A mother’s love.
It’s something no child should ever have to question. At twenty-one years old, I’ve seen that love over and over again; from my grandmother to my mother, aunts to cousins, and even friends to their small children. It surrounds me every day, grabs a hold on my heart and squeezes so tightly sometimes I feel like I’m unable to breathe.
I grew up with divorced parents – from the age of one, I was shipped around from my single mother to my father and his partner who I’ve known and loved like a mother for as long as I can remember. Of course, I wasn’t the only child at school with an untraditional upbringing. In fact, two of my best friends lived with single mothers.
I remember one night in particular. I was sleeping over at one of my best friends’ houses; for the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Hannah. Hannah lived in a nice house on the south end of town with her mother, Julie. It was getting late, and we were snuggled up in her bed watching a movie, giggling about which boys in our class we thought were cute, or about who was “going out” with whom – typical blossoming-preteen gossip.
As the movie came to an end, we were getting tired. Hannah’s chocolate lab Sammy lay at the foot of the bed, staring up at me with her big brown eyes. I studied her fur, the soft brown against the pink of her skin, her long tongue threatening the comforter with its impending drool. I heard a soft knock at the door. It was Julie.
“Time for bed you two,” she smiled, sitting down on the edge of the bed next to Hannah.
“Mom, we’re already in bed!” Hannah giggled.
“Oh ha ha very funny,” Julie said, looking down at her daughter. “I meant time for bed, eyes closed.”
I watched from the other side of the bed, my eyes glued to Julie; the way her blonde curls framed her face, the way her subtle laugh lines moved as she smiled, leaning down to kiss her daughter goodnight.
“I love you,” Hannah said, her pale arms wrapped tightly around her mother’s neck.
“Mmm,” Julie sighed, taking her daughter’s face into her palms. “I love you most.”
I didn’t even hear her say goodnight to me. For the rest of the night and into my dreams, all I heard instead was the soft sigh of a middle-aged woman, and then her voice echoing,
I love you most.
I still hear that voice today. I’ll be sitting in my bedroom late at night in a city far away from everyone I grew up with, and when I need to feel it most, I’ll close my eyes, tilt my head back, and sigh. Hannah and I drifted apart over the years, and Julie exists only in my memory; but if I try really hard I can still hear her saying,
I love you most.
Six years ago, my own mother and father remarried. For most people with whom I share this intimate detail of my past, their first reaction is something along the lines of:
“Wow! That must have been great for you!”
“Oh my goodness…that’s not something you hear about every day, you must have been so happy!”
To me, the word “must” has become the equivalent of hearing fingernails against a chalk board. While I know people mean well, still there’s a part of me that will always want to respond with a good ole sarcastic:
“Do you know what they say when you assume?”
But I don’t.
The truth is, experiencing a parental remarriage was the most difficult time of my life. The pain of that dark, cold, and rainy December day is pain I still carry with me, deep inside the very depths of my being. It’s shaped me into the woman I am today; a woman who turns away from love – romantic or not – for fear of getting hurt again or, God forbid, hurting someone else.
My father and I have never been close. Growing up I experienced much anxiety, my little stomach in knots, being forced to spend four nights a week at his house. We were – and are – very different people who like(d) very different things. I was a soft kid and he was harsh with words. He yelled a lot. I liked theatre and choir, and he liked to play catch or go fishing, never mind that sports had always intimidated me. Physically, he never laid a hand on me, but what he didn’t know was that words – or forbidding me to see my mother four days out of the week – could hurt more than a quick slap across the cheek. The sting will diminish, but words can stick with a person for years.
Instead, I had been desperate for my mother’s love. I had never doubted that she loved me. Even now I don’t doubt that she loves me in her own way, but as I got older I started to sense that there was something holding that love back. Her maternal love for me seemed less intimate than for example, Julie’s for Hannah.
As a little kid, I had loved sleeping in her bed with her at night; she was warm and she made me feel safe, like nothing bad could ever happen so long as I had her near me. For fleeting moments I would pretend that we could just stay like that forever, mother and daughter, so close that nothing could ever tear us apart.
I believe I was about ten years old when I started discovering the lack of intimacy in her maternal love – I figured out that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I begged or how much I cried she would always force me to go to my father’s house for those four nights a week. I realized that she didn’t actually like it when I slept in her bed at night. She got very uncomfortable when I cried in public or in front of my father. I spent a lot of time feeling sad when I wasn’t with her, but did she?
I loved my mother more than anyone else in the world. I had more love for her than anyone else ever could, and yet as the years went on, I realized that that was not enough for her.
It was around this same time that my father started coming over to my mother’s house more and more. His partner had since left him and moved back to Boston. But I was still a slightly naïve child; when my mother would come over to my father’s house on Saturday evenings I was so happy just to get to see her and hear her voice, I didn’t think anything of it. However, when my father would come over to my mother’s house I would become very angry inside and that anger would sit in the pit of my stomach, making me wish I could be sick. As if I could vomit out all the negativity inside me.
I was just a child. I didn’t know what was going on. No one told me what was going on. I didn’t understand that my mother had an agenda: she wanted my father back, back as her husband.
For five years this went on; Dad coming over to Mom’s house on Saturday nights and staying for hours, meanwhile forcing me to swallow any and all resentment. During these five years was when I developed “the smile;” the facial motion automatically paired with the almighty “I’m fine.”
On these Saturday nights Mom would make it abundantly clear I was not to sleep in her bed; apparently that embarrassed her, and she worried what my father would say if he knew. In my small mind that meant, I was not to feel safe that night. Eventually he began to spend holidays with us, and take over the most menial of tasks I would always do with my mother, and cherished deeply; the first that comes to mind is decorating the Christmas tree. There was no other tradition I valued more than when Mom and I would hang ornaments up on the Christmas tree, rocking out to Amy Grant’s “Home for Christmas” CD.
Most of our mother/daughter traditions have since been tainted, traditions I’ve been forced to give up control over; but I will not allow that one to be touched. The last time I decorated a Christmas tree at my mother’s house I was fourteen years old, my freshman year of high school and the last Christmas before my father moved in with us. Of course, I didn’t know that was the last time, because you never think the last time is the last time; now, that memory is worth more to me than all the money in the world.
I was fifteen when my parents remarried. Despite all the signs, I did not see it coming. My father and I spent the entirety of my preteen years in a constant state of argument, and I wanted nothing to do with him. I had been forcing myself to “have something to do with him” every Saturday night at my mother’s house. Until of course that one phone call that changed it all, when he told me he would be moving in and that my mother and he would be getting back together, and essentially there was “nothing” I could do about it. It was then that I realized I could never “not have anything to do with him” again.
I couldn’t tell you my immediate reaction upon ending that phone call; I seemed to have blocked it from my memory. What I do remember though is hearing that voice again. From the moment I hung up that phone to the moment my father moved in and my parents remarried, Julie’s voice inside my head never stopped screaming.
I love you most.
I had loved my mother most. Call me selfish, but all I had ever wanted in my life was her. But she had always wanted more, and no matter what I did – how many times I would cry after falling victim to my father’s angry voice, how tightly I held on to our embraces, or how many times I kissed her on the cheek – it would never be enough. I would never be enough. Her heart would always want more, and ironically for whatever reason her heart would always want exactly what mine did not. Her heart would always want the one person who she knew had hurt me.
I was twenty years old, just beginning my senior year of college, when I finally reached the end to my chain of discoveries.
Mom, even though I don’t always say it, I love you so much.
My mother loves me. But she does not love me most.