I've been listening to Gloria Steinem's My Life on the Road recently, and I got me thinking about our complicated relationships with our mothers.
Ms. Steinem describes her mother as being a confident and assertive writer in her younger days, a traveler who loved to explore new cities with friends and might take to the road at a moment's notice, but this was a mother than Steinem never knew. The mother she knew was depressed and withdrawn, traveling only when following her husband on one of his countless spontaneous trips around the country. All that ended when Steinem turned 10, however, and her parents separated.
At this point Steinem's father continues to travel while their mother is seen to by different people and places, including Steinem's sister and a spell at a mental health institution. It was after this that Steinem went to visit her mother, and began to realize how much they had in common. She reminisces over the things her mother taught her and what she sacrificed by staying home to have and raise her children when she was a nomad at heart.
Steinem's mother tells her the reason she stayed was for the sake of her children; Steinem and her sister, but Steinem wonders if in doing this, she lost herself instead.
I found this section to be deeply moving. Her description of her mother's conversion from the person she was to person she becomes after giving up certain freedoms, and especially after being confronted with expectations from society regarding how and what she was supposed to be and become - this resonated deeply. I saw much of my mother in the description of Steinem's own, and much of myself. It lead to contemplation, of what happens to the people we used to be when we were younger, as we age and take on adult responsibilities.
My own mother was a vivacious figure when I was a little. She wore bright colors and dresses with bold flower patterns, or tied jaunty, brightly-colored scarfs around her neck, belt, or bag. Her hair was thick and wild, and she liked it not combed, but "scruffed up," which she would accomplish by running her fingers through it quickly, scrubbing them back and forth along the sides of her head. She had large blue eyes that sparkled and wore fuchsia lipstick, which you would notice when she laughed because she had a laugh so loud it would make you stop whatever you were doing and just stand there, staring, until it was over. She was filled with curiosity and mischief. She gave warm hugs.
I remember her this way for a number of years, though she was likely drinking on and off throughout that time, for besides being our mother, she was also an alcoholic.
As the alcoholism worsened she became the other mother I would know, one who was droopy-eyed and would slur, staggering through the rooms of our house. When she walked by I would turn and watch her go, checking to see how far she would stumble in one direction or the other. If she hit the door frame while trying to walk though it, it was bad; staggering without hitting things and managing to remain upright meant she was less so.
The worst, however, was when she would try to get in the car and drive, or start driving without us realizing she was already drunk. My sister became adept at protecting us under such circumstances by hiding my mom's keys or running to get help if we were in public. I would never run but would freeze instead, staring straight ahead in the seat next to my mother or crouching on the floor as she put her arms around me, both to comfort me and to prevent me from running as well. She would breathe on me, thick, alcohol-infused vapors as we sat and waited for my sister to return, either with my father or some other form of help. When my father arrived he would take us home, and the whole thing would start again the next day.
I think she got clean when I was around nine, but the years prior were filled with insecurity as we never knew which mother we would be getting or when.
These were the things I knew of my mother before she stopped drinking.
Once she decided to quit there were several false starts, but she surrounded herself with people in the AA community, and we got to meet her sponsor and friends. They would stop by the house for coffee or a chat, or make emergency visits during the day or night if she had relapsed and needed to talk with someone who knew what she was going through.
At some point she went to rehab in the US; perhaps the local AA meetings were just not enough. My sister and I stayed with our friend Jody while our mother was gone, indicating my father was either unable or unwilling to watch us during that time. He was an alcoholic and prescription drug user himself in those days, something we would not find out until after our mother got clean.
Jody was our best friend, and lived down the road. We spent many happy days at her house, playing with our bikes and hula hoops, having contests to see who could hula-hoop the longest. Jody had long, straight blond hair, and her mother had brown hair that was even longer and even straighter. Their father had hair the color of straw. All three of them were good-looking, with dimples and a deep tan.
Jody's parents had an accent that I didn't notice at the time, but recalled in my memories, like the one of Jody's dad, red-faced, telling her off for some minor transgression. Even when he was angry, you could still see his dimples.
We stayed with Jody for a month, and as much as I loved Jody's mother, I loved it even more when my own mother came home. Once back, she was again full of warm smiles and mischief, though there was an added seriousness underneath when it came to her recovery, and recovery for all of us.
My mother attended AA meetings with a religious fervor which seemed entirely appropriate, while my father was dispatched to Al-Anon, which is for spouses and families. My sister and I attended Alateen, which is an organization for the children of alcoholics.
While AA meetings in our area were often full to overflowing, the Alateen meetings had very few members, and my sister and I were often the only attendees, sitting across from one of the two women who would come to lead the weekly meeting. Sometimes my sister didn't want to go and opted to hang out with friends instead, so on those nights it would only be me and the meeting leader in the room.
I liked the meetings and the little book they gave you, with one reading for every day of the year. The index in the back of the book allowed you to search by topic, such as Anger, Gratitude, or "Letting Go and Letting God." At the beginning of each meeting, the meeting chair would look over and ask which one I wanted to talk about. Often we would decide on it together. Then one of us would read the page we had decided on, and we'd take turns discussing what it meant. Alternatively, we could talk about whatever I wanted, such as trouble at home or an argument that week. It was like therapy, with the little book providing the topics.
I liked the readings and discussion, though I was never enthusiastic about the subject of our "Higher Power." This is what the AA/Alateen/Al-Anon program refers to instead of using the word "God," and they are somewhat insistent that you must have some kind of Higher Power, even if you don't know what to call it.
Having not decided by that time if I even believed in any kind of god, it seemed like it was an important part of the Alateen and AA programs, so I pretended I believed.
My mother would attend her meetings in the crowded and smoky room next door, then meet me outside when both meetings were over. We attended every Friday night. Alateen occurred only once per week, but AA meetings were held every day of the week, and my mother went frequently.
I learned other things from my mother during this time. I learned that talking about your feelings is a good thing; that bad things happen when they are bottled up inside. I learned that it's ok to be silly, to laugh and play like a child not only when you are a child, but also when you are older. My mother had grown up under the watchful eye of my grandmother, a serious women who was always telling her to "sit up straight," "be proper," and "don't be silly." My mother had never been allowed to cut her hair, as it might make her look "ordinary." My mother encouraged us to cut our hair, and do many other things, like explore and create.
We had a sign in our house that said "It's never too late to have a happy childhood." I didn't fully understand it at the time, but I knew enough to see that my mother was accepting of herself in a way she had never been before, and was no longer willing to accept anything else.
When I initially started writing this post about I titled it "The Women We Used To Be," but perhaps I should have called it "The Women We Are." My mother changed further as she aged and was faced with different battles, like in telling my father she would leave unless he gave up drinking and pills, or when he died less than a decade later and would leave all of us, at least physically, for good.
Despite these changes there was a woman inside who remained the same: warm, funny, loving, daring, brave, and tender, and that is the mother I will always remember.
When I was younger I would get angry when people compared me to my mother. To me she seemed too emotional, too weak, too dithering. It was my father where I wanted the comparison to be drawn; he had always seemed like the stronger one, the one who was more distant, but in control of his emotions. In recent years however, like Steinem, I have realized how much I am like my mother.
I am not in touch with my mother often these days, if at all. Listening to this book by Steinem is reminding me of the mother I have lost, and the one who is still there, waiting to be engaged.