Want to stop a conversation cold? Tell someone you haven’t spoken to your mother in a decade. Then tell them you’re her only child.
The annual Mother’s Day frenzy culminates with the actual celebration this Sunday, with a sentimental blizzard of flowers and cards that included, in pre-pandemic times, restaurant tables often filled with happy mothers and daughters celebrating their love for one another.
On social media, there will be endless tributes to mothers who have died, recently or decades ago, still much missed and deeply mourned.
That won’t be me.
My mother died suddenly this year, at 85, sitting in her nursing home armchair watching television—in a city a seven-hour, cross-country international flight from me.
I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.
“You’ll regret it!”
“What if she dies?”
“You never know…”
But they didn’t know the full story.
Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.
A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.
How does one end up so estranged?
More easily than you’d think.
Yet no other relationship carries as much emotional freight as the mother-daughter bond.
The very word, mother, is a verb as well as a noun, implying loving attention, an open heart and arms, a ready ear. A welcoming place to run back to whenever you need comfort and solace.
But that’s just not everyone’s experience.
She left my father when I was seven. I was sent to boarding school, and every summer to camp, my battered blue trunk shuttling between them. I shared rooms for years with four to six other girls, summers in a raw wooden bunk, winters in a brown metal bed.
At school, we were shouted at routinely by ancient housemothers, women who’d been widowed or never married, old enough to be our grandparents, to whom we were nothing more than a name on a checklist and someone to discipline, but never to hug or console.
I saw my mother on weekends and holidays. She did throw great, lavish birthday parties for me, with cakes and sparklers and lots of my pals.
There were adult years when she and I got along well, and even traveled together, with adventures in Fiji, Peru, Costa Rica and Colombia as I flew in to visit her, mid-journey. She had inherited enough money to travel as long as she liked and lived frugally. Later, I visited her home in British Columbia a few times.
But her alcoholism worsened, and her bipolar illness blitzed my life repeatedly, usually without warning. That meant hospitalizations, worldwide, and I learned to dread the inevitable phone call detailing the latest mayhem – when, manic and acting out wildly in public, she landed in foreign jails and hospitals or trashed her rental apartment, sometimes many time zones distant.
At 19, living alone and attending university full-time in downtown Toronto, I had no idea what to do. You really can’t turn to someone in your Chaucer seminar and ask for that kind of help. My father, also away traveling the world with his soon-to-be second wife, showed no interest.
And talking about any of it, rough enough for me to handle privately, felt like telling tales out of school. Who could possibly understand, sympathize or help? She would just keep doing whatever she pleased anyway, consequences be damned.
The worst moment for me was when she ended up in a locked London psychiatric ward. I had just finished the happiest year of my life, on a Paris-based journalism fellowship. Her illness, a trio of frosty English doctors told me, could be inherited, while offering me no advice or comfort. I was a young, ambitious journalist with a growing career, now terrified my mind was potentially as susceptible. In a small, highly competitive industry, I couldn’t risk anyone wondering if I would be next.
Her weary friends gave up.
Her three American cousins, living many miles away, fed up with her late-night calls and wild-eyed visits, gave up.
No one really knew what was going on but me.
I had fled her care after a terrifying manic breakdown that occurred when I was 14, when we lived in Mexico. She drove a van carrying me and two others down a major highway with the headlights turned off, ending up crashed in a ditch at midnight in a city we’d never seen before. For two weeks it fell on me to care for a friend who’d just arrived from Canada to visit.
A few weeks later, I returned to Canada and moved in with my father and his girlfriend. I never lived with my mother again.
No one ever discussed her illness with me, or offered me tools to cope with it, even though I knew the name of her psychiatrist. Later in life, I intellectually accepted that mental illness is an illness, but at 14, I was too scared and angry at having been so endangered. Nor was this the first time I’d been subjected to a manic breakdown; she had one when I was 12 when we stayed at a friend’s house. I awoke to find a massive potted plant spread at the bottom of the stairs — but remember nothing after that. I have some gaps in my memory, likely protective.)
Yet, for decades, like a broken robot, I did keep visiting her, hoping, naively and childishly, for the kind of mother so many others took for granted – healthy, loving, reliable, attentive. Too often, I endured another drunken rage.
So, I too, gave up.
Only in the weeks after her death, that little flickering pilot light of hope for eventual reconciliation finally extinguished, did I realize that I’d won more than I’d lost.
Without her, I’ve created and navigated a successful life, living and working in five cities and three countries. A life filled with loving friends, a strong marriage and a successful writing career.
No one taught me how to dress or apply make-up or cook or any of the skills mothers traditionally pass on to their daughters, let alone how to handle finances, work or relationships. I learned, even as a teenager, to rely on a few others, happy to help me out when needed.
The more I figured stuff out, most of the time successfully, the more self-confidence I gained. I didn’t need a lot of direction or advice.
I learned to challenge authority – or, more crucially – not genuflect to it in the first place. Would my mother disapprove of my choices? She’d never even notice. That itself offered substantial freedom when I see so many women miserably buckling, sometimes deep into middle age, under the weight of their mothers’ disapproval — of their bodies, their partners, their work or their parenting.
And I learned to celebrate my own triumphs.
When I graduated university, all of which she’d missed while traveling, she refused to attend my graduation, even in a huge hall with thousands of others, because I’d also invited my father. So, I asked him to stay home; when I called her back, she’d already committed to the graduation of a friend’s daughter instead.
So, friends became my closest family.
The Christmas Eve my mother threw her gifts around my living room in a drunken rage, I fled the next day to a friend’s home in Pennsylvania, racing from my New York home down the highway to a place I knew for sure — never having met his parents — would be calm and kind. As usual, the homes of others were my refuge.
When I married for the second time, a friend stood in as my witness and helped me with the last-minute primping every bride craves before heading down the aisle. For decades a friend 10 years my senior welcomed me into her home, year after year, whether I was single, divorced, re-married.
The world, I learned, is full of other mothers.
Caitlin KellyCaitlin Kelly, winner of a National Magazine Award in her native Canada, is a former reporter for The Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News. She is the author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" and "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." A writing coach and frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Tarrytown, NY. Follow her on Twitter: @CaitlinKellyNYC.