Loving an Imperfect Mother
I had that perfect mother on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every other weekend for most of my childhood. I was enamored of her. She seemed all the more perfect next to a father who'd told my mother when they divorced that she would have to be the one to leave our house. Mom never liked that house anyway. It was too nice and too clean to have any fun in.
The house where I lived with my father had rooms I was not allowed to play in and art I wasn't allowed to touch. I was often reprimanded for toys left out and lights left on. My father worked until late in the evening in his home office, with his papers sprawled across his desk and his shoulders pressed up toward his ears.
When it was time for bed, he tucked me in without a hug. I would lay in bed and long for my mother. Occasionally, that longing became unbearable and I would call her to ask for a hug. It didn't matter how late or whether it was a school night. She would secretly meet me in the treehouse in the backyard of my father's house, and then I'd sneak back into bed.
Every day at my father's house, I looked forward to the return to my mom's. One afternoon when I was 9, I was drawing on her driveway with chalk while she was inside. I was startled to hear the crunching of car tires against asphalt. Dad opened the door of the car and, without stepping out, told me to get in the back seat. I stood frozen with my chalky hands in front of me, palms facing up so as not to dirty my clothes. "Get in," he repeated, this time with more urgency. But it wasn't his weekend.
I turned my head toward Mom's front door and prepared to take a step toward it. I was no match for my father's firm hands and strong arms. I still had my voice, though, and I used it to scream. My chalky hands made a pastel-colored streak across the black leather as I tried to keep myself from being pulled farther in. By the time Mom made her way outside, the car had already backed out of the driveway. She ran at us and yelled for us to stop. Through the back window, I watched as she chased us until her legs gave out.
Over the next several months, the regular cadence of visits to Mom's on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every other weekend dissolved without a word. After one particularly long, uninterrupted stay at my father's, he dropped me off at Mom's and she was wearing an eye patch. When Mom bent down to hug me, my arms went stiff at my sides. "I was taken by pirates!" she said with a sparkle in her eye.
That was the first time I knew she was telling me a lie.
I spent the following summer at sleepaway camp. On visiting day, I waited on the steps of my cabin for five hours before my counselor finally told me that my mom wouldn't be coming. My father called later that night to explain that my mother had been in a car accident. The following day he drove up and told me that Mom was on life support. He didn't want me to see her that way, so I spent the rest of the day writing her letters on my best stationery. She wouldn't be able to respond, my father told me, but he assured me she'd be able to hear when the nurses read her my letters.
A few days later, she was dead. I was uncomfortable with my father's arms around me when he hugged me and said he was so, so sorry on the plane ride back home. I cried every night with my salty face pressed into my pillow. There was no longer any reprieve.
When I was 16 years old, after years of feeling that the wrong parent had died, my father called me into his room one night. He lifted his gaze from the floor and told me that there was more to Mom's accident. There were opioids and addiction and failed trips to rehab. There were times when it was unsafe for me to be with her.
Suddenly, memories flooded in from a place I had sealed off: my ear pressed against a locked door waiting for Mom to wake up, the rattle of little white pills hitting translucent orange containers in her purse as she walked, Mom parking at the store with her front tires perched precariously on the curb.
I froze as my memories rewrote themselves. Now, I knew what she was up to behind locked doors, the purpose of those little white pills and the reason behind her careless parking. My heart felt heavy with the idea of my mother, my perfect mother, as an addict. It felt heavy with the idea that my father had been, all along, protecting the precious illusion that is a little girl's unequivocal love for her mother.
I had a choice. I could reject everything I ever thought I knew about love. I could renounce every ounce of happiness I ever felt in being tucked into bed or sharing late-night ice cream with my mother. I could discredit the little girl who felt betrayed and confused when her father skipped a good-night kiss or took her from her sidewalk games. I could invalidate every single experience of my entire childhood. Or I could choose to let love in. However flawed that love may be.
I grew up in that moment, sitting on the edge of my father's bed, sorting out the complexities of parenthood and love. Neither a perfect parent nor a perfect love exists. But I treasure both my mother's and my father's flawed, tarnished, imperfect love. Because it is those flaws that make their love for me unique. Their love is the love that is in my blood and in my bones and in my heart.
That love is mine and no one else's.
Brianna Wolfson is the author of the new novel Rosie Colored Glasses.