When my mother died last March, I was caught off guard by the depth of my grief and the sense of profound loss that I felt. My mom and I had a really good relationship, but we weren’t close in the way some mothers and daughters are. She was sick for a long time so she wasn’t able to dispense the motherly advice, or help with my kids in ways that other mothers could when their daughters became mothers themselves. And even before her illness robbed her of everything, she wasn’t really that kind of mother or grandmother anyway. That just wasn’t her style. She was more of a behind-the-scenes kind of mom. For a long time, part of me resented that. I didn’t fully realize all that she had given me, all that she did teach me until after her death. So many friends responded to something I wrote about her with comments about how much my description of her sounded like ME and that was not something I’d expected to hear. It was really surprising because I never thought we were that similar. To some degree, I felt like I was missing out on a lot because we didn’t have a “traditional” adult mother/daughter relationship. I didn’t realize how much she’d given me just by being who she was and loving me in the way she did.
So much of who you are is not the physical space you embody — it’s the imprint you leave on others. Indeed, people won’t remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. I don’t recall exactly all the conversations I had with my mom as a child, teen, or even an adult but I do have a good sense of what she’d say or do in lots of different situations. Situations I currently find myself in, especially as a mom to two teenagers. I draw strength from her memory when I feel like I’m faltering. Her spirit motivates me to keep going when I’m tired or unsure. I hear her voice in my head and it encourages me to take a deep breath when I feel panicked. Her quick, loud laugh comes to mind when something joyous and unexpected happens and it reminds me to celebrate and embrace it.
This has been a long year without her. It is a very strange thing indeed to be motherless in a world anchored by mothers. Mothers are the core of every human experience and without the physical presence of my own mother on this earth, I have felt untethered and lost. And I have to admit that at times I have not dealt with that very well. But it has also taught me a lot about myself, things I didn’t know I needed to learn. It has made me think about what kind of imprint I will leave on my children and what kind of legacy I might leave them with just by being who I am and loving them the way I do. It has allowed me to share with them the things about me that will help them be the best versions of themselves. But I have also given myself permission to embrace my shortcomings and let go of this notion that I have to be perfect for them, or anyone.
I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to always get it right. It’s okay that I am sometimes distracted, frustrated, annoyed, angry, sad, or selfish. Because these aren’t the moments that define me; they aren’t who I am. Because I don’t let them define who I am.
You can’t control a lot of things that happen to you in life. But you can control how you react to them. I think we have all learned that during these last two challenging years. For me, that means trying really hard not to focus on all the things that aren’t so that I can embrace all the things that are, both externally and within myself. I am getting better at identifying the relationships and experiences that are valuable, fulfilling, and rewarding and letting go of and being okay with the ones that aren’t. And I am better at forgiving myself when I don’t react to things in the most positive or productive way.
The other day my daughter was dealing with a crushing disappointment. I didn’t know how to make it better, and everything I said seemed to make it worse. But I kept on doing what my mom would have done, which was to present her with reasonable solutions that she didn’t want to hear and remind her to take deep breaths because things always work out one way or another if you are willing to approach problems from multiple angles. I was trying to be logical, believing that there would be comfort in that for her. Of course, it didn’t work. She remained inconsolable. It was frustrating and made me feel helpless, and I ended up crying too. That was the only thing that gave her pause. “Why are YOU crying?” she asked. “This isn’t about you.” It wasn’t about me, but I couldn’t help her, and I didn’t know where to turn.
I had used up all the tools I had in my fix-it mom box. I had failed her. But by the end of the next day she had pursued one of the options she had violently objected to the night before and all was well. Better than well actually because she was so pleased with her new decision that she said she was relieved about the way everything turned out, and she was happier than she probably would have been otherwise. She never mentioned that the solution she chose was one of mine and possibly she thinks she came to this conclusion herself. But I’m okay with that. I can be a behind-the-scenes kind of mom too.
I think because I have embraced everything about my mom – the things I cherished and the ones that I didn’t appreciate so much – I can now allow myself to relax into who I am and what I want without apology. I know that I don’t need to get everything right to be a good mother, a good friend or a good person in general. And I don’t expect that of anyone else. I have flaws, but I also have a lot of qualities that I’m proud of. I think recognizing this allows me to help my kids embrace their strengths and acknowledge their weaknesses without dwelling on them. They are learning to build self-awareness by watching me work on my own. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself these days.
A friend recently reminded me that it’s actually good for your kids to see you emotionally vulnerable because it gives them context and helps them see you as more than just their mom. It opens up an avenue for you to connect with them when they are struggling with something because they see that you struggle too. It helps legitimize that advice they don’t want to hear because they (subconsciously at least) understand that you do know how it feels and you might know how to help make it better. And they see that your struggles don’t break you.
I used to think this big birthday marked the end of things – my youth, or whatever, but in reality, it’s just the beginning. Maybe this whole long year and coming to terms with this loss has been the preparation I needed to move forward with confidence so that I can find happiness in just being so that I can embrace this life and all that it gives me for what it is and not what it was, what it could have been or what it should be. If this year has taught me anything it’s that even in the worst of times, even when your life path diverges, there is beauty and joy and constant discovery and love and so much living to be done in a perfectly imperfect way.