I was nineteen when I realized my mother was a person. It was an October afternoon, and my friend Tori and I were driving back from Marshalltown to Grinnell. Tori adored my mother, and wanted to know everything about her. As I answered, something shifted in my mind, like the slight click of a camera coming into focus. I looked out the passenger window to a brick red barn standing against a gray sky and a field of golden corn, and realized that my mother was an actual human being, with feelings and thoughts and an inner world of her own.
“You know,” I said, “I probably broke her heart every time I told her I hated her.”
Tori laughed. “I should say so.”
“No,” I said. “I mean it. I never realized it before. I probably shattered her a thousand times in middle school and high school, and I never even knew.”
Maybe it seems stupid or blind on my part, not realizing that my mother was a person, but I suppose it had something to do with the fact that – for a time, at least – she and I were the same person. It takes a while, they say, for babies to realize that their mothers aren’t extensions of their own bodies. Once I did, my mother became something of a deity in my life, all-knowing and all-controlling. In kindergarten, I had two shocking revelations: one, my mother didn’t know everything. She told me one morning that I wouldn’t need a jacket, and it rained on me. It was the first time I had ever seen her be wrong, about anything. Two, the Challenger burst into flames against a clear blue sky, and the pretty teacher we all loved was killed. It was the first time I realized my mother couldn’t make everything better.
In my teen years she was my sometimes confidante, often jailer, my chauffeur, my personal secretary, my caretaker, my chef, my conscious, my fan…. Rarely my friend, only because I was a teenaged girl and she was my mother. She gave me good advice and I ignored it or willfully went against it. She offered her opinions and I sulked and cried and yelled. She worked overtime to give me every opportunity, and I rolled my eyes. I blew her off, disobeyed her, lied to her, fought with her. (And I was the good daughter!) In my angsty teenaged self’s defense, I truly did not understand how the things I said or did could possibly upset her. I thought she was somehow above the slings and arrows of my stupid teenager self. I thought her impervious, impenetrable.
This is not an “oh my poor sainted mother” story. She was not perfect. She was not a saint. She worked hard and she did a very good job, but she had her faults. Like any human relationship, ours was a constant give and take, a struggle of wills, a clashing and melding of hearts. We disappointed and delighted each other, we loved and hated each other. We still do, though with time our relationship has mellowed from the tempest of my teen years into something that looks a lot like a friendship.
What she may not have known – may not know, still – is that ultimately, hers is the only opinion that matters. Her praises can protect me from a world of criticism – and her criticisms, oooh. They hurt. Her criticisms I carry with me for years.
I’ve been lucky enough to find a hundred other mothers in my life, women who have guided and loved and even scolded me. One of them, a woman I absolutely adore, told me once, “I’m as proud of you as I would be of a daughter. Maybe more, because your parents have all kinds of expectations on you, and I just want you to be happy.” Yes. True true true. But while her support bolstered and warmed me, and I loved her for it, the only person whose opinion truly mattered to me was, of course, my all-powerful Mother.
What is it about our mothers? Most women seem to have similar tales about their mothers. We keep each criticism on a chain in our minds, picking through them like rosary beads. Intellectually we know that they are flawed, that their opinions aren’t always correct, that they sometimes speak from anger or crankiness. We know that sometimes they’re wrong. We know that sometimes they’re not perfect. We must know, on some level, that our mothers are just people, just women, like us.
And yet… and yet….
My mother, mysterious, critical, smart, secretive, over-worked, strong, lovely, still makes me crazy, still pisses me off, still breaks my heart with every criticism, no matter how tiny.
This morning I woke up to a text from her: Don’t stop at Culvers! I’m making dinner! And I thought, Oh, my sainted mother.
Still has the power to make everything better.