I knew from a young age that my mother and I would never have the kind of connection that most of my friends had with their mothers: the breezy, spontaneous shopping trips, the lunch dates or the giggle-filled chats about boys. My mother would never be the Lorelai to my Rory Gilmore, and most of the time I was okay with that. All I ever wanted was for her to be what I believed every mother should be: her daughter’s biggest fan.
I was about 15 when the shift in our relationship began. My mother had always been a bit of a control freak, but her need for domination grew as I asserted my independence. Never mind that I was a chaste, honour-roll student who came straight home every day after school. Out of the blue, I would be grounded for getting a rare mediocre grade or not cleaning my bathroom on schedule. I was the eldest child — and a girl. My two younger brothers escaped the daily scrutiny and punishments.
But it wasn’t until I was in my first year of university that my home life went off the rails. My mother had a nervous breakdown. Her behaviour changed from simply nitpicky to delusional. After months of her escalating irrational behaviour — starting with 3 a.m. family meetings in which I’d be whacked on the head with a broom if I dozed off and culminating in her complete fear of leaving the house — my dad asked me to help him take care of the situation.
That meant having my mom arrested on a mental-health warrant. I testified in front of a judge, and, days later, the police literally dragged her from our home. She was taken to a hospital mental-health unit for observation and diagnosis. That first night she was away felt like I’d been released from prison. For the first time in years, I fell asleep without readying myself for her screaming.
But the calm didn’t last. My mother was released days later with some mood medications (which she didn’t take) but no diagnosis. The route back from her collapse was a slow one, and while some of the delusions went away, her volatile personality and need for control did not. I moved out when I was 19, after being locked out of the house for a weekend curfew violation, but the drama followed me. Seemingly benign remarks about religion or politics would spark my mother’s explosive mood swings. Pointing out my brother’s obvious drug problem would incite rage. I would change my phone number during periods of severed family ties, but I always broke the standoff first. The need for a mother, however flawed, gave way to apologies I did not mean and grovelling I resented.
The past 15 years have been more of the same. Last year, I casually referred to my father as a “softie” because of his penchant for Hugh Grant movies. This set off a firestorm of emails from my mother, who demanded an immediate apology and commanded me to watch my tongue when making comments about her or my father. She always complained that my father — like all of us — emotionally abused her, and she resented the fact that everyone else knew him as a gentle, easy-going guy.
Everything has become more complicated now that I’m married and the mother of a three-year-old son. Like any grandmother, my mother is in love with her grandson. But, unlike most grandmothers, she uses the relationship to emotionally manipulate both of us. In the throes of a rage, she cancels visits and screams that she never wants to see me again. But she also cites her “legal right” to see her grandson, which means adhering to specific conditions. Example: I have to park down the block and wait for my father to take my son from the car. If I don’t comply, I’m a “terrible mother.” When I was growing up, my mother often used my youngest brother, nearly 14 years my junior, as a pawn: If I didn’t acquiesce to her demands, I wasn’t allowed to see him.
It’s hard to explain loving and loathing someone at the same time. How can the woman who held me as I sobbed when my baby daughter passed away be the same woman who refused to help me choose a wedding dress and filled my voicemail with rants about the bitch that I was and always will be? My friends and my husband have paid the highest price for my struggles with her. For years, I didn’t know how to live in a world free of drama. Small disagreements would ignite my fighting instinct and take it to a level that no one understood, eventually costing me a dear friendship and scarring many others. I had never seen a problem solved without yelling or accusations, and I was never self-aware enough to realize that I was carrying on my mother’s legacy.
And then, everything changed. Last summer, my parents vacationed in Europe for two months. There were no phone calls, emails or letters. After playing my role in our toxic pas de deux for so long, I finally got to see how the other half lives. My son got the best of me, instead of what was left over after sparring with my mom left me emotionally drained. My husband remarked that I was more loving than I’d ever been. Close friends commented on my new sense of calm. Most important, I realized that I didn’t want this feeling to evaporate once my mother came home.
So, last fall, I broke up with my mother. I sent her a long email explaining why I felt I had to cut off communication with her. She promptly replied with fury and name-calling. My relationship with my father was the casualty — at his choosing, we haven’t spoken in months. Sometimes, of course, I miss my mother. But I don’t waver for long. No relationship should be fuelled by fear. I feel liberated and free to focus on the other mother in my life: the one I hope to be to my son.