When I was fresh out of college with my first big-girl job, I paid a visit to my parents. They had retired to a southern state by then and I had relocated to California. Our visits were few and far between. During one breakfast outing they sat listening to me ramble on about my life. Their eyes and ears laser focused on my every word. Smiling in wonder and awe as if I were describing my recent cure for cancer or having written the Magna Carta. I’d done no such things. I had a government job that barely paid enough to keep me in Top Ramen noodles. I slept in a sleeping bag in my studio apartment because I couldn’t afford furniture and I didn’t own a TV.
And yet. I was their golden girl, albeit one whom they never outwardly harbored much ambition for. My mother once told me that my father would just be happy if I managed to graduate high school without getting pregnant. As if. Anyone paying attention to me during those years would roll their eyes at the sheer inanity of that thought. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed and a virgin until college. To say my parents were proud of the adult I became would be an understatement. Yet I always harbored the suspicion that they never really saw me.
Midway through my breakfast soliloquy, I excused myself to use the restroom. And there in the mirror, my reflection showed a rather prolific glob of ketchup on my chin. I had sat directly in front of my parents for more than an hour and they hadn’t bothered to notice this. Or if they did, they didn’t deem it important enough to kindly alert me to it. This may seem like a minor thing, but in that harsh florescent bathroom light a larger truth was illuminated: there is nothing sadder than the realization that the people who claim to love you blindly do just that. And during all that love, they may miss the things that matter. I’ve come to learn that being seen is what we need the most from a very young age, yet somehow this can be incredibly challenging to those who are tasked with seeing us.
My parents did their best, as most of us do. Humans come to parenthood armed with the traumas which went unresolved from their own childhoods. My parents, and particularly my mother, had many of these. A hardscrabble upbringing that would rival the most tragic Lifetime movie drama. My mother suffered the death of her own mother and two siblings while still an adolescent living in Kentucky coal country. Her father then split up the remaining three children, leaving the two younger ones to be raised by a kindly aunt and uncle. He gave my mother away to a family she didn’t know so she could be a nanny for their young children. My mother was eleven years old at the time. What followed was abusive neglect and a stint in a tuberculosis sanitorium, where my mother spent her teenage years as essentially a ward of the state.
She met my father as a young woman determined never to trust anyone. And yet she had, and still has, a surprisingly sweet and optimistic nature. It confounded anyone who knew anything about her history, though few ever did. My father was her confidant and biggest supporter until the day he died. He loved my brother and I, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he absolutely worshipped my mother. He was protective of her and by proxy, so were her children. It was understood from a young age that mommy had it rough as a kid and we were to provide the necessary emotional guardrails.
When I was ten, my mother began having a lot of doctor’s appointments. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, they were always after school, and she always brought my brother and I with her. Those afternoons would last for hours, or so it felt at the time. Eventually, we were made to understand that mom would be going into the hospital. I was young, but certainly old enough to be given an explanation as to why. If for no other reason than to ease my mind. Left to my own devices, I began to piece together whispered bits of intel. “Surgery”, “cancer”, “breast”.
When my mother returned from her hospital stay, I had visual confirmation of the change to her body, but I couldn’t quite accept this. It seemed so scary and unreal that my mother had an actual body part removed. I would sit on our hallway staircase during the night trying to make sense of it. A feeling of cold terror persisted that my small body eventually manifested into a nasty case of the Chicken Pox. And still, no one told me anything. In my father’s defense, it must have been terrifying, and he didn’t really see the scared little girl in his house, because he couldn’t. He needed to see her as strong and able to tell him where the laundry detergent was. Slowly, life went back to normal, only now with a heightened sense of the care-taking my mother required and the emotional fortitude expected of me.
It took me a long time to recognize that by having children my mother was attempting to fill a huge void caused by the trauma of her childhood. It makes me sad for her, but also angry. When I was pregnant with my first child, she told me that her doctors didn’t think she was healthy enough to have a child, but she badly wanted to become a mother. A baby would be “someone to love and love me back, my best friend”. It was a lot to expect from a baby. The baby who happened to be me. It took me an even longer time to accept that this is not a healthy approach towards motherhood and children are never responsible for the emotional wherewithal of their parents, no matter what.
That breakfast with my parents was long ago and my own daughters are now adults. As they got older, I’ve shared with them the frustrations with my mother, their grandmother. Ideally, when we decide to become parents, we carry forward the best parts of our childhood and improve upon those which were lacking. I’ve done things differently than my own parents but I’m under no illusion that my kids won’t identity behaviors they want to run screaming from. However, they will do so without ketchup on their face because I will have alerted them to this fact.