I hate Mother’s Day and I hate Father’s Day. For many people, they’re sweet and nostalgic days to remember and appreciate parents who meant a lot to them. For me, they’re nothing but emotional turmoil and regret.
If you look in the dictionary next to the phrase “dysfunctional family,” there’s a picture of my family. There were five of us. In addition to my parents, I had two younger sisters. We were born just two years apart, so we were like three little stair steps. (That’s me with my mother around the time of my second birthday.)
My mother was very intelligent, artistic, funny and sensitive. She was a free spirit who didn’t even hear the drumbeat of the rest of the world as she marched to her own. She was oblivious to anything except following her own heart. In college, she had been selected as one of the “beauties” for the yearbook — back in the days when they used to do that — at the teachers’ college where she and my father both went to school. She was wildly popular and widely loved.
My mother was too sensitive to be married to my father. I didn’t understand it at the time, but his strict and controlling nature drove her to a mental breakdown. They were nothing alike in temperament or habits or much of anything else, but he insisted that his way was right about everything. He pushed and manipulated and controlled and cajoled to force her to be exactly what he was.
She had a breakdown when I was 5 years old. I remember what happened very well, because I was standing there watching when she snapped. I could tell the story in detail, but I see no reason to. She was soon sent to a mental hospital in Virginia for a stay of about six weeks, where she had shock treatments.
She was never the same after that. When she returned, there were various things she no longer remembered had occurred. For instance, she had to experience the grief of her father’s death all over again, because the shock treatments had stolen that memory — and many others — from her.
She soon left my father. At the time, I was just distressed at the threat of my family breaking up. With an adult perspective — and a fuller understanding of who my father is — I don’t know how she lasted as long as she did.
She was on anti-depressants of various kinds. (Remember that the drugs were far worse back then.) Her official diagnosis at the time was manic-depression (called bi-polar disorder today), but a psychologist I’ve used for counseling in trying to understand the past says she believes her diagnosis today would be borderline personality disorder.
For about four years, she was in and out of our lives. At first, she took the three children with her when she left, but my father found ways to track her down each time and get us back. She finally understood that the only way she would be able to leave — and save her sanity — is if she allowed my father to have custody. When I was 9, they divorced and my father raised us.
There were a few aborted attempts by them to get back together, but they were doomed. After about the age of 14, I didn’t see her anymore until I was in college.
On the spur of the moment one day, I drove to Birmingham — where she taught at an inner-city elementary school — from Tuscaloosa and waited for her to get out of school. It was like seeing someone who I sort of knew intimately but who was sort of a stranger. Off and on over the years, we attempted to have a relationship, but it always seemed more as though I was seeing a woman I didn’t know.
For her part, she was always happy to see me and wanted more. She was still the same happy and sensitive and loving person I’d known as a child, but she was irresponsible and childlike. I never could deal with all the years of hurt I felt from having felt abandoned. And I couldn’t get over feeling that she was a stranger.
We eventually lost touch. The reasons are complicated and hard to explain. She now lives in Nashville in a residential facility of some kind. I’m told that she has Alzheimer’s to some degree or other.
For me, Mother’s Day is about the memories of what I didn’t have. It’s about the regret of not getting to grow up feeling that I had a mother who was there for me. As an adult, I can make excuses for the things she did — and I can explain to myself that my father was the one who drove her actions — but it doesn’t change what I felt.
I have a great desire to have a dearly loved wife and children of my own. I’ve learned enough about both of my parents to finally understand what’s important and what’s not. I’ve learned not to be someone like my father. I’ve learned to accept the differences and imperfections of someone like my mother. It’s taken me this long to get to the point that I can feel certain I won’t repeat their mistakes.
I’ve been through a lot of varying emotions when it comes to my mother. I’ve loved her, despised her, pitied her and felt anger for her. The emotions are still mixed and I’ll never be able to change the past.
But if I can change my future — and create the kind of emotionally healthy and happy family I didn’t have — all of the struggle will have been worth it.
I’ve resented my mother quite a bit in the past for abandoning us. I felt that she couldn’t love me or she wouldn’t have left. I finally understand that she did the best she could. I’m finally at peace with that.