Mother Love Not Required: a guest post by friend and author, Felicia Sullivan

The author with her estranged mother, Brooklyn NY, 1980

We face one another picking apart our chicken cutlet parmesans. While my mother complains about the thieving coked-up whores in her diner, I assemble piles of mozzarella cheese -- eyes transfixed on the clock. I keep time; will it to pass by. It's 1996 and my mother and I sit through one of our semi-annual lunches, which consist of filler talk with minor variations. We dine in Long Island cafés rife with stale breadbaskets and tepid beef. Today, while my mother prattles on, it never occurs to her to ask about me, about my life, rather she talks about herself, how my stepfather and me ruined her life, how she's desperate to escape. Sometimes I think we do this, the lunches, simply to see how long we can endure one another. Whether she can break me.

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
mine.

...............................................

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.

29 comments:

motherbumper | 10:00 AM

Felicia, I just finished your book and was blown away. You have a gift and the fact that you use your talents to share made this book just that much more. I highly recommend this read to anyone who questions and ponders the idea of unconditional love.

Becca | 10:02 AM

Wow, I'm definitely going to have to get this book. I say though, being a fairly new mother, what I can't understand is not how she can't love her mother, but how a mother can;t love her child.

Anonymous | 10:15 AM

Wow. Powerful! You just neatly summed up my relationship with own mother, who I've not spoken with in nearly six years, due to her own battles with mental illness and various addictions. It's as if you were writing about my own relationship with my mother. People look at me like I'm crazy when I say I'm estranged from my mother. I know exactly what you're feeling. Not everyone gets it, but sometimes the healthiest thing one can do for themselves is cut the ties that bind. Does it make one sad? Yes. Does one feel guilty that they aren't selfless enough to endure someone they know has so many problems they just can't help themselves and that you should be the bigger person and rise above it? Yes. The decision to cut ties with such a parent is an agonizing one. However, blood alone does not a family make. Good for you for doing what is healthy for you and not looking back. Never feel bad for not allowing yourself to continue to sustain such emotional injury and abuse. When we're kids, there's no choice in some of what our parents do to us, however, as adults, we owe it to ourselves to break that cycle and not do it to our own children or let such a person into our children's lives. Best of luck with your book. I know I'll be sure to look for it.

Anonymous | 10:16 AM

What a moving post. I have similar issues, but with my father, and it's been 7 years since I we were in contact with each other. I think its often hard for people to grasp a different definition of family, but even more to comprehend that the tough decisions we have to make to are actually beneficial in the long run.

Thank you for this post. It truly captured many of the feelings I have been trying to say for too long.

verybadcat | 10:30 AM

Um, I understand your decision, and I wish I had the nerve to make it for myself, and I wish doing that didn't mean harming my relationship with my father.

Thank you for sharing this.

Marriage-101 | 10:48 AM

Simply wow.

Trenches of Mommyhood | 11:17 AM

Felicia,
Just wanted to let you know that I have read your powerful and moving book. Thank you for sharing.

Petunia Face | 11:20 AM

Wow. You have the gift of writing and the courage to leave a bad relationship. I am most definitely going to read this book!

merseydotes | 12:31 PM

I get into it with my husband sometimes when I say that I think that "blood is thicker than water" stuff is bullshit. My dad is bipolar and an alcoholic (neither of which he will admit or treat), and there have been times in my life where we've stopped speaking or had big fights. I never call him or invite him to visit anymore. If he calls me, I will talk to him and if he asks to come visit, it's 100% on my terms. I've been hurt too many times to keep trying, and I know now that I can't make him change. If he stopped calling me, I guess we wouldn't be speaking anymore because I wouldn't call him. Sometimes I feel sorry for him, but I never feel sorry for the way I'm living my life.

I will have to read your book, Felicia. Good luck.

KaritaG | 1:03 PM

I'm definitely buying the book. I get it. I could have written this about my dad. I know people hold "mothers" to a different standard than "fathers" but no matter what, damaged familial relationships sting.

The question I want to ask is WHY do people feel like it's okay to ask/tell you how you should or do feel about your parents? They're not sacrosanct. They're people! Sometimes people that suck! And I don't think anyone should be obligated to stay in a damaging relationship just because of a "blood tie."

shay | 1:04 PM

Wow. this is very powerful. I will have to now buy and read the rest. my heart goes out to you!

Laura | 1:43 PM

WOW - how powerful. I would like to read your book. My heart goes out to you for always having to defend your position.

While I cannot relate very well, I do have a similar situation. My adopted brother was welcomed into our lives, smoothered with unconditional love - but turned on us. I no longer love him...I do hope he gets his life together - but for me, I cannot offer him unconditional love - he has chosen a life of drugs, theft, games and craziness. So, maybe, on one level, I can relate to your story.

Thank you so very much for sharing.

smallspiralnotebook | 2:02 PM

Wow!!! I'm so truly grateful for all of your warm words and support. When I first wrote this book, I was so nervous that people would berate me for my decision to end my very tenuous relationship with my mother. That my mother made it impossible for me to love her, and breaking off our relationship was the hardest decision I've ever made. I'm moved so deeply that many of you not only see how complicated my decision was, but sympathize (or regrettably, in some cases, empathize) with it as well. I'm having one of the most amazing and hardest weeks I know, and all of your comments truly made my day. And made me smile a little more. I thank you!!

Becca- I think you're dead on when you said: "what I can't understand is not how she can't love her mother, but how a mother can;t love her child." I couldn't agree with you more.

In the end, let's choose our health, our life and our sanity.

warmest, Felicia

abbersnail | 4:25 PM

While I haven't extracted my mom from my life, I have definitely set boundaries that I never thought I would have the courage to. Thanks for this. It's good to know we're not alone in this.

Motherhood Uncensored | 4:49 PM

Welcome OFFICIALLY to the mom blogosphere Felicia. :)

It took my cancer-ridden father throwing my briefcase and a writing board at me, and then slapping me across the face and telling me that he was okay with that being our last memory for me to say, "ENOUGH."

I tried. I really did. I was a good kid. But I finally learned that nothing would ever be good enough.

My dreams of a father-child reunion forever dashed.

My face still smarts even after him being gone 10 years now.

As a parent now, I don't understand it. But I don't excuse it either.

People have choices.

You have risen above. And that's what matters most.

Mamalang | 5:04 AM

What a wonderful post, and what a strong person you are. I have chosen to not have a relationship with my father...and we attend the church he used to attend. I definitely get questioned, and it makes me mad, because it starts to make me guilty. But then I look at my life and see that I don't need to be. I'm glad you were able to find the strength to say no, and to move on and build your life.

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Green | 11:15 AM

As someone struggling to figure out what involvement, if any, I want my parents to have in my life, this post just gave me more questions.

When I get health insurance, I am really going to need to get right on that whole therapy thing to sort it out.

The Mommy | 6:37 PM

I've always been of the school of thought that neither love nor respect from child to parent are inherent or unconditional. We should work just as hard for our children to love and respect us as we expect them to work. I agree with Becca, I have no understanding of how a mother cannot love her child. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

Jaime | 7:20 PM

I LOVE this.....it's so true....people assume mothers love their children. And some women just aren't meant to be mothers. People don't like to hear that; it makes them nervous, almost.
From my experience, mothers aren't always biological. I owe so much to my "other-mothers".

Beckie | 6:13 AM

I can't go buy this book fast enough!!! This post brought tears to my eyes.

"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?"

I am going to print this, laminate it, and whip it out each and every time someone in my family or whoever asks me why I won't talk to my mother. She left when I was 3 months old. I am 28 now, and a lot has been said over the years, but not from me to her in almost 8 years. My father who has blindly forgiven her for any and everything she has ever done actually gets upset with ME for not allowing her to be a part of my sons life. The next time he brings up why, I am going to whip out that quote. Thank you for saying so eloquently what's been stuck jumbled inside me for years.

smallspiralnotebook | 1:40 PM

Oh, Beckie!!! This totally warms my heart to hear you say this. For a long time, many people admonished me, told me that something was wrong with me for not loving my mother, that clearly I still had "anger" because I wanted to live a healthy life without my mother instead of a horrific one with her in it.

Listen to YOU! What works best for you. Other people simply feel the need to project their values and opinions and it's all just noise.

This is YOUR life. Live it the way you choose.

xoxoxo, Felicia

kittenpie | 7:34 AM

This was quite something to read, and packs a hefty emotional punch - wow. And yes, it's true, every person with a troubled parental relationship - for whatever cause, and in whatever degree - goes through the whole wrenching issues of guilt and duty and self-preservation. Even though my own difficult times were nothing like this severe and I never had the pain of doubting my mom's love through it, it still feels achingly familiar. And yes, people would often assume that I was having a tough time with my mother because I was just immature - "It will be different when you are older," I heard. I bet you have, too. But aside from telling you how this resonated with me, I also wanted to tell you congratulations. It's a tough call and hard road to figure out what's healthy to you and stick with it, and few people will pat you on the back for it when it is, as you say, unpopular. (But ain't the blogosphere great for that?!)

mama's got moxie | 3:26 PM

you definitely made the right decision... i don't think you really had a choice. my heart hurts for you and all that you've gone through with your mother. can't wait to read your book.

lisa {milkshake} | 5:23 PM

Wow. I can't wait to read your book. It takes a brave person to do what you have done. I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision.

My husband no longer speaks to his mother (and has a similar story to yours). Just a few years ago, my husband and I had a hand in raising (for five years) three of my childhood friends' kids because she was abusing drugs. It's a long, long story - I've written about it in very short form here: http://milkshakecrafts.blogspot.com/2007/09/are-you-alright.html

I will never, ever understand how a mother can treat her child the way you've been treated. You didn't deserve it!

Be well.

Her Bad Mother | 12:18 PM

Powerful. And heartbreaking. And POWERFUL.

Tribecca | 10:56 AM

http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2006/04/13/no_love_for_mother/index.html?source=search&aim=/mwt/col/tenn

Log-in to Salon.com to read an advice column to a 17-y.o. in a similar situation. Coming from a similar mother/child relationship, it's the advice I wish someone had given me back then. TV, pop culture, our friends, and book tours like Iris Krasnow's make us feel cold and calculating for not forgiving mothers who never parented. But I know that I am MORE authentically loving to everyone in my life because of the strict boundaries that now govern the relationship with my own mom.

merlotmom | 10:07 PM

I am off and running to get this book. I keep meaning to but now I've written it down soooo... Your story is sad but ultimately one of strength. That which doesn't kills you makes you stronger. I suffered though not to the same extent as you and the only way I could keep a relationship with my parents and be myself, was to separate from them for about 6 months. When we came back together it was on my terms and they finally listened. Being parents does not give you unlimited rights. Brava for standing up for yourself and surviving.

Anonymous | 9:07 PM

I have perservered for many years with my parents and have only just decided enough is enough. Hopefully I will have the strength to hold fast this time. I read your posts and relate, although my parents were never addicts or abusive in the same way, but a lack of love is abuse in my mind. Some relationships are simply toxic. My problem is that because my parents are generally good people it's hard not to wonder if it is me, am I just unloveable. Intellectually I know that is melodramatic garbage, but still can't help these thoughts. Which is probably why I have let myself be flogged emotionally for years. I do wonder how I will feel when they die? I long ago resigned myself to unresolved issues upon their death, but will my decision to walk away make this worse?