None of the Mother’s Day cards seemed right for my mother

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So, who are these schmaltzy, saccharine Mother’s Day cards for? Not my mom, that’s for sure.

Picking out a Mother’s Day card for my mom was challenging … “For all the times you were there for me.” Nope. “Your love is warm as sunshine.” Hardly. “I’ll never forget your encouragement, wisdom and guidance.” I wish.

“To Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.” Yeah, that’ll do. There wasn’t much to work with.

It’s not that my mother abused me. She wasn’t crazy or alcoholic. It’s just that she didn’t like me that much. She only said “I love you” to me once in my entire life (and it took her 27 years) while hospitalized with a brain aneurysm, hallucinating and heavily medicated, just before she died. Part of me wants to cling to that statement as evidence that she really did love me. Part of me believes it was just the Haldol talking.

I don’t mean to sound pathetic. I’m just stating the facts.

My mother wasn’t mean to me, or not mean to me; she was just sort of “there.” Or maybe I was. She was aware of me like one might be aware of a houseplant that you water from time to time when it droops.

Her indifference gnawed at my psyche most of my life — if my own mother doesn’t love me, there must be something intrinsically wrong with me. I must be horribly flawed in some way that I alone am unable to detect. But over time, particularly after raising my own children and experiencing the power of maternal love, I came to realize that my mother was just lacking any maternal instincts.

Do I resent her for that? How can I, really? People are what they are. They have their deficits. Do you resent them for being deaf or diabetic? Or do you just learn to accept them as they are, and alter your unrealistic expectations of them?

Over the years, my frustration and resentment over my relationship with my mother (or lack thereof) subsided, but never entirely disappeared. Recently, I decided to me to view my mother through a different lens: Not as my mother, but as a woman in the 1950-60s.

It was an oddity for women to work in those days, and if they did, they became nurses, teachers or secretaries. June Cleaver was the standard to which all women were compared, and women were expected to be content with a husband, home and family. Women didn’t elbow their way into the male world and become, say, doctors. But my mother did.

She was one of only two female graduates in her class at medical school, where she met and married my dad. Together, they set up a private medical practice and had the world at their fingertips. And then she got pregnant. With me.

Was it planned? Who knows. There’s no one left to ask. But I suspect not. Why would my mother defy the odds and cultural expectations, work her way through medical school as a waitress, start a private practice, and then choose to get pregnant? Clearly, she didn’t.

And, there’s further evidence that I was more inconvenience than blessing:

* She took heavy-duty diet pills while she was pregnant to avoid gaining weight (and looking pregnant), despite what that might do to her unborn child. I was saturated in Biphetamine for nine months.

* After three days of labor, I was stuck in a transverse arrest, with my spine  against her cervix, and was delivered by emergency C-section, leaving her abdomen looking like Frankenstein. I was born with pneumonia, and spent my first days in an incubator rather than in her arms. My arrival was marked by pain, disfigurement and separation.

* My mother went back to work full time when I was only two weeks old, leaving me with this or that aunt or grandmother, as well as random people she hired, including a schizophrenic patient she felt sorry for. Consequently, I never bonded to anyone in my infancy, and was a year old before I smiled. Babies usually smile at five weeks. (Many years later, a therapist diagnosed me with “infantile depression” resulting from the revolving door of caretakers.)

Research shows that mothers bond poorly with babies that don’t smile. Ditto for babies that don’t make eye contact. Well, unbeknownst to anyone until I was about 3, I am so nearsighted (legally blind, in fact) that without correction, the world is just a big blur of color and motion to me. I can’t see faces. Or eyes. With which to make contact.

So. Here is a woman who fought to break the June Cleaver mold, a feminist before feminism was cool, unexpectedly pregnant; the delivery is difficult and painful, and the baby is sickly and sullen. And, a choice between motherhood and career must be made. About this time, my parents started having marital problems. I frequently fell asleep to the sound of yelling and tears. And, guess what —  I looked just like my dad. And clearly preferred him.

And so the chasm widens.

Bottom line, my mother and I never connected. We were two strangers, staring blankly back at each other. She was always pleasant, but never present. She hid beneath layers of defenses, mostly banal and cordial, but obscuring the real person underneath. I could never “get” her. It was like trying to grab smoke. Open your fist … nothing there.

It’s been 26 years since she passed, and I still don’t “get” my mother. But rather than dwelling on our sad, sorry relationship any longer, I’ve decided to just accept it for what it was, without blaming or judging it, like you might identify a rock as a piece of granite — neither good nor bad, just a piece of granite. Just accept it for what it is, or was, and stop lamenting that it wasn’t a ruby.

— Email Debra at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com, www.edebra.com and www.ipinion.us

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  1. This was definitely a very weird column. Your mother tried to hide her pregnancy as a young female doctor in the 1950/1960’s? There were no protections for pregnant women back then; maybe she would have lost her medical practice or job, etc. She probably didn’t know or think that taking diet pills while pregnant could hurt a fetus. My mother smoked through her pregnancy with me; nobody knew back then that things like that could hurt a fetus. Many mothers back then drank heavily or smoked, or even took thalidomide. Nobody knew the things back then that we know now.
    Your birth was marked by “pain, disfigurement, and separation”? I doubt that you remembered it. Lots of babies have difficult births. Why is this so important to write about? None of what you write about is especially interesting or well-written, frankly.
    Why not just write a column as a daughter who felt she and her mother never connected? End of story. You ramble around with birth details that have little to do with anything.

  2. This was definitely a very weird column. Your mother tried to hide her pregnancy as a young female doctor in the 1950/1960’s? There were no protections for pregnant women back then; maybe she would have lost her medical practice or job, etc. She probably didn’t know or think that taking diet pills while pregnant could hurt a fetus. My mother smoked through her pregnancy with me; nobody knew back then that things like that could hurt a fetus. Many mothers back then drank heavily or smoked, or even took thalidomide. Nobody knew the things back then that we know now.
    Your birth was marked by “pain, disfigurement, and separation”? I doubt that you remembered it. Lots of babies have difficult births. Why is this so important to write about? None of what you write about is especially interesting or well-written, frankly.
    Why not just write a column as a daughter who felt she and her mother never connected? End of story. You ramble around with birth details that have little to do with anything.

  3. This is Debra’s story–her reality. You don’t need to rewrite it for her. I hope it was cathartic to write about this non-relationship with her mother. I found it sad both for her mother who seemed so disconnected. Debra, I’m glad you felt a bond with your father. I recall you’ve written about him before, and the affection between the two of you was real.

  4. This is Debra’s story–her reality. You don’t need to rewrite it for her. I hope it was cathartic to write about this non-relationship with her mother. I found it sad both for her mother who seemed so disconnected. Debra, I’m glad you felt a bond with your father. I recall you’ve written about him before, and the affection between the two of you was real.

  5. There are some of us at least who can all too well connect with this story. I have had exactly the same dilemma about Mother’s Day cards. I get what you are saying Debra and I appreciate the courage and honesty it took. It sounds like you were able to be a more caring mom to your own children and that is a triumph and a blessing.

  6. There are some of us at least who can all too well connect with this story. I have had exactly the same dilemma about Mother’s Day cards. I get what you are saying Debra and I appreciate the courage and honesty it took. It sounds like you were able to be a more caring mom to your own children and that is a triumph and a blessing.

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