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Seeing Our Mothers As People

There have been moments when I have actually glimpsed my mother and understood her to be a person entirely separate from me. Watching her accept an award when I was a teenager in front of a room of well-dressed people sitting in front of hotel salads of iceberg lettuce. Seeing her dance, her lips slightly pursed, her skirt always long, always swooshing. The annual moment when she would load magazines, vodka, and Diet Coke into the back of her Jeep Cherokee and drive away for a weekend alone in a cabin.

I’m struck by the power and, perhaps related, paucity of these moments. There are so few of them. Even now, 37 years into knowing her, it’s like I can’t totally see her. I’m too close. It’s like I am a museum wanderer standing far too close to a large-scale abstract painting that I’m madly in love with. If only I could step back and take it in, in its entirety. I’m stuck studying an inch at a time.

If only I could look at my mom as she is, rather than as a psychic’s prediction of what I might become. Or a generational spell to break. Or a saint to worship. Or a wound to heal. It’s all so confusing, so muddled. I’m old enough to understand that it’s so much more about me than her.

It has me wondering: Can a child — a daughter, especially — ever acknowledge the real interior life of a mother?

It’s an important question for me as I try to grow an adult relationship — sometimes soaringly, sometimes fumblingly — with my own mother. And it’s an important question for me as I contemplate my fate as the mother of two daughters. Someday, will they have the same struggle? Will they even be interested in who I am? Will they know how to stand back and see me? Does it matter?

I don’t even see myself accurately. I will be sitting in the dark, nursing my youngest, and suddenly realize that I am her mother. That I have been a mother for almost four years now. I am someone’s mother, I’ll say in my head. It sounds preposterous, even as I have been covered in milk and shit and vomit all these years, even as I have been lugging these little girls all over the country, even as I have learning what cries are just the last brief rebellions against much-needed sleep and which ones are inconsolable without my touch.

I have so much subtle intelligence about keeping tiny humans alive that I never had before. My body has transformed — twice over with pregnancy, but also after; I’ve grown impressive biceps after carrying 25-pound babies up and down stairs. Somehow, I am still catching up to the idea that I am a mother, that I have earned those sacred stripes.

So I can’t quite see myself as a mother and I can’t quite see my own mother as anything else.

It’s particularly strange that I can’t own the mother thing when my experience of life right now is so defined by it. When I am with my daughters, and I am with them a lot, I feel like myself but a little muted. I can’t actually hear many of my own desires or needs because their desires and needs scream so loud. Which is fine. They’re still so young. I know it’s temporary. This is why I take long showers whenever I get the chance/go insane. I let the hot water pelt my shoulders and try to hear myself think and feel again. What do you want? I ask myself. Sometimes I have no answers, but the dark and the water and the shut door is enough to restore something inside of me that allows me to smile genuinely when Maya, my three-year-old, comes into the bathroom while I’m drying my body and stares at me as if studying and then asks if she can put on lotion with me.

The other day she asked me, out of the blue, “Why do you have to work?” And I said, “Because everything in this house costs money. And because I like to work.” I knew money was too abstract a concept for her, still, and that she was really asking, “Why is there ever anything else that pulls you away from me?”

Which is a form of “Who are you when you’re not with me?” Or maybe even, “Why does a you that’s not my mother exist?”

At the time, I felt a little irritated. She’s so clingy these days. She makes goodbyes so hard and sad. I just want to be able to leave sometimes without steeling myself for disappointing her. I want to become my not-mother self without feeling like I’m injuring her.

Thinking about it later, I empathized with the inquiry. It’s not just about wanting your mom. It’s a conceptual challenge. Maybe she’s just starting to stand dumbly before the painting that I am.

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