Not all of us were blessed with great mothers!
Few are June Cleaver and few are Joan Crawford, so most fall somewhere in between. My friends, Jane and Meg, both had mothers who, in my opinion, would have failed the short list for mother of the year.
Meg’s mother was ambitious, focused on appearance, and highly critical of her daughter. I know this because I watched it. I never met Jane’s mother, but by Jane’s accounts over 20 years, she was distant, resentful, and critical of her daughter’s choices.
Jane moved away from their small Pennsylvania town shortly after marrying her high school boyfriend. Mom interpreted that as walking out on the family.
Meg didn’t dare move away because her mother’s plan was that she stay.
Mother knows best?
Jane’s first child was fine, but her second was severely disabled. This was more than the ‘high school now husband’ could take so she became a single mom with a small child and one that required her to give her medicine every hour/24hrs a day to prevent seizures. in the many years Jane cared for her daughter at home before she was admitted to a group home, Jane’s mom never came to help her – not once!
Meg married the man her mother chose, had two children, allowed her mother to decide their names, and listened to her mother brag to all about her daughter’s amazing husband (the one who emotionally abused both Meg and her children) Meg was determined to please the mother who would never give her the satisfaction.
Jane called her mom weekly and visited once or twice a year. When her mom’s hearing was failing Jane bought her a phone that allowed her to read the conversation. Mom refused to use it. Jane was frequently compared to her sister, who lived nearby, and she failed by every measure.
When it became apparent that Jane’s mom could no longer live safely on her own, everyone showed their true colors. The sister, who had lived near mom for years, was moving south. The brother didn’t feel he could manage the responsibility. Jane decided moving her mom to an assisted living facility near her was the best solution. Mom moved in to her new apartment kicking and screaming. She refused to socialize and preferred eating alone to the common dining room.
She was often rude to fellow residents and Jane was forever apologizing for her. Phantom memories surfaced like ‘remember when I used to visit and take care of the children for you?’
By the time Meg’s mother was critically ill from cancer, Meg had had to return to work full-time, having been left bankrupt by her now ex-husband. She visited her parents everyday and made meals for them most evenings. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
Letting Go and Holding On
Gradually Jane’s mother’s dementia worsened and she became a gentler soul. She grew to love the visits from her great grandchildren and especially looked forward to the days Jane’s husband brought the dog to visit. The hostility, bitterness and fierce independence faded into complacency and acceptance. There were several agonizing periods of delirium before she finally let go of this life.
Meg’s mother fought death to the very end. She railed against the injustice of it. Meg and her sister did all they could to comfort her, but their efforts only angered her further. In the end, despite a life committed to pleasing her mother, Meg was left with no resolution. She and her sister were also left with no inheritance as their mother left all that she had to their brother – who had been glaringly absent during her illness.
The role of caring for our mothers is fraught with memories of our years together. How do you give selflessly to a parent who has been unsupportive, unloving, or demeaning? Some people cannot get past the past. Others leave the past where it belongs, able to focus on the vulnerable, increasingly frail woman who, while she can still wound, can no longer devastate.
Being There is Good Enough
I asked Meg how she was able to be so caring toward her mother. Her first response was ‘guilt’.
Then I asked Jane. ‘I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t’, was her initial response. She later told me that caring for her mother during the last two years of her life gave her the opportunity to ‘forget’ their strained earlier relationship. The support of our mothers – or the lack of it – has a huge, though not predictable, influence on the person we become. My friends became warm, caring, generous individuals despite the wounds they carried. Others never let go of the anger and nurse their bitterness for a lifetime.
When the time comes that our mothers need our caring, it is the person you’ve chosen to be who shows up. That doesn’t mean there won’t be ambivalence, frustration, or impatience at times. It means that stepping up and being there – in what ever way you are able – is good enough.