This post is a part of a special series in partnership with Permission to Write called Mom/Me: An exploration of motherhood and beyond. This collection of poetry, essays, and visual media showcase the many facets of motherhood and our relationship to it.
One thing is for sure: I am my mother’s child.
I have her loud mouth, her sass, her fight, and her love. Sometimes it seems like I may have been born out of spite for the things she did to her mother, like she says I was.
Listen, I love my mom and I know she loves me, but in regards to our relationship, well, “it’s complicated.” And the complexities of our relationship have undoubtedly shaped who I am, not only as a woman but especially as a mother.
She Did The Best She Could…
I vaguely recall my childhood with my mom: going shopping at the Galleria and eating Pizza Hut in White Plains, New York; mom coming home with bags and bags from Macy’s after work. We enjoyed all the Black comedy shows (namely Family Matters on TGIF) and old classics like I Love Lucy and The Golden Girls (all of which we both still enjoy with my oldest daughter).
She busted her ass getting two master’s degrees in the early ‘90s. The fridge was always stocked—she did giant food hauls at BJ’s and Costco—and Christmases gifts were always stacked.
In being so lost in her life, [my mother] also sacrificed me.
My memories surrounding the trauma of my youth are much clearer. I don’t remember spending much one-on-one time with my mom. I do remember her always struggling to do my very thick hair and it being a process we both hated, so much so that when I was around 8 years old she sent me to the salon for a perm and never touched it again.
I do remember long summer drives to the airport for even longer solo flights to stay with other family members, starting from the age of 5. Four weeks in California with my aunt and her family, three weeks in South Carolina with my grandparents. I do not remember a summer spent with my mother outside of one trip to Disney at the age of 5.
It became clear from a young age that my mother did the best she could with the information she had and what she believed she could do for me at the time. You know, she was a single mom, raising two kids, in and out of toxic relationships, working three jobs to support her children and a shopping habit. She was suffering from her own afflictions and unresolved (or even unknown) trauma. She operated out of fear and confusion, doing what she thought was necessary, and she made some big sacrifices.
As I think about it, my mother sacrificed her life, dreams, and perhaps her happiness to provide for me and my older brother. But in being so lost in her life, she also sacrificed me.
A Fragile Bond Broken
Like I said, I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I was living a pretty normal kid life until shit hit the fan faster than humanly possible.
My grandmother suffered a fall, which led to brain injury and ultimately a diagnosis of Alzheimers and dementia. In September 2000, at the peak of her ailment, Grandma was living with us, in my room, occasionally wandering out of our 19th-floor apartment. She fought with the home aid and my mother, and often didn’t recognize me. The only person who could calm her was my brother, who was also living with us but experiencing his own life at 24.
I was sleeping in the living room and feeling displaced. Mom was busy—her hands were full—but in the midst of chaos, suddenly there was a man. I would hear the creeps late at night, never to see his face until “meeting” him January 2001. He introduced himself and explained his plans for my mother’s life and mine, inviting me along.
… the perception was clear: She forgot about me and chose herself.
Little did I know that four months later, my mother would make the decision to stock up the fridge for me and move to Virginia with her new beau. I was a freshman in high school and she left. She left me behind. She left me in an apartment with an elder with dementia who I was by default tasked to keep safe until she was prepared to retrieve us both. I would come to discover that this broke our mother/child bond and it has yet to be mended.
Initially, it was nothing: I did my routine, kept my grades, and got used to my mom’s absence. I also got used to filling my 14-year-old life with unhealthy habits and engaging in my first (of a few) unhealthy (and dare I say) abusive relationships. I did some things because everyone else did them, too.
I now know that God interceded and sent the angels in my life to pull me out of a home that lacked supervision, but not the one that I wanted—my mom. From the whispers of the adults around me, the perception was clear: She forgot about me and chose herself. The shame I felt because of her choices… I never wanted anyone to feel how I felt. The feeling of betrayal set in. The angst set in.
I spoke to her when someone made me, but she wasn’t physically around and I didn’t want to be bothered with her.
At 15, I promised myself that I would take care of me, regardless of my mother’s presence; that I would get as far away from home as I could; and that I would never do my kid the way she did me.
Little did I know there would be intentional work for that to be true.
Learning To Mother Myself
As I attempted to build boundaries, her life’s pain would continue to inflict pain on me. I despised what we had become, but would soon find our lives mirroring each other. You see, similar to my mother, I became pregnant at a young age. (I was 21, she was 19 when she was pregnant with my brother.)
We both found ourselves on the cusp of adulthood and motherhood early in life, neither of which we knew anything about. However as my journey began, I knew I had some generational cycles to break, some immediate and some yet to be discovered.
My maternal instinct began with mothering myself, not allowing certain information that could potentially affect my birth process or my peace. During this time, I couldn’t speak to my mother very often. She couldn’t respect my request to not share negative birthing stories as I was terrified of the process, and she always wanted to share how HARD labor and delivery was for her. (Girl, nobody wants to hear that!)
My daughter would never know what it meant to be without essentials and, most importantly, me.
I didn’t want her in the delivery room with me, and kept it to just my daughter’s father and my doula. It pained me that my mother wasn’t a reliable source of comfort and understanding. Shortly after giving birth to my daughter, I fought postpartum depression, and yearned for a mother who was willing and wanted to help with her grandchild. A mother who was gentle and sensitive, who didn’t say things that were mean and try to cover it up by saying it was just a “joke.”
But she was going through her own shit, and I was expected to accept whatever she had to offer, nothing more and likely less. So there I was again, off to fend for myself… and now my baby.
I set in stone that my daughter would never know what it meant to be without essentials, and, most importantly, me. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I worked a variety of jobs and juggled completing my degree while doing so. If a job required me to interrupt my daughter’s schedule or cause my prolonged absence, that position wasn’t for me. (Needless to say, I worked a few jobs.) I’ve always preferred providing stability in my daughter’s life over looking good to a boss. We kept and still do (or at least try to in the midst of COVID-19) strong routines. My main goal was and still is to ensure my daughter can always rely on my consistent presence.
When I first decided to go to therapy to deal with my relationship with my mom, it had the added benefit of resolving my daddy issues. I began to identify what was behind my choices in men (often cyclical situationships) and discovered my mom dealt with the same issues. I’ve never known my maternal grandfather, and my mother never met him, so she could never teach me what she didn’t know.
I learned that I could not introduce my oldest daughter to men who weren’t up to giving me what I knew she needed to see to be able to experience. I couldn’t have that true companion until I opened my eyes to past patterns and started looking for the qualities I knew I wanted in a man.
Making this choice affected my mothering. I was clear that the man who I eventually did choose as a partner would shape how she understands intimate relationships. Whereas my mother cussed and fought during conflict, I attempt to resolve issues intelligently, showing my daughter healthy conflict resolution. It’s not always achievable, but if there is a louder-than-usual argument, I take a minute to come back and acknowledge errors in our ways.
Motherhood is a cycle of learned behaviors—some good, some bad, never perfect…
As I continued to do the work in therapy and in conscious life choices, the ease of motherhood and raising a growing, thinking, sassy (told you, generational), loving, human being set in. A positive flow was created. Don’t get me wrong, struggles are present because life. But the more I learned and identified my own trauma and life blocks, the more I was able to take responsibility for my situation so that my child would never feel like she was the cause, a burden, or unseen.
I work diligently to raise emotionally intelligent, articulate, brilliant humans. I was raised to have the posture of strength, the type of strength that really meant my feelings were irrelevant. But my oldest daughter can come to me at any point and say “Mommy, I feel…” and tell me how she feels about herself or how anything I may have done has impacted her.
To this day, my mother is not a safe space for me. I am not a perfect mother by far (I mean who is?), but I actively work to create a safe space for my daughters to have a mother they can bring anything to. It can be difficult for my oldest to share, but it creates a healthy dynamic for us. We take intentional time together: doing hair, drawing, walking, reading, and so much more. We can feel safe with our feelings, and we can learn together and grow peacefully.
I will say my mother’s abandonment has unleashed a unrelenting commitment to not only my daughters, but to my own healing. Motherhood is a cycle of learned behaviors—some good, some bad, never perfect—but it is our responsibility to the humans we birth to identify the toxic things in life that can deeply affect generations to come. We must find ways to generate an inclusive, safe and flourishing experience for life in the midst of hardship—that is the space I chose to mother in.