“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.” I saw a pillow with this stitched on it in a store the other day. I have a pillow just like it, bought long ago, and I’ve never been able to look at it without smiling; or perhaps more truthfully, grimacing.
I spent part of my twenties talking to a therapist about my own relationship with my mother. I was fairly certain that all of my insecurities could be traced to the things she’d said and done. In conversations debating nature versus nurture, I always went with nurture, which allowed everything that was wrong with me—and there were an awful lot of things—to be my mother’s fault. In fact, I didn’t originally intend to have children at all because I was so afraid of messing them up.
That resolve weakened in my thirties and I now have two fabulous teenaged sons (whom I don’t think I’ve scarred too badly). In the process I discovered that mothering is way more complicated than it looked from the receiving end. I also switched sides in the ‘nature vs nurture’ conversation not just to absolve myself of the full load of responsibility I dumped on my mother, but because my sons are different from each other in almost every way, and those differences were obvious from birth.
Still, it would be difficult to argue the fact that most of us are the mothers we are because of—or in spite of—our own mother’s mothering style, which we either emulate or reject completely. If they were hypercritical, we may bend over backward not to criticize. If they were disorganized we become fervent list-makers. If they never got up to make our breakfasts before school (something my mother’s generation apparently never got the memo on) we’re up at the crack of dawn squeezing fresh orange juice and scrambling those eggs. Or at least popping the frozen waffles into the toaster.
As loaded with emotion as the mother-daughter relationship is, it can be hard to find much middle ground. Which explains why it so often finds its way into women’s fiction novels. I’ve addressed it in many of my books, but even I was surprised when I ultimately ended up with not one, but three important mother-daughter relationships in my Ten Beach Road series.
In the end, no one can love you or hurt you more than your mother. Just this week I listened as one friend and one complete stranger vented about their relationships with their mothers. But of course, once you become a mother you realize that this relationship cuts both ways.
I worry that one day my sons will feel the need to vent about me, despite my best attempts to be the mother I thought they needed. As my mother once observed, it’s amazing how differently both sides of this relationship can view the same conversation or event. Like two witnesses to a crime or an accident, what happened is rarely as clear cut as we’d like.
I occasionally complain that my sons don’t share their feelings or even the details of their day as much as I’d like (or in the way that daughters do), but it’s begun to occur to me that this may actually work to my benefit. Perhaps they also won’t need to ‘tell all’ to a counselor. Or regale their friends and future spouses with stories about my mistakes and foibles. I’m pretty sure they’ve never seen that crotched pillow that reads, ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother!’ I’ve got it tucked away in a back closet where my children, who are male after all, will never find it.
Author’s note: My sons are now in their twenties and seem to have survived (and even embraced) my efforts to turn them in to productive members of society. I’m incredibly proud to be their mother.