It was a typical Thursday morning, but the gloomy clouds and drizzling rain poetically accompanied a nagging sadness that I tried to ignore as I went about my routine. My mom left early that morning after staying with us for a month-long visit.
I missed her.
But I didn’t expect to.
The feeling of emptiness that filled me moments after she walked out the door crept up on me like a child hiding around the corner, waiting to spring out at you as you pass. A startling surprise that makes you smile once the adrenaline wears off.
This warm and fuzziness was not typical for me, at least not in conjunction with anything having to do with my mom. When she left our upstate NY hometown to put down roots in North Carolina, I was already 30 years old and living on my own with my now husband, so her departure was less than life-changing for me. We’ve always struggled with our relationship. She says it’s because we’re so much alike, a sentiment that I guiltily dread to be true.
I constantly ask myself why I feel this way. Why do I recoil when she tries to hug me or express emotion around me? Why do I see so clearly her traits I fear to emulate, and struggle to see the ones I appreciate? The awareness makes me sad but it has long been a reality I can’t fight. A feeling I desperately hope does not manifest in my own daughter, towards me. How deeply it would hurt if someday I knew she felt this same way.
My mom was a wonderful mother, so I can’t attribute my negative feelings to any sort of neglect or abuse. She did what moms are supposed to do, and then some. She nurtured me as a baby and child, loved me fiercely, played with me, came to every figure skating show, hooting and hollering with pride. Our home was always tidy and cozy and on Holidays it would fill with the aroma of her homemade pies. She held my hand through my first torturous OB/GYN visits, relentlessly tried to find a solution for my painful, teenage acne that I likely inherited from her, put me through college and always encouraged me to think big and do great things.
I have every reason in the world to have that best friend relationship with my mom, and yet, it eludes us. It hangs around though, like that itch you can’t scratch but keep trying to. I reach for it every now and then when I share something with her that I think we’ll connect over—a movie, a song, a piece of writing—her response often falling short of my expectations.
Expectations—a thematic word for our struggling dynamic. A common contributor to our never quite reaching the storybook mother-daughter status.
She expected me to be selfless, to express gratitude, and display fundamental virtues that any mother would want from their daughter. I expected her to be more forgiving when I’d slack in these areas. My mother never filtered her disappointment or judgement if I failed to meet her standards. Words like ungrateful, selfish, and irresponsible ring through my head in her voice. Not that she never praised me. She absolutely did. But it’s the cutting words that leave scars, not the kind ones.
She expected me to leave the area for a job with a six-figure salary, or marry a man that would use his to give me the world. I expected her to impart her hopes and dreams for me through a quieter, more hands-off approach. But subtle comments and frequent meddling would create a bitterness in me.
She expected her meal at restaurants to be served the way she wanted it, and I expected her not to be rude to the wait staff when conveying her wishes. My mom was never thoughtful in the way that she expressed her needs, wants or desires—not with friends, family, or anyone for that matter. She pushed away many people with her words and her tone.
I expected her to take responsibility for how she’d make me feel. She expected me to believe that my feelings were not justified.
It took me a long time to understand that she’s ignorant to her dust cloud of conflict. That she is not very self-aware, or if she is, she plays dumb so to not have to admit her faults. I knew if I wanted a relationship with her, I needed to be accepting of her as a whole, without trying to mold her into someone she isn’t. But none of these realizations eliminated the turbulence that bounced us further apart, leaving me sadly stoic and apathetic in our exchanges.
It’s hard to feel around someone who dismisses your feelings.
When the question of her staying with us for a month while she visited our new daughter arose, needless to say I was more than hesitant. But we said yes, she came, and it was, for the most part, what I thought it would be.
She helped out, as I knew she would. I’d often come home from work to the smell of a delicious meal cooking and baskets of clothes folded and we shared pleasant-enough moments together. Her entire visit, an overall enjoyable experience mixed with bickering, a dash of harsh dialogue, topped with a sprinkle of judgement and resentment.
Maybe I do resent her a little.
For pushing my father away. For moving so far from her family and future grandchildren.
Maybe that’s unfair of me.
On her last night, she asked if she could rock the baby to sleep.
Sure, I said, knowing that it would be hard for her to say goodbye.
She spent a long time in the nursery, and I glanced occasionally at the empty crib on the video monitor before watching her finally lay my daughter down. I could hear her sobbing. My mom, not the baby. And for the first time in a long time, I felt a connection to her.
How painful it must be for her to let go of her granddaughter. To choose between her family and a life that truly fulfills her. How painful will it be for me, to finally let go of my own daughter one day? To accept whatever relationship I have with her once she’s grown? Once I’ve done my own maternal damage? My mom’s heart was breaking and my heart was breaking for her. For us. For the relationship we never had.
It’s in this moment that I desperately hope for a touch more grace from my daughter than I granted my mother. That she’ll be the tiniest bit understanding of why I’ll inevitably fail her in some ways.
Perhaps in her life before me—as the last born; as the daughter of a man who loved the bottle more than much else—my mom had to fight for what she needed or wanted and so tact does not come naturally. Maybe she lived with nothing for so long that she pushed too hard to make sure I had everything. Perhaps no one ever acknowledged when they’d hurt her, leaving her blind to her ability to hurt others.
Later that night, she joined me as I was finishing a movie on TV.
I don’t know how you’re watching this, she said at first.
I don’t like movies like this.
Of course, I thought to myself through an eye-roll.
But she sat with me anyway.
The dim light of the floor lamp washed over my hands cupping my mug of tea, my feet stretched out in front of me under the blanket, my mom sitting beside me in shadow. I watched my legs rub together restlessly like hers always do late at night. Like they always did when I was a little girl and I’d wonder why they wouldn’t stop. And I saw her in me. In my movement. In my gestures. In my smile in the picture next to the fireplace.
The next morning when she said goodbye, I tried to tap into the connection I felt the night before, and hang on to her hug a little longer than I typically would. She left, and I returned to pouring milk into baby bottles for the day, wondering if my daughter will ever truly know how much I love her. I stared out at the dreary skies, tears welling at the base of my eyelids the same way the rain drops pooled on the window sill outside. And I leaned in, a little further, to this unfamiliar feeling of emptiness.
I missed her.
I missed being cared for.
Being tended to.
Being criticized and judged.
Being annoyed by her little idiosyncrasies.
She is part of me.
She did her best.
She is my mom.
I let the tears dry up before falling to my cheeks. I’m not quite ready to go there yet. But I smile a half smile to myself, and am grateful for this awareness. Grateful for her.