I had a boyfriend over for dinner one Christmas break in college. After he left, after my mom said he seemed nice and smart and kind, doing her best in the role of good mom, and then as she hugged me goodnight she said in my ear, “He has diarrhea of the mouth, doesn’t he.”
I couldn’t kiss him again.
The fact is, my boyfriend did talk a lot, but so did my mom: she just didn’t see that in herself. What she saw was that she was the smart child of critical parents who didn’t want mouthy children. They wanted their children to be seen and not heard, and this was hard for my mother whose body and mind were built to perform, built to be heard. When I was little, she called me Constant Comment. How do I know this? She told me. What’s the message a teenage or grownup me is going to draw from this information? Is I love you best when you are quiet too much of a stretch for you? It’s what I heard.
What would have happened if my mother had ignored her parents and had lived a spoken life? What if she hadn’t hidden in shame for getting caught saying negative things about Nigeria when she was there as a Peace Corps volunteer? What if, instead of cowering and getting married and having a family she wrote a piece for Life Magazine about what it was like to go from being a young woman at Smith College to a clueless white woman in a place where perhaps did not belong? What if she had spoken out?
One summer on Martha’s Vineyard she came up to me, flushed and tall. She held on to her soft cover copy of Fear of Flying as if it were covered in grease and might slide out of her hands at any moment. “Erica used a conversation we had!” she exclaimed. “She had a different last name when we were at Columbia.” I was a little girl and I thought my mother was wonderful. It did not surprise me that she lived in the pages of the book she was reading. It seemed right. My mother was capable of anything.
I watched my mother become tired. I watched her get sick and grey from overwork on a regular basis. I watched her talk about not enough time, not enough money, not enough help until, in her 60s, she decided to listen to her heart and write the book she’d been thinking about since the 1970s. Then I watched my mother come alive. She was an arrow headed for the target of Louisa Catherine Adam’s story. My mother had purpose that was in alignment with her heart, and so even when she had cancer, even when she realized she wouldn’t live long enough to finish the book, she still kept at it. And she was the most herself I think I’d ever seen her. She was less available to me, less available to others, but it made me happy. I didn’t want her to be available to me as much as I wanted her to be happy.
My mother wanted to be a good mother. She wanted to work her full-time job and clean the house and make our dinners and be part of the P.T.A. This isn’t entirely true. My mother wanted to be a good mother. The other stuff she did because she thought she was supposed to. I would have loved to come home from high school track practice to find boxes of cereal on the kitchen table and my mother at her desk, pounding away at a book. I would have loved for her to disappear for weeks on end, for us to have had to figure it all out on our own as a family as she chased whatever fulfilled her. I didn’t need her around as much as I needed her to show me what it looked like to love yourself enough, to respect yourself, to listen to what your heart says is best for you.
It’s so hard being a mom. Kids are your job, and it’s easy to sacrifice and sacrifice until you disappear under the list of make lunches and drive to swim meets and do laundry and make sure everyone is in bed by nine. I mean, on every flight you ever take the airline has to remind you to put your mask on first in case of emergency.
It’s also so easy to do these things. It’s so easy to focus on other lives rather than on your own because then you will never fail. You can live safe in the world of lists and get things done and never dig deep into what can I do next with the gifts I was given? What can I create? What can I say? Who can I be?
It’s easier to toot your kids’ horns, your husband’s, your dog’s. Who do you think you are, anyway? You are middle of the pack. You have no creative yearnings. No deep dreams. No special talents.
As a mother, if your child came to you with that list of laments, you would be gobsmacked for you see love when you see your child. You see potential. You see perfection. All the things you don’t see in yourself you see in your child. And so, dear parent, why would the child believe you when you say the child is perfect, this child who sees you treat yourself like garbage? It’s like a mirror telling you how beautiful you are while it’s chipping at its own surface with a nail.
After twenty years of teaching writing, I think the biggest hurdle a person faces in feeling free to exist on the page (and in life) is his or her mother, regardless if said mother is still breathing. People are afraid of hurting their mothers, outshining their mothers, revealing their real selves to their mothers. People can’t write because they feel they don’t fully exist since they are still so busy trying to please mothers who aren’t even alive any more.
If I could do anything for the people who come to me and say they have writer’s block, I would tell them to love the mother in themselves. The best part of being a grownup is that we can split ourselves into mother and child, and we can mother ourselves. We can love the mother and the child fully, fearlessly, and we can let both have the microphone, the pen, the keyboard. We can let the mother and the child have their full say, play the full range of the songs they were put on the planet to sing.
Don’t try to make your mother happy. She’s a trainwreck of shoulds. Focus on the child. Let the child speak. Watch everything change. Watch the mother catch up. Watch her laugh from the sheer joy of realizing she is free.