Saying Goodbye to an Unloving Mother
Making peace with the fact that you may never get the kind of maternal love you always craved
My 80-year-old mother lay in the hospital bed, soon to die, I was told. I stood beside her, feeling nothing. Well, maybe numb — definitely tense. Antiseptic smells filled my nostrils as she and I talked awkwardly about stupid things, like her breakfast tray and where I parked.
I’d driven the two hours from New York City to Philadelphia to say goodbye to this woman whose voice had boomed through my head all my life. I’d spent a lot of years trying to root it out and would freak whenever I caught Mom-like utterances spilling out of my mouth: “Don’t get too excited — it may not happen”; “I’m cold, put on a sweater.”
But she was Mother, with a capital M. “Shouldn’t I feel sad that she was dying? Shouldn’t I feel something”? a voice in my head hammered. Yet another one countered it, rationalizing that I’d said goodbye a long time ago. I’d succeeded so well in detaching myself emotionally: moving away, living a life that surpassed her education or experience, cutting her short whenever she started in on me.
(MORE: Why Do Our Mothers Drive Us So Crazy?)
Actually, I’d been running away from her for as long as I could remember. As a girl, I desperately needed a mother’s love. But because hers came packaged with judgment, control and negativity, I sought out maternal love where I could get it: from teachers, neighbors, friends. Her love, such as it was, was laced with an overpowering anxiety that shot my own into overdrive. I could remember moments when she made sacrifices for me — the too-expensive party dress she bought because it was the only one that my 13-year-old self didn’t feel fat in; the money she found for the dorms when I didn't get into any sororities. I told myself she must have loved me. But I never felt it.
As I got older and had two daughters of my own, I tried a little harder to understand my mother and why she was the way she was. And to a large degree I did: her own hard-driving, unloving immigrant mother; her privations during the Depression. I tried to sympathize with her, and I could, at least a little. But even that shriveled as she aged into a bitter, rigid, bigoted old woman, who declared angrily that my daughter’s black boyfriend could never step inside her house.
I found it increasingly difficult to spend time with her. So I kept my Sunday duty calls and occasional visits as short as possible. My kids hated going, too. They liked Grandpa OK but resented Grandma’s double whammy of clear disinterest coupled with demands for affection. By the time my girls were grown, I felt I’d come to accept my mother for who she was, and I’d stopped hoping I would ever get anything good from her.
Now sitting in a chair beside her bed in Philadelphia, I tried to say something comforting, something appropriate. I knew I should say “I love you,” but I couldn’t. When the nurse told me it was time to go — release! — I stood up. “I’m sorry you can’t go home,” I told her. “Maybe the nursing home won’t be so bad.”
She waved away my words with a fatalistic gesture. “It’s my time,” she said in a distant voice, looking away. “I hope you have a good life.” I grasped her hand, kissed her cheek and walked out the door.
(MORE: A 'Dutiful Daughter' Makes Peace With Mom)
A few minutes later, I was steering my car out of the garage and looking for signs for the New Jersey Turnpike. I told myself I was done. Me and my mother: finished, finito. Then, speeding along at 60 miles an hour somewhere between Exits 6 and 7, I found myself clutching the wheel, white-knuckled, and weeping. I struggled to concentrate on the road as I wiped away tears with my sleeve.
“Have a good life,” she’d said. My mind replayed those words again and again: “Have a good life,” the way a Starbucks cashier might say, “Have a good day!” I pictured myself in her place, an old woman on my deathbed. I imagined what I would say to my daughters as if it were actually happening. “I love you so much. I am so proud of you. My love will always be with you — always.”
I was now sobbing so violently that I had to pull off the highway. I leaned against the wheel and let it all out. I was grieving, no question. But for whom? For my mother, certainly — also for the mother I’d never had and now realized I never would.
Done with my mother? Ha! I was just beginning. There was so much I needed to understand: about myself and my mother, about our whole family and the feelings in all of us.
I would eventually write a book about all this — not just about my personal experience but about what our parents’ aging and dying brings up in pretty much anyone who is human.
In the years since I said what I thought was my final goodbye to my mother — she hung on for another year — I’ve learned something profound. The irrational, impossible hope that your mother will someday love you the way you need does not die until she does. And then you mourn not only your parent but that tantalizing, elusive possibility, now forever gone.
In my next blog, I discuss my attempts to bring closure to this loss.