This essay was originally published on August 13th, 2018.
I knew that my second child would be a daughter—even before she was conceived. It wasn’t an excited or thrilled kind of knowing. It was apprehension. The thought terrified me. I couldn’t have a daughter. I would just mess her up. She would eventually hate me. I would eventually resent her. I didn’t want that to be our relationship, but it felt inevitable.
I shared my fear with my husband. Because he had an absentee father, I knew he would understand my worries. He had his own doubts about becoming the kind of father he wanted to be due to his dad’s lack of involvement in his life. The big difference between my situation and my husband’s, however, was that the source of my anxiety—my mother—was still in my life.
My mother and I are like oil and water. Actually, dynamite and a match is a better analogy. When we were in each other’s company in my youth, there was a looming danger. If one of us was rubbed the wrong way, it was explosive.
But we weren’t always like that around each other. I was once her precious first-born—entering the world on Mother’s Day in what later felt like ironic timing. I vaguely remember singing together on car rides, writing her poems for her birthday, and finding any way I could to relate to her. But by the time I was an adult, my feelings of mistrust and hurt seemed to dominate even the happy memories that were interspersed among the upsetting ones.
My sister is only a year and a half younger than me, and she was very ill as a baby. Having a sick child can stress out any parent, but especially one who has another kiddo to care for. Luckily, I adored being my mom’s helper and took pride in my role as big sister. The problem was that I was never relieved of my duties—even when my sister got better. “You’re responsible for your sister,” she would tell me. “If she gets in trouble, you’re in trouble.”
With this mentality drilled into us by my mom, my younger sister adopted the same expectations: I was at her beck and call, and she took responsibility for nothing.
It began to feel like I was only around to take care of my sister. That I didn’t deserve any kind of care in return.
When my sister and I were at odds, my mom always took her side. “You should know better. Be the bigger person.” So, I learned to fight with my mom instead. If I made her see that she was wrong, she would stop picking on me, I thought to myself. But that was never the case. My mother thought I argued just for the sake of making her mad. She thought I was acting out and being bratty. My mom saw this as disrespect; I saw it as injustice.
I felt abandoned, and around this same time, we moved away to a new city, far from all of our family. We only moved there so my mother could reconnect with her own estranged mom, and I blamed her for the total upheaval of our lives.
Worse, there were abusive people in my mom’s family. My cousins recruited their friends to mercilessly bully my sister. I was exposed to an older male family member who sexually assaulted me.
My dad later became very sick with fibromyalgia. He and my mom worked long hours, and there were times when I was left in charge of my rebellious sister.
We were kept alive—with a roof over our heads and food on the table—but now I recognize that this period of my childhood was filled with neglect.
I think about when my sister and I caught head lice in elementary school. Instead of our parents helping us get treatment, I spent hours combing through my and my sister’s hair to remove the nits. It wasn’t until a nurse sent us home several months later that my parents bought the medication and helped us clear the infestation.
I realize now that my parents did as well as they could with the terrible circumstances that they were under, but that doesn’t change the fact that I felt parentless during this time.
As I got older, my relationship with my mom only worsened. I began to withdraw. When we talked, it was to fight. I was uncomfortable when she tried to joke around with me or show me any affection. I was wary of her. I would later realize that I pushed her away during this time because I was too afraid to feel abandoned again.
When I started dating my husband as a teenager, there was no motherly advice. There was no girl talk or mom-and-daughter bonding. It wasn’t that she didn’t do these things—she just didn’t do them with me. All of that affection went to my sister, as it had for most of my youth.
It seemed my mom only had enough motherly love for one.
I admit, even through our arguments and animosity, I still knew that my mom wanted reconciliation. I just couldn’t allow myself to do that. And our history left me feeling terrified that my own daughter would one day feel about me the way I felt about my mother. I didn’t want to do anything to make her feel less deserving or less wanted or less loved, but I was certain I’d screw everything up.
My daughter came to us in the summer of 2010, and she was perfect. She looked like my grandmother—who had only passed away earlier that year—and she had my brown eyes. Looking nothing like her father, she was all mine; she was all me.
Suddenly, the issues between my mom and me didn’t seem so huge.
My concerns about motherhood didn’t disappear at once. They were banished over years of late-night feedings, tears rolling down chubby cheeks, and the high, lilting voice of my little doppelgänger. And as my fears were calmed, the animosity I felt for my mom slowly dissolved.
I realized that part of my pain was the fear that our damaged relationship would cost me the love of my own future child.
I’d lost a mother (at least that is how I felt), so would I lose a daughter now, too? My mom and I were never close, but I felt like that distance grew into deeper resentment the older I got. There were long stretches of time when I wouldn’t even hear from my mother. Even when we lived in the same house, there was nothing but silence.
Yet as I watched my daughter grow, I finally understood that my mother’s mistakes were not my own. I could forgive—even if it’s a tentative forgiveness—and, in a strange way, I can thank my mother for showing me just what a blessing a daughter can be.
My daughter is the most magical person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. If I wasn’t lucky enough to feel loved as a little girl, I am privileged to be able to live as my daughter’s mother. And to see my own mom be a grandmother to my daughter reminds me that there is love here, even if it was once hard to find.