Motherless Daughter

I have few memories of my mom from childhood and “before the divorce”, a phrase I use when describing this ephemeral yet idyllic time in my life. I remember when she would rub my headaches away as I laid on her bed. I remember her teaching me about the importance of putting lotion on and brushing my hair. I remember being spanked, hit with wooden spoons, and kicked in the ribs.

I don’t remember shopping with my mom, having the period talk or learning how to dress. I never learned how to do my makeup or act “ladylike”. I wasn’t taught how to cook or to handle boys, and had no one to question about my changing body.

Mom was hardly around when my parents were married. I spent days with dad wondering when she would get back from “bingo”. We were in bed before she tip-toed through the front door each night.

Bingo was just bingo at first, but it evolved into an affair with a man who is now my stepfather. This sparked fights and domestic violence, the darkest period of my childhood. Knives were pulled, furniture was broken, and all out brawls were displayed center stage for my brother and I. This all went on between my dad’s cancer treatment. After an enormous amount of  stress and turmoil for all parties involved, my parents finally split. My boyfriend asked me once, “Do you ever wish your parents stayed together?”

I answer with a resounding, “Hell no! They would have murdered each other!” A half-joke, at best.

Despite the child abuse, which I didn’t dare mention, my mom gained custody of us. Each night she brought this mystery man from the affair into her bed when she thought we were asleep, too afraid to introduce him into our lives.

My dad fought hard to regain custody, and he knew that she was abusive. In the back of the courtroom, they asked me who I wanted to live with. Who else would I choose but the parent who was always there? A moment went by, the judge made a decision, and I walked back into the courtroom to see my mom in heavy tears, an image forever emblazoned into my memory. What have I done? I held on to that guilt until high school.

After moving with dad, my mom wasted no time getting married to this mystery affair man, eventually starting a family with him. She moved to New Mexico and then to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, following her husband wherever he went. I never felt like my brother and I were a priority in my mom’s life, and this was the icing on the cake. I often wonder if this was “abandonment”.

We saw mom once every two years after that move – somehow getting through our teenage years without her. My dad tried his absolute best, but something was always missing. Something only a mother could give to her daughter. Birthday after birthday, I was left to fill that gap with no hint as to where to begin. In a way, I appreciate the opportunity to figure out myself on my own.

She gave birth to my youngest brother and assimilated into my stepdad’s family. They saw and knew her more intimately, and I was jealous. We were secondary – left in the background of my mom’s new life. I envy the mother-child bonds I see around me, wince when I see someone treating their mother poorly, and feel a little down each year on mother’s day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Because of this, my interactions with women are strange and uncomfortable. Dependence and reliance on others is not my cup of tea. I became self-sufficient, often ignoring advice sounding even remotely motherly. It’s very hard for me to feel “girly” and do “girly” things. I have self-esteem issues regarding my body and expressing my “femininity”, a concept that feels foreign. My female friends seem alien, and I study what they do and how they carry themselves. Can’t I just be a normal “girl”?

The good memories are strong enough for me to love and care for her still. At the end of the day, she is my mom. I recognize her attempts to connect and make up for lost time, but when I try to open up my heart, it feels forced and uncomfortable – like we missed a step between. When she calls, I feel plucked out of my own life, putting on a mask to ease the discomfort of knowing what a mother-daughter relationship should be like and living in that discrepancy. It’s like we’re trying to build this massive and complex thing, but it feels too little, too late, and is difficult with the distance.

“You know you can talk to me about anything,” she says. I give a half-hearted laugh and mutter “of course,” as I think about all the years she forgot what grade I was in or how old I was. She is a stranger. The bond is just not what it should be and feels disingenuous.

Should I still attempt a relationship with my mom? I struggle with this question.

She has never apologized to my dad or to my brother and I, nor is she the type to ever admit fault, a trait from a culture that is fueled by pride. I know deep down that she feels regret and lives with the sting of being distant and disconnected from her childrens’ lives. I want to have a conversation with her, but it feels too heavy for strangers, like we’re not on that level. Our conversations float above the surface, never delving into anything too intimate. I have forgiven her in my own mind, however, and I’m considering writing a letter to her that I will never send.

I purchased the book “Motherless Daughters”, a book for those coping with life without a mother. Most of the content is geared toward women whose mothers have passed away, and some of it discusses abandonment.

Sometimes I feel alone in this situation, and wonder if anyone else is experiencing the same. Advice for those who have lost their mother to death does not particularly pertain to me. She isn’t gone, though I hardly feel her presence and have lived most of my life without her. Advice for those who have been abandoned does not exactly address my situation.

My mom did not leave in the middle of the night never to be heard from again. She’s hanging on to our lives by a thread, and those tenuous strings cause a lot of confusion as I get older and think about my own marriage and motherhood. How do you build a relationship that should have been there during your most formative years? Do I strengthen this bond? Do I want to? Will it benefit me? Do we discuss the past or start a clean slate? Do I let go? Would I regret it?

“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
(W.S. Merwin)

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