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,