Mother to Mother
Growing up is a much more nuanced process than a lot of us have come to believe. Phrases like “adulting” or “big-girl job” give an air of finality to becoming a grown up, as though it’s a static phase each of us will reach by completing a set of tasks and accomplishments. Maybe this is part of why so many of us (myself included) feel like we’re fooling everyone, even into our thirties.
What I am finding to be true, however, is that growing up happens in phases, sometimes even in small moments. The verb is active, ongoing. Something shifts, and we are struck with the sobering realization that we can never go back to the way we were before. We can’t pretend not to know (or at least we shouldn’t). I’ve had only a few of these moments in my life: giving birth to my daughter, burying a family member for the first time and most recently, supporting my mom through my dad’s alcohol addiction. Neither of us have ever had close relationships with an addict, so the process has been one of learning. The lessons are often painful, but they are necessary.
It’s a symptom of our youthful pride and naivete to see our parents as one-dimensional or more emotionally limited than ourselves, the classic teen tropes of “you don’t know what it’s like!” or “no one understands me!” come to mind. But I have found that as I’ve aged I am better able to see I was the one who was limited; maturity has given me eyes to see my mom as a whole person, independent of her role as my mother. Sometimes this carries regret; as a mom myself now I think of how hurt I would be if my daughter said or did some of the things I did when I was younger. In the context of dealing with my dad, it frequently carries grief, and almost always anger. She doesn’t deserve this. Doesn’t he care how much this hurts her? How much it hurts me? Why won’t he just stop? I know whatever grief or anger I feel, my mother feels compounded. As she’s pointed out to me before, I didn’t choose him as my dad, but she chose him as her husband.
I’ve watched my mom weather some trying times: juggling work with two kids, health issues, money woes, caring for her cranky mother-in-law. This time with my dad has undoubtedly been the hardest. I’ve watched her lose her partner. Burying a spouse is one thing; figuring out how to grieve for them while they’re still living is a different challenge altogether. It’s easy for someone outside the situation to ask why she hasn’t left him. She would certainly be well within her rights to take such action, and more than once I’ve wondered why myself. Watching her has pushed me to ask hard questions of myself: Would I stay as long as she has? Have I ever really pondered the weight of “in sickness and in health”? What would I expect from my spouse if I were the addict? Alcoholism does tend to run in families. My dad’s grandfather was also an addict. My baby pictures look eerily similar to his; I’ve been awake at night more than once wondering if my life will look like his, too. These are frightening thoughts, but I know the answers to them are within my control.
I’ve long been an advocate for mental health benefits, but watching my dad struggle and openly resist unpacking his trauma has only solidified my own beliefs. If I don’t want to end up like him, I have to live and think differently than him. That can mean uncomfortable conversations with myself when it comes to my own alcohol consumption and emotional reactions, to difficult conversations with my daughter about what addiction does to people.
Perhaps one of the hardest talks I’ve had is with my partner. I’ve seen what my dad’s addiction has done to his relationship with my mom; I felt compelled to ask my partner to tell me if I started to act like him, tell me if it looks like I’m going that way. That might be the scariest thought of all: that in all the possible futures down the various paths I could take, somewhere out there is a version of myself that’s an addict. She’s not without purpose. Like old fairy tales of hungry spirits or wicked witches, she serves as a spectral reminder to watch my step, to stay away from dangerous places. In a way, she holds me accountable in the present, and for that I’m grateful.
At almost 33, I have well outgrown any delusions about what long-term commitment looks like. Everyone sees hard times and there is no “perfect” relationship. As much as I respect my mother’s commitment to my dad and her willingness to keep fighting, I have just as much respect for the boundaries she sets. The ways she keeps herself emotionally and mentally safe are an inspiring study in self-preservation and self-care. It’s led to a feeling we often associate parents having for their children, (but I don’t know how many of us feel it in reverse towards our parents): the need to protect them. My mom has always been one to stick up for her family, to devote herself to them even at the risk of neglecting herself. Even though it’s made my relationship with my dad all the more complicated, I’m committed to helping her guard her space and her heart—even if it means moving my dad’s things out of her house and hiding the spare key. Despite how hurt I am by him, I feel compelled to protect my dad too, from the judgement of others and, if I can, from himself.
My mother trusts me not just to offer physical help with various tasks, but to rise to the emotional and intellectual challenges as well. Although the pain of the situation that necessitates that reliance can be staggering, it’s a significant point of pride for me to have earned that trust, and a testament to her modeling good parenting to me. I can’t fully know what it’s like for her. Sometimes a listening ear is the only offering I can make, and sometimes that feels so painfully small. Sometimes the anguish and anger is like a heavy burden we pass back and forth, giving the other a moment to rest. Sometimes there’s enough for both of us, and the best we can do is commiserate. But I know in such an isolating situation it helps her to hear someone she trusts say: “Yes, you should rest. Yes, it’s OK to feel that way. No, you should not feel guilty. No, you’re not overreacting. No, none of this is your fault.”
I wish for my father’s health more than anything, but I can appreciate the closeness his illness has fostered between me and my mom. For me, that might be the most significant lesson along this road. Part of growing up is becoming an equal to your parents, maybe even a friend. This transition is beautiful in some ways. How often are we given an opportunity to lend a hand to the strongest person in our lives? But it’s also somber.
However ugly or agonizing an issue, I can’t close my eyes and leave it to the grown-ups anymore. I am one. Motherhood is more than a forward trajectory passing from mother, to child, to grandchild. I don’t think we’re meant to fully detach from our parents emotionally once we reach some nebulous point of success or self-reliance. I believe if we do it right and are lucky enough to be given the chance, we can redirect some of that love and support back to our own parents in their time of need, and that is a moment of remarkable beauty and potential.
I have thought frequently of a Bible verse still wedged in my memory from my church-going days: “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face-to-face.” I imagined a very literal meaning when I heard it in church years ago. I pictured toys and playfulness being set aside, physical objects being given up. Now that I walk this path of addiction survival with my mother, I can better see it for what it truly means. Childhood and the ways we inhabit that time mentally and emotionally is like a house that locks behind us when we leave. We might linger on the stoop, or look longingly back through a window, but we can never go back inside. Coming to terms with having an alcoholic dad and what I can do to help my mom smashed that dark mirror. There’s no room for mystery or pretense. But I take comfort that my mom and I can face these trials head on, together. One friend to another. Mother to mother.
Lindsay is originally from Dallas, TX, but has been a Jacksonville, FL native for 17 years. She's a proud graduate of the University of North Florida where she received her Bachelor's degree in art history and psychology. She loves to read, take walks by herself, hang out with her daughter and boyfriend, and daydream about their next adventure. She works at a locally owned restaurant as well as one of Jacksonville’s cherished art museums.