I cut contact with my mother in January 2017. It was a sudden decision, but it also wasn’t. I had spent several months (if not a couple years) beforehand learning about emotional abuse by reading books like Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride, Toxic Parents by Susan Forward, and Codependent No More by Melony Beattie.
And I used to hide these books. I couldn’t let anyone know that I suspected my mother of abuse. But the more I learned, and the more I noticed as a neutral observer instead of an emotional reactor, I couldn’t really deny it.
My parents were two ends of a spectrum. On my mother’s side, she was dutiful in providing the basics necessary to keep her children alive. But at the end of the day, she wasn’t emotionally present, and her resentment bled through into her relationships with us.
There were good times, of course — she could be tender and kind, funny and imaginative. But I honestly think she didn’t want children so early in her life and resented her lost youth, and therefore our youth was an offense.
Dad, on the other hand, was warm and jovial, always having fun, and always the yes-man. Remember Robin Williams’ character in Mrs. Doubtfire? The fun dad? That was my dad. And Sally Field, the mom who kept it all together and couldn’t take it anymore even though she fell in love with him because he made her laugh? That was my mom.
I didn’t feel mom’s love the way I felt dad’s love, so it was easy to pick a side in the divorce. We moved in with dad when I was 12 and my sister was 8. While mom made sure the basics were covered, even though the cost was her juggling three jobs and burning out, dad seemed to not even notice the basics. I learned how to operate a washing machine at age 12 — a normal time to know how to do it, but I still feel bitter that it was out of necessity and not a sense of independence.
Were it not for me stepping up as a proxy mom figure, my sister and I would have been going to school in dirty clothes having had ice cream for most meals. My sister was bullied at school and I had trouble making friends. It was hard — hard enough that we moved back in with mom.
Over the years, mom had a lot to say. About my friends (she somehow “always did have a bad feeling” about them when our friendships ended, though she didn’t say so when I first met them). About my body and the food I ate. About me not always wearing a bra. About me not shaving my legs. About me and my choices and my future and my degree and that I was settling for my husband.
Once my sister and I outgrew our natural rivalry for mom’s attention and affection, she’d strike it back up on her own, pitting us against each other about how many Christmas presents she bought for us or who had fixed her computer most recently. “Favorite daughter” became a challenge to make her the happiest by being the quietest or most aggrandizing.
In 2017, mom and I were chit-chatting in the car as she drove us to the grocery store. I had come to the house to visit for some reason – maybe it was washing my delicates, maybe it was just to hang out. But we were en route to the store and I asked what we’d do for my birthday that year. She said, “I don’t know… why don’t you think about what you did for my birthday, and we’ll do that.”
I racked my brain – I couldn’t remember what we did for her birthday. Which was her point. We didn’t make a big deal about it, and she felt hurt but didn’t tell us that. I realized in that moment that everything was a transaction with her. Every celebration was something that had come due because I had collected enough Good Daughter points to get a prize. And in the space between heartbeats in the car that day, I decided that I wouldn’t speak to her again. I couldn’t keep chasing her prizes.
It felt petty. It still does sometimes. To have cut her off over a conversation about my birthday. But it wasn’t just my birthday. It was twenty-nine birthdays. It was the metaphorical gift receipt she held onto from my own birth, ready to return me if I wasn’t meeting her expectations. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I didn’t tell her. I just stopped calling, and stopped taking her calls. I do wish I had said something, but I don’t think it would have mattered. Whenever I had tried to talk about our past, about the hurt feelings of my childhood, about anything that came up in therapy… she said it was in the past, no use talking about it. But I needed to talk about it. I wanted her to acknowledge that even though she did her best, she still hurt me.
But, knowing that acknowledgement would never come, I made the decision to stop talking to her. In response, she cut me out of her will and threw away any of my stuff that was still in her house. Fair, I guess. She never tried to ask why or reel me back in, she just cut me off right back. That brought a new wave of grief I didn’t expect – that it was so easy for her, when it had been so hard for me.
In 2018, a little over a year later, I was thrust back into contact with her. I had been trying to get ahold of my stepfather. He had installed my furnace and it was acting up, so I wanted his advice. But he wasn’t answering my calls or responding. Finally, I did get a text back from his number, but it was my mom on the other end. She let me know that he wasn’t working anymore, he was sick. I asked for more information and she told me he had lung cancer.
He was diagnosed in November 2017 in the ER and every one of the kids (my two older brothers, and my stepdad’s two kids) knew, except for me and my sister. Deliberately to keep us in the dark about it. She told my sister it was Joe’s choice, that because I cut mom off he cut me off. But I knew this was a lie, because he and I had still been in touch and she didn’t know. Showing this lie to my sister made them see that mom was being deliberately manipulative and lying to their face.
If my furnace hadn’t gone out, he would have died before I ever was able to see him again.
As it was, I did see him in the hospital twice before he passed. And I saw my mom. There was no fight, no awkward discussion. I was there for him, and she didn’t challenge me. I’m grateful for that. I saw her again at his memorial she held at the house for family and friends. And then I left and haven’t spoken to her since.
I have said before, and I will likely continue: I will not forgive her for leveraging his life like that. Neither will my sister. It was the last contact with mom for both of us.
I miss having my mom in my life. But I think more than that, I’ve had to grieve the loss of the mom I deserved and didn’t have.
For the past five years I’ve held onto my anger. It has been righteous and correct. I SHOULD feel angry at my mother for what she did when Joe died. I SHOULD feel angry for how she treated me as a child. I DESERVE to feel angry.
And I do. I do deserve that. My anger deserves it.
But something very unexpected happened. I started writing a novel. On the surface, it’s about time travel. But novels are never just about the thing they’re about. It’s about me, and my trauma, and my childhood. It’s about the “what if” of wondering if my life could have been different with a more loving mother. And in writing it, I explored her past as well as mine.
In the first draft (so I can talk about it without spoilers, since this has changed in the story!), the inventor of the time travel device (Jean) goes into her mother (Edie)’s teen years to be a positive influence on her. She observes the relationship between her own mother and her mother’s mother and realizes that Edie is dealing with a lot of her own pain.
She made a list of things she knew about her mother’s youth. She had run away from home at age 15 and dropped out of school. She got married at 16, and had a son – Jean’s brother Brad – at age 17. Things were about to get serious in the timeline of Edie Osmond, but not if Jean could help it.
“It’s almost my birthday,” said Edie during one of their porch smoke sessions.
“Oh yeah, anything fun planned?” asked Jean.
“Not really. I don’t really have friends.”
“No,” said Edie. But then she added, “There’s one guy, but he’s not my type.”
Jean nodded. She had seen the guy around, and he was way too old for Edie. Even though she knew it was her mother’s first husband, seeing his ploy for her mother’s attention play out in person was disturbing.
A few days after her birthday, Edie was back on the porch. It was much earlier in the day than normal, and she seemed upset and shaken.
“What’s wrong?” Jean asked.
“This guy won’t leave me alone,” she said.
“The 20-something year old guy?”
Edie nodded and sighed. “Yes, him. I can’t get him to leave me alone. It’s cool to have an older boyfriend, but he also kinda creeps me out. Mom doesn’t think it’s weird, but I don’t think she’s paying attention.”
What Jean wanted to do was tell her mother to run away from this man, that he was being a gross predator preying on a literal child, and to tell him to kick rocks and get out of town. But she also had been 15 once, and knew that rebellion was a tricky thing to play with.
“What’s cool about him?” she asked.
“Well, it’s just cool to have an older boyfriend,” explained Edie. “The girls in my grade will be jealous of how mature I am. And he can drive me around.”
“But he makes you uncomfortable?”
“Yeah. He wants me to do sex stuff, and I don’t feel ready.”
Jean breathed in sharply. She wanted to confront this man and make sure he could never sexually harass another person in his life. But she needed to play it cool so she didn’t lose Edie’s trust.
“Kid,” she said. “You don’t have to do shit just because somebody else wants you to. If you don’t wanna go steady with this guy, you don’t have to.”
Edie laughed. “Nobody says ‘go steady’ anymore, Jean.”
“Well jeepers creepers, I’m sorry I am not hip to your lingo, kiddo,” Jean said, laughing to cover up her mistake. Edie joined her in laughter but still looked deep in thought, preoccupied with this big, adult problem in her small, teenage life.
“Look, Edie,” said Jean. “You have two paths ahead of you. You can date this guy, maybe get married, maybe have a baby and a house and a white picket fence – or you could not. Which one do you want? Honestly.”
Edie shook her head emphatically. “I don’t want that. Not right now. Maybe not ever.”
“Yeah,” said Jean. She offered Edie a cigarette, knowing it would help the girl calm down.
“You should also stop smoking,” said Jean. “But I think this guy is the more pressing issue.”
“You’re right,” said Edie. Jean wasn’t sure which part she was agreeing with.
“You’re in charge of what you want, and what you do, Edie.” Jean put a hand on Edie’s shoulder and looked her in the eye. “You should only do things you feel really excited about.”
Edie considered this advice for a long moment. “I’m gonna drop out of school,” she said.
“That’s not what I meant,” said Jean. “But I can’t stop you. I just hope you make good choices. Don’t marry that guy.”
Edie nodded. “I won’t.”
“Listen,” said Jean. “I need to tell you. I’m only in town for the summer, and I’m leaving soon. But you remember what I said, okay? Don’t do stuff you’re not 100% sure of. You deserve to be happy.”
“I deserve it,” repeated Edie.
“You really do,” said Jean.
“This is weird,” said Jean. “But I love you, okay?”
“It is weird,” agreed Edie. She leaned her head on Jean’s shoulder. “But I love you too. Thanks for being here.”
Jean hadn’t expected to love her mother like this. She wanted to protect Edie, she even related to her. She didn’t expect any of it. But faced with Edie’s childhood and how much it seemed to echo Jean’s own, she understood a little better. She was still angry, but not at this teenage girl.
This girl was lost, and also felt unloved. Jean saw the way Mae mostly ignored Edie and felt confused. How could a doting grandmother have barely seen her own daughter, letting her smoke on a porch with a near-stranger and be pursued by a man well out of her age range? What was Mae thinking?
She’s not thinking, thought Jean. She’s surviving too.
Jean snapped out of her thoughts and said a final goodbye to Edie, offering the girl a hug which she was surprised Edie accepted.
“Make good choices,” said Jean.
“I’ll do my best,” said Edie.
Even fictionalized… I was wholly unprepared for the compassion I felt for my mom when I thought about the generational trauma playing out in our lives. I could suddenly see with so much clarity that she was a victim too — of her mom’s lack of care and concern, of the pressures she felt to grow up fast, of her own circumstances.
And while it does not excuse her abuse of her children, it does provide context and explanation. She wasn’t a perfectly healthy person who suddenly decided to neglect her children emotionally. She never had a good model for how to feel her own emotions. She neglects her own emotions to this day — never talking about the past because it’s in the past is her way of numbing and ignoring and moving forward through the pain.
I hope she heals. I hope she mends all the broken places in her heart.
While I still don’t find her actions around my stepdad’s death forgivable, my novel did help me to feel a sense of forgiveness for the rest. For my childhood (again, not to excuse it, but to explain it, and maybe even to accept it). For the things she did from her own pain.
Most frustrating of all has been my resistance to this sense of compassion and forgiveness. It’s right there. I could choose it. But I still feel attached to my anger at my mom, and while writing this all down has made it easier to let go of, I also want to normalize that you don’t have to rush this process.
Forgiving someone is deeper than we think it is. It’s also not always for them — sometimes it’s for us. This forgiveness of my mother, when it’s complete and I stop holding onto it like a helium balloon tied to my wrist, pinging around as I carry it through life and bump it on doorframes, will be for me. It will be the release of my anger. Because in my heart, I’m not an angry person. I don’t want to carry anger forever.
So for today, I let a little helium out of the balloon. Maybe I’ll untie it from my wrist and let it hang lazily in a corner. Maybe the next time my mother’s voice pops into my head full of judgment, I’ll give it a hug instead of yelling at it or hiding from it.
I know she did her best. And I know she hurt me. And I know she probably won’t ever say she’s sorry about my pain, or can’t let herself.
But I can.
I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry you were hurt and that you had to do a lot more in your life than you ever signed up for. I’m sorry you lost Joe because I know that you loved him so deeply. I’m sorry that we don’t talk anymore and I am sorry for whatever pain that caused, even though I needed to do it for my own healing. You deserved better than a lot of what you got. It is okay to be angry, and sad, and afraid. None of that makes you weak. Feeling the feelings makes you strong. I hope you learn that. And I hope you heal. And I love you.
PS. I turned out amazing. I am someone I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. And I am proud of me.