Her Bad Mother

Friday, May 11, 2007

This Is a Love Song

Come Mother's Day, there's a lot of pressure to sing sweet songs of sunshine and daffodils, primroses and butterflies. To compose odes to our mothers, or to ourselves as mothers. To wax poetic on the joys and glories of being a mother, to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and capture in a word or two or more how achingly wonderful it is to be a mother, to have a mother, to miss our mothers, to be among mothers. To sing mother-love electric.

Which is what I'm going to do here, minus the primroses and butterflies. Because the truth about motherhood is that the greatest expression of our love for our children, the moment of deepest feeling, is not always going to come alive in a sunny meadow as we spin together, holding hands, the light breaking as it meets our twirling bodies. The truth about motherhood is, we feel love most deeply as an ache. It's the pang in our hearts as we hunch over a crib in the dark hours before the dawn contemplating our once and future separation from this precious being, this adored child, who will one day leave us. It's the cruel, deep wound exacted by loss, or by fear of loss. It's anxiety. It's sacrifice. It's fear.

It's knowing that this love, this greatest love, will always bring pain, cause pain, even as it offers the most dizzying joys. It's an old refrain, but a true one: where there are no dark depths, there can be no dazzling heights. Where there is no dark, there can be no experience of light.

My mother, and my mother's mother, my grandmother, knew those depths, that darkness. They knew loss, knew it keenly; long before I came along, they had lost babies, and they had given away babies. Their hearts had been broken, by love, by motherhoods given and taken away. But then came more babies, more children, more life, more light, more love. All I knew, as a child, of my mother and grandmother was love, unconditional love. Happy love.

This childhood was not so far behind me when, as a young woman, I discovered that I was pregnant. I did not want to be pregnant: I was on my own, I was young, and I was scared. I needed my mother. But this - this condition, and my unwillingness to be in this condition - would, I knew, break her heart. It would shatter her heart into a million tiny pieces that I would never be able to gather up and glue back together and stash onto the mantle of her soul and hide what I had done. I knew that there were ghosts, for her, and, once upon a time, for my grandmother, tiny ghosts that called out in the night. I knew that, for this reason, and for reasons related to her faith, to my lapsed faith, she would recoil at what I wanted to do.

I called out to her anyway. It was selfish - I could have avoided breaking her heart by keeping this a secret from her. I could have borne the weight of this, this terrible thing, in my own heart, in my own soul, and laboured with it, alone. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted my mother.

And so I did, I called to her, and she came, she brought me to her, and we cried together as our hearts broke together, as hers - so much the bigger and the more fragile for her ghosts, and for knowing that my heart would never finish breaking - bore the greater weight and suffered the greater cracks. And she gently talked me through what I felt I needed to do and told me that if I had to do this, I wouldn't do it alone and swore her unyielding support and undying love and then she made me my favourite meal and after that we cried some more. Then, then, she made all arrangements and we made the long drive, together, to the place where I had to walk a terrible mile alone, but she was there, again, on the other side and that night we curled up together on a dusty bed in a motel together, somewhere some distance from home and cried and contemplated our ghosts.

The next day, she bought me pie - Tollhouse Cookie pie, the only detail that I remember apart from the scratchiness of the motel sheets and the smell of rubbing alcohol in the clinic - and then we drove home, mother and daughter, each holding the other's fragile, fragile heart in hand.

This was her sacrifice for me: to expose her heart to terrible pain in order to protect mine against the full onslaught of such pain. To face her ghosts, and those of her mother, and of so many other mothers, so that I might not be destroyed by the creation of my own. It might be said, in certain quarters, that the greatest gift that she could have given me would have been to talk me out of it, to bring to bear all of her maternal influence, to use her love and my love to bring about a different ending to that story. To save me. But she couldn't save me, nor should she have. I needed to make the decision - or not - to take that walk, that terrible walk, and I needed to make that decision on my own. This was my life, my future, my choice, the making of my own regret/unregret/memory/ghost. For all that she could give me, I was alone.

What she did give me was love. Unconditional, unquestioning love, to wrap around myself like the warmest blanket, the thickest armour. She had always promised to love me no matter what, and I - can one say, for better or for worse, when the word 'better' catches in one's throat? - I gave her the opportunity to prove it. She proved it, and then some. This saved me. She saved me. My heart has cracks - deep, deep fissures and jagged hairline cuts - but it is intact: her armour shielded it - has long-shielded it - from the full impact of inevitable blows of pain.

I expect that, to some degree or another, our children inevitably give us opportunities to prove this, to prove the unconditionality of our love, to prove that we would, we will, sacrifice ourselves - our hearts, our souls, our peace of mind, our place in whatever heaven we've hoped to reach - for them. I didn't understand the depth or breadth or weight of my mother's sacrifice until I became a mother myself, and the ghosts gathered 'round me, and whispered to me of love and loss and regret and unregret and gripped my heart in their tiny hands and squeezed until I cried. I didn't understand until I'd suffered a loss not of my own devising, until I'd prayed for the life of this child, this oh-so-badly-wanted child. I didn't understand until I became a mother, for real, for aching-heartfelt-feargripped-real, just how great a thing she had done.

She had bared her heart for me, she held it out as a shield and - although I know, I know that she quaked with fear and sadness - she did not waver, she did not yield.
This is her greatness as a mother.

This is what I aspire to.

Real moms love their children fiercely and without condition. They are warriors with their hearts.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.


The above is confession, a story that I was originally going to post in some anonymous form in the Basement. Then I realized that it was so much more about the force that is my mother and the force of motherhood generally than it was about me. So it is my Mother's Day card - so much better than flowers, no? - and my Real Mom Truth. And the picture is my Real Mom photograph: obviously, I didn't take the original picture, but I did dig it out of a dusty old box and brush it off and prop it up and set up light deflectors and take a photograph of it so that I could keep it and tweak it and share it with the world. Barthes would say, in other words, that I am as much the author of this photograph as I am author of the story that I tell.

This, then, is my humble contribution to the Real Mom Truths event (which might yield a 4G iPod Nano and Chocolate gift set and a link on True Mom Confessions on Mother's Day, although the gift set would promptly be delivered to my mother, who deserves much, much more than chocolate.) There's still time for you to join in - you have until 10pm EST tonight.


Blogger Gabriella said...

what a beautiful tribute to your mom and the inner strength that all mothers possess somewhere deep inside that comes out when needed.
You're not alone in what you have shared. Thanks for sharing it with us all.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story, and for capturing so beautifully and eloquently what I myself have felt as a mother.

12:21 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Reading this, I wonder what kind of experience I would have had had I shared my struggle and choice with my mother.
I felt shame--justified or not--I felt it.
What you shared with your mother...amazing. And thank you for sharing it with us.
I've found the deepest ache, the deepest feeling of love for my child has come in moments of sickness and pain, when my baby needs me most I also need him most.
Happy Mother's Day to you. And to your mother!

12:29 PM  
Blogger Magpie said...

Thank you for telling your story. Happy Mother's Day!

1:22 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Your mom is amazing. Someone close to me went through what you did, but alone, very alone. And it took along time for her to be alright, to be sad and okay at the same time, and then to let it be and move on with her life and relationships. I wish she'd had her mother (or maybe yours) at that time. Often, I wish I'd been there, but there is no one like a mom. Happy Mother's Day to you and your mom this weekend.

1:24 PM  
Blogger geenalyn said...

thankyou for sharing your story, sharing the strength and love of your mother....this was a very powerful post

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What an amazing story...I can only hope to be 1/2 the mom yours is to you. Happy Mother's Day to you both.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story with us.

May every day be an opportunity to repay the kindness and love of your mother through the love and generosity you show Wonderbaby.

Have a truly special Mother's Day!

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful post - What your mother did was incredible, and I also believe it took a lot of courage on your part not to keep it a secret. Thanks for sharing.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

damn, lady - you put my post to shame.

that was so beautiful. thank you for being willing to share it with us all. you are quite the warrior as well.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Jen said...

Wow. You are a brave and beautiful soul. Wonderful post.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Ruth Dynamite said...

[weep sob]

Oh Catherine. Beautifully articulated and achingly lovely. Happy MD to you and your mom!

3:04 PM  
Blogger ewe are here said...

I'm glad you didn't post this in the Basement because it's a wonderful tribute to your mother. You are incredibly lucky to have such a strong, supportive, loving mother. Truly.

Happy Mother's Day to you both

3:48 PM  
Blogger karengreeners said...

Powerful stuff, lady. Great mothers definitely beget great mothers.

I certainly don't have a mother that I would have ever shared my story with, but I hope dearly that my own children will not be able to say the same thing.

Happy mother's day.

3:55 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

Oh honey, I am all teary and weepy now. How sad, how beautiful, how true. This makes me sad and proud at the same time for both you and your mother, for the strength you both had/have.

When I contemplate all the things Pumpkinpie could go through, I always hope that if she had some crisis, some secret, some pain, she would feel she could come to me, too. Mothers, most mothers, are good in a crisis, I think, and your mom probably did her falling apart after the fact, when she allowed herself, after she could put her Warrior Mother armour away. I bet you'd be the same.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a beautiful tribute to your mother and to unconditional love. I'm glad you shared your story here: "warriors with their hearts" = perfection.
Happy Mother's Day!

4:22 PM  
Blogger Laural Dawn said...

I wish I could give you a big hug because that was beautiful.
You captured so well the whole concept of a mother's love.
For me it was just always knowing that no matter what, if I ever called my mom and needed her (from parties, etc) she would drop everything and get me. And not ask.
When I became a mother I understood how many things I put her through. And appreciated them so much more.
But the love... I think it grows with the child.
I didn't know what to write for Mother's Day. But, now I do.
And, like I've said before, I love how brave you are with your writing.
Have an amazing Mother's Day!!!

4:26 PM  
Blogger Motherhood Uncensored said...

Your words give power and strength to those who need it, HBM.

Your "confession" has set many people free.

Thank you.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Julie Marsh said...

So brave and so beautiful. Happy Mother's Day to you, my friend.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautifully written, Catherine. Thank you for trusting us with this


You make me so proud to be a mother

4:41 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

This is gorgeous. I'm going to be including this in my Mother's Day picks at SMITH.net. Thank you for inspiring me again and again.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Marty, a.k.a. canape said...

So you get your wisdom from your mom. That is a lovely way to get it.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Bon said...


this post took real courage to put out there...i'm with the others in thanking you for trusting us with it.

and i'm smiling, because it seems fitting that you exposed a piece of your own history on behalf of your mother, to stand up for your mother, just as she exposed herself to the pain of her own loss and history for you, to stand beside you. you two are lovely.

and the post gave me an ache, which must mean it's really, really good.

peace to you.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Maddy said...

Well done for being brave and not being anonymous.
Best wishes

6:36 PM  
Blogger metro mama said...

What a moving and brave tribute.

Sounds like your mom is one special lady - you come by it honestly.

Have a wonderful Mother's Day.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your words made me cry and have touched a secret part of me that I rarely acknowledge.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. xoxo

9:05 PM  
Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

What an amazing mother your mom is. What a gift she gave you. And you are amazingly brave for sharing this with us.

10:01 PM  
Blogger flutter said...

warrior indeed

10:02 PM  
Blogger S said...

such a story.

i am awed by your strength and your lovely heart and soul.

10:51 PM  
Blogger Run ANC said...

Mothers do rock. You have obviously studied with one of the greats.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

i"m here from WTM, this post was so beautiful and painful at the same time... I admire your courage to post it and give your name to it instead of leaving it nameless.

I hope your mother's day is filled with love.

11:22 PM  
Blogger crazymumma said...

I remember last summer I posted about giving up something, and how I felt about it...and your comment was something to the effect of maybe someday you would post about yours. And now you have.

And you will be there if you have to be, hopefully not....but you will be there unconditionally as your mother was for you.

I'm freaking crying. shit. Bad Mother.

11:35 PM  
Blogger crazymumma said...

Crikey. I did not mean 'bad mother', I meant if I were talking to you it would be the emphasis on your name in recognition.

11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I held it together until the photo. The photo did me in. Beautiful, touching story. Thank you for sharing it. Love to you and your mom on Mother's Day.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Creative-Type Dad said...

Great, great story. I'm in awe of your writing

12:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great story.

Having gone through the same experience, but with both parents in attendance, I understand where you're coming from.

But you said it so well that I have renewed respect for their pain.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Robbin said...

Beautiful and courageous.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Jezer said...

How painfully and comfortingly true. Happy Mother's Day to you and your own Amazing mother.

8:18 AM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

A wonderful tribute to your strong and loving mother. Youa re truly a fortunate woman to have a mother who loves you unconditionally. I didn't (and don't) have that, and try every day to provide that to my daughter. I hope I succeed.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post...wonderful tribute...welcome praise for a job well done.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You and your mother are both so brave. Happy Mother's Day to you all.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am speechless. I imagine before she did that, your mother might not have thought she would have the strength to do that for you. It's amazing what motherhood can pry from deep in one's soul.

That was astonishingly beautiful. Happy Mothers Day.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Tuesday Girl said...

Just beautiful

6:05 PM  
Blogger NotSoSage said...

What a testament to the bond you shared. This is what I aspire to in my relationship with my daughter: that she will have no fear of leaning on me, no matter how much it might hurt me.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Kris said...

Thank you for the courage to share your story. May we all be strong for our daughters.

Happy Mother's Day.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Mad said...

I am so embroiled in activism at the local level now to allow other women the right to make that decision or whatever other decision they want to make. The gov't out here is not so good, believing it their right to make a choice that not even a mother can or should force a woman to make. Thanks for this story. For its bigness. Thanks to your mother for being the kind of woman you needed her to be.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Dallas Meow said...

Happy Mothers Day!

9:16 AM  
Blogger Ms. McFearsome said...

A beautiful story and a moving tribute. Thanks for sharing and for praying for Baby Ashley.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Gidge Uriza said...

Wonderful tribute.
Happy Mothers day.

11:21 AM  
Blogger moplans said...

Beautiful story Catherine.
I agree that it is the true measure of love to be able to support our children to make the decisions that are right for them.

11:25 AM  
Blogger OhTheJoys said...

Understanding much more than I can say...

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. The writing, as always, blows me away. Happy Mother's Day to a GOOD MOTHER.


3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully done (not that I expect anything less from you). Happy Mother's Day.

7:37 PM  
Blogger mamatulip said...

I am speechless.

Happy Mother's Day to two amazing, strong mothers.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh Catherine....
I'm speechless too. But also once more aware of how powerful our words in these spaces can be...

Thank you.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Cristina said...

Wow. This was a beautiful tribute to your mother. Once again, you show us what a great lady she is - and what a great person you are as well. Happy Mother's Day.

11:43 PM  
Blogger amyinbc said...

Your mom is precious.. Such a difficult time to show her colors but she obviously came through for you. As a good mom does :)

1:00 AM  
Blogger Michelle Constantinescu said...

This is so beautifully written! It could be the basis of a novel, easily. Thank you so much for sharing such a very personal story. I cried all the way through it - your mother must be a phenomenal person!

Happy Mother's Day to you both!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply beautiful. Even had my mother been alive when I had to walk my own terrible mile at 18, I don't know that I would have been able to share it with her. What an incredible gift she gave to you.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

Thank you for letting us in on this part of your life. That could not have been easy.

I hope you and your mother had a wonderful Mother's Day!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Alex Elliot said...

What a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Jen said...

Okay, I've already commented, but I wanted to let you know I've tagged you for an eight things meme, if you haven't already done one.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. This is a very powerful, beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing! And happy mother's day.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

What a sad and loving tale. Thank you for sharing it.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Granny said...

Thank you. I know how hard that must have been for you to write.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Jenifer said...

I remember what I ate at JJ Muggs and the necklace the nurse wore. I wish I had the courage to tell my mother, I didn't until much later.

Thank you for such a moving and touching story.

Happy Mother's Day to you both. I hope to hold my daughter's hands in their hours of darkest pain and most triumphant joy, that is what I wish for us.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Tere said...

I commend you - this is so beautifully, perfectly written that I'm aching. You've captured and expressed that love as I see and feel it. Thank you.

9:47 PM  
Blogger urban-urchin said...

You're mom sounds wonderful. Happy Mother's Day.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi catherine what a beautiful post.and it must be comforting to know that the greatness of your mom is also inside of you.hope you had a wonderfilled mothers day.LAVENDULA

10:08 AM  
Blogger Stu said...

First, I'm a full-time father and husband. So, even though I don't have ovaries, your essay was shattering and awesome. I won't lie, I shed a few tears.

Second, you've been nominated for Hot Stuff Of The Week over at our blog, GNMParents.

Third, thank you for sharing yourself in this way.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

This is such a beautiful post.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is full of sorrow and love and quite, quite perfect.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

I am so unbelievably sorry that I missed this. It makes me ache for you and be inspired by you and your mother all at the same itme.

Big hugs to you for sharing this stunning post and powerful story of motherhood and bravery. And love. So much love.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Dani said...

Thank you for sharing.
Your mother must be so proud.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Grim Reality Girl said...

Thank you for having the courage to share this and to respect all choices. I can't believe I missed this one.... you broke my heart and opened my eyes... Your mother is amazing and so are you.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

i don't know if you will ever get this comment on such a long ago post. but i got here through your post about juno. and this nearly tore me up. this was me, too. my choice, my mom, that smell of alcohol. . .christ it haunts though i have no regrets at all. but you never forget it, it shapes you in some way.

thanks for sharing this. i've wanted to talk about it so badly myself at my blog but the words are hard and in the end i am such a chicken shit.

Running on empty

10:38 PM  
Blogger Al_Pal said...

Yup, got a little teary-eyed.

Impressive post. That is a strong and awesome mother you've got there!

7:44 AM  
Blogger Mary Freaking Poppins said...

This was amazing. Thank you for sharing such a personal story.

4:02 PM  

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