I haven’t spoken to my mother in four years. Sometimes, it feels like it hasn’t been that long, though it usually feels like she was never there.
It’s an awkward conversation to have with people, who innocently ask, “So what do your parents think about you being so far from home? Do you miss them?” I dance around the subject, talking about my dad and my stepmom. I bring up my grandmother and how she practically raised me (my mom had me at 16 and we lived with my grandmother for a long time. Even after we got our own place, I still visited most weekends). Most people don’t notice I’ve left someone out or are kind enough not to ask, but occasionally someone will probe, “And your mom?”
“We’re estranged,” I say uncomfortably, still unfamiliar with how to address the issue in casual conversation. I steer the topic to something more neutral, like travel or what’s happening in the city.
I don’t hate her, and I don’t feel sad when she pops into my head. I feel numb, blank. I feel the same as if I were passing a stranger on the street.
I know I must have lots of good memories of her, of mommy-daughter days or birthday parties. I know it wasn’t all bad, that she’s not a bad person. The clearest memory I have is from when I was 14-years-old. My English teacher assigned an essay called, “What makes me proud to be an American” (13 years later, the topic makes me cringe a little). I had recently entered my anti-establishment phase, complete with my love of emo (not that silly Dashboard Confessional shit, but the REAL shit, like Minor Threat, Rites of Spring and Jawbreaker, cause I was too cool for that other stuff, guys). I had a passionate hatred of George W. Bush and read about the Zapatista movement and other stuff I thought was super edgy at the time. Basically, I wasn’t really into writing this essay, so I made up some stuff about freedom and the land of opportunity, printed it out, and left it on the computer desk so I could go to my room, listen to “Wonderwall” on repeat and think about the boy I liked.
My mom read it and left a note for me, which I found the next morning, talking about how wonderful the essay was and how she was proud of me and that I was growing into a wonderful young woman. I saved it in my scrapbook, so I could read it when things were tough with her and remind myself that she really did love me.
A year or so before this, my mom kicked out my stepdad. He was a shitty guy all around and she had left him once before, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when she came home from work one day to find him in their bed with his boyfriend. We also found out he had been signing onto my AIM account to chat with a friend of mine, a 16-year-old boy, and was incredibly inappropriate with him. Shortly after he left, we learned that all the money she had been giving him to pay the bills – she was the main breadwinner – was instead going to other things, like dating sites and other things we never figured out. Suddenly, she was single again, with two children, one of them my non-verbal, autistic brother.
He dragged out the divorce proceedings and refused to sign anything, so the process lasted years and cost a ton of money. During this time she lost her job and worked temp jobs. For a long time, she rarely left her room. Then she started going out every Friday and Saturday night, leaving me to watch my brother. I hated this, considering he would get angry that she left. He would bite and punch and scream, and it was exhausting for a teenage girl to deal with. I was also responsible for the upkeep of the house, which was impossible with an autistic kid who loved to destroy everything.
College finally came and was a wonderful, welcome escape for me. I felt like I could finally be free for the first time in my life. I didn’t have to be responsible for anyone but myself. As my freshmen year came to an end, I got depressed realising I would spend the summer at home. By that time I had broken up with my high school boyfriend and my mother had moved to a small town, 30 minutes outside the city and away from everyone I knew. It was only a two-bedroom apartment, so I would be sleeping on the couch for the summer. We talked about how I would babysit my brother during the day and work in the evenings. It sounded miserable, but I didn’t have any other option.
Then my dad said I could stay with him for the summer. Since my parents split up when I was a baby, I had never lived with my dad before, or spent more than a week with him. I was really excited to finally have the chance to get to know him better. I’d have my own room. I could get a job or relax. I could have the same freedom that my first year of college gave me.
I was terrified to tell my mom, so my aunt, understanding how I felt, offered to talk to her for me.
It didn’t go well.
I got a very angry phone call, calling me a liar, a selfish, spoiled bitch. If I had wanted to go to my dad’s all along, why did I lead her to believe we had summer plans? I only recently got the offer, I said. Why didn’t I tell her, why did my aunt have to talk to her? Because I was afraid of what she’d say, I tried to explain through tears.
She didn’t talk to me for months. I don’t know how many. Then out of the blue, she called me again. It was as if nothing ever happened. She acted like we were best friends. There were no apologies and no acknowledgement that anything had happened.
I never really trusted her after that and always kept her at arm’s length. I went back and forth between feeling like a shit daughter and thinking I deserved to get to know my dad, to finally have some freedom and to be happy.
The big blow up happened four years later, about six months after I moved to Korea. When I left, I had to leave behind my car, which I was still paying for (my dad, convinced I would only spend a year abroad, wouldn’t let me sell it). The only place to leave it was my mom’s. She was in between cars at the time and had been driving mine for a few months, which I hated because she was a terrible driver, averaging an accident or two a year, and insanely messy; her cars were always full of mountains of papers and fast food bags, and I would always have to sit on a pile of junk. She said she was thinking about buying my car and I said, “That’s cool, if you’re going to keep driving it, I’d prefer that.”
“So you’re calling me a failure?” she asked.
“What? No. It’s just that I’m still paying a lot of money for the car…”
“You think I’m a failure. You think you’re better than me.”
“No, I mean, I’m just worried about the car…”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, which lasted hours. I messaged my dad to vent and he, without my knowledge, sent an angry message to my mom, who got mad at me for it. The whole ordeal ended with her saying she didn’t want me in her life anymore.
Truthfully, I had always known it would happen one day. I couldn’t keep up with my mother. I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around her – would I get the mom who would say, “I’ve decided that today we’re going to drive to Wisconsin!” or the mom who would get angry at an innocent remark and give me the silent treatment for two days?
I visited home six months later, a brief visit before moving to Hong Kong. I got bullied into talking to her on the phone. My heart was stuck in my throat the whole time. She apologised and said she had been going through a rough time because she was depressed about turning 40. She said she thought about what I said, about how I wasn’t sure which mom I would get, that living with her was like being around Jekyll and Hyde. She had gone to the doctor. She was bipolar.
Click – my childhood suddenly made more sense.
That was the last time I spoke to her. She’s tried to reach out since, but I’m not ready to have a relationship with her again. I feel like my life has become less chaotic and more predictable, and I love it. I love having a normal, uneventful life. There’s been some pressure to see her when I visit home, and the very thought of it makes my chest tighten and I stop breathing.
I get angry about my childhood. I feel like I had to grow up quickly and had more responsibility than I should’ve, but I also understand that it wasn’t entirely her fault and had a lot to do with circumstance. Learning her diagnosis was confusing too, and it made me sit down and sort through the bad memories to try to figure out what could’ve been a result of her bipolar disorder, and what came from other places inside of her.
I’m terrified of having children of my own because I don’t know how to be a good mother. I’m afraid I’ll follow in her footsteps, I’ll manipulate them and twist their words around so they feel terrible. I don’t want them to be afraid of me like I was of her.
My friend takes me out for lunch on Mother’s Day, calling it retribution. I really appreciate it, as the day bums me out. I can’t browse Facebook and see everyone with their smiling mothers, thanking “The strongest woman in the world and my best friend!” I can’t imagine feeling that way about my own mom. I think that’s why it was so easy for me to pick up everything and move away from home. I didn’t feel like I was leaving anything behind.