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Thursday, 14 September 2000

Lessons from Adulthood on My Mother

Written by  Michaela Russell

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Of the many things that I have been taught by life, none are more important than this:

IT'S NOT ABOUT ME.

As kids we think it's all about us. This one is looking at me funny because of my shirt. That one hates me because I got a better grade: I know because she didn't laugh when I told that joke. Everyone knows I have my period.

And I saw a woman where my mother used to be.

Mom's nervous because I was late last time and because she doesn't trust me. Dad's in a bad mood because I didn't do that job right. My little brother's crying because Mom yelled because I made her upset. My family hates me.

For a long time, the world is not our oyster -- it's our satellite. This becomes truer and truer for kids as they become teens. This plugged-into-everything feeling intensifies until adulthood, when healthy people wake up one day one thousand pounds lighter and suddenly unplugged.

Then you realize that no one cares if you come to the coffee shop with wet hair and no one sees the black smudge on the bottom of your pants. Everyone has better things to think about, like the black smudge on their own pants.

I wish I could now go back and re-live life in my parents' house with this knowledge tucked behind my ear, so I could smoke it when my mother looked upset. I'd know to ask her what was wrong, to show her some empathy, instead of mowing her down with a malevolent glare and asking her why she always had to make a big deal of how I dressed.

Thanks for asking, she might say; I'm having real second thoughts about my career. Who knew she thought twice about anything? Who knew she wasn't surer than God and always thinking about me? I didn't. But I never asked.

In fact, my mom changed her career path radically at least three times during my childhood. She accumulated two master's degrees and another advanced degree on the way. In retrospect, I see that she was finding herself, and insatiably curious about lots of things. But I never asked her about any of the things she could have told me so much about.

I never asked about a lot of things. If I saw her crying, I was angry. Why did she have to be so melodramatic, so attention seeking? Why did she have to guilt me? It never occurred to me that something might really be wrong in her life, outside of me. Never occurred to me she had one, outside of me.

It would have been easier for me, not being in the spotlight, in the hot seat, in focus. In fact, I was not. It would have been easier for everyone.

I always managed to put my finger inside my mother's cracks and wedge them right open. If she was uneasy, I'd make sure she'd stay that way for the rest of the day. How dare she be uneasy about me? I was uneasy about me. Who knew she was uneasy about her? Who knew she was struggling with her own demons? I didn't. But I never asked.

Instead, I punished her for having doubts, for having flaws, flaws which interfered with my well-being. I wanted her to get it together and get off my case, but I shoved myself down her throat at every opportunity. Go away, I would say, but it's all me and don't you forget it.

I was angry at her for everything she did. To me. I picked her apart, cell by cell, because I was so sure she was trying to frustrate me, upstage me, re-shape me. Something me.

Nothing her.

The day the world stopped revolving around me, I took a look around to see the amazing view. A woman I am just getting to know.

And I saw a woman where my mother used to be.

A woman, like me, who is constantly changing and growing and learning to laugh at herself.

And now I am, in the words of yesterday's me, totally wierded out.

Because now I know that she's uneasy around lots of people, shy. I thought she hated my friends. I thought she related to her own peers funny, too. It mortified me. Turns out, it mortified her more. With my outgoing nature, I could have made it easier for her. But I worked hard to make it unbearable.

Now I know that she grew up in a frigid, choking, antiseptic environment, from which she herself was a refugee. I thought she was just scared I'd be too wild, too raw, that I'd embarrass her. I felt gagged and tied. How could I know that my burgeoning maturity was taking her to uncharted territory? How could I know that to her family, SHE was wild? It never occurred to me that she was uncomfortable and perhaps ill at ease, rather than pedantic and uptight. It never occurred to me how far she had already come.

Now I know how it feels to be terrified of letting your kids do dangerous things. Especially after losing a baby -- an experience that my mother and I both endured. I thought she was just overprotective and unreasonable and that she didn't trust me. Now I know how she suffered each time I got into a car with that well-packaged irresponsibility I was dating.

In other words, I'm finding that my mother's flaws were human, rather than inhumane. That they were not only "not about me", but about things well beyond my pale of understanding.

I'm finding that this brings me tremendous relief, and also some pangs of regret. I wasted a lot of time being angry about things that had nothing to do with me. Wasted lots of energy looking for ways to get out of her grip, to get free.

How funny I find it now, that it was me gripping her all along.

Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2011 15:38
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Michaela Russell

Michaela Russell is a pen name.

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