Several years ago, after not speaking to or seeing my mom in many many months, I got a text message asking me to meet her at the Starbucks at Eastview Mall. At the time, I thought the mall Starbucks to be such an odd choice of location, but I’d understand why she chose it later on.
She started the conversation with a “So.. what’s up?” like an old college friend would after not seeing me for a while.
And let’s pause right there for a second. What exactly do you say to catch up a parent who has been absent for years of your life? Do you talk about the guy you went on a date with last week, or the major career switch you decided to embark on months ago? The fun weekend you had with college friends or the new relationships you’re building as a young professional? Do you address what happened in the past and how even looking at her makes you both profoundly angry and sad all at once?
I didn’t have answers to those questions, so I just talked. I’m sure I gave her career updates and friend updates. Family updates and boyfriend updates. And after enough of those, my mom cut me off, said she had tickets to see a movie across the street and had to leave.
So she got up, hugged me, said she hoped to talk to me again soon and left. She scheduled 30 minutes for us to catch up on years of life, with a purposeful hard stop so that she could tie a bow on it and walk away.
And that’s the last time I saw her. Or spoke to her in any real capacity. That was probably eight years ago.
By all accounts, my sister and I lived a very normal, very average small town life. Anchored by my mom, a whip smart leader who rose through the ranks of a small, but quickly scaling grocery store chain in town called Wegmans. And my dad, a kind-hearted blue collar worker who everyone – literally everyone – loved. Neither went to college, but they wanted the world for their kids. They gave my sister and I everything, and we lived a wildly colorful and fun childhood because of it. Sports, band, volunteering, honor societies, chorus, ski clubs.. they enthusiastically supported it all. Every game, every concert, every boring awards ceremony – they were there.
Like any family, our parents would bicker, but rarely if ever, in front of us. I can count on one hand the number of times I witnessed my parents fight. For years we had no idea anything was wrong under the surface.
And then the summer after my sophomore year of college happened. I was working my part-time gig at Old Navy when I got a text message to go straight to my aunt’s house after work instead of going home. My mom wouldn’t tell me what was going on, so I worked the rest of that shift with a pit in my stomach and then did what I was told and pulled my car into my aunt’s driveway down the street and went inside.
My mom dropped the bomb. “I’m divorcing your father.”
All the words after that blurred together. Something about being unhappy for a very long time. Something else about never having a life outside our family because she started down that path so young. Yes, it was unnerving to have my 40-something year old mother tell me that our family was a burden on her. But to understand that, you have to understand my mom’s past.
Over the years, I picked up on enough bits of conversations to know that my mom was abused as a child by her father. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother more or less abandoned her, left her with her dad and started a new family. My mom never forgave her for that decision, and as soon as she could escape her dad, she did. She graduated high school and ran off to build a new life and a family with my father. I was born when she was in her early 20s, and her life – their entire lives – revolved around raising my sister and I.
What I didn’t know until this divorce, was how much she resented us for it.
I only know what it’s like to deal with divorce as an adult, but in the moment it felt unfairly tough. Both parents wanted to share their “side of the story.” Both parents relied on me as a confidant, sharing details of their relationship over the years and hoping for some sort of reassurance that they were the “right” one, or that the other one deserved it. I wasn’t just mourning the loss of home as I knew it, but also the parents I thought I knew.
My dad was incredibly regretful and ashamed by what had happened, but my mom was on a crusade. She felt let down by every important person in her life and wanted the world to know it. She also wanted her kids to fall in line and support her. At the time, my sister did. But I didn’t. And that decision tore our lives apart.
In the painful months between the “I’m divorcing your dad,” moment and their physical separation, my dad was there, but all I remember is the presence of my mom. Every night, she would come home railing about something new. One week, it would be about my lack of housework. That I didn’t vacuum enough, or want to do the dishes. The next, it would be about how I wasn’t more supportive of her, or understanding enough of her rough upbringing.
I begged her to go talk to a therapist. She eventually did, and then came home and told my sister and I that the therapist said we were spoiled brats and the cause of 100% of my mother’s problems. After that, she invited me to join her on her next appointment. I refused unless we went to someone new, and we fought again.
By the fall of that year, my dad had moved out into his own place. I thought the toughest part was finally over, but my dad being alone brought on a whole new pile of emotional baggage. He was financially devastated by the divorce, the cost of child support for my sister, and was struggling with living by himself. I visited him as often as I could, given my full-time class schedule and part-time job, but every visit was clouded by the fact that I came alone. My sister refused to talk to him, so I became my dad’s only conduit to his other child – how she was doing, what she was up to, what she wanted for Christmas. It was exhausting.
I coped with this new normal the best way I knew how – leaving the country for a semester abroad. Being in London helped me escape family issues, but as living overseas often does, also fundamentally changed who I was and how I saw the world. It made returning back home to my mom even more difficult. I tried to keep quiet, work my summer job at Old Navy and make it through my senior year of college, but every day felt more difficult than the last.
My second day back in the States and my house, I met my mother’s new boyfriend for the first time when I found him cleaning out one of our closets. I tried to calmly approach my mom and let her know how that made me felt, but she had none of it. She took it as a direct attack on her happiness – something she hadn’t experienced in years, thanks to me, my sister and my dad. She had been taking our feelings into account her entire life, she said, now someone can care about hers.
The next several months were a blur of heated disagreements just like these. I was taking a full load of classes, working nights and weekends, juggling a father struggling with depression and spending seemingly every spare minute arguing with my mom. One time, she was peeling hard boiled eggs at the kitchen table and got so mad that she whipped an egg at me and hit me in the face. It was the first time my mother had ever physically hurt me. I stood there in disbelief, brushed my hand by my ear to clean it off and wiped off blood. The egg shell cut my skin. She started crying, but she never apologized.
Out of our many spats, I only clearly remember two: the egg incident, and the time she kicked me out of the house two days before my college graduation. I sobbed, begging her to reconsider. I needed to be in Syracuse early the next morning for commencement rehearsal and my dad’s apartment was too many miles away in the wrong direction. She didn’t care. “Get out, now.” So I packed a bag and left.
I spent several hours in the campus library, thinking I would pull an all-nighter there, but ended up caving and paying for a cheap motel room nearby. I went through rehearsal the next morning, wondering if my mom would even show up. She came the next day with flowers and a camera and we pretended the incident never happened.
That story, when I eventually told my dad months later, brought tears to his eyes. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen him cry.
It was around this time that my sister also turned on my mother. She was preparing to go off to college herself, and we both secretly acknowledged that her starting school would be the end of us living under our mother’s roof.
Few things remain as surreal as the day we moved my sister into her dorm. We packed my mom’s car with my sister’s things, and I packed my car with mine. My mom and I never spoke about my leaving. I just packed my car and left it in the driveway for when we returned. The three of us drove up to SU, my mom and I drove back, and then I drove myself away from that house forever and over to my dad and his fiance’s place. After two years, I finally felt like I could breathe. I could finally focus on my job search in a place where I felt supported. But the peace didn’t last long.
My sister chose to spend her Thanksgiving holiday and winter break with us instead of my mom. This decision set off a series of actions by my mother that to this day, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive her for.
First, she came for my sister’s cell phone and removed her from her family plan. Fine. We got her a new one on Dad’s and moved on. Then she came for the car. Though Molly had worked and made years of payments toward it, the loan paperwork was in my mom’s name. My dad tried everything, but we had no legal recourse and the thousands of dollars my sister poured into it didn’t matter. My mother knew that Molly was driving to visit her boyfriend in Buffalo, and me and Dad in Rochester, so she took away the one thing she needed to do those things – her vehicle.
The phone and the car, however, paled in comparison to her next move, which she did in secret. It was one week before the start of my sister’s spring semester when she received a notification from the bursar’s office that she owed something like $14,000 and wouldn’t be allowed to start classes until it was rectified.
This wasn’t possible. Molly’s financials were set for the year. Or so we thought. When we called the bursar’s office to go through the numbers, we mentioned a parent plus loan that my mom had agreed to take out for Molly’s first year. “I’m sorry, I don’t see any parent plus loan on this account for the spring semester.”
She canceled it. A week before my sister was scheduled to go back to school, my mother canceled the loan she took out to help her, and never told anyone. She knew this would potentially prevent Molly from being able to go back to class, especially on such short notice, and she did it anyway. Out of spite.
I had never felt more hatred toward my mom than I did in that moment. My sister was devastated. She had just lost a vehicle that she paid thousands of dollars toward because my mom was actively out to punish her. Now this.
My dad was feverishly trying to figure out how to make his grim financial situation somehow produce the money my sister needed to finish her first year of college. I knew it wasn’t going to work, so I did the only thing I could think of and emailed the SU Chancellor. I presented all of my family’s baggage to the leader of one of the country’s most prestigious private universities and prayed that she would help. Thankfully, she did. She and a bunch of other generous people moved mountains and through a series of grants and loans, got my sister what she needed to go back to school. Another crisis averted. Those couple months were a rollercoaster, and I so badly wanted a break, but mom wasn’t done.
She reached out to my dad and told him that she wanted all of our stuff out of the house immediately. She couldn’t stand to have it in her home anymore and we needed to come get it or else she was going to throw it away. My gut instinct was to just let her throw it all out, but my dad said I’d regret it. So we scheduled a time to go over there and get it. My dad demanded that no one be at the house. Just leave the back room unlocked and we’d pack and leave in peace. Which she agreed to.
We pulled into an empty driveway and opened the door. It was filled to the brim with things we expected – our beds, dressers and mattresses, and things we didn’t expect – like bags of pictures of us as kids and etched champagne glasses from her and my dad’s wedding. I despised my mom for what she had done to us, but something about her tossing out our childhood photos seared a permanent scar into my heart. There were boxes of movies we watched as kids, badminton equipment we used to play with as a family, high school yearbooks and graduation caps – things you sort of always expect your parents to hold onto, but in this case, were in the “pick up or they’re getting tossed” pile. Even though we were estranged, I still wanted her to care. And this was the last confirmation to me that she didn’t.
I don’t know how my dad got through that day, but he remained stroic and unflappable, even while I wiped away tears.
When we were finishing up, a light turned on in the house and I could see the silhouette of my mom’s boyfriend in the kitchen. He hid his car in the church parking lot across the street and was there watching us the entire time. My entire chest felt like fire. We had asked but one thing of my mom – to let us pack up and leave in peace. And she couldn’t even trust us to do that. I was so mad, I started shaking. My dad was furious, but kept his cool. “Let’s just go. It’s finally over. There’s nothing else left for her to take away.”
He was right. After we moved our stuff, my mom had nothing left to take, and nothing left to say. With the exception of that one Starbucks meeting, we didn’t hear a thing from her. I started to, but also wanted to forget she existed. I didn’t talk about her much, but when asked about her, I’d subconsciously refer to her in past tense – “My mom was” or “My mom used to” – like she was dead. I’d always catch myself and explain that she’s still alive, we just hadn’t spoken in years. I’d get a silent acknowledgement in return. No one knows what to say when it’s your mom; it’s usually dads in this situation.
After several years, I started to hear from her again, especially on holidays. “How are you? I miss you.” Most times I didn’t answer her at all. One time, I asked her if she was sorry for what she did. I only made that mistake once.
Instead of apologizing, she’d send small, painful reminders that she was still around. Because Mother’s Day didn’t hurt enough, one year my mom sent flowers to us with notes about how sad she was that we wouldn’t celebrate the day with her.
How does one respond to gestures like these? “Thanks for these flowers, they totally make up for the years of emotional damage?” “Thanks for 30th birthday cake, it almost makes me forget about you not being around for the seven previous ones?”
Recently, she’s been messaging me, suggesting we “move on” from this and try to rebuild a relationship. And when I think about a mom in the abstract sense, I want that so badly. I want someone to wedding dress shop with me when that time comes, and someone to help me raise kids someday. Someone to call for advice when a dad just won’t do.
But I have such a hard time taking this person who hurt me and the people I love so deeply, and envisioning her playing that role in my life anymore. She has promised to visit Chicago this summer to try and start that process, but I’m paralyzed by the thought of seeing her again.
At the same time, I think about a number of my friends my age who have lost parents and would give anything to have them back in their lives. Am I so stubborn that I won’t reconcile with my own parent while she’s still alive? I want to believe I have the capacity to forgive, but I don’t know how to fix something so broken.
Which is why over the course of three days, through bouts of tears, I poured out 3,000 words, trying to make sense it all. For as long as I can remember, writing has been a form of therapy for me, but the one subject I could never bring myself to touch was my relationship with my mom. I’m hoping that letting these feelings live somewhere else helps me move forward and fix things before it’s too late. Time will tell.