Becoming The Mother My Mother Could Never Be
WORDS: Satya Nelms
Breaking a cycle of abuse and neglect takes a lot of love and self-reflection.
This has been a long time coming, and were it not for a cousin who is better described as equal parts sister and friend, it probably wouldn’t be happening now. Actually, I’m being too lenient with myself: It definitely wouldn’t be happening now, because I’ve wanted to protect the people who the details of this story might hurt. In reality, I was protecting myself from judgements I wasn’t ready for. Judgements made by strangers, but more importantly those made by people I love.
What my cousin/sister/friend helped me realize is that holding onto painful secrets doesn’t help anyone. I haven’t found any healing in locking harmful truths inside of myself, and I’ve gained so much from the moments where I had the courage to share my story.
Anytime I have made a friend in the last eight years, I have tiptoed around a major detail in my life. I agonize over when to trot it out, and hold my breath as I wait to hear what comes after my confession. It usually goes something like this:
“So, where are you from?” says the unsuspecting friend.
“New York and New Jersey,” says me.
“Oh, do your parents still live up there?” says the naive friend.
“Well, my dad lives in New Jersey, my mom probably lives somewhere in that area still, but I’m not sure,” says increasingly uncomfortable me.
“You’re not sure?” says the befuddled friend.
“Well, she stopped speaking to me [insert 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 here] years ago,” says me while feigning nonchalance.
“Oh…” says the friend who may or may not have decided I have way too many issues to still be her friend.
This is usually where a very abrupt and awkward change in the conversation happens. On rare occasions, I’ve had people try to hang in there and ask follow-up questions, but after a few minutes, silence takes over. Then we end up talking about the weather or how cute our kids look playing together, because there aren’t a great many people who understand the concept of “My mother is alive, and I have a general idea of where she is and how to get in touch with her, and she has a pretty good idea of where I am and how to get in touch with me, but we don’t talk. Ever.” At least not in my travels.
This is because we live in a world that loves labels, and those labels come with nice, neat little boxes with walls that act as the gatekeepers for the boundaries of the definitions that come with those labels. In this world mothers are by definition loving, nurturing, self-sacrificing founts of unconditional love and support. Motherhood is a natural instinct all women are born with, we are told, and all of the daily energy and effort that comes along with this blessing goes unnoticed at best or completely taken for granted at worst. To be a mother is to be something more than human, and we need only do a quick internet search of how the masses react when a mother makes a mistake to confirm this fact.
My Mother Was Two Different Women
To the world, my mother was perfect. There are very few people who meet my mother and aren’t immediately taken with her. She is beautiful, charismatic, and seems to possess some kind of people magnet that makes anyone with a pulse want to stand closer to her. And she’s cool! I can not tell you how many times I heard “I wish my mom was as cool as yours” when I was growing up. But the mother the world knew was not the mother that I knew.
The mother I knew hurt me, physically and emotionally. The mother I knew would leave me in dangerous situations, and forced me to be something less than a mother but much more than a sister to my two younger siblings. My mother didn’t believe having kids should impede on her social life. She turned a blind eye when I needed her most, when I was at my most vulnerable.
The mother I knew made me feel small, criticized me for being “too emotional,” and told me how “not enough” of something I was: “not tough enough,” “not smart enough.” She constructed a reality wherein I may as well have asked to be born, and she had graciously put her life on hold and sacrificed everything she could have been to grant me my request to exist.
I never shared any of what was going on inside my house with anyone when I was growing up, and it’s still hard for me to do now. Even as I sit here writing this, I can only bring myself to speak about it in broad brush strokes. I learned to slap a smile on my face when I would have rather been crying. In eighth grade I won “Million Dollar Smile” and was runner up for “Most Cheerful” in the same year I was raped and contemplated taking my own life for the first time.
Who Am I, If Not My Mother’s Daughter?
I spent two-thirds of my life going back and forth between trying to make my mother proud and trying to be her before ever thinking about who I might be outside of what she’d told me I was and wasn’t. I became a different person for her because I thought it would make her love me, or like me, or be proud of me—or at the very least stop hurting me.
Becoming a mother was my turning point. I gave birth to my first child, my older daughter, in 2006. I was terrified from the moment I found out that I was carrying her that I would damage her, because you see, my mother is not an anomaly. My mother was to me, what her mother was to her, and from the few stories I’ve heard about my lineage, the cycle seems to predate my grandmother as well.
I became determined not to be my mother, but I had spent so long trying to create myself in her image that I had no idea who I actually was. I’ve had to put in a lot of work to get to where I am now, and it hasn’t been smooth. I’ve made missteps and lost good friends in the process, but also gained some lifelong bonds. I’ve gone through therapy (conventional and alternative); done tons of writing and journaling; had uncomfortable, but necessary conversations with people in my life; and I’ve spent hours, days even, just listening to myself.
The healthier I became, the more distant my mother was, until one day she just stopped answering my calls. Stopped answering my children—her own granddaughters’—calls. I learned by way of one of my sisters that I was “a self-righteous bitch” and that I thought I was better than her, but the last time I actually heard my mother’s voice was May 3, 2008.
I still second guess myself. I still have to literally remind myself who I am more regularly than I wish was necessary. I still have friends and family who must tell me “You’re not her” or “You’re not who she said you were.” After which I must meditate on and chant those words until I can still hear them without actually having to speak them.
But two years ago, I told myself I loved her for the first time, and last year, I looked in the mirror, and genuinely thought I was beautiful. I am proud of the mother I am to my children, and proud of the steps I’ve taken to become myself. I am so much more comfortable in my own skin today, and though I know there is work left to be done, it feels so good to finally know who I am.
Satya Nelms is a writer, author, and mother of three living with her family outside of Philadelphia. Follow her on Instagram.