I'm only 80% on this new blog post as well. What I would have liked to see, to make this something I was 100% happy with, would be more quotes and maybe referencing one of the many self-help books I've read that helped me come to terms with our lack of relationship, such as this one here.
Actually, you know what, I just added a link to that book at the end of the Medium post. Hooray. I still think it would improve my work if I had some quotes from the book in there, but that 20% difference wasn't part of the challenge. The challenge was to post something only when I'm 80% happy with it, so here it is below.
This is also available on the side bar in the Medium section of the menu.
My Mother, The Leopard
I always wanted a good relationship with my mother, but it’s always been strained. Anyone who’s been snubbed by their own mother will only naturally want to have that missing mother-daughter relationship in their life. It ties back to a deep biological need. It relates to safety and feelings of self-worth.
When I was little, she looked to me like this gorgeous goddess, one who was always too far out of reach. She didn’t want to spend time with me, and I felt burdensome, even from the youngest age. She was slim, tan, and sassy. It seemed like she was good at everything, and like I paled in comparison. It felt like I was playing catch up, trying to keep up with her talent and beauty, even though I was just a child. This didn’t feel natural, but I always held out hope that one day I would earn a place in her heart.
I had this big hole where our relationship was supposed to be, so naturally, even as I aged and began to see her as human, just like everyone else more or less, I still did things out of the hope that we would one day be close.
Despite my efforts to please her, every year we grew more adversarial.
In my 20’s, I felt a renewed hope that our relationship would turn a corner and that we could form a healthy adult-child and parent relationship. This was catalyzed by a single event, one that ultimately let me down and confused me in the moment. This memory left a smear of bewilderment and disappointment on my brain for years.
I must also mention that she was very abusive when I was a child and teen, but I have always been willing to put the past behind us, if we could move forward in a healthy way. The blame wasn’t entirely her own, as she lived through tremendous pain in her own upbringing in an abusive home, and the stress of her adult life was gargantuan. She couldn’t cope with her past or deal with the challenges of adult life without extreme emotional turmoil. Being a mom on top of what she was going through internally seemed like the worst thing for her.
After the economic crash of 2008 and a bad breakup, I found myself back in Maryland. It wasn’t a planned homecoming and I was, in many ways, more broken than I had been before. I had been through so much: graduating with my bachelor’s degree while also working full-time hours, then struggling to get a decent job with that degree, and finally, the heartache of betrayal within my failed romance. My heavy heart ran all the way home, even though there wasn’t much for me to go back to. The entire state felt unwelcoming, but I was going to give it a shot, and try for a fresh start.
We didn’t really get along when I got back. I offered to do things for her around her home, with my retail smile and responsible adult attitude. I put forth my best efforts to encourage a fresh beginning, for myself, and for us as a family. She acted hostile, as if I was the same lazy teenager she knew from several years before. I wasn’t. I tried to win her over, from a much cooler head and a place of maturity. She didn’t bite, and we failed to communicate or have many pleasant interactions.
So, I was a little shocked when my mother invited me to join her at Artscape, Baltimore’s giant festival of the arts, and an event that I had begged her to go to during my elementary and middle school years. Nevertheless, I decided to go with her, thinking she was trying to help me heal my sad heart.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have been more incorrect about her intentions.
We boarded the Light Rail in Hunt Valley early that morning. The ride was quiet at first. We spoke little, and it was awkward sitting next to her, as she always put me on edge. She was unpredictable, as the smallest perceived slight could make her explode in rage. Whenever I was around her, I monitored myself heavily, always mitigating my own emotions and tuning into hers instead. She sat stiffly, and continuously scanned the train car.
I read a book, as I often did, and with one eye, watched the train slowly fill with people from stop to stop, as we made our way south.
Finally, we reached our destination. The closed streets were lined with vendors in white tents and food trucks. Crowds of people meandered under the morning sun, while music and excitement were heard from all corners. It was a hot morning, and with the familiar buildings of Baltimore surrounding us, it felt like Charm City was alive and thriving. We stepped into the sunlight and merged into the masses.
“This is where they film Ace of Cakes,” she said proudly, as we passed a brick building.
“Oh, are they open?” I asked.
At that moment, I thought I cracked it. I hadn’t heard of Ace of Cakes until earlier that month, when I saw her watching an episode in her living room. She told me the show had inspired her to take up cake decorating with fondant.
I figured that was it, we had made the journey so she could meet her new hero or at least see him in the flesh, but we never saw Mr. Cake Ace, at least not that I was aware.
We wandered from tent to tent, looking at all sorts of different arts and crafts for sale. It reminded me of a similar, giant crafts fair in Lancaster, PA, one that I had attended with a friend in high school, only five or six years earlier.
My mother acted as she always did. Her sentences were short and her words were curt, but she wasn’t entering any extreme highs or lows, so I let myself relax a little.
This experience was one of the only times we had done something together as mother-daughter in nearly a decade, and one of the first times we had done anything since I was a full-fledged adult. I side-eyed her and found she was basically the same. I could tell she was putting on a brave face in the sea of people, yet she still grabbed her purse with both hands when we found ourselves entangled in a dense part of the crowd. It was customary for her face to be puckered into a frown, and this day was no different. As long as I could remember, she always looks slightly disgusted, like she smelled sour milk.
Imagine, if you will, my utter shock, when she transformed before my eyes from the frowning, stiff-armed woman, into something completely opposite and out of character.
We found ourselves near the waterfront. Target in sight, she bunny hopped away from me without a word. She moved like some kind of mystical elf, hips swaying and neck forward, towards one of the larger tents. I watched from behind her, in bewilderment. Her face somersaulted into a smile, and her limbs became animated, rubbery, even. She had gone from reserved, stern, and sensitive, to happy, delightful, and dare I say, teenage-like.
My eyelids must have recoiled into my skull, while my head contorted to the side, resting at a cool 90 degrees. A cartoonish, “huh?” escaped my mouth without me even knowing. My lips opened into the shape of a train whistle, and I lingered like a deer, ready to bolt, but my legs rooted in place. I couldn’t help but watch in complete and outright confusion.
“Hi guys!” she said, in her most feminine of voices.
She galloped into the booth and wiggled behind the display table.
I was maybe eight feet away. I could see her chattering, her arms making large, round circles in the air, and her gleaming smile, but I couldn’t make out most of what she was saying, other than a few words that came out louder than others.
I closed the gap by two additional feet, but that was it.
Surely, she would introduce me, I mused.
One person behind the table stood out from the rest. He was a handsome man in his 20’s, with shaggy hair held under a baseball cap, arms full of tattoos, and noticeably large biceps.
My mother went on and on to this young man, who was around my age at the time, and he didn’t get many words in, nor did anyone else behind the table.
After another few minutes, with me watching her speak enthusiastically to these vendors, she bid them goodbye, and continued away from the tent and back the way we came.
“I know them,” she said, smugly.
“Who?” was all I could ask.
“We do stained glass.”
She gave a brief summary of the lives of the people to whom she was just speaking, not hiding the fact she was gushing over the one who was my age.
I said something to the tune of, “Oh, he sounds great.”
He was quite handsome, but I never thought my own mother could be hitting on someone over twenty years her junior, especially considering she had just married her boyfriend the year before. For the briefest second, I thought maybe she was trying to set me up with this age-appropriate person. Maybe she was feeling bad that the end of my relationship had left me in such turmoil. Maybe she was trying to do something nice?
No, the look on her face was the only confirmation I needed. She hadn’t thought of my situation with any compassion or empathy; she probably hadn’t thought of it at all, other than being annoyed that I was back. She glared at me and then rolled her eyes. Then, she muttered something nasty about my appearance and intelligence, her voice so low in tone, that I couldn’t understand all of it.
Heck, she couldn’t even be bothered to introduce me to any of her friends behind that table whatsoever. It was pretty rude, but at the time, my thoughts were too jumbled to even get that far. She had morphed back just as quickly to the mother I knew, back into the woman who was always unhappy and uncomfortable.
It hit me some ten years later, that the only reason she dragged my butt down there in the first place, was to brag. Something compelled her to show off she was hanging out with an attractive, successful 20-something artist, and his family.
Even though she birthed me, my mother treated me, at best, like an unwanted little sister, among other things. Her and my aunt, her own sister, were in constant rivalry. Her envy knew no bounds; her competitive nature was the frame of my entire childhood. I could do nothing without her learning to do it and do it better than me. If I wanted to get better at something, like drawing or computers, she would throw herself into it too, and then show off her new skills to anyone who’d pay attention, like my father, the neighbor, her friends from the college she attended when I was in elementary school, or her new husband.
I had gone into the day with optimism, and almost as a responsibility to look out for her in the big city, one that had scared her so much when I was a child. I thought we were really turning a corner and I had finally won her respect. I thought she was finally starting to see me differently. I felt she had considered the hardships I had been through, the obstacles I overcame in my rocky launch into adulthood, and saw me as someone she would like to be around.
No, she just wanted to brag.
We can go our entire lives and play out the same patterns, over and over again, but with different people. We can tell the same stories on repeat, and we can see little change in our own lives.
“Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23, New International Version (more on this proverb here)
I don’t want to live like my mother. Without having her love and support, I’ve had a hard time emotionally. With the abuse she doled onto me, I have a foundation of negativity and self-loathing. I hated myself for years because it was beyond her capacity to treat me like someone she valued. I twisted myself in knots, just trying to earn her love, and attempting to receive the tiniest bit of praise or positive attention. I had meltdowns on a regular basis, from the exhaustion of walking on eggshells constantly, trying not to upset her further, as she was already so miserable, and as my existence only made things worse in her eyes.
Even now, she still uses me as the scapegoat in her personal story. I’m the be-all-end-all apocalypse she turns to, the one she points the finger at, and the no-good arbiter of her bad luck. I show up in her stories whenever she needs to vent out whatever injustice the world has given her on a single day, though we haven’t spoken in years.
I refuse to be like this, although it’s been an uphill, endless battle.
There are many times I’ve slipped. I’ve been overwhelmed and shouted at someone, I’ve lied and gaslighted without meaning to, and I’ve ran for the hills from people who probably didn’t mean the harm they inflicted. I cowered from her when I was a child. When I was grown, I let others into my life who put their hands on me, and I cowered from those too, until I was able to make yet another escape.
Every day I have a choice to be better, to act better, and to never be envious or in competition with people over frivolous, surface-level nonsense. I give others the benefit of the doubt, and with an open, loving heart, I’ve still been sucked into worlds of negativity and pain. I end these relationships, after trying to save them one time too many, but I do end them.
My mother and I will never be close. I will never have her respect, just as she will never have her own mother’s respect. The difference is, she’s still after her own mother’s approval, but I’ve flushed the whole notion of getting hers from my reality. Though it may not be entirely impossible, earning her love is a goal I refuse to seek any longer.
I will always love her and be grateful for her, as she is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known. She’s a combination of puzzle pieces that will never fit together. She’s so cruel to most people she meets in everyday life, but she’s completely unaware of the hurt she inflicts on others. She complains constantly about people around her being oblivious, not conscientious, and entitled, yet she herself is noticeably rude.
She and her mother, my grandmother, both act the same in conversations. They sit quietly, waiting for their turn to speak, without having listened to a single word the other person has said.
Of course, I hope she grows. Her own childhood was awful, and no one deserves what she went through. She, like all of us, has a choice on how she will act in every moment. I wasn’t able to be what she needed, nor was she able to be what I needed, but that’s in the past now. The Artscape interaction, and the many other confusing interactions we had, are but symptoms of self-hate and a life ruled by jealousy and envy. If she could zoom out from her life, forget about all the negative experiences she’s been through, and look with fresh eyes, I wonder what she’d see.