That was a terrifying time, to be at home with a small child, knowing I wasn't keeping it together. After another round of therapy, I saw that separating myself from my mother wasn't enough. I needed to try to understand her. Her own mother, I recalled, had been an alcoholic, and, faced with my own failures as a parent, I saw that she must suffer from the same shaky sense of self I had.

I knew that some women were able to fix their relationships with their difficult mothers—but I also knew that was impossible for me. I'd met people who, like me, had decided that cutting their mothers out of their lives was for the best. But that hadn't worked, either.

Now I'm trying a third way: I don't depend on my mother for support or encouragement, but I no longer spend time or energy pushing her away. We talk about once a month for no more than ten minutes. She tells me tidbits of hometown gossip—mostly thrilling anecdotes about bridge tournaments and the gall-bladder surgery of people I've never met—and I tell her cute things her grandchildren have done. She comes for a visit once a year, and maybe because I have a little more of the emotional distance I always needed, I don't feel the impulse to duck and cover the moment she rings the doorbell.

I look at my children, and I'm glad they know their grandmother, especially since with them her famous sense of fun comes into its own. On her last visit, she unzipped her bulging suitcase to reveal a mountain of pink tulle, feathers, and sequins with which she planned to fashion a to-die-for fairy costume. Underneath she'd managed to squeeze in a rocking horse—she'd only had to dismantle it and cut up the insides of the suitcase a bit to get it to fit, she explained. I couldn't help noticing she'd also packed a handy thermos full of vodka, but she had the kids, like my erstwhile teenage friends, in hysterics. In fact, we all laughed.


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