Two days ago, in a text conversation with a dear friend, I said these words: “It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”
Those words I wrote stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away.
I knew what I was talking about. I had been there myself.
And then I realized: so had my mother.
I have wrestled since 1977 with the effects of my parents’ divorce. While I have probably been more open about the loss of my father as a presence in my life, I have been less open about my mother.
The reality is that when I lost my father that day, I lost my mother as well.
At 14, I was on my own, emotionally, at least.
I’ve spent the years since trying to process the fallout of these losses and the ways I was sucked into being the emotional caretaker for a mother who was stuck in grief. Who didn’t have the tools (or use what tools were available) to understand and process her own pain, much less care for a teenager. Much, much less care for a teenager dealing with demons of her own.
For years I blamed my mother for so much. Why wouldn’t she seek help? Why wouldn’t she take antidepressants? Why wouldn’t she ever, ever apologize? Why couldn’t she see I could never fill that void in her life?
Fast forward a few decades and I was there myself. A mother so devastated by circumstances beyond my control.. A mother absolutely paralyzed by my apparent failure that I was afraid and totally unable to parent my own teenage children.
I got it. And getting it crushed me. And I was angry at the teenage me for needing my own mother. And I was angry at the adult me for blaming my mother for my pain.
Fast forward another decade.
“It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”
And I realize that it can be both.
A mother can be totally so maxed out and flattened by life that she cannot be what she needs to be for her child.
And a child can be devastated by that loss.
And I can have compassion for both.
This isn’t a blame game. It is just reality in this pathetically broken world of ours.
Just because a mother can’t be all she needs or wants to be for her child does not negate the impact of this on the child.
And just because a child suffers in this way does not mean we cannot have compassion for a mother who is totally maxed out and may have no resources to draw on.
I used to think that having compassion for my mother would totally minimize my own pain. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve heard over and over again that part of maturity, part of walking through grief, is being able to hold two often opposing truths at the same time. One truth does not negate the other.
I learned a lot from my experience, and I have been dead set on doing so many things differently: taking antidepressants, engaging in therapy to heal from my own trauma, seeking honest conversations with my own children, apologizing out the wazoo for the many ways I failed them. Yet I now “get” just how hard it must have been for my mother.
I have two hands. I can hold both her pain and mine.
It is a strange but good place to be.