Giggling, my mother reveals that she's leaving us for another man, one she met in a bar -- he's taking her to Disneyland! Disneyland! -- and could I not call her for six months, make that a year, because she's concerned that I would inevitably wreck her happiness. You always do. In the same breath, my mother tells me, Oh, the sex. You wouldn't believe. I start to shake because my mother is leaving us for a man and mouse ears. I look up at my mother, watch her scrape her teeth with her fork, slurp the last dregs of her piña colada, and I writhe. I hate her. I hate you.
Nine months later, on the eve of my college graduation, my mother calls me, hysterical. The man who bought her mouse ears tried to strangle her. She's been fired, living on white bread, and can still see the marks his hands left on her neck.
Could we take her back? Could life be the way it was? I pause, wondering if it's possible to drown standing up. I want to be the dutiful daughter, the one who loves beyond repair. But I think about the way it was: the woman who never allowed me trespass to my real father, a mother who stole my childhood from me. I remember the years of neglect, rage and abuse, her decade-long cocaine addiction, the fear of angering her and the terror of wondering whether she would get even in my sleep, and the countless times she told me I wasn't worth her labor. I wasn't worth anything at all.
I told my mother that she made it impossible for me to love her. Her response was a cold fuck you.
A decade later at a party in a bar that resembles a cavern, someone asks me about the book I've written. I give broad strokes, don't bother with the details, but I say that it's a book about my relationship with my abusive, drug addict mother, and how love is not unconditional. That having a family for the sake of having one, no matter how painful the familial binds, is not the healthiest decision. That day in the spring of 1997, my mother asked me to make a choice -- between her and my mental health -- and the decision suddenly became so easy. I chose me.
After I say all of this, the person replies, "How could you not love your mother? How could you not want to find her? She is your mother, after all."
I close my eyes; it's as if I had been miming the whole time for this was not the first time someone has asked me this question and it won't be the last.
We live in a culture where parents routinely disinherit their children from marrying out of their faith, social standing, race and sexual orientation. When a friend from my high school came out, her parents changed all the locks, banned her from their home and excluded her from family gatherings; they haven't spoken in eight years. And while this is all heartbreaking, the stuff movies are made from, it's a practice routinely accepted. In response, we shake our heads and lament about the unfortunate situation. However how unfortunate, parents aren't shamed by their decision to disown their children, and it is typically up to the child to reconcile the family.
In our culture where mothers are sacrosanct, it is the ultimate taboo to sever ties with the woman who bore and raised you (save the rare cases of celebrity parents and enablers because while they are real people, they don't seem very real to us like our friends and neighbors), so while I understand how someone would question my decision to end my relationship with my mother, it doesn't make it any less frustrating and difficult to answer. In the 10 years since my mother and I have parted ways, while I long for the idea of a mother -- a mentor, a role model, a learned woman who serves as my career and life guide, a best friend, a blanket that offers comfort -- my mother was none of these things, and I have developed my own familial construct: a life inhabited by strong, supportive, loving people who couldn't imagine their lives without me in it (and vice versa).
But perhaps I should have answered with these questions instead: Why does love need to be unconditional? Why is a family member granted an unlimited supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards while friends and partners endure our fissures, breakups and divorces? Why is their only one definition of family?
What I should have said is this: What is your decision won't necessarily be
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn't Visible From Here, a poignant memoir of a childhood overwhelmed by addiction and instability, and the coming of age of a young woman trying desperately to dig her way out of the perilous, emotional debris left behind by a mother who was anything but. Order from Amazon, here.