My friend, Sam Jasper, has an electrifying and crazy forthright post up at Back Of Town about her father’s suicide and parent-child interaction following a family trauma. If you don’t watch Treme, Sam’s post comes from one of the plots in the show: Professor Creighton Bernette jumped off the Algiers ferry in early 2006 (at the end of Season 1), his workaholic lawyer wife Toni read the suicide note but didn’t share it with their daughter Sofia and now, in Season 2, to say that the relationship between Toni and Sofia is antagonistic is a major understatement. Toni tries hard to be the parent the only way she knows how – by drowning herself in work, paying the bills and disciplining Sofia for coming in at all hours – but doesn’t level with Sofia. Sofia is a sullen, insolent, hormonal teenager (all redundant) who understandably misses her father very much, while her mom “is to blame.” Kids know things; they sense things that their parents hide from them because “they’re just kids and won’t get it.” And, yet, they’re still kids, especially in the eyes of their parents, and how much knowledge and responsibility can a parent drop on them? What I’m trying to say is this isn’t exactly win-win territory.
The Bernette Situation got me thinking about my own relationship with my mother, from the perspective of a daughter, an aunt and hopefully-mother-to-be-some-day. My strong-willed mother, who defied her father to educate herself early and well, lived far away from home as a teenager, held her own against Arab and western men in a famously misogynistic country and tells people off to this day. And has no clue where I came from. “You were so pleasant as a child. What happened?” News flash, mama, I’m what they call a Perfect Storm. Younger child + your obstinacy + dad’s sense of adventure + lots of education + Kuwait + America = what did you expect? You should have duct-taped to me one of those flaming, 1970s-orange poles (you know the one in the living room of the place where we lived when I was a small child) when you had the chance.
[The struggle lies between not saying too much and being too honest at this blog. It all works out fine when I write from the heart. So here goes.]
As I reacted to Sam’s post, “That I could take certain liberties with my parents’ sanity is, too, their love for me and mine for them.” I admit I was incorrigible and still have the temper of a wounded ox. You, mom and dad, must admit you were, at times, very unfair. Another news flash: This happens to approximately all parent-child units on this planet. We are not special in our experiences of discord.
My mother has always half-jokingly referred to herself as the less-popular, less cool one as compared to my dad. “I will always tell you what’s on my mind, even if that makes me unpopular.” I’m 36 fraking years old, and still have to listen to this recording every week. Sometimes twice a week. The martyrdom. It burns. While I know I’ll always be her baby, at times like this, there is something that I’ve always wanted to tell my mother as well as parents like Toni Bernette, be they from the old country or the new.
You aren’t and don’t always have to be the bad cop, even if you’ve given yourself that responsibility out of sheer habit. In subsuming your identity and purpose in setting everything right – career, kids, my mistakes, everyone else’s mistakes – regardless of emotional context, you start to worry about things like your “perfection” and “infallibility.” Did I make a mistake? Was I, am I good enough? Did she, will she turn out alright? My dear, great tough nail of a mother, you were amazing but not perfect, and that is OK. You have a past, a life, a backstory as it were, something that shaped you, an identity. And that person is human, not Supermom or Underdog. You have always been allowed to make mistakes. Parenting doesn’t come with an operating manual and you did the best you could. You did better than best. Now, just let go. Not of me, never of me, but of your need to be the mother that you will never admit you were. A good one. Now talk to me as if we’re in this together … because we are.
In the days following when she learned my father was taken hostage by the Iraqis, my mother lost her composure, I mean totally lost it, for the first and last time. She held onto and bawled on me, and, suddenly, I saw her humanity. It was what slapped me out of my self-righteousness and into thinking of someone else’s grief besides mine. Your kids don’t get it all, but you as a parent don’t get some other pieces. All you have at that moment is one another. And the only mistake you can make then is not living in that love.