Most of us intend to be good parents; the reality is more like scrambling through the woods at night with a child in your arms.
My mother and I weren’t really close when I was a kid. She was always the steady parent, the one who doled out punishments and tended to hold a bit of a grudge; my father was the fun parent, the kind of fun parent who will drink and do drugs with you even if you’re underage and lets you watch any movie you want no matter what the rating and lives in a downtown apartment in a big city.
He was also the kind of fun parent who did his best to undermine my mother at every turn.
My father and I were longtime co-conspirators against my mother, even before they split up. We were a hilarious club of two, mocking how boring she was, how she went to church, how she worried all the time. A common theme was how desperately uncultured she was, unlike us, we special people who read French existentialists and drank red wine and debated about philosophy. One time, when my father and I were visiting his family, he passed around a bunch of pictures of my younger sisters visiting a farm; when he got to a picture of a cow he said “…and here’s a picture of my ex-wife.” He looked at me and waited for me to laugh. I knew it was a test to see how far he could take things with me. With great retrospective shame I have to tell you that I did laugh, although I felt awful about it for the rest of the trip.
Looking back, I can see how unhealthy my relationship with my father was, but at the time it gave me such a thrill to be in on the joke, to be thought smart and funny and cool. I thought he was treating me like a peer, like another adult, when in reality he treated me like his personal gratification machine. He had always been the kind of man whose favorite thing about women was how he could treat them like a mirror, reflecting back his own greatness at him. And what better mirror than your own daughter’s face, reflecting back your own features and expressions?
When I was living on my own in my 20s and he started asking for money and to crash on my couch whenever he and his girlfriend had a fight, I didn’t see myself as being used: I felt flattered that I was such a good daughter to be able to provide things. It wasn’t until later, after he had discarded me as easily as he had discarded my mother, that I saw it had never really been about his affection for me or his appreciation of my sense of humor. It had always been about what he could get from me and whether he could get it more easily elsewhere.
My father could be hilarious and charming, but he was also prone to childish fits of rage, during which he would do things like punch a hole in the wall or unload a very personal and vitriolic verbal attack. Afterwards he would act like nothing had happened; sometimes he would immediately start joking about it. The rest of us never knew what to do because there was nothing consistent about what would set him off. You could spill your milk one day and he would laugh and say it was no big deal and then help you clean it; you could spill your milk in exactly the same way the next day and find yourself being screamed at for being the kind of person who always spills their milk.
Staying on his good side became almost like a game, a contest with myself that made me so proud whenever I won it. I kept thinking that I would figure this out, figure out the map of him so I could avoid the spots that said here there be dragons. The thing I didn’t understand was that with my father, there were potential dragons everywhere. There was no right way to be, there were just dragons that shifted on his every whim.
What made my father’s love so tantalizing was that sometimes it seemed so close, but it was always just out of reach. This set up a dangerous pattern for future relationships and friendships where I distrusted love and approval that were given freely and instead preferred to be with people who made me feel that these things were like the golden ring on a carousel: seemingly achievable but always just beyond my grasp.
But where my father’s alluring love had every string attached, my mother’s had none. With my father, I felt like I had to work constantly to win his approval; with my mother, I felt entitled to affection. I saw her as a love, attention, food-making, laundry-doing machine.
This is not to say we did not have our own issues; my mother and I are very different people and we do not always understand each other. At times, our relationship has been very fraught. I spent a long time in my teens and early 20s stewing over what I thought she could and should have done differently while raising me. I felt that our lack of mutual understanding signaled a lack of love or desire to know me on her part, rather than just a plain old difference in personality (I’m a classic Leo and she’s a Scorpio, if that means anything to you).
It wasn’t until I was an adult and living 1,100 miles away from my family that I finally began to to see my mother as an actual person, with her own needs and desires. This is probably not unusual, since we live in a culture that does not see women — especially mothers — as fully human. It wasn’t until then that I understood that relationships involve a give and take, not just the take-take-take that defined my dynamic with her.
But having a child of my own was what really made me get her.
Becoming a mother has made me realize that there is nothing innate about motherhood, except maybe the unconditional love part. Everything else has to be learned and it is a steep learning curve and I am maybe not as good of a student as I could be.
As I watch and try to mitigate the ways my trauma and mental illness impact my parenting, I find myself filled with so much understanding and compassion for my own mother. I hear her words coming out of my mouth, hear my tone sharpen like hers sometimes did, witness myself doing the things she did that I swore that I would never do. And even as I use these moments as fuel to propel myself to be a better mother, they also draw me closer to my own mother and help me understand some of the choices she made while parenting me.
I also see how far intention can be from reality. Most of us, I think, intend to be good parents; the reality is more like scrambling through the woods at night with a child in your arms, not realizing there’s a tree right in front of you until you’ve run headlong into it. I know, now, that my mother must have often found herself in those same woods, trying to figure out how to carry me safely across this same unknowable landscape. Some parts of the woods must have seemed especially filled with hidden dangers, like the dark blooming of my mental health challenges in early adolescence.
I can’t imagine how it must have felt to have a generally upbeat and sunny child suddenly become a surly teenager who would stay up until everyone else was asleep just so that she could cut herself in the bathtub. The wolves were nipping at her heels, but she kept running, running, desperate to get me across to the other side. At the time I was furious at what seemed like a lack of sympathy and caring from her, but now I see how hard she was trying to navigate her way through completely foreign terrain.
I think I am a good mother. I hope I am a good mother. It’s easy for me to see now that my mother hoped and continues to hope that she is a good mother. And she is a good mother. And I am a good daughter. We are both human and we sometimes make mistakes but we also know we can rely on each other to try to work through these mistakes. We are safe spaces for each other where we can let down our boundaries and work through our conflicts without defensiveness or anger flaring up.
When I was pregnant, I knew I was going to love my child. I already loved my child. That was a given. But I did not expect motherhood to make me fall in love with my mother all over again. Or to allow me to see her as a person and not just a conduit for affection. Or to understand that even in the moments when I felt she was not trying hard enough, she was in fact trying her hardest.
We are such different people, my mother and I. And lots of times we still don’t understand each other.
But we are working on it.
Learning to love my mother as a person, in a world that alternately deifies and demonizes mothers but almost never treats them as humans, is also part of my feminist practice.
June Moreau is a contributor to The Establishment.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.