(A disclaimer: This probably isn't one of the more cheery Sunday Scribblings you'll read this week. It's in reaction to some new "mother issues" I'm having--just in time for the holidays!
For most of us, our parents are our first heroes. They gain this status before we can even articulate what we need from them or that they're giving it to us. There we are, days old, staring at them with eyes whose tears they stopped by picking us up.
For me, my mom is still a hero of mine in many ways. She's one of the most generous people I know, willing to give time and money to big causes and little--a friend who needs $20 to make it to the next payday, a stranger who looks lost, Hurricane Katrina victims. But most of all, her children. When I hear about a woman who died of starvation during the Holocaust while her husband and children survived, I didn't need to ask why she was the only one to perish. That's the kind of sacrifices mothers make. I know it because mine would so instinctively do it for me.
But when heroes of any type fall, they fall hard. And recently I realized that though my mom gave me a lot, there are some fundamental things I didn't get from her.
My mom and I are close on a few levels--we like to spend time going to the movies and museums together, we talk on the phone once a week about books and work. But we're not close in the highest way, that warm way that makes you feel you can say anything and that the other person really understands you. Though I've overheard my mom say to friends that we're as close as can be, I know she agrees with me. I can remember her saying quite a few times that my brothers are both more like her, me like my dad, that there were certain things about me that she would never get. And if she knew me well, she'd know that that was not the type of thing I could handle hearing.
To be close with someone, I need that person to be able to listen to my problems and not try to solve them, but just be with me in them. Someone who can talk about her feelings and teach me to talk about mine. Someone who says I love you more often than once, moments before she goes into the operating room to stop internal bleeding from an aneurysm that burst last Christmas. Someone who knows that saying those three words at such a precarious time would just make me more worried than I already am.
All these years I've blamed myself for our lack of true closeness, wondering on some level what I could do to be more like the brothers she so obviously felt closer to. But now that I'm realizing our problem with more clarity, I see that I don't carry much of the weight of this problem in our relationship.
If I'm being snarky, I'll think, she's the one who taught me just how much a mother's supposed to do for her children. Would some soul searching to figure out how to talk about difficult emotions have been so hard when cleary that's what her daughter needed? If I'm being kinder, I'll realize that my mother was nothing if not anxious, undiagosed and untreated for all of my childhood. And mental illnesses of that sort are very self-absorbing: it's hard to focus your antennae on what other people need when you hurt so much. And if I'm being impartial, I'll say that my mother's just not the type of person who can read well what others need emotionally.
Who knows who I would've been if my mother could've grown and changed. And who knows what this realization will do to our relationship when we come together for Thanksgiving next week. But I do know that any future daughter I have, whatever her complaints about me, not understanding her emotions won't be one. Probably in reaction to my mother's lack of emotional temperature-telling, I have an oversentive thermometer, constantly worrying about how those close to me are feeling, and what I can do to make those feelings better.