Breaking Up with My Mother
When I was six months pregnant with my son, I broke up with my mother.
When I was six months pregnant with my son, I broke up with my mother. We were standing in her kitchen on Thanksgiving Day. It was almost nine o’clock in the morning. It was almost my third trimester.
Up until two days earlier when Michael, the father-to-be, and I left our home in Brooklyn for my hometown in Louisiana, I’d been in a state of bliss. I never left home without my ultrasound pictures, like a Jehovah’s Witness wielding Bible scripture, proclaiming proof of God in our midst. No one was exempt from blow-by-blow reports on the baby’s every move, my every craving, graphic details of my birth plan. My elation was incorrigible, invincible, I thought. But I hadn’t yet seen my mother, and she and happiness don’t much abide.
The closer we got to Pineville, the more my glow was overshadowed by old emotions: regret that I was going to see her; guilt that I hadn’t seen her in so long; shame that I reverted to a conflicted girl in her presence; remorse that my child, in utero, would be exposed to her fits of anger and gloom; resentment that going home for the holidays meant walking into a landmine; and most treacherous of all, fear.
What if my joy supreme had been a passing side effect of the pregnancy hormones? What if all of this love and light, this elation and confidence was just a phase, wouldn’t be mine to shower on my baby for his lifetime? What if, ultimately, I followed in the footsteps and recriminations of my mother who said she never should have married my father or had children?
I broke into a cold sweat on the flight from JFK to Houston. Michael and I were seated in front of the emergency exit row. My seat didn’t recline and my stomach blocked the food tray from folding down. For three hours I held on to Michael with one hand and a ginger ale in the other, with the complimentary vomit bag tucked under my arm. I broke into a hot sweat on the prop plane from Houston. This plane’s ventilation system was inoperable and the barely twenty-something flight attendant assured us that, otherwise, the plane’s electrical system was fine. I fanned myself with the laminated safety instructions; closed my eyes and a neon warning scrolled behind them like an interruption from the Emergency Broadcast System: Beep. This is a test. Beep. You are your mother’s child. Beep, your baby will be raised by a woman raised by your mother.
What if one’s capacity to mother is genetically predetermined? What if embedded in my DNA were not just my mother’s height and the color and texture of her hair, but her maternal traits as well? What if it was already spelled out in X chromosomes, that I would be a mother like my mother?
On Thanksgiving morning I woke up to traditional smells and familiar sounds: my mother slamming cabinet doors, the percussive banging of pots and pans and run-on invective, the soundtrack of my childhood. “I tried to raise you girls right but none of you thinks about anyone but yourself.” It didn’t matter that no one else was in the room. Or that my two sisters and I hadn’t lived in the house with her for nearly a decade. “None of y’all ever listen to a word I say. Look at all these dirty dishes in the sink. Next year you can all go to goddamn Piccadilly. Christmas is cancelled!” The rest of the family, including Michael and my sisters and their husbands, stayed in bed in various states of denial, staying out of her way as long as possible.
Mom’s outbursts were becoming increasingly explosive and irrational over the years. She’d recently threatened to kill my father—not in a figure-of-speech kind of way—and had gradually cut off all her friends. Her hostility was plastered in sticky notes all over the house and spilled out of it, painted in acrylic warnings on the garbage cans at the end of the driveway, thrown out on to the carport with random appliances that pissed her off, furniture she decided she hated, art projects she’d pulled multiple all-nighters to finish, then discarded.
What had not changed was my family’s response. We stuck to our routine of duck, cover, and wait for the storm to pass—the hurricane drill. In Louisiana you’re taught young what to do in case of emergency. You learn that a hurricane is not a fire. It can’t be extinguished or out run. Once the storm is imminent, there are no viable escapes. Just get as far away as possible from glass that will shatter; shield yourself as best you can from the roof that might cave in; pray for it to pass quickly; accept that hurricanes are part of the territory of your life.
We also never talked about it, each catering to her out of an emotion I could never name or understand, a clumsy amalgam of obligation, sympathy, guilt and abiding love. Mom’s emotional instability is compounded by health problems that could fill a medical encyclopedia. She has chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia and, for as long as I can remember, suffered through a continuum of viruses, migraines, muscle spasms and insomnia. She’s also never met a doctor she didn’t hate, who she did not insist was condescending and incompetent; stopped smoking; or cut back on drinking.
Reaching out over the years had only backfired: “I’ve already read that. It won’t work on me. We can’t afford it. That’s not the real problem. You just think I’m a hypochondriac anyway. Don’t worry about me, that only makes me feel worse. ”
I also wanted to stay in bed that morning, ducked and covering, but the baby kicked for breakfast. I approached the kitchen, hugging my belly, trying not to inhale the smoke of her Benson & Hedges smoldering near the pantry. I offered a timid “good morning,” went through the motions: “Is there something wrong, Mom? Why don’t you go rest for a minute and I’ll clean up?”
“If you wanted to help you should’ve thought of that yesterday when you used up all the milk. I’ve peeled all these goddamn sweet potatoes and now I can’t make the casserole. And you didn’t wash the pan you used to make those lemon bars that no one’s going to eat anyway. I had to scour it for the cornbread and now look at my hands.”
I apologized. Said I’d go buy milk right away. “Gee, I hadn’t thought of that, Robin,” she shot back. “It’s Thanksgiving Day and this is Pineville, there’s nothing’s open.” But it was a chance to get out of the house. I pocketed the keys to her Plymouth van as I backed out of the kitchen, fetched Michael, for whom I’d made the lemon bars and snuck out the front door.
We drove down Pinehurst Drive, a narrow, potholed fray of blacktop, the only way to or from the house I grew up in. Vehicles careen out of one another’s way at the last possible moment. Except for very old people and Avon ladies, everyone drives Pinehurst at highway speed, especially trucks hauling fishing boats and tractors that tilt into the ditches that border the road, which when they flood are called creeks and facilitate craw fishing.
About five miles down Pinehurst a gas station was open. We scored a gallon of milk, and Michael tried to conceal the cigarettes he’d also purchased. I went into my antismoking you’re-going-to-be-a-father-you-have-to-be-more-responsible-and-quit lecture. He joked that I sounded just like my mother and did a hysterically accurate imitation of her. I cracked up and tried my own and laughed the way home. It was a levity I’d never known.
My mother’s first suicide attempt happened just before my eighteenth birthday. I remember sitting beside her on her bed when she came home from the hospital, trying to play the grown-up. I asked her why, told her I wanted to understand. “You don’t really want to know,” she told me. When I insisted that I did, she said that the first time she remembered wanting to die was when she was pregnant with me. That was when my dad was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and told he wouldn’t live to see thirty. (It turned out to be muscular dystrophy.) I was born very prematurely, then sick all the time with routine bouts of pneumonia. But it was my adolescence, she explained, that took the most out of her. I was so difficult and angry, she said, she knew that what I needed was someone safe to fight against, so I didn’t rebel and get into real trouble. And that’s what finally did it, she said. Getting through my difficult preteen years had taken her last bit of strength. After that, she didn’t have anything left to give. She didn’t know how else to explain it: I had exhausted her will to live back when I was in seventh grade and she’d held on as long as she could, then finally caved in.
I played the scene back and saw how ludicrous it was. My mother’s depiction of me as responsible for her misery was a lie. Then it occurred to me that I could write myself out of the script, out of her tragedy. Maybe this dynamic with my mother, painful as it was, was all drama with no plot, much less a genetic blueprint concluding that I would turn out like her or live on her fault line.
I drove the Plymouth back to the house, pulled under the tin white overhang and parked the van in its oil-stained spot, iridescent in the late autumn morning light. Before I could unfasten my seatbelt Michael told me not to move, then ran around to the driver’s side, opened the door and tilted the steering wheel up as far as it would go to give clearance to my belly. I felt the sticky morning, the clingy dampness, neither hot nor cold, that is fall in Louisiana. Michael pushed back the seat, hoisted me down, kissed my forehead, then my stomach, then the palm of each of my hands and told me that it was okay, that we’d be home soon.
And then I saw the lemon bars. Mom had dumped them out of the pan she needed for the cornbread on to a plastic platter and put them outside on the barbecue pit where she stored the pet food. A veneer of Saran Wrap was torn open, the cats had feasted.
Armed with the milk and what was left of Michael’s lemon bars, I faced off with her in the kitchen, adult to adult, not daughter to mother. I told her she was mean, unfair and made holidays miserable. I told her that I would not, ever, expose my child to her bitterness and temper. Then I sobbed out how much I loved her and told her that I was sick and tired of being treated like her enemy.
I don’t remember what happened next, only the realization that she wasn’t going to take me in her arms and tell me how much she loved me too and how much she would love her grandbaby. I remember the acceptance that saturated and settled into my skin. She was not, never had been and never would be the mother I’d always wanted.
The rest was anticlimactic. It was one of those breakups that just happens, as randomly as it is necessary, painful as it is redemptive, unplanned but not an accident. Mom stormed out of the kitchen and locked herself in her bedroom. Two hours later she slammed out of her room, then without a word got her keys and walked out the back door. From the carport I heard her curse about someone changing the adjustments on the driver’s seat and steering wheel. My sisters made mimosas and we finished all the cooking. We ate when the meal was ready, without her. Generously, no one blamed me for ruining Thanksgiving.
Washing the dishes, I considered my new relationship to Mom. I tried to see her for who she is: the woman who gave me life, cared for me through childhood sickness, gave me important parts of who I am. A woman who suffered abuse as a child, then continued the cycle of abuse with me, who sometimes approached mothering like a suicide bomber, like her pain entitled her to take it out on others.
Drying the dishes, I drew an emotional curtain between my mother and me. I felt the fear and doubt recede and replaced with what I knew: I would define motherhood for myself. I might make it up as I go along, as I’ve learned most mothers do, but I would revel in it. I would love my baby up and down and all the way through. I knew I already did; I knew I always would.
The only evidence I have of how I’m doing as a mother, making it up as I go along, is the splendor of my son, in the delight he takes in the world, in the songs he makes up in the bathtub, in the self-portraits he paints before bedtime. The only point of reference I have for what constitutes a “good mother” is the mothers to whom I bear witness, like my best friend whose baby’s first word, uttered between visits to her father in prison, was “happy.” Mommies who’ve survived mothers that scorned them, fathers that fingered them, dates that raped them. Mommies who meet deadlines, make and rebuild homes out of next to nothing. Women whose children experienced being evacuated from Hurricane Katrina as a great adventure. Mothers whose children will never know that all the sleepovers they had that summer were because the restraining order had failed. Mommies who write books, file lawsuits, make films, get to work on time, get their kids to school on time, make sure their children eat the USDA-recommended allotment of fruits and vegetables, pay all the bills, manage to look fabulous more often than not, and who keep telling their stories, however ugly, scary, or beautiful.
On my altar in Brooklyn there’s a portrait of my mother taken when she was pregnant with me. Everyone who notices it among the shells, stones, statues and saints has remarked how much the two of us look alike, identical, even. Many friends have said that at first glance they thought the woman in the picture was me. And it doesn’t make me cringe. In the photo I don’t see her protégé. I see my cheekbones and the shape of my eyes. No less and no more.
This essay appears the anthology Who's Your Mama: The Voices of Unsung Women and Mothers. Edited by Yvonne Bynoe. Forward by Rebecca Walker. (Soft Skull Press, 2009)