The last time my mother and I had an actual conversation was on Mother’s Day 2014, when she told me that I shouldn’t have bothered calling her. Switching between Russian and heavily accented English, she said it was insulting for me to wish her well on this holiday when I hadn’t done anything to make her a happy mother. Then she hung up.
10 minutes later she called back, crying and apologizing. “I have no one,” she said in her voicemail. She and my father had recently filed for a divorce. “You and your brother are the only people I live for,” she wept. Her pain was palpable. Disabled, an immigrant, now divorced, my mother has lots of practice in making others feel sorry for her, and with good reason.
With her message, she was making an offering, letting me know how important I was. But I only felt pressure to take care of her, pressure to make things better, pressure to engage her in a screaming match that would end in an uncomfortable detente. Not really over, but over for now.
I didn’t call her back. Then I avoided her. For a while, my husband kept in touch, making sure she was all right, but even he didn’t know what to do when she started showing up at our door, screaming to be let in, once banging her cane (which she sometimes carries due to debilitating pain, and sometimes for effect) on the door as I threatened to call the police.
And she didn’t have far to walk to get to me. We’ve lived nine doors away from each other for the past 10 years.
I think about moving often, but the rent in San Francisco is so expensive and we’ve got such a good deal. And while I’m loath to admit it, and despite the fact that we haven’t talked in so long and the fact that she’s actively tried to hurt and humiliate me into engaging with her again, it’s impossible for me to just let go. Ignoring my mother while she’s close at hand is a matter of self-preservation. Moving away might actually force me to realize what I’ve been pushing down for over a decade: I will never have the mother I want, the mother I believe I deserve.
My mother isn’t a bad person. She may have just not ever been fit to raise children. At 24, she married my father, who was 22 at the time. They’d known each other for all of six months. At 25 she had me, at 27 my brother. At 31, she immigrated to a new country where she knew no one. She hadn’t read books on what to expect when you’re expecting. Her own parents weren’t kind. Sometimes, they were physically abusive. That’s why I can’t quite blame her for the physical punishments she’d visited upon me, but I also can’t forget them, no matter how much I try to minimize their impact on my life. I’d crack jokes to other people and wonder why no one else was laughing about the time she’d removed the lock from the bedroom door my brother and I shared so we couldn’t stop her from rushing in with a belt. Only two years ago, when I turned 30, did I realize there really wasn’t anything particularly funny about wondering what would make my mother go off. Sometimes, I’d count how long it had been since a beating (although it’s still hard to refer to them as such now). A bad report card might make her shake her head in embarrassment, or it might force her into a hysterical rage that left her foaming at the mouth.
The physical aspect wasn’t as bad as the emotional battles she’d wage, however. Her unyielding pattern of being negligent and then too intrusive — like someone who’d forgotten they’d bought a puppy and then smothered it in breathless and inescapable kisses when they’d remembered —had made me unable to develop a sense of internal equilibrium. I am sometimes still afraid of my own moods, the murderous rages that would come on and then dissipate, the fear that everyone hates me due to one awkward conversation with a co-worker, the belief that even though I’ve maintained most of my adult friendships for more than 10 years, just one wrong step could make someone turn. Because I’d never been shown what proper boundaries looked like, I’d had to stumble through the process of finding them on my own, always worried that I was just one step away from being like her, trying too hard and being rejected for my efforts.
“It’s like I have a black hole at my center,” I said to her once. “Every interaction I have with another person pulls me from one end of my emotional spectrum to another. I never know how I truly feel.”
“And you’re saying I did this?” she asked, already on the verge of tears. “Why would I do something like that to you? You think I hate you? I love you and you think I’ve tried to ruin your life! You blame me for everything.”
The truth is, I really do. I blame her for everything. For holding things I did when I was seven against me 25 years later, and for being skeptical of my successes under the guise of concern. This has propelled me to do better, be better. It’s just not what I deserved.
But at this point, I don’t even want her to understand why we don’t talk. By her account, it’s my fault. I just want to come to terms with the fact that it’s okay not to hate her, despite all that I feel about her—and to understand that I’ll also never love her the way many people love their parents, either. That as an adult, I can be free of the emotional ties that bind us together, that I can keep the boundaries I’ve set.
I’m trying to figure out how to let go of all this hurt and anger, the emotional toll it’s taken on me, without letting go of part of my identity, too. Having made it through my childhood and adolescence, knees scraped and emotional wounds gaping, has made me the person I am today. And that person doesn’t always suck. Not all the time. That person has a steady job and is in a stable relationship. He has a problem with accepting love that comes without condition, recognizing that criticism and praise are invaluable but not identifying, and sometimes his self-loathing can get so bad that getting out of bed is almost impossible to do. But these are things I can continue to work on, and I do.
Sometimes, when my day hasn’t gone well, I still get angry at my mother. But the moments are rarer and rarer now. Sometimes I can even think about the good times, because they weren’t all bad. We were close once, and we’re not anymore. That’s it.
This year, I won’t be calling my mother on the first Sunday in May. I’ll be with my husband’s family; we’ll give his mother the dish we picked out together a few weeks ago. I’ll envy his family’s relationship, as I always do, and I’ll miss the fact that I don’t have the same relationship with mine. But what pains me most is that I won’t be missing the person who my mother is. I’ll be missing the entire concept of the word, the idea of a parent who doesn’t just sacrifice—as all parents must—but also doesn’t hold that sacrifice against their children. I’ll be missing the fact that for me, it no longer feels like there’s someone I can call to say thanks.
My husband and I are just starting to think about adoption—we’ve both always wanted a family—and sometimes I’m terrified I’ll be just like her. But if there’s anything she’s taught me, it’s that you don’t bring children into the world because you want them to thank you later. That always fails. It always ends in guilt and heartache. I hope I can remember that when I’m a father. And I hope that I can help my own children build healthy boundaries, remembering some of the good qualities my mother possesses—her determination, quick thinking, and sense of humor—while avoiding the ones that make it impossible for us to maintain a relationship.
I don’t hate my mother. I hope I’m forgiving her. In a certain buried way, I still love her more than anyone else in the world. But I’m learning to reckon with the fact that that love always came at a price.
Mark Shrayber is a senior writer at UPROXX. His work can be found on Cosmopolitan, Vice, The Daily Dot, and on this very website, where he once brought you all the most important news. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
Image via A&E