All parents make mistakes. And all parents do unexpected, kind, loving things. So where, then, is the dividing line between those that deserve the benefit of the doubt and those that don’t?
When we left John for the second, and final, time, my mother and I moved into transitional housing for battered women. At the time I (without my mother) was involved in a rather conservative church. Immediately people started talking about forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s okay to be hurt but the ultimate goal, they said, was to forgive my mom and be reconciled to her. The transitional housing staff felt the same. When I went to the mandated sessions with the “children’s advocate” the discussion would commonly turn to my mom. Although I don’t remember what I said, I do remember the advocate saying, “But haven’t you ever considered about what your mom went through?”
Didn’t the advocate hear me? Didn’t she hear me describe my mom delivering me and my young, vulnerable body to her boyfriend? My mom who would make me stand naked in the kitchen, in front of the entire “family” and be weighed, publicly, to the critique of everyone? My mom who would smoke nearby while I was beaten? My mom who was always behind a door, desk, or wall? My mom who was never available? My mom who loomed in my mind as a real and proven threat to my safety and well-being?
Ah, but there’s the rub. Mothers mother. Mothers are not threats to their children. Mothers are mama bears who instinctively know how to protect their children. And little girls, well, little girls belong with their mothers. It seemed no one could fathom a mother being a threat, so my freakish and powerful need to get away from my mother must be a problem with me.
And so they, many good-hearted helping people, tried to set me straight. They prayed for me. They told me, repeatedly, to consider my mother’s point of view. They locked me in a basement room with my mother so we could be “reconciled.” That, as my limited memory recalls, ended with me screaming and banging on the door to be let out. When the door was finally opened I bolted outside, hid under a bush, and tore up my skin with whatever sharp objects I could find.
One thing was clear – I was the problem. We could all just assume my mother loved me endlessly, that she, of course, was sorry for all the terrible things that happened. She, of course, wouldn’t need to say these things. I should just assume them and think about how much she suffered, too. I was about 13 years old.
Enter years and years of emotional torment. Why couldn’t I just forgive and let go? Why I did I hold her as such a distance? Was I punishing her? How could I be so cruel? Why was I such a b*tch? I must be an awful person to hold such a grudge to my mom, considering how much she suffered. I should just suck it up and love her, like any rational human being. After all, she’s my mother.
So a few months ago when M suggested I write a letter to my mom, giving back all the heavy burdens I’ve been carrying, I froze. I stopped breathing. But I went home one night and curled up under some warm, safe blankets and quickly scrawled out a note. I can’t recall what I wrote, but I do remember being surprised at how gentle I was, how kind. I promptly burned the letter. It was too terrifying to have it exist in real life.
I went back to M and told her about the letter. I felt proud that I had found sympathy and kindness within myself. Since most people had expected me to forgive and be reconciled, I thought this was the goal I should be striving for. I felt like I was making progress.
But M instead suggested that I hadn’t said everything I needed to. Instead she created a safe space in my life, free from the cultural beliefs about mothers, to banish assumptions and look at the real harm she had done in my life. M helped me view my mother not as the powerless individual she portrayed but as an adult with power she chose not to exercise. I became proud of myself for protecting myself from such a toxic and selfish person. I’ve stopped the vicious self-blame arising from my non-relationship with my mother. But then I remember… She sent me a nice set of pots and pans when I moved into my first apartment. She helped me move on several occasions. She brought me an ice cream cake (my favorite) on a couple of birthdays. She used to take me to D*iry Q*een on quiet summer evenings. She threw me a great golden birthday party.
Does she deserve the benefit of the doubt after all? How do I reconcile these two sides of her? Figuring out what to do with the good memories is harder than mourning the bad ones. The middle ground is so messy, so muddy. I think I get a grasp of a reality I can live with and I remember something new or my old feelings change. It’s just so hard to live in the middle.