She Didn’t Mother, But She Taught Me How

I had a mother once, but not a real mother. She gave birth to me, but almost anyone can do that. I know deep, deep down, under and inside and probably wrapped up inside of something else and hidden in a corner of her, there was love for me.

I believe in childbirth we give up the body of the child, but left behind is this powerful seed. Some people tend to it and embrace it as a gift. Not everyone does. Not everyone has a mom who paid attention to that burning in their chests and aching in their stomachs and inability to get your mind to rest at night. Not every new mother understands that this tiny baby is theirs and you are going to give up anything you have to just to keep it safe and to let it know it is loved.  Perhaps they are too young. Perhaps they are so distracted with their own problems, they wrap it up to silence it and hide it deep inside.

I know it is planted in my flesh because from the moment I laid eyes on my children, it hurt. Something is in you that wasn’t in you before. It burns as it germinates and tickles as it spreads roots throughout your being and every cell in your body knows your entire purpose has changed. You don’t sleep because you worry about your child. You are to protect this person you made and brought into the world. You are responsible for them and you have to teach responsibility to them. You already love them and you have to teach them to love. That is… unless you were my mother.

I was already mad at my mom before I had my own children. It isn’t fair because she is dead. She died when I was 19, unexpectedly, but I always expected it. When a mom dies at the end of a girl’s teenage years, you don’t get to “make up” and be best friends. You don’t get to shop for wedding dresses and have lunch together when you are in your twenties and thirties. You don’t get to laugh about the hard times you gave your parents and tell them you’re sorry you were such a rotten teenager, because you are a parent of teenagers yourself now… and you see the error of your ways.

Those things would have never happened anyway. She had forgotten she had that seed wrapped up and tucked away inside of her.

I loved her with all of me the way little girls love. The way little girls love with an open heart but with an extra helping of, “Please don’t kill yourself tonight mom. Please stop saying goodbye I promise I will be good. Dad does love you.” It was our normal. On the really bad nights, dad would take us to the drive-in movie for a double feature. We brought pillows and blankets and slept in the quiet.

As an older girl, I loved her by keeping her out of jail. I hid the knives in the wood burner when my dad went to work. Sometimes he would forget and call me from the office and tell me just to wrap them up in a towel and he will get them out when he gets home. We weren’t worried about her hurting herself anymore. She wanted to hurt us. I loved her with a protective heart while trying to keep myself and my little sister safe.

The teenage daughter was tired. Tired of trying to keep it all a secret, trying to pretend we had a normal family at school. Tired from sitting up all night while my dad was gone. I started sleeping up against the inside of my bedroom door after I woke up and found her pushing lit cigarettes into my mattress. She stood behind a door to pour hair dye on me on my high school graduation day. I was wearing a short white summer dress and I had black dye all over me. There are some things you cannot tell people until years later, because when they ask, “why?” you cannot answer. I don’t know why.

I was leaving for college and I was never coming back.

Then she died.

Sometimes, when women have children they don’t know they have to tend to that seed. Their souls and minds and flesh are hostile environments to grow anything but their own seeds of destruction. I know somewhere deep inside of my mother she had my mothering seed wrapped up and tucked away like she did with things in life. You would find pills wrapped up in tissues and tucked in the toes of her dress shoes. This was before Prozac or Paxil — before people talked about “baby blues” or “postpartum depression.” That wasn’t what was wrong with her though; there was a lot wrong.

She was probably bi-polar and it was probably because of some trauma she had inflicted upon her as a child. She didn’t get help and when she was grown she didn’t want any.

I went to a therapist for a year once. I thought that was the right thing to do before I started a family of my own. After a year of telling stories to my therapist, I asked him what he thought and how much “more” I needed. He replied that I never really needed a therapist. He told me he was waiting for me to ask how much longer. He told me I was “well-adjusted” and I had a “tremendous understanding” of how wrong and ridiculous my childhood had been. He said that the fact I can laugh about it speaks volumes that I am NORMAL. I am normal. That is why I did, indeed, need to go. As a child of a parent that was fatally flawed, you have so much worry that you are as well.

I turned 39 this year. I am now older than my Mother was when she died. I have always had a firm grasp on who I am, even thankful for all of my experiences. If you have had a challenging childhood you understand. There are a lot of us out there. I don’t mean the kind of childhood where you’re mad at your parents because they loved your sister more than you because she got to go to horse camp and you didn’t. I mean the kind of childhood that you’re happy you aren’t a crack-head or a topic for Dateline.

Turning 39 churned something up in me. I felt so much pity for my mom. She never had a chance to change. She didn’t live long enough to see the sympathy people now have for mental illness. I certainly don’t feel like I have anything figured out and am still continually finding out who I am. She didn’t get to try the medications that may have lessened her mood swings or calmed her anxieties. Some people talk about the moment they turned their lives around. Lying on the bathroom floor and the moment the drunk swears off the bottle forever or the wealthy man realizes that it is just money in the bank, but if given to others it could mean a warm blanket or an education for a fresh start.

My mom started her family at nineteen. She died as she turned 39. She never had a chance to go and find that seed and unwrap it. It wasn’t too late. Children love their parents — and they even love them when their parents hurt them. Perhaps one day she would have apologized for being rotten Mother and seen the error of her ways. Perhaps.

This Mother’s Day, I will spend the day with my beautiful boys, thinking a little about this one extra Mother’s Day that I have lived that my own Mother didn’t get. I will wonder if this would have been the year in her life that just the two of us went to lunch — for the first time. That extra year may have been the one that she noticed me instead of hurt me. Would this have been the year in her life I would have forgiven her?

I don’t know if I will ever forgive her. I know that isn’t how I am supposed to feel. But it is how I feel. I have that mothering seed growing inside of me and I pity her for not. Some days mine grows like kudzu and others it’s a little wilted from neglect. I am far from being a perfect Mother. I am far from being my own Mother and for that contrast, I am thankful. I don’t have those days where I am doubting all of my abilities to parent. I don’t have the mornings where I am crying to a girlfriend that I failed my kids the day before when I lost my temper. I know they will be okay. My mom taught me to love my kids with every cell of my body and to let them know — and mine do. I may not forgive her but I am thankful for her teaching me this lesson about mothering.

– Abbie

Not everyone has a Hallmark commercial memory playing above their heads when they think of Mother’s Day.  That doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate my Mother and being a mother.    Is Mother’s Day a day you focus on your own mom or do you relish in being a mom or both?

18 thoughts on “She Didn’t Mother, But She Taught Me How

  1. Abbie, this is so well written. I too have a mother who didn’t know how/didn’t want to mother probably from her own childhood as well. She is still living though, and I wonder if it is so painfully obvious that I could not bring myself to write a glowing mothers day post about her. There just wasn’t anything to write. You handled this so well. But I will say, now that my mother is 68 and I am 48 I see that the possibility that she will change, that she will realize all that she is missing, WILL NOT HAPPEN. It just won’t. Not at this age, and I suspect that were your mother alive, it would be the same. They aren’t capable, and if they were, they would have done it by now. Don’t beat yourself up wondering if it would have been different. Mental illness (I also suspect my mother to be either bipolar or borderline) is tough that way. Your picture of your boys was so appropriate at the end, and conveys how tightly you hold onto them. It’s how I feel with mine. I can’t imagine treating them the way I was treated. Anyway, great post.

  2. Ran across your blog while on leave from work due to knee problems and Wow was I impressed.I never had a great beginning either,Daddy was killed and we were left to fend for ourselves but now I see we did not have it so bad.I love being a mom too.If you get a chance see me at to meet my family.Much love and God’s Blessings.

  3. Wasn’t sure I wanted to read this, given all the “deepness” I knew it would contain. Abbie, it is beautifully written and beautifully tragic. PS, I am not pissed you are not playing tennis with me this spring 😉

  4. Abbie – I read your post on Blogher. Thank you. Thank you for writing your story. I’m always hesitant to share my own. The few times I have opened up, it makes the listener so uncomfortable that the friendships have actually disintegrated. Like they are going to “Catch” something from me.

    My story is different and yet the same. My mother is living, yet we do not have a relationship.

    I am a very VERY different parent than she. I look at it almost as a gift. I don’t take anything for granted. I am thankful. Period.

    New follower of your blog. I can’t wait to read what you have coming next.

    Thank you

  5. Thank you for sharing! My mother suffers from PTSD from a very abusive childhood of her own. She very much nutured her mothering seeds though, but even then it was hard for her. She finally “cracked” in her late 30’s, left my father, attempted to take her own life, and thankfully failed. She spent a few years in a hospital learning to cope with all she had gone through. It took a long time but she is an incredible and happy woman today! You story hit a raw nerve in me. I am incredibly grateful my mom loved us more then anything. She could have easily gone the way of your mother had she denied herself all feelings.
    I agree with your therapist, you are inceridble well adjusted! Enjoy your Mother’s day, and know you are setting a wonderful example for your own children as to what a good mother should be.

  6. Abbie, you and I have lived parallel lives. My mother, however, has survived. She is a recovered alcoholic/prescription drug addict, had eating disorders, depression and other various mental illness. She tried to commit suicide three times when my sister and I were younger. One of these time we found her and had to call for help. It is heart wrenching what you have gone through. My sister is 4-years older than me and pretty much raised me. She has a great deal of anger with my mother, who is sober and healthy now. My sister protected me and I love her for that. I love my mother and am very proud of her, but it is still very hard with her at times. My childhood scarred me, but made me who I am…a hard lesson to see. I was just telling my sister this week that all I ever wanted growing up was to feel “safe and secure” with my parents. Even today their lives are in chaos. It isn’t unhealthy chaos, but it reminds me of bad times. I now have my own “safe and secure” family and sometimes have to remind that to the little girl in me. My sister told me she is so tired of being the parent to my mother. She just wants to be a daughter, but feels like she always has to take care of her. I think you and my sister have much in common…and me too. What I’ve learned about you through your blog, is that you’ve turned such a traumatic, sad, hard childhood into a full, loving, FUN life. I’ve learned this lesson too. As bleak as things get, there is always light around the corner. Keep smiling, keep writing, keep talking about the good and bad and keep giving the little girl in you a hug.

  7. This was beautifully written, Abbie. Heartbreaking but beautiful. I have a little niece whose mother had the same problem – the mother eventually died at the age of about 34-35, leaving behind the 6 year old. The good thing is that the little girl’s father is now raising her, trying to get her to forget the pain of the past. Its incredible that you are such a good mother, so nurturing, despite the pain that you have seen. Good wishes to you and your boys! 🙂

  8. Holy crap, Abbie – when you said sad, I didn’t realize you meant so sad. And yet, in a way, your story is less a sad one than a triumphant one. Saying that, I don’t at all mean to trivialize the sad that’s in your story. Wow.

  9. Wow, this was a brave and heartbreaking post–and I think it’s interesting that those of us who were not well-mothered, can be such nurturers and so full of joy and humor. Truly that is miraculous, whatever your faith. I chose not to be a mother, fearing I’d model and pass on the cruelties I’d known. And now I mother any and everybody, whether they want it or not!! Thanks for this one, Abbie. God bless you, and your adorable tribe–Caddo

  10. wow….as illusiontheory said….you struck a nerve with me as well. A big one. You have a beautiful family. Conflicted feelings about your parents….that is me to a tee in a huge way. My father was “taken” as the family says and really won’t talk about at a accident at work when he was 21….I was 2 1/2….so I have one parent….Mom….and the relationship or lack of one with her is a constant struggle and it so irritates when boyfriend says get over it…cut her off…this from a person who has both of his parents…his parents aren’t “normal”…but what is normal anyways. I am turning 40 this year and this whole lack of relationship with Mom and lack of father really seems to be hitting hard…not sure why….but it is. Thank you sharing a bit of your life and me realizing…there are others in the world who have this parent struggle.

  11. This was beautifully written and from the heart. Thank you for sharing. My grandmother died when my father was only nine-years-old and also suffered from something undiagnosed, like bi-polar disorder. I never met her, but I know her death affected my father deeply. I always wonder what would have happened if she had the medicine and help she needed then. Would she have made a different choice? Would I have known my paternal grandmother? I’m so glad there is a deeper understanding of mental illness today.

  12. Thanks for this, it definitely hit a nerve with me. I never had a “real” mother and I always wonder if I am normal. I constantly remind myself not to be like her with my own children. I definitely appreciate them more because I want them to have everything that I didn’t. It’s such a taboo for so many people that have conflicted feelings for their parents to speak of them in a negative way, even if it’s the truth. Those who have “normal” parents take for granted and can never understand how insidious a mentally disturbed parent can be. They can definitely do more harm than good. On a positive note, like you, I have learned how NOT to treat my children.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. My mother was a more typical mother, but my aunt was bipolar and I saw how she treated her sons. She died in her 30’s in a mental hospital. We don’t talk enough about mental illness but we should. Thank you for bringing this out into the open. Your mom probably died before the more effective treatments were available. And even now, there is no cure, just medications that help modify depression, etc. Take care of yourself. Your blog brings many of us together. Enjoy your family and share their antics as you have been so we can enjoy them too.

  14. Abbie, I’m so glad you decided to post this, to give us some insight into the wonderful person – and mother – that you have become. (((((Hugs))))) It takes courage to open yourself up, to be vulnerable … and I understand that. I also have a mother (adopted mother) who was not a mother. She is still alive, and I’m always conflicted when mother’s day comes around as to just how to handle it – or not. And I had a birth mother who was not a mother; she is dead also, and I’m still not sure how I feel about her. I think there are a lot of women who are in our position, Abbie – you are not alone. I love that you know how to love and nurture yourself and your own children; that your family know they are loved and that you know they love you. Wishing you so many years of happiness and love! ~ Julie xoxox

    • Abbie, after the last few emotional days, I needed to come back here and read this again … I’m always amazed by your wonderful posts, reading about your children, and the love you have pours out over the pages. I need some of that in my life, especially right now, so thank you for providing it. I was never able to have children, as a result of the abuse I suffered – but was always afraid to anyway. Afraid that I would turn out to be an even worse mommy …. Thank you for this today; I feel blessed to know you’re a part of my world. ~ Love and hugs, Julie xoxox

  15. I commented on this over at blogHer but figured i would swing by your blog too. I recently blogged about mothers day coming up – its MU first one since my mothers death this past December. She was poison to me. I’m no stranger to conflicted feelings; sadness, resentment and mourning all battling for my attention. Again – thank you for writing this.

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