t waste your energies on hoping or trying to change your mother. You can’t do it, and it’s too great a burden to place on a child of any age. You did nothing wrong.

Thank you for this. It’s beautifully written.

I’m bothered by the idea that something so complex and far-reaching could be labeled so neatly, as though there, that’s done, now we can move on.

Food for thought. It’s something I’ve seen people in my own life struggle with – whether it’s possible or even allowable to try to divide someone’s personality from their mental illness.

And beyond possible or allowable, is it even desirable? I posit that a big reason we want to draw a line between personality and mental health is because of the stigma that accompanies any mental illness, regardless of whether or not it’s one that causes us to lash out at others (as in the case of my mom) or one that causes us to lash out at ourselves. Surely we don’t want to be defined by our mental health alone, but at the same time, is it healthy to suppress and deny any one part of ourselves? As with all matters of identity, this is something that is ultimately resolved to varying degrees at a personal level, but then, can that resolution ever be a stable one?

All a thought process to which I have no answers, but as you said, it’s all very valuable food for thought.

Indeed. And I think a lot of the mental health charities and advocacy organisations deliberately latch on to the comparisons with physical illness because it is easier to understand, and ameliorates the stigma. But the analogy just doesn’t work for the details.

Add me to the chorus of women who can totally relate.

My Mom was 16 years old when I was born (my Dad was 19). They were babies playing house, basically. They got married and did the whole bit, and it only took them a year and a half to realize that this wasn’t what they wanted. My Mom left. By this point she’d realized that she was a lesbian, and her family made it hard on her. She had several nervous breakdowns over the coming years, started drinking heavily and doing drugs, and dealt with her own mental health issues. She basically abandoned me to be raised by my Dad and for much of my childhood and teenage years I was constantly let down and disappointed by her broken promises. I have one particularly upsetting memory of waiting by the mailbox for her, because she was supposed to come pick me up and take me to McDonalds for my birthday. I waited for hours, until the sun went down, when my Grandma made me come inside. I cried myself to sleep. My Grandma still can’t talk about that day without crying herself.

So I grew up with a lot of deep seated abandonment issues and anger towards her. Suddenly, I hit my late teens, and she was just there. Something in her changed, and she was always around. Doing things for me, trying to bond with me, making up for lost time. I’ve always been a very forgiving sort of person so I didn’t fight it, I was just happy to have her around. Though I always had the nagging hurt deep down inside at all the missed years. There are other factors I can hold responsible as well, such as my controlling stepmother who refused to let me write to her, and distance barriers, etc.

We are not super close as mothers and daughters are in a lot of cases. We’re more like tentatively good friends, if that makes any sense. Even now she’ll go weeks or in some cases, even months before making contact. She has moments of pulling away. It’s just something that is part of her personality. She suffers from a great deal of depression and anxiety, and I have inherited some of those traits. So we have to work at it. She loves my son and enjoys being a Grandma. But I’ve realized I have to make as much effort as she does if I want to cultivate the relationship. Sometimes I feel resentful and don’t want to, but I always make the effort in the end. I want my son to have the relationship with her I didn’t.

I like to think that I’ll be strong like you, able to make the effort in order to allow any children of mine to have a relationship with their grandmother, but I honestly don’t know whether or not that will be the case. And if it is, will it be because I want them to have a relationship, or because I don’t have it in me to be cruel in the way I think I would have to be to keep my children away from my mom forever and ever, even as I let them be with my dad?

Either way, I hope your son appreciates what you’ve done for him once he’s old enough for you to talk to him about it, because it’s an admirable undertaking.

There are so many things I want to say, most of which you’ve probably heard before, particularly that you don’t bear responsibility for what’s happened.

My mom never saw a mental health professional. But, I have, specifically because I saw myself engaging in the same behaviors as my mom – which are consistent with Bipolar II – and it bothered me. Our behaviors are a lot like your mom’s.

My mom’s changes in demeanor happened every few weeks and, in some periods, every few days. So, I grew up with the understanding that something I did that made her happy one day, could easily send her into a rage the next. We all learned to function within her state of mind. Some days she would completely lose it and scream about something that would make another parent proud.

Your mom’s choices were her choices. She could have sent you to a shitty public school, but chose not to. She could have chosen any number of things, but chose to educate you. Who knows what set off that dramatic change in her behavior. Maybe it was seeing her baby grow up. Maybe it was her own questioning of her choices. Maybe it was just getting older. She may not even be able to articulate it.

None of this is to excuse your mom’s behavior. And it’s not to say that there’s an easy solution. I also moved across the country to get away from my mom. Then she died. I wish we could have gone to family therapy. I wish I could have told her how horrible she made me feel so often. I wish she could have told me how proud she was of me – and she was. She told numerous people – she just never told me. I feel like we missed an opportunity.

The difficulty is that even though I know that I’m missing an opportunity – to know my mom as a person as well as my mother, to learn from her life and experiences, and maybe even to have the type of relationship with her that would allow any children of mine to have a strong relationship with her as a their grandmother – I both can’t and don’t want to be the one to reach out first. It may be misplaced pride, but something I’ve always wanted, quite desperately, is an apology, a straightforward acknowledgement of the fact that she hurt me and drove me away. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I have this idea that if I got that apology, if she volunteered it through awareness of how she hurt me and drove me away, that I’d be able to open myself to the possibility of talking to her again, more than once every couple of years.

Thanks for that. My Husband and I have both had to make great strides in that area. His Mother is an alcoholic, mentally unwell woman who raised him with a great deal of abuse and guilt. His Father is basically a deadbeat Dad who is never around and has never met our son. My Dad and my Grandparents are the only ones on either side of the family who see us with any regularity, really. I just feel like he should know his family, his grandparents. And since he’s likely to see my husband’s family very rarely, I figure I should do what I can to cultivate his relationships with the people that can and will be available. It can be hard, though.

Best of luck to you!

Thanks, Sabine. It means a lot that you’d read it anyway.

As a general aside, I wasn’t sure whether or not this post warranted any kind of trigger warning. If you think that it does, let me know and I’ll add one. (I can’t do that, right? Because I have all the writerly power?)

Anna, that was gloriously written. I’m totally that kid who had a great relationship with her mom so I’ve never really been able to “get” the perspective of those who didn’t. From hearing my other friends talk about their parents, I have come to understand how incredibly lucky I was in the parents I had. I only wish that everyone else had that luck too. Thank you so much for this, it took guts to put this out here.

Thanks, Heather. Have I mentioned lately that I miss you?

And here’s the thing about parents: even when we’re “lucky,” our relationships with them are always going to be extra complicated. After all, we spend the first 20+ years of our life relating to them as though they’re superhuman, different from us, and it’s only later that we begin to realize that no, they’re regular people, with weaknesses and flaws and problems and desires just like us. In the case of me and my dad, few things have been more formative in my progression to adulthood than finding myself in conversations with him that are more like how I’d talk to a peer than a parent.

Thank you so much, Ruby. I read your own mother-daughter post from earlier this week, and you’re at least as strong as I. For all that she went after me in a lot of other ways, my mom has never given me any reason to feel bad about my physical appearance, and this is something for which I’ve always been grateful. I’m not sure how I would have handled things otherwise, all piled on top of each other.

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