Like a lot of people I know, I had a less than perfect mother. As a child, my life with her was tumultuous. I could never predict what she would be like in the next moment. I am certain it wasn’t easy being her, but as a little child, all I could think was that it wasn’t easy being me.
As I grew, there were times when I felt angry with her, but there were more times when I felt wounded, hurt, devalued, and misunderstood. Her verbal and physical assaults left me weak and vulnerable.
Sure, there were good times. My mother was an expert at good times. She knew how to take us to fancy restaurants and buy us beautiful clothes and send us to overnight camp. But without warning, her mood could change and the emotional assaults would begin once again.
I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave home.
But of course, there is always love and affection that are intermixed with the pain, and so even after I left home, a warm call from my mother felt loving and reassuring and I looked forward to the times we spoke or saw each other and everything went right.
I remember one such time with special fondness: We had been married about 7 months and I was about 5 months pregnant. We were living in Valley Station, Kentucky, about halfway between Fort Knox where my husband worked and Louisville, where I was finishing college. My husband was going to fly out to Spokane, Washington, for a job interview. When my mother heard about it, she was convinced that I should not be alone, and so she arranged to fly to Louisville to spend the weekend with me.
My husband and I drove to the airport and just as I kissed him goodbye, my mother’s plane from Philadelphia landed. I took her back to my home and from then on we spent three wonderful days together—shopping for maternity clothes, eating ice cream, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Sunday, I took her to the airport and after kissing her goodbye, my husband’s plane landed.
I remember that short period vividly because it was so very special. Most of my adult life, however, my relationship with her was problematic. I hadn’t made the choices in my life that she would have made for me. I hadn’t married a doctor and stayed in Philadelphia and had one son and one daughter and lunch with mom once a week. Instead I had become independent.
But now here was my dilemma: My mother had a lot of ideas about what constituted loyalty and love. She had lots of demands. She could become unpleasant on the phone. But, at the same time, she was my mother and underneath it all, I felt love for her and an obligation to respect her. How could I choose my behaviors toward her?
I formulated my “no regrets” rule. I decided that I would treat her the way one treats a mother who has given birth to one and who loves one despite her inability to adequately show it. I would do it not for her, but for me. In the end, I knew that I would have to be accountable to myself for my behavior. I would have to be able to live with myself in the long run. I would have to be able to look back at my actions and feel proud that I had maintained the relationship, shown respect, and not allowed her shortcomings to limit my ability to be the kind of daughter I knew I should be.
Did I meet all of her demands? Certainly not. That would have been impossible. However, she was always a welcome guest in my house, even when she wasn’t acting her best. I never insulted her, interrupted her, or argued with her. I listened and acknowledged what she said, and then I made my own decisions.
In the last year of her life, when she was weak and sick, she told me that she approved of my life choices. I think the best of them was to act so that I would have no regrets.