Motherhood, Reading, Writing

Some thoughts about forgiving our mothers and ourselves

I unintentionally read two books last month that were both, at their core, about toxicity in mother-daughter relationships. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game are very different types of stories. TVH is a novel about two light-skinned Black twin sisters who choose different paths in life—Desiree living life as a Black woman, and Stella choosing to pass as white. It moves forward through time until we see how their choices impact the lives of their daughters. Wild Game is a memoir by a woman who, when she was 14, got wrangled into being a co-conspirator in her mother Malabar’s affair with a family friend. The affair goes on for more than a decade, fully absorbing Adrienne in the drama and lies throughout her adolescence.

I might not have dwelled too long on either of these stories if I hadn’t read them back-to-back. But both Stella and Malabar tell extraordinary lies to keep their secrets safe, and it comes at great cost to their daughters.

It’s sort of a given by now that our mothers will hurt us in some way at various points in our lives. Little comments about our appearance, the choices we make, and the people we love can all add up to big, swollen pain. Times when they paid too little attention, times when they clamped down too hard. As we age we begin to see them as human, capable of both vast love and error. Even so, we swear to do better by our own children.

For me personally, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. My biggest regret so far in my daughter’s short life has been calling her shy in front of another adult when she was about two or three years old. I can’t remember a time during my childhood when my outgoing mother didn’t apologize to others for my shyness, causing me to intuit that shyness was a bad thing, meant to be overcome, compounding layer after layer of anxiety about my anxiety. Even though I now carry with me the knowledge that introverts are important and necessary members of society, I still experience that gut-twisting fear in large groups that I’m not talking enough, not contributing enough.

My daughter has run up to me on a few occasions and asserted that the cats hiding from her in the closet are “a little shy, like me!” I don’t really think she comprehends that she has grown out of her shy phase and is now just a cyclone of wild, talkative energy. But when she claims to be shy, I don’t correct her. Instead I tell her, “And that’s ok. I am too.”

I will surely misstep in a myriad of other ways as she grows. I hope I can find the strength to apologize. So many of my friends have commented on the apologies we rarely, if ever, received from our mothers. An acknowledgment of our suffering, even if it was petty and small. Maybe that was a standard of parenting toward the end of the last century—like a car accident—never admit fault. Or maybe that’s just part of being human, a natural resistance to being in the wrong.

In The Vanishing Half and Wild Game, neither Stella nor Malabar ever offer their daughters the apology or the reckoning they yearn for. But still their daughters love them and chase their approval and try to know them. In some ways this seems sad. As a daughter, I mourn the lack of righteous comeuppance for these women. In other ways, I think thank god. As a mother, I will have room to make missteps and, most importantly, room to atone.


On “You Don’t Understand” and Other Things We Say to Childless Women


Mother’s Day was this past weekend… in case you didn’t notice. I did happen to notice because it meant I got to escape for a few hours to do some writing in a cafe with a mom friend also on the run from her toddler. It was glorious. In true me fashion, however, I’m posting some motherhood-related musings about 3 days late.

But much like feeding my child — better late than never?

I’ve been thinking about a recent Twitter conversation that I, for better or worse, stuck my foot into.

A childless woman tweeted that she was tired of being told by parents that her opinions regarding child-rearing didn’t matter. The comments surged with support from other non-moms, though there were still a predictable number of parents chiming in with the old standby, “I didn’t understand before I had kids. Now I do.” This statement was precisely what the original poster was complaining about — the simple fact that being told you know nothing, that you’re not in this special club of understanding, is demoralizing and hurtful.

I responded with an attempt at support. I’ve been knocked on my ass by motherhood, by every growth and regression, by bittersweet love, by depression, by the soft viciousness of other mothers, and I would never try to tell a woman she is missing out on great knowledge or vital membership by being childless. I admire women who speak up to say, “My life is good without kids.” I believe them. Some days, when I’m scraping poop off the walls or when I’m feeling particularly isolated and unmoored, I want to be them. So I offered encouragement instead of the typical slandering we often apply to each other as women on different sides of the child aisle.

But I also thought to myself… well, you don’t understand.

No one wants to hear those words. Ever. About anything. Because what do we mean when we say that? We mean you haven’t experienced my pain. We mean your own pain and suffering are of less importance.

As mothers, we specifically mean you don’t know what it’s like to have a red-faced infant screaming hour after hour, night after night, when you haven’t slept more than three hours at a time since you were still pregnant (or, let’s face it — probably since before you were pregnant). You don’t know what it’s like to feel your resentment toward the man sleeping in the next room flare up so savagely you wonder why you married him in the first place, to barely notice as one of your tears drips onto that sweet monster baby’s chapped forehead, to choke a little as your chest floods with guilt because why can’t you just ENJOY THIS SPECIAL TIME? The hopelessness of those moments before the sun rises again. The confinement, the fear of leaving the house, the fear of what will happen if you don’t.

You don’t what it’s like to feel powerless while your toddler melts down in public, to know everyone in that restaurant hates you and could surely do your job better than you. You don’t know what it’s like to hand your child a phone or a tablet, just to have ten minutes of peace, and be judged just as harshly for that as for doing nothing at all.

You don’t know what it’s like to wonder if your sense of self is so far in the rearview that there’s no possibility of ever getting back to it, if that’s just part of the bargain you didn’t know you were agreeing to.

You don’t know what it’s like to have to wonder every day if you made the right choices, taught the right lessons, provided the right role models, offered the right foods. If you had kids too early. If you had them too late. If you should have focused on your career. If you should have stayed at home to watch them grow.

There is so much childless women don’t understand of moms.

There is so much moms don’t understand of childless women.

Did they choose it because they knew themselves? They knew, like a reverberation of a bowstring through their bodies, that they wanted a life without the weight of children? Or are they living with a different weight — that of infertility? Are they trying and failing in a cycle of hope and grief so upending they can focus on nothing else on a daily basis? Is there more they want to do first? Are they just not ready, and why does everyone push so much so fast?

The original poster said, “Our opinions matter.” And she’s right. They should matter to her partner, to her close friends and family. Regardless of your status as a parent or non-parent, life provides a bog of opinions you have no choice but to wade through. Some are harmless while others feel like feces flung right into your eyes and mouth, even when they began simply as a casual skittering of fingers on a keyboard. I believe that, most often, people aren’t intending to hurt us, even when we feel most wounded. They simply want their opinions heard, want them to matter.

Our job is to pick and choose which pieces of advice ring most true to us, and let the other pieces float past us. Perhaps we KonMari them, thank them, and let them go. Our job is not to go to war over them, to belittle and hit back in the way we felt we were hit.

From reading several of the original poster’s tweets, I gathered that she was working on a memoir about growing up in a family of cocaine addicts. As far as I know, no one in my immediate family was sneaking hard drugs when I was a child. We had a completely normal level of dysfunction at home. So I will never totally comprehend this woman’s trauma and pain, though I will try to by reading her story someday.

Everyone is suffering, a little or a lot. As humans, we try to empathize. Sometimes we can’t, not fully. But our lack of understanding doesn’t earn them our disdain. We can only offer our respect. Respect may mean silence when we want to shout, civil debate when we just want to drop an eye-roll gif. Or it may mean a firm but gentle reminder that we ask for respect in return.

There’s too much sadness, bitterness, ugliness in this world that we can’t control. We have opportunities every day to create more, to remind each other of further divisions — the different types of moms, the different types of women. But we also have opportunities to pass over them, smooth them out, and say, “This is hard, for everyone, in different ways.” To say, “You matter as much as I do.”

Even if you just don’t understand.