My mother passed in June after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Today is Mother’s Day and I’ve been feeling sensitive about it. Nothing has left me feeling as empty, confused, and strange as this past 9 months since she died.
I’ve heard from other people, with similar stories. I lost my father early in my life, and that loss has certainly marked me in a very particular way. It was a sharp shift, sudden, a kind of earthquake leaving a fault line that altered my ability to move, emotionally at least, that I’ve had to work purposefully on in order to increase my range of travel and movement.
With my mother, it’s been different. She and I had a tense relationship, akin to each pulling away while keeping a tight grip on the other; closeness was too much, but fear at being apart. Love was there most assuredly. I have been told wonderful tales of her thrill at my arrival and her joy of having me, but those stories were mostly about the time prior to my father passing, that time I can’t remember much of. The rest, well, her life was turned upside down after that, and her patterns then were built out of something difficult, her own history, things she had little control over come home to roost post 1978. My memories of that time are troubled.
I played a role in that too, often as the person chasing after her for affection, praise, acknowledgement. Somehow, how she gave it to me and it didn’t stick, or it was clear that nothing I did, no matter how hard I worked, or how good I was at things, would ever actually help HER be happier. Her happiness felt like my responsibility, hell even keeping her alive at times felt like my responsibility. I had no way of knowing if my feelings about her depression were accurate, but I worried for her safety.
Instead of being able to see that dynamic when I was younger, I felt I just had to work harder. Not even for the right reasons-hey Julie, clean your room because it’s good to clean your room, not because you hope to stop your mom from freaking out, to please her, to appease her, to normalize things instead of really fixing the system-but reactive ones. That way of doing things meant never feeling good about the work or the result.
When she got sick, well, it was a slow moving disaster for the most part, trauma in micro scale. I did the whole “I will go to therapy and close this relationship even though she can’t be a part of it and even though when she could have been she wouldn’t have been because she thought therapy was stupid” kind of thing. But looking back, I didn’t even do that for me, not truly. Not to say that counseling wasn’t helpful, but part of me knows that there was a projection going on of what a “good” choice would be, instead of for me getting where I wanted to be.
After my mother died, I went back to my therapist, who told me to take exquisite care of myself. I remember thinking two things; 1) What the hell does that even mean and 2) If I take care of myself that means it doesn’t count. It doesn’t count if I do it because I wasn’t good enough for someone else to do it. Honestly, I’m not all that good at even recognizing when people are taking care of me and not allowing that care inside-I have to own that, because it’s a mirror of what happened with my mother and myself.
Because I am stubborn, or perhaps incapable of taking the loving caring advice of the therapist due to well, everything I just wrote, I did mostly the opposite of self care. Not self-destruction, but passivity. Anhedonia. Minimal participation. Letting things just…go. Shopping for clothes I needed? Nah. Manicures and pedicures? Why bother. Good food choices? Not so much. Reading for pleasure or going to parties or seeing theater or shows? Exercise? No. Rejecting support. Yeah, I think I did that. In bed by 9:00 and shutting down hard, mostly. I will say I’d think about her advice a lot, I let it work on me even as I sat passively not taking care of myself. Maybe all the work was happening on the inside.
It wasn’t until quite recently I figured out how much this untethering had to do with my mother. Her loss. My childhood experiences with her post her loss. The loss prior to the loss. The ten years of incremental, omnipresent loss like erosion, tiny waves of grief, carving out my heart during the disease. I didn’t do the self care needed during those years either, absolutely not.
This is the whole damn thing about families and patterns, isn’t it. You often can’t see what you are in when you are in it, even when people tell you, and even if you see a tiny bit of the actual truth because it’s hard to manage, deal with, process. But then, not managing it causes big problems, too, problems I’m trying to hard to solve and tend to, even if some of it came late.
Mostly, this Mother’s Day I’m admitting that I’m learning how to mother myself to allow for and support my own interior, to view a variety of intimacies as something I can have within me, not because she couldn’t provide it, but because I can; at least I think I can. I can take care of me, not because I’m left to do it, but because it matters that I experience the care of caring. To know that more people cared for me then I ever imagined (yes, even her, in her way), even if it was hard to take in. That “cleaning my room” is what should be done as a matter of course, not to tame some fear, but because it can be a pleasure just to do it; because it makes my life better, and that makes everything better in the long run.
It’s been a stunningly strange year. Transformative in the truest sense, interior and stark. I feel shaped by things I cannot yet see clearly. Perhaps the slow long work of care is about accretion now, slowly building back the spaces where grief made inroads, planting a new landscape of self.