There is a story of my mother that I trot around as antidote to other stories that I tell about my mother. I have, over years, used it both to show how she is good as well as how I think that she is bad. I trade in stories maybe, but I think most of us do this. We pick the stories; we curate them; we pass them on to prove things either about us or about the people that they hold inside.
This story about my mother involves a weekend that she came up to move me out of my freshmen college dorm room. I was eighteen, a Depressed Person, and spent most of the time that she was there asleep in my bed or in a chair at the library. For that whole time my mother cleaned my dorm room, did my laundry, sweat then showered then took me out to dinner. I was a Messy Depressed Person and there had been, for months, a stench so strong emanating from the room that people smelled it in the hallways, asked about it, knew to avoid me mostly, looked at me and maybe talked about me, the few times a day when I left my room to use the bathroom or to shower.
My roommate had long ago moved out, exhausted by me surely, but also, she had been caught selling weed out of our room. Solitude had made the room even worse; there were piles of laundry, mostly sugar-crusted sweatpants and sweaty running clothes, cans of Betty Crocker icing, which was most of what I ate then, wrappers from the other junk foods that I binged on, wrappers from the burritos one of my friends used to bring me, in the weeks when I refused to leave the dorm.
My parents are relatively well-off, and I have told this story sometimes to show the ways in which my mother is much more than her fancy house and car and all the diamonds in her ears and on her wrists and fingers. I’ve told it to show she came from nothing; she loves me; she works hard. I’ve told it to show all the ways in which I was a useless, spoiled child of privilege. How I sat there. How she did load after load of laundry, making friends with the sophomore boys I’d mostly been afraid to speak to, when one of the coin machines broke and they gave her quarters, when she got them candy from the vending machine as thanks. Once, the next fall, she would carry a chair I’d liked and she had bought at Urban Outfitters on the subway all the way back to my dorm.
I have told it to show how hard it must have been to be my mom.
For years, I told this as a story of her strength. After I had kids, I twisted it. It twisted, as perhaps all of me twisted when I had kids. I was angry at my mother for a good portion of those first years that I myself was a mother.
She didn’t talk to me, I told someone, holding one of my babies, nursing, which she didn’t do when she had children, telling that same story of my freshmen dorm room. She didn’t crawl up onto my dorm bed and talk to me, I said. She didn’t ask me what was wrong.
She knew what was wrong because I had sporadically been in therapy for years by then, because of all the shit I’d gotten up to in high school: alcohol poisoning and car accidents, skipping so much school that I had to be withdrawn. I had been prescribed all sorts of medication. I had refused to take them. She had yelled at me, cried at me, raged at me — I was useless, worthless, a piece of shit, what the fuck was wrong with me — sat in my room trying to hold me though I was bigger than her — please, please, please, please, please over and over — begging me to stop.
For a while when I had a toddler and I was pregnant, my mother and I stopped talking. We’d been fighting. She’d been yelling at me on the phone one day about my abominable life choices — the state and location of our Brooklyn apartment, a home in Florida that we were thinking of buying that was in immeasurable disrepair — as I stood, pregnant for the second time, outside a graduate class. Something shifted then in our fighting.
Now she was disparaging not only me but choices my husband and I were making for our children, not only my life but the life we were trying to create for them. We yelled at one another. There was no right or wrong or in between. At stake for both of us was whether or not we had been, or were now, loving our kids. Loving them the right way. After months of this fighting back and forth, I need a break, I told her. I wanted not to fight awhile and that had become all we ever did.
At that point my story changed again. I chose then to say that if I were my mother up in Boston that time she came to get me when I was still an adolescent hardly functional Depressed Person, I would have forced me to tell her what was wrong with me. I would have talked to her, I said. I would have mothered better, I thought then and said out loud to other people, as if better were so clean and clear as imagining what she must have felt like then.
I am very good at stories. Like my mother, who is a lawyer, a litigator. I am also, like my mother, good at indignation. I’m good at feeling fury toward a thing or person by which or whom I feel I have been wronged. There is a sort of thrill that comes from it just below the surface of my anger or my sadness. It feels athletic, engaging. I gesture broadly and stand up tall.
When I was sixteen, my car got towed and my mother drove me, yelling the whole time about how disgusting I was, how awful, what a worthless piece of shit, to the tow lot to retrieve my car.
She told me in this yelling — which she did then often, which I had come, over months, to refer to as my fuck-up speech — they would not waste their hard-earned money on sending me to college. (This was not true, even she knew, they would never allow themselves to have a child not in college. This was just a thing she said during this talk she gave.) She told me she felt helpless, tired, how could I, why did I. I’d gained weight, I’d stopped showing up to school or track practice. I was drinking all the time and getting caught.
She drove with her red car’s top down as she yelled at me. When we got to the tow yard, there were piles of cars stacked in the lot. The man told my mom she owed him six hundred dollars. She looked at me. I was in cotton pajama pants and a sweatshirt. My eyes were swollen from crying just minutes before. My face was swollen from the weight I’d gained. None of my clothes fit and this was what I wore as often as I could. No matter it was hot out. No matter that my skin pricked all over with little sweat bubbles that then settled back into my pores and gave off a smell that often made me sick.
My mother lit into this man, who was, as far as I could tell, just an employee of this car lot. I will sue you, she said. She explained to him the injustice of this thing he’d done, towing my car, a sixteen-year-old, a child, she said, who couldn’t, didn’t need to know, what she had done. To exploit us, she said, of six hundred dollars. She gestured toward me, to exploit this child, she said. She hung on the last word for emphasis. I cowered, partially out of fear, but also because I knew this was my role. She threatened to call the papers. She would file a civil suit against the lot for all the cars that he had piled up outside. She cited statutes. It’s robbery, holding people’s possessions hostage for these sums, she said.
The man, who was large, half-asleep when we entered, with stubble and a flash of belly sticking out from the bottom of his shirt, let her talk, then said we could take the car and to please just go now. When she handed me the keys, I watched her face change shape as she remembered we were only on the same team for as long as it took to get what we wanted, not what we needed.
This is supposed to be an essay about what I can’t tell my mother, what I haven’t told her. When I was asked to do this, I had that initial thrill of showing all the ways she makes me mad. But that didn’t feel new or right or like it held inside most of what I feel any longer when I think of her. I have told her most of what I think. I have hurt her. She has hurt me. None of this feels secret.
The other day, I was teaching a gender studies class — nine teenage girls all anxious to say the right thing, their desks in a circle — and my students and I were talking about mothers. We were talking about the impossible positions they are placed in, the ways in which they are our models; we were talking about what little space moms have to also need and also want. My students didn’t notice but I started crying. I teared up, and when the class was over, I went into a bathroom stall and sat until I stopped. I hadn’t spoken to my mother recently. We don’t speak often. I couldn’t locate the specific feeling I’d had the last time we talked. I thought for a few hours after I cried in the bathroom that I would call her and I would tell her that I loved her. But I did not trust calling her. I was afraid that if I called her, she would talk and it would be too hard for me to love her after that.
What I cannot tell my mother is whatever I would have told her on that phone call, on all the phone calls in which I take out my phone and scroll to her name, stare at it, and then put the phone away. There is a gaping hole perhaps for all of us, where our mother does not match up with mother as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us. What I cannot tell her is all that I would tell her if I could find a way to not still be sad and angry about that.
Our younger daughter nursed much longer than I expected, until she was nearly two. I loved the ease of it, giving to her. She’d cry, I’d offer her a boob. She’d settle in, and all was good again. When I stopped nursing, I was afraid all of a sudden. All at once, there was no clear, clean way to give to her, no certain way to ensure that she’d calm down. When she needed, wanted, suffered, I had only my best guess: words, hugs, begging, asking, holding. I only had the flawed and abstract way that humans love.
I once had a therapist tell me I was just born to the wrong family. The “just” is hers, not mine. We have different values is a thing I sometimes tell people when they ask about my parents, but that sounds already more subjective, more judgmental than I mean. We are very different, very separate people, who have both accidentally and on purpose hurt and loved one another poorly and intensely my whole life. As I get older, as I mother longer, this feels both just as fresh and white-hot hard as it did when I was fourteen. It also feels like almost every other life.
The other day, I let my kids watch TV while I cleaned the bathroom. I hardly ever do this. My mother let me watch loads of TV when I was little. After she had spent a full week working, providing for us in ways I have so far failed to provide for my kids, she often spent the weekend cleaning for us in ways I often fail to make our home clean for our kids. Back then I resented a thousand things about this for a thousand reasons, not least of what it said about what I would have to do when I was grown up, not least because I thought there might be other ways to love and to be loved.
But I did this same thing a couple of weeks ago. I was tired. They need more often than they don’t need. They’re at the age when they can sit in front of the TV for hours. I cleaned the bathroom because I wasn’t up for all the complicated ways I would have to love them and entertain them if we turned off the TV and spent the day together. I hardly ever clean the bathroom and it was gross. Getting the mold out of the grout, scrubbing the soap scum off the bottom of the tub, my hands covered in bleach, my knees sore; it felt like giving to them in a way that was both familiar and substantial; it felt like what they needed, how I wanted to be a mother; it also felt like my mom.
Like so many days before this, I almost called my mother this day. In the mirror, too-thin arms and lots of freckles on the shoulders, a broad nose, short hair, sweat across my brow, I looked so much like her; I felt so much like her and I wanted to tell her how. But I have made that phone call and it has failed me too many times. She has not wanted to unpack or parse through our sameness, if only because I always start with wanting to address the ways that we have grown apart. She does not much like to talk about her feelings. She gets anxious when I ask her to consider what there is and is not behind and between us; she almost always feels attacked.
We all hurt one another. She could not not have hurt me. She could not not have made me angry. What I wish that I could tell her is that I am, finally, okay with that. What I cannot tell my mother is that she hurt me and I’m angry, but it doesn’t matter as much anymore.
Excerpted from What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster on April 30, 2019. Copyright © Lynn Steger Strong 2019.