My Imperfect Mother

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. Her 59th birthday, to be exact. Not a “special” year, but can’t every year be special?

So for the day where we celebrate ma mère existence, I have a few words to say. They’re not all pretty, but they’re all true – and I hope they will mean something to her.

I find that in relationships, in interactions, so much of the perception of it all comes from where you start and with whom you start…

Beginning with myself, and my siblings, I can tell terrible stories of growing up. I can, my siblings can, individually… we can all point out the flaws and failures. It’s easy to do, so easy to do in fact that when I begin talking about my childhood, at some point in the conversation I inevitably need to halt the discussion and clarify – “I’m not saying my mother is terrible, she’s not. Not at all.”

Because if I begin with her story, not mine, it changes things.

When I was a kid, my mom and I talked a lot. She talked about growing up, where things went wrong, where things were hard. She talked about being the youngest in the family, about having a mother with heart disease, about an older sister who had died of “crib death” before my mom was even conceived. She talked about being the “replacement” child. Of a doctor telling her mother that her heart couldn’t handle another pregnancy and her mother not listening, about her mother eventually dying of heart disease when she was 11 years old and the guilt she carried for being that last baby that put that strain on her mom’s heart.

There was the step-mom who came along within the year of her mom’s death, with 9 kids, of her going from being the coddled baby of the family to being in the middle of 10, of her father’s and step-mother’s alcoholism and neglect. That she really lost everything when she lost her mom.

There are so many sappy, sentimental things that people say about their mothers and they feel quite disingenuous and cliché to me sometimes. “Thanks for making my childhood great.” “Thanks for all the wonderful memories.” “You always made it work.” “Best mom ever.”

As a kid, I took over where she fell down. I’ve taken care of children for as long as I can recall. She and I were overly enmeshed with each other, I felt responsible for her possibly more than I think she felt responsible for me. I didn’t much get to be a kid, and that’s before factoring in abuse and poverty.

As an adult, once I had my own children, my brain scattered and pulled this 180 spin. I began to realize the things I would never do with my kids, the things that weren’t normal but were normal for me growing up, the things I felt jilted on, all of a sudden. Like I was a metaphorical Wile. E. Coyote… it hit me like an anvil to the head, the anger. And I was so angry, about everything, and she knew it, and she bore the brunt of that anger fairly gracefully all things considered, because I know I hurt her a lot during that time.

I got older, my kids grew, my life got busier, my own mental health deteriorated.

And this new perspective emerged. I remember being young and broke, with two babies, getting off the bus with groceries. I had a toddler and a baby with a stroller, baby in my arms, stroller hooked over my arm, grocery bags hanging from both arms and my hand holding a toddlers hand. I stepped off the bus onto Broadway, a busy main street in Vancouver. I set the stroller down. I let go of my toddlers hand to put the groceries down, quickly unfold the stroller and secure the baby in it. I got as far as plunking the baby down, and turned around to see my 3 year old strolling into traffic. I yelled, I ran, I grabbed him. I turned again to the stroller and it was rolling away… so yanking my toddler along by the hand I ran to catch it and grabbed the handle just as the front wheels rolled off the curb. I was a wreck. I was shaking and crying, I was exhausted, I was upset and stressed but also relieved that I’d managed to avert TWO crisis in under 60 seconds. Buckled the baby in, gave the toddler a talking to, insisted he hold onto the stroller. Stowed my bags underneath. Stood and shook for a while, and when I started walking my legs kept threatening to buckle. I was so, so overwhelmed. I had a 6 block walk to our apartment, I vibrated and cried for a good part of it, and all that kept running through my head is “I’m going to get home, I’m giving these kids to their father, and I’m going to rest. I need to rest. I need to be done.”

And I remember, clear as anything, about a block away from home… that something in my mind softly said, “Mom did this alone with twice as many kids. Can I honestly say I would do better than she did?” It stopped me in my tracks, literally, physically. I realized then that I couldn’t say I could do better, not if I was going to be honest. Maybe I could, maybe I couldn’t. I truly didn’t know, and I still don’t know.

I wish I could say my attitude changed after that, like some grand epiphany and everyone lived happily ever after. It didn’t. I still had this seething anger just below the surface, I snapped whenever she did the same things that I hated her doing when I was a kid, I had a hard time getting over it all, she was still very mentally unwell and so was I. But that was absolutely the beginning of it, the beginning of really being able to put myself in her shoes and forgive her.

I know she has carried a lot of guilt over a lot of years for the way we were raised, for the ways she couldn’t be better. And I really believe now that that’s the truth of it, that she couldn’t do better, not that she wouldn’t do better. She loved us a lot and wanted the best for us, but she was also fighting her own battles, dealing with extreme poverty, a hoard of very, well, feral kids and some pretty severe mental illness. Were there times I think she could have tried harder? Absolutely. But I don’t think those were the majority of the time, maybe a sliver of the time. I can’t hold anyone accountable for being too sick to care for anyone else, and that’s the reality of it.

So…

To my Imperfect Mother:

You tried your best. It wasn’t always enough, but you did it. You were always a shoulder to cry on, you gave real advice learned from adversity, you taught me to strive for more in life than what you had. You drilled an aversion to addiction into me and managed to break that family cycle of substance abuse. You believed in me. You understood what help I needed when things went bad, because you’d been there too. I was never one of those kids who felt unloved and I feel certain that had you had better resources, things would have turned out much differently for all of us. But you were tied up in just surviving.

You are one of the few people in the entire world that I know will always be there for me and always lend a hand when you can. I know that you would do anything for me, and I love you for that. I used to think that if you cared more, if you’d tried harder… but I feel now that it wasn’t about care or effort, it was about sickness, and that sometimes expecting more would’ve been like expecting an amputee to walk if he just tried harder or cared more about it. Just… Impossible.

I am proud of you and how far you’ve come. Not just in my lifetime, but in yours, and you’ve overcome a lot of demons, and you’re stronger than you think.

I love your giving nature, your love of people, your effort. I love that you are living and not just existing, working hard to improve, to fill your life with activity and to make connections, to be a grandmother, to always try to make people happy. I love your childlike nature, still, and how much you revel in fun. I love that you don’t judge me or censor me, even when I talk and joke in ways that you don’t much care for.

You are sensitive and kind, thoughtful, creative and fun, very accepting, very big-hearted.

There are so many ways that you and I are like night and day, but the ways that we are alike, I believe, are all the good ways. For better or worse, you’ve had a huge part to play in who I am today, and I think I turned out.

The real truth of it all is – we’re all imperfect mothers, doing our best, to the best of our abilities, even when it might not be quite enough, falling down some days, sick of it some days, but ultimately hoping tomorrow is a new day and we’ll again do our best, to the best of our ability.

I love you, not despite who you are but because of who you are.

You taught me to love cooking and baking. When I was small and drew a series of loops on a page, you looked at them and told me I’d just written a bunch of “e’s” in cursive. You let me hand-sew “pockets” out of scraps when you were sewing something bigger. You took me to the library and read to me, and you let me take out books that had only pictures so I could “read” the story to you too. You were always open and honest to a fault, when I was bullied at school you told me the best revenge was to be successful in life… and yet when the bullying got too bad, you still stepped in and stopped it. You always welcomed my company, even when you barely got out of bed… I could always come lay with you and talk. You fostered our love of animals and never turned away a stray. You never turned away our friends either, never got tired of them, always encouraged a sense of community.

So here are my 10 birthday wishes for you.

  1. Know that you are loved and celebrated
  2. Know that you are enough
  3. Have a fantastically happy day
  4. Eat cake
  5. Eat more cake
  6. Probably some insulin
  7. Feel awesome
  8. More cake
  9. Look forward to many more years
  10. Cake

Love you lots mom.

2 thoughts on “My Imperfect Mother

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