What No One Tells You About Breaking Up With Your Mother
The thing about the last time you talk to your mother is that you don’t know it when it’s happening. Or, at least, I didn’t. Nothing about the last phone call I had with my mother, in December 2014, stands out as a point of no return. Sure, we fought that day, but since explosive, hurtful, and utterly needless fights formed the bedrock of our relationship, nothing about that was remarkable. I can’t even remember what we fought about. I just hung up the phone and thought, as I had countless times before, “I am never doing that again.” Except this time, I actually didn’t.
Before that moment, I’d had plenty of false starts to my Life Without Mom. The cycle went like this: My mother and I, who lived in different states and rarely spoke in the best of times, would have an interaction that would start civilly. As we got more comfortable in each other’s presence, we’d lower our guards, and eventually, something would go wrong. It wouldn’t take much — my mother would misinterpret a comment I made about a neighbor, or I’d take offense to an innocuous remark about a high school classmate, and suddenly, we’d be at each other’s throats.
The ostensible focus of our fight could be anything: our family dog or Mitt Romney or which of us was worse at reading maps. But really, it was about us: the ways I felt my mother had failed me, the ways she felt I had betrayed her, our mutual horror that I was her only family alive on this earth. I’d make a loud, dramatic declaration (because I’m a loud, dramatic person), usually something about how our relationship didn’t make either of us happy and she should just leave me alone.
I kept going back to my mother because I just didn’t believe there was a way out.
And then, for a while, I’d keep my distance. I’d log a year or so of silence, ignoring her steady stream of voicemails, birthday cards, and emails that offered a one-sided conversation about our supposedly unbreakable bond. Inevitably, though, I’d crack. I’d get a particularly plaintive email, or experience a random and powerful wave of guilt, or, on one occasion, receive a phone call from a hospital. I’d give a lot of explanations to anyone who asked — that I hoped she’d changed, that I felt bad — but really, I kept going back to my mother because I just didn’t believe there was a way out. Every time I dipped out of her life, she pursued me doggedly, like a lovesick ex. And a part of me liked it. As f*cked up as it was, this was as close to love as we got.
But at the end of 2014, after a few weeks of voicemails, she stopped calling for good. Three years later, the calls, emails, guilt-tripping birthday presents — they’ve all ceased, and I’m no longer waiting for them. I’ve gotten the silence I’d wished for. In that silence, I’m left to piece together what happened and how it feels to finally get what I wanted.
When I was a little kid, I loved my mother in the uncomplicated way children do. She brushed my hair, let me sleep in her bed whenever I got scared (which was pretty much all the time), and constantly told me that I was special and loved. She found ways to send me to summer camp or ballet lessons when money was short (which was pretty much all of the time). She protected and invested in me, the way good mothers are supposed to.
But when I began needing more than just someone to scare away the monsters under my bed and do my pigtails, things became shaky. While my parents were married, they had been enmeshed in a seemingly endless fight about how incompatible they were. Now that they were divorced, it seemed like I had inherited my dad’s spot in the argument — or caught it, like a hereditary disease. Suddenly, every moment was war. My mother was disgusted that I had my own opinions and my own friends, that I wanted anything but to bask in her shadow until we merged into a single entity. I was furious because... well, she was angry, isolated, and miserable, and I was terrified of becoming her. I didn’t want to become someone who picked a fight with every waiter or cashier who crossed my path, who feuded with so many neighbors that we became local pariahs. Our house might as well have been located on some desolate prairie, instead of a suburban block in Connecticut, we were so isolated. When we fought, almost daily, often for hours, I felt like I was fighting for my right to exist, and that she was fighting to keep us forever entwined. A clear winner rarely emerged.
Wasn’t I supposed to be there for my mother, no matter what? Wasn’t that the nature of being a daughter?
As painful as my adolescence was, I didn’t realize anything about it was unusual until I got to college. My attempts to have bland, getting-to-know-you chats with the girls in my freshman dorm fizzled as I realized that what I considered my funny asides about my childhood — my mother’s refusal to tell me what my Social Security number was, or her tendency to stop in the middle of a fight and pretend it had never happened — didn’t make prospective friends laugh. My anecdotes freaked them out. Their mothers didn’t act like this. Soon, I began only picking up every third or fourth phone call from her and making excuses to skip a holiday at home.
A bad breakup in my mid-20s sent me to therapy, where I discovered that being dumped by some guy who had a poetry Tumblr was actually the least of my problems. I learned that there were words for the things that had happened to me in my childhood, that still happened whenever I wandered around the house where I grew up: verbal abuse, gaslighting. I began reading self-help books about these subjects, volumes I was ashamed to be seen with on the subway but couldn’t put down. I concluded from my research that there were only two things you could do once you realized that you had an utterly toxic relationship with a parent: You could stay in contact but maintain very tight boundaries (infrequent and brief visits, timed phone calls where nothing of depth was discussed), or you could walk away.
But of course, you can’t immediately walk away, even if you know in your heart that it’s the only way you’ll ever feel any peace. I couldn’t, at least. Instead, I tried to stitch together something tolerable, something that gave me some space even though it still left me vulnerable to pain. To test drive our new “devoid of intimacy” relationship, I asked my mother to lunch at a restaurant chosen because it was far from both of our houses, on no one’s turf. My mother, perhaps smelling my true motives, immediately told me I looked like a slut and had dressed that way to “provoke” her. This was on the sidewalk, before we even got into the restaurant. I swore at her; she swore back. I realized, as we fought in the street, that I couldn’t switch this into some kind of name-only familial relationship where we acted like awkward coworkers around each other. My mother was all-in, always. So my only option was to be all-out.
I wish I could say that I calmly and elegantly told my mother that we needed space and time apart, that I was the bigger person. But in reality, I stood her up at a Mother’s Day brunch in 2009. I had woken up with every intention of going, even though we were in the middle of some very intense discord about family finances. But then, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t physically propel my body out of the front door of my apartment to act out a fantasy of family togetherness. Instead, I stayed in, watching my phone light up again and again as my mother called for hours, first worried and then furious, vowing that this would not be taken lightly. I know where you live, she said. I didn’t think my mother would come to my house and do something rash, not really. But I still felt compelled, a few months later, to move to a new apartment across town — one that she didn’t have the address for — and start trying to build a life without her.
I hated my mother, but I also existed almost entirely in reaction to her.
Voicemails and emails still arrived with regularity from 2010 to 2012, as I moved through my first era without my mom. Sometimes they were cruel, sometimes flattering, sometimes desperate. Over these two years, I couldn’t help but notice that every problem I’d ever had — fear of trying to write, inability to meet men I really connected with, a substance abuse issue that I’d repeatedly tried and failed to shake — seemed to melt away as I ignored my mother. I felt guilty, and like I might be a bad person, an opinion my mother also held. But you couldn’t argue with results: My life was so much better without her in it.
My mother did not see things the same way. She kept reaching out to me, and eventually, in 2012, I gave in. I was a new, better person, and I felt like I could finally take her on. I was wrong, of course. Our relationship reverted to its old dynamics all too quickly, as we remained in sporadic touch for the next two years. I felt loved and hated, unhappy but morally righteous. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I? Wasn’t I supposed to be there for my mother, no matter what? Wasn’t that the nature of being a daughter?
Beyond that, I questioned whether severing contact had actually detached me from her. Part of me feared that my mother’s deepest desire, for us to merge into one, had come true. I hated my mother, but I also existed almost entirely in reaction to her. She hadn’t chased her dreams, so I had; she was hyper-focused on me, so I cared about, well, anyone outside of our relationship; “mother” was the only identity she actively embraced, and I knew beyond a particle of a doubt that I would never be a mom. I had crafted my life to be a negative image of hers. I wasn’t sure there would be any me without her.
But in 2014, something changed. It started when our family dog, who had been the subject of all my affection and emotional interest during my rough teen years, became sick. My mother collapsed emotionally. She couldn’t bear to put the dog to sleep, she said, and begged me to do it. In December 2014, I said I would. And then, like that Mother’s Day all over again, I couldn’t. I couldn’t get on a train back to Connecticut.
It’s a lot easier to have a concrete reason than to say, “This person shares my blood, but I do not love them, and I have not loved them for a very long time.”
I stood outside the station for what felt like a very long time. The dog had been in unbearable physical pain for years; the last time I had seen her, months earlier, she’d been 17, skin and bones, unable to stand up or control when she pissed or sh*t. Every time I had seen the dog over the previous year, she was sicker, sadder than the time before. And every time, my mother told me that she couldn’t euthanize her because she couldn’t stand to be alone, because death was too sad, because it wasn’t her place. I can’t explain exactly why the moment outside the train station transformed me — my mother had certainly had many sudden turnabouts where she demanded that I come home and do a terrible thing she didn’t want to do herself. But it did. I prayed for my dog, and when I got home, finally looked at my phone, and saw that my mother had been leaving me voicemails for hours, I asked my now-husband to listen to and delete them for me. I couldn’t fix my relationship with my mother. All I could do, it seemed, was let our relationship suffer and struggle, like that poor dog, or I could walk away.
I’m not the first person in our family tree to do some pruning. My maternal grandfather was one of 11 children, and at various times in my childhood, none of them were speaking to each other. As a kid, I had been mystified by this. I was no fan of my grandfather, a man whose brutality seemed the source of many of my mother’s problems. But to hear him tell it, most of the silences between the siblings were about unreturned phone calls or poorly received birthday gifts — reasons that, in all my tween emotional sophistication, struck me as unbearably dumb. Now I understand that their estrangements had nothing to do with forgetting to return a call or buying a sweater in the wrong size — it was because those are concrete reasons that make some sense, even if they sound petty to the average listener. And it’s a lot easier to have a concrete reason than to say, “This person shares my blood, but I do not love them, and I have not loved them for a very long time.”
Part of me wishes I could have come up with an excuse like this for my relationship with my mother, something to help me shift focus from the painful reality. Even now, after everything we both did, I’m still hurt that she stopped calling. I’m hurt that she eventually stopped needing me, or at least moved on with her life.
The truth is that part of me desperately misses the pain, the fighting. With it, I knew who I was: the Long-Suffering Daughter, the Innocent Victim, the Child Who Might Figure out How to Make This Work. Without it, I have no idea who I am. Without my mother, there is no one to hold me back and also no one to blame.
Lately I’ve started to cringe every time I bring her up to my therapist — Her, still? I thought I was done with this! Of course, I know I’ll never be done with this. When it comes to the people who raise us, out of sight is rarely out of mind. If anything, I think of my mother more often now, and in different ways than I did when we were in touch. I wonder if she’s happy, which is a totally new one for me. I hope she is (also a new one).
I thought I saw her on the street once a year ago; my heart started beating in my ears and my face got hot. I wondered if this was fate bringing us together, if this was a true sign from the universe that she had changed, that being out of touch for so long had helped her look inside herself, and now we actually could have one of those distant parent-child relationships where you discuss only the Yankees and This Is Us. But as I walked toward her, I realized that I was looking at someone else.