Is “mother” the most loaded word in the English language?

This is probably not the Mother’s Day post many of you were expecting from me, a woman who could have her first baby at any moment. But this is the Mother’s Day post that will accurately reflect my experience, and that of many, many others out there. This post is dedicated to those out there who have complicated, awkward, horrible, frustrating or otherwise “unorthodox” relationships with their mothers or motherhood.

Judging from what my husband and many around me are telling me, I should be very excited about Mother’s Day this year. In truth, I hadn’t given it much thought until my husband brought it up. And even then, I was much more concerned with finding a good gift for his mother than I was thinking about how this day might relate to me. I’m not a mother, yet, I keep telling people. In fact, today marks exactly two weeks until my due-date. But the unanimous opinion of everyone around me is that I should celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday. So, my husband is taking me to see Iron Man 2, because that’s what I want to do. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what other people have in mind. I never said I was going to be conventional mom!

But as always around this time of year, you can’t help but think about your mom(s). You’d have to be living under a rock to miss the barrage of marketing aimed at making you feel like the Worst Human Being on The Planet if you don’t run out and spend a zillion dollars on dear old mom. (Because how else can you adequately show your appreciation and love unless you spend money?) Don’t get me wrong. I know I have years of macaroni necklaces, MOM photo frames and the like in my future. And I have no doubt I will get weepy and love each thing my child brings me. I’m just saying that I also recognize that love is not captured in a gift.

Make no mistake, I am very, very excited to become a mother! I get more excited every day. As the gestational clock runs out, I find I have this feeling inside me that is the biggest joy/excited feeling I have ever had. Better than my wedding day (sorry, honey). Better than my first kiss. Better than the first time I rode a bike by myself without training wheels. The only way I can try and describe it is to remember back when you believed in Santa and you had to try and go to sleep the night before Christmas. You would feel so excited that you would have uncontrollable fits of squirminess and that your chest was going to explode with anticipation. It’s kinda like that, times about 10 … or 100. I can’t wait to meet my baby! So, on this level, when I think about Mother’s Day this year I have a whole new set of feelings and expectations. I usually dread Mother’s Day but this year I see it as a teaser of things to come — very soon. And that’s wonderful.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the old feelings or old memories are gone. And if marketing campaigns and card aisles are any barometer, I’m one of those freaks out there who does not have a super-sweet, spectacularly awesome relationship with my mom. In fact, we are estranged. I’m not going to get into the particulars of why that is or how my relationship with her got to this point, because as much as you might think I share all of myself on this blog, I don’t. Some things are private and none of your business. And frankly, I think it would be disrespectful. Yes, I think even in estrangement people deserve common respect and courtesy.

What I will share is that I don’t speak to my mother and that was my decision. It came about after a very long period of soul-searching and counseling and advice from people much wiser than me. It was an extremely difficult decision. There are many reasons that this came about but the simplest thing to say is that the relationship was toxic and the only way I could heal old wounds and move on to have the  joy-filled, blessed life I have now was to let that relationship go. (And since I have written about being a sexual abuse survivor before, I just want to be clear and say my mother is NOT the person who did that to me.) This is not to say that there could not be a relationship with her in the future, but it would have to be a different one, absent of the dysfunction of  the past.

It’s not an easy thing to be a daughter who ends a relationship with her mother. In fact, it’s very complicated and at times very difficult. Our society has very strict rules on the idea of motherhood and mothers and even about daughters. My decision has not been a popular one. Co-workers, friends, relatives … indeed there are many branches of people in the world who openly disagree with me. There are many people who don’t understand, but I can’t live my life for other people. And if I made decisions based on whether or not it would be popular, I would be a fool. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to do what is going to be the healthiest for you. Diets are hard. Exercise is hard. Clearing out toxic residue from your heart may be the hardest of all. And, yes, sometimes to do that you have to be brave enough to see the truth of certain relationships in your life.

But the message is clear: Dear old moms are kin to angels and make everything better, don’t you know? You are an ungrateful asshole if you don’t do right by your mom! I would argue that moms are just human beings. And no human being is perfect. And some human beings are responsible for some very hurtful, cruel behavior and just because they happen to be moms doesn’t excuse them of that.

For example, I have a wonderfully brilliant friend whom I’ll call Ralph (to protect his privacy). He’s an esteemed professor and talented at many things and smart as hell. His parents were also professors and smart as hell. But as it turns out his mother was the mother from hell. Once, while at his house and flipping through channels on TV, an image of Mommie Dearest came across the screen. He had an immediate and visceral reaction and we had to turn it off right away. You see, his mother had made him lick the toilet when he didn’t scrub it to perfection. His mother went out and killed a rabbit in the yard before Easter and told her child that it was the Easter Bunny. She said she did it because he did not deserve to have the Easter Bunny come to his house. It sort of puts “no wire hangers” in perspective. Are you going to look at those examples of cruelty and tell me that mother still deserved to be worshiped and exalted as a wonderful mother?

I have another friend, let’s say her name is Sabrina. Her father died when she was a teenager and he had left her a trust in the sum of several thousand dollars. Her mother managed some legal acrobatics and stole it. She stole her daughter’s trust! And what did she do with it? Get high and drunk and many other sad things. So, is my friend supposed to skip down the card aisle once a year and bestow heaps of gratitude on her mother just because that woman gave birth to her?

I know of many other examples from many other friends and I haven’t even told you any examples from my own life. But I know enough from all these sad stories to know that I am not alone in my feelings about Mother’s Day. Hell, you don’t even have to have a bad mother to feel that way. My best friend’s mother died of cancer when he was a kid. Another friend of mine is adopted and as it turned out her adoptive mother was an alcoholic. So there are plenty of people who have non-traditional, difficult, confusing, conflicted relationships with (or not with) their mothers.

A big misconception I find is that people want to put this whole dynamic into an opposing-sides arrangement. One person must be right and one person must be wrong. Or, if you find fault with anything your mother did that must mean you hate her. This, like so many oppositional relationships, is far too limited a way to look at it. I stopped talking to my mother because our relationship was toxic. This does not mean I hate my mother. I know this is a very difficult concept to grasp because of all the conversations I’ve had about it. It seems simple to me. One thing has to do with setting boundaries and establishing the kind of behavior and relationship you want with someone. The other has to do with your feelings toward them. That’s not the same thing. And all of this can be made all the more complicated by the fact that many people, myself included, who have these kinds of mothers can still talk about having good memories or about positive lessons from childhood. Unless your mother is the female version of Hannibal Lector, she probably did at least one or two things right in all those years. And I think it’s only fair and honest to acknowledge that even though there were bad times/actions, sometimes there were good.

But I don’t just write this to complain about my mother or complain about Mother’s Day. I wanted to write about this and share this with you to offer comfort and/or help in understanding for other people out there. If you have a wonderful mother, I am so happy for you! But I know from experience it can be hard for the wonderful-mothered to understand the flip side.

What I will say to everyone, regardless of your mothering situation, is that we don’t need society’s approval to do what is right in our lives. If you want to buy your mom a big bouquet of flowers and take her to brunch on Sunday, rock on! If you are dreading having to call your mom on Sunday because when you hang up the phone you want to punch through a wall, that’s okay too. We can’t control our mothers. And their actions can lead to rewarding love or private pain or anywhere in between. But we, as the children, don’t have to beat ourselves up about those feelings. And I don’t think there’s any value for ourselves, our mothers or society if we hold up a lie just to be like everybody else (or because it makes everyone else feel less awkward). Mine is certainly the road less taken and it is not an easy one to travel, but it is the one that is right for me.

So on Sunday, honor what is right for you. Honor your mother, or the people in your life you’ve adopted to fill the role or your mother, or the non-biological mother who raised you, or your father who is also your mother, or nobody at all. I am going to try and focus on the joy I have to become a mother myself.

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