Posted on May 18, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
***trigger warning: the writer touches upon difficult subjects like childhood abuse, systemic racism, and forgiveness***
So last weekend was Mother’s Day, and I was tempted to write an essay about the day, my experiences thus far as a human being with a complicated relationship with a woman I do not even see. It isn’t easy having a disrupted relationship with your own mother. People are very quick to judge you, shushing you and clucking their teeth, as to why you choose to remain distant. Attempting to explain the reason for the distance is sort of like trying to explain verbal language to the surreal aliens that Amy Adams encounters in the recent movie Arrival. In this scenario, I am Amy, trying my best to help the other humans understand the aliens who access reality in vastly different ways from them.
Who is my mother in this metaphor? It can’t be taken too far, of course, but metaphors are one of the things that help us, human beings, process our daily experiences. Metaphors fill the earth, our religions, school playgrounds, and civil discourse. I hear them everyday in the counseling room, in my own head as I think of poems and stories to write, as I read words on a written page in a beloved memoir, or in daily conversation with others. It is part of being human, I think, to use poetry to express the ineffable, the mystery of being human and being alive in a jarring yet beautiful world.
The week leading up to Mother’s Day, I experienced increasing panic and apprehension about the day, and I had good reason. I am in a Twelve-Step recovery group for people affected by the disease of alcoholism, in which a few woman have advised me to connect with my mother, in spite of the physical assaults, emotional abuse, and sexual misconduct. Several of them wail and lament the loss of contact with my mother, perhaps projecting their own tiny insecurities about losing their own mothers or whatever, onto my life and advise me, repeatedly, to make contact, to try and engage her, to make her want me.
Sometimes people in Twelve-Step groups can be so helpful, well-intentioned, and exhausting. Sometimes I wish they would check their “help” at the door and simply accept that sometimes some parents do unconscionable things to their children. It is not their job to fix anyone, but to listen well, to support and encourage, and to stay in the solution. The problem is that sometimes the solution is respectful, prayerful distance, and that usually doesn’t sit well with most folks.
When I was a little girl, I lived on the outskirts of a small country town with my father and mother, isolated from our New England family. Our nearest neighbor was a young couple about a mile down the white gravel road that led to their double-wide mobile home. Mother was the social one of my parents’ marriage, and there were many happy times I remember us driving to the five-and-dime store and the closest library (about a thirty minute drive away), and swimming at the local community pool. Mother and I would often visit the ladies who lived around the small town, with my mother listening to their tales of woe and heartbreak.
I loved both my parents very much, but I was very aware that my mother was different from the other mothers. It was mostly due to her skin color, which I loved: milk chocolate brown (due to a birth defect). The atmosphere in North Texas in the early 1980s remained steeped in White supremacy and it continues to remain so. I know because I experienced it, along with my mother. Growing up, many times people thought my mother was my nanny. I would proudly exclaim that no, indeed, this woman, was my own beloved mother, but I would wonder why they would assume she was the help. It only increased my anxiety that something was very wrong with the world and led to an early racial awakening and very real understanding of how racism continues to thrive in our country. It is madness and creates isolation, leads to mental illness, mass incarceration, and tears apart relationships including the one we have with ourselves.
I cannot imagine what stress living in North Texas in the early 1980s put on my mother. She was a gregarious person, charming with a huge toothy grin, and all my friends loved her for her warmth, affection, and humor. Sometimes when I am with little children now, and I make them laugh and smile and see how they do not judge my beautiful (yet unruly) curly hair, my large glasses, and my height, and think to myself, This is why Mother loved working with children. They are precious gifts, beams of light that do not judge you but only welcome you in with love.
The darker side to the story includes things that may make you uncomfortable: beatings, hair-pulling, brutal criticism for most anything I did that was not perfection. This is the sort of thing we usually like to read about in scary stories, but when our lives are scary stories, we seek solace in a variety of ways, some of us through drugs or alcohol, some of us through controlling others, and some of us by cultivating the very Death instinct we received from growing up. The latter was my addiction, and for many years, I chose darkness, actively participating in my own death through various ways. Then, a few years ago in the middle of my work in the Twelve Steps, I woke up. Both God and the Twelve Steps saved my life.
The last time I saw my mother was in 2004. I was in the midst of my twenties, a lonely time for me, as I was trying my best to find stability in a variety of areas. One of my friends suggested I try again to cultivate a relationship with my mother. His recommendation touched a deep chord within me, so I found her phone number, long buried in a stack of papers near my living room computer, and gave her a call. She was not happy to hear from me. This should have been my first clue, but a frenzied desire to restore and reconcile our relationship compelled me to push an encounter with her, which I did but at my own expense.
Dear reader, it did not end well with hugs and kisses and amends made for past mistakes. I had huge dreams and expectations that it would end in harmony. (In counseling circles, we call this magical thinking.) It had the opposite effect: it sent me back in my own healing, practically damaging any chance there would be for a restored relationship with my mother. Unbelievably, I totally forgot about the assault until last year when I completed my Fourth Step, a grueling account of sorts in which you analyze your life, looking for any fears, resentments, and past hurts and discover your part in them. The goal is to free you from victimhood and help you embrace ownership in your life choices.
The question is where does a child find her contribution in the participation of physical and emotional abuse from parents?*
One of the most freeing things I receive from being in a Twelve-Step community is that I get a glorious opportunity to detach with love from the hurt people in my life, including my own mother. Detachment is simple: you remember that the hurt person is one of God’s kids and that this is the truest thing about them, beyond their weird behaviors, difficult mannerisms, and strange ways of relating. It’s the royal road to forgiveness, which folks in Twelve-Step groups say is letting go of all hope for a better past. It means I get to take off the lenses of denial, face the swampland of my own soul (Carl Jung), and realize the negative self-talk I struggle with comes (in part) from my mother. However, it is something I choose to reject on a daily basis, and embrace healing and the long road of forgiveness, compassion training, and actively wishing my mother well.
And here is the real deal, friends: I do love my mother. I wish her all the best, health and happiness, and most importantly, I wish her peace. I wish her all good things and know that if or when God intends for us to connect, that He will do it in his own time.
A Scripture that brings me comfort when others are trying their best to get their “help” all over me is from 1 Corinthians 13. In The Message, Paul writes “love does not force itself on others. . . but keeps going to the end.” So I smile calmly as the chorus of women try their best to fix me, reminding myself that I am worthy of love and being helped (even if it pisses me off now and again) because these women truly care about my welfare. They are the mothers I always longed for and now have, thanks to a program of ragamuffins and spiritual vagabonds who want recovery and freedom from the past. I remember that I often fall into wanting to fix others, my help getting in the way of their dignity, and I pause and breathe deeply, knowing that the long slow work of redemption takes time. I trust that God knows about our complicated relationship and that wishing her well is the best Mother’s Day gift I can offer to my own mother.
*To clarify, there is nothing that a child does that warrants parental abuse. Children are by their very nature helpless and dependent upon their parents for security, safety, warmth, and love. When parents engage in physical violence, emotional taunts, and sexual abuse, then children suffer greatly. It is never the fault of the child to receive such abuse.