I don’t know exactly when it happened…or maybe I do…right around the end of June 1993 when mom and I were curled up on the living room floor for a late night talk. She, my sister, and I had been out shopping for camp clothes that day. We were exhausted. And she dropped the bomb on my little ten-year old body.
“I think your dad is planning to leave.”
Funny how I didn’t cry or get sad, at that moment. I got indignant. “Well, why don’t you fight for it? Why don’t you refuse to let him go? Why don’t you tell him he can’t?” All I could think of was the ways she could prevent his leaving.
But when the bombing debris was cleared, I pulled it together and became my mother’s biggest advocate—fighting against my father for how he had hurt her; learning what to say and what not to say about realities at home that would betray how bad things were, although this had started much earlier; answering the phone and literally playing my mother’s receptionist for at least the next 5 years when she had no emotional or physical energy to answer anymore questions about how she was, how we were; learning how to copy my mother’s signature so I could sign report cards, checks, doctor’s slips in case she fell asleep before getting to it; or grocery shopping while she waited in the car. She could muster up energy for the corner store, so we ate eggs, cinnamon rolls, milk, orange juice, and lunch-ables regularly. The grocery store took more energy, focus, and people skills than she could handle. I packed all of our lunches and unpacked their remains each night. I learned to get rides to and from everywhere I or my sister needed to go, and when my driver’s license arrived, I was up (sluggishly I’ll add) at 6:15 a.m. to take mom to work, drive home, shower, grab my sister, and drive her to school on one end of town and me on the other. I would come home for an hour nap at 4pm, pick her up from basketball, then return home to cook, start homework, run pick up mom, and come home to keep up with AP assignments. (I also managed to watch Friends religiously, much to my mother’s chagrin.) When my sister went on visitation, I coveted Friday nights with my mom after she got off work. I watched the CBS Friday evening line up, ordered us pizza, and we piled up on the hide-a-bed while she recounted drama from work before heading off to bed. When I began preparing for college, my mother made me an offer. I could stop teaching school year swim lessons if I would run the house, learn how to fill out the FAFSA, and apply for every scholarship I could find. I took the offer, and it made college literally possible.
That was life, is life, and I didn’t know it was abnormal. Because for every task I did, there was also a kind of dependence on me my mother gained that made life, our life at least, work. Neither one of us are emotionally co-dependent. Several good friends laugh when they think about my being co-dependent; it’s not even rationally possible given my psychological make up and personality. But, nonetheless, from a young age, I learned to carry my mom—despite high school years of open hostility between us, despite her and my sister’s violent and abusive relationship, despite her unchecked temper and my raging mouthy and sometimes physical responses. In my eyes for years, because I carried her, she could really do no wrong.
I took a year during my graduate studies to go to counseling to sort through the anger that had built in me toward my mother because of what I carried. It didn’t surprise me as much as appear as something in my life that I needed to tend—to dig into the mess and be able to emerge loving my mother but healthier in myself and with her. I needed, for the first time in my life, to draw boundaries so that I stopped carrying her in the way I always had. While I still do sometimes (despite North America’s greatest attempts to persuade me I have no responsibility to my parents) lift her weight onto mine, it’s become on my terms, more like on God’s, as I continue to ask for his wisdom in how I daughter my parents.
Interestingly, for most young college women I meet with these days, carrying their mothers is incredibly normal. Between mental health, finances, new husbands and boyfriends, it’s amazing the load young daughters carry when their mom’s lean on them for, well, sanity. It’s only when someone’s mom appears with homemade food in hand and starts proactively setting up a dorm room that the abnormality of carrying mothers appears. It reminds us, triggers us that, oh, not everyone lives this way.
Now, I have to admit, it would be deceitful and unfair if I didn’t, my mother could and does really pull her shit together. She sends care packages that mail order companies would die for. No kidding—coordinated bows, wrapping, all kinds of fun goodies inside. And my mother read as many of my college texts as she could, and was sad when she couldn’t keep up with my seminary training (although I’m darn sure she can run circles around me with Scripture). She shows up, and even more, she is present to my life in all of its details. But even then, a daughter still does carry her mother because she knows how, when no one else does. A daughter carries her mother because, well, life is short, and if you’re going to carry anyone, it ought to be the one that carried you for at least 9 months. And a daughter carries her mother because at the end of the day we need them, no matter how that need comes.