How I Met My Mother
How I learned to accept my mother for who she is—
and who she isn’t.
BY Lillian Stone
I am hard on my mother. I think it’s because, as a daughter, it’s difficult for me to accept that my stories begin with hers. My relationship with my mother was nearly destroyed by the 2016 presidential election, when she followed my father’s lead and celebrated—still celebrates, actually—Donald Trump’s victory. Today, reconciling my stories with hers is difficult because my mother’s stories are challenging—even more challenging than her views on class, feminism and the female experience.
My mother’s formative years were harsh and hazy, riddled with abuse and toxic messages about womanhood. Those years continue to shape my mother’s social values—values which, to me, are equal parts upsetting and confounding. After the election, I spent months wondering how a woman—a survivor of trauma, the product of an unstable, low-income household—could have opinions that were so contrary to the needs of women just like her. So, late last year, I decided to find out.
At the time, it seemed like the only possible way to save my relationship with my mother. I wanted to understand her, so I courted her. I took her to lunch. I watched her interact with my father and my siblings. Most importantly, I listened. I listened to my mother’s scattered thoughts and sought the subtext beneath her words. I wanted to get to know my mother—not as the woman who raised me, but as a fellow woman complete with complex experiences that continue to inform her beliefs.
My effort to find the woman behind my mother’s social views led me to a deep well of trauma and memory. More than that, I found a new perspective on the experiences that shape us as women. That perspective has allowed me to accept my mother for who she is—and who she is not.
My Mother Is: A Trauma Survivor
A child of the mid-1960s, my mother grew up wearing miniskirts, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire and smoking copious amounts of kush. It’s important to note that she also grew up cradling her younger sister night after night as her alcoholic father verbally and physically abused her mother. I can only recall meeting her father—my grandfather—three times, even though we live in the same town. When I graduated from high school, he mailed me a $20 bill tucked inside a Hallmark card. He had scrawled “I’m proud of you” inside.
As she grew past girlhood, my mother tumbled into a string of abusive relationships. By the time she met my father, a professional golfer with deeply conservative Oklahoma roots, she was battling depressive episodes that would lead to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They dated for less than a year before marrying. I came two years later.
My Mother Is: A Servant
My mother is obsessively clean. These days, she’s temporarily banned from the apartment I share with my partner—we are clean, but we are not spotless—because the disdain she casts upon entering is nearly unbearable. Most days, she spends between eight and 10 hours at her job as a nail technician. She rarely schedules time to eat lunch and is usually exhausted, hungry and frustrated by the time she comes home to my father and my two teenage siblings. That’s when she starts dinner and tidies the house, oftentimes cleaning until she collapses on the couch around 9 p.m.
I recently discovered that these habits aren’t the result of a naturally tidy nature. They’re the result of my mother’s lifelong responsibility as the keeper of the home. Her hard-partying parents left her to cook, clean and raise her younger sister until she left home at 18, and she still spends the vast majority of her time caring for other people.
Early this year, we spent an unseasonably warm Saturday at the park together. I was surprised that she was willing to give up her Saturday, which is usually spent scrubbing baseboards and mopping floors while my father sleeps in until mid-afternoon. She had hired a cleaning service, she told me. It was her first time in months spending a Saturday outside of the home. I feel like a new person, she said, tearing up with relief. I feel like I can do anything.
Despite her exhaustion from the physical and emotional labor she bears at home, my mother clings to the biblical idea that one’s husband is meant to be the head of the household. She clings to the idea that servitude is, as she puts it, a Christlike mentality. It’s how I was raised, she says, her spine permanently bent from bending over the fingernails of the wealthy women she tends to six days a week.
My Mother Is Not: A Feminist
I was 18 when my mother and I had our first frank conversation about sexuality. It was my freshman year of college, and I was home for a long weekend. We were driving to the grocery stores, and she asked me about my older boyfriend. He was 23, tall and extremely condescending. I was smitten. What was he like?, she asked. What did we like to do together? “We go out to dinner a lot,” I told her. “And sometimes we have sex.” I made my voice very small, looking at her out of the corner of my eye, equal parts excited and dreading telling my secret. I hadn’t told anyone, and I was dying to share it with her. I cracked a smile, thinking that it was no big deal. She looked over at me, disappointment shattering her previously carefree expression. She furrowed her brow. “Are you serious?,” she asked. “You don’t think you’ll regret that when you get married? Not being pure for your husband?”
I was crushed, but I was more surprised. My mother had shared bits and pieces of her sexual history with me—her multiple abortions; her abusive live-in boyfriend who now managed an upscale men’s clothing store. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she had been made to feel ashamed of her sexuality for her entire life. Manipulative boyfriends and hyper-religious messaging had skewed her ownership of her own body, and she was prepared to pass that message—the value of sexual purity, that is—on to my younger sister and me.
My Mother Is: Deserving of Compassion
My grandmother—my mother’s mother—died almost three years ago. She was a highly influential presence in my life, a fact that I didn’t realize until months after her death. She was also, however, a mentally ill woman with addiction issues and a severe emotional hold on her daughters. She demanded that they bring large amounts of food, movies and flowers to the assisted living facility where she lay slowly rotting from a botched hip replacement. My mother’s younger sister eventually stopped answering her calls, tired of being berated by the devoutly Christian, foul-mouthed, morbidly obese woman who represented her difficult childhood. My mother dutifully kept up with the demands until her death.
During my adolescence, I blamed my mother for a lot. I blamed her distrustful nature for my low self-esteem. I blamed her unstable moods for my controlling tendencies that manifested in painful motor tics. However, speaking to my mother about her trauma is where the blame ended. It was my first step to realizing that intersectional feminism doesn’t just apply to young, socially-conscious individuals like myself. My mother, despite our differences, deserves the compassion afforded by intersectional feminism. If we want a world that is better for all females and female-identifying individuals, we have to consider even the most challenging perspectives. We have to listen to the stories that hurt.
Women like my mother have been exploited for centuries. They have been forced into back-breaking domestic labor and emotional servitude by Western religion and political ideology. They have been gaslit by their caretakers and loved ones. I see it in the hordes of women who descend upon the grocery stores in my hometown. I see it in my friends’ mothers. I see it in the middle-aged women who spend their free time in the comment sections of online publications. They all have one thing in common: a deeply-ingrained responsibility to care for everyone but themselves. They are resistant to progressive social ideology because it is like nothing they have ever known. These womens are not victims; they are simply doing their best, and they are deserving of support.
When my grandmother died, my mother grieved for months. Her biggest worry was that she could have done more to ease her mother’s suffering. That, somehow, complying with more of her mother’s demands would have given her more time. I could have done more for her, she lamented. I could have done more.
She could not have done more.