My struggle is not to turn into my mom

May 10, 2023 0 Comments

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Once I was reading a book about mothers and daughters. It focused on the myth of Demeter and Persephone—the dance, the natural cycle of daughters leaving and returning, leaving and returning home.

I loved the book. At the same time, I found it hard to relate to the dance they were describing. I felt that my mother and I had never danced like this. If there were a pattern to how we move through the world, it would be a simple story of a tide moving in one direction and a young woman who separated herself to go with it, part of her moving with the ocean, part of her remaining, empty on the shore.

This myth would not include a return. It would be about that woman, that daughter, who slips out of herself and then goes into decline for thirty-five years, constantly moving outward, drawing lines in the sand.

I drew my first line when I was four years old. And the strangest thing about it was that my mother taught me how to do it. It happened on the steps of Marineview Preschool in Vancouver, British Columbia. The details are a scrap in my brain, the first collection of images that weave together to form my earliest memory. My mother and I stood together at the threshold of the preschool. There were stairs leading up and others leading down. We had to take the latter.

“We’re going down,” Mom whispered, reaching out for me to take her hand, which I did.

With my other hand, my right, I grabbed the railing next to me, and together we slowly moved down the stairs, one step at a time of a big girl.

About halfway through, I heard my mother’s prompting voice.

“Say hello,” she said softly.

I stopped and looked up to see two women standing at the bottom of the stairs, both smiling. I looked at my mother. She nodded and smiled. I let go of the handrail and waved my hand very timidly.

One of the women waved back before coming up the stairs to greet us.

“Hi,” she said, crouching down in front of me. Her voice was singing and kind. She smelled like Play-Doh mixed with sugar and spices, and everything was nice.

“What is your name?” she asked.

I felt the movement of my mother’s hand. She gently placed it on my back.

“This is Stephanie,” she said. “She’s a little shy.”

“Hi Stephanie,” said the woman in front of me. “I’m embarrassed too.”

I looked at my mother again.

“We have her, Sheila.”

It was the voice of another woman, the one still standing at the bottom of the stairs.

“It’s just . . .” said my mother. “She . . .”

“We took her,” repeated the woman crouching in front of me. “We’ve done it a thousand times.”

At that moment, I felt a wave of anxiety wash over my mother. I rocked inside it for a while. I knew that feeling. It comforted me. My mother’s excitement was a sign of her love. It was her steady hum, the white noise running in her background that I could safely fall asleep to. I reached out, hoping to grab her hand again, but instead of taking it, instead of swimming together in this wave of anxiety as we usually did, she leaned over and put her hands on either side of my face and gave me a big slap. a kiss on the cheek.

“You’re going to be okay,” she whispered, not in a tone of reassurance, but more of a reassuring hope. Her words were laced with anxiety. What she said didn’t match how I felt, what I knew she felt. It was the first time I can remember my mother moving in two directions at the same time.

And then I watched as she turned and walked up the stairs and out the door. I stayed on the stairs, swimming in her excitement, which soon became my own.

Before the door closed behind her, I collapsed on the stairs and began wailing. My hands slapped the rubber tread in protest. I screamed. The woman who had been squatting in front of me was now sitting next to me. Her arms were outstretched, trying to comfort me. I pushed them away furiously, clumsily wiped my face—eyes, nose, wide, sobbing mouth—and continued to scream. My hands were covered in dirt and dust as they moved back and forth from my wet, snotty face to the floor. To this day, I hate having dirt on my hands.

When we got back the next day, I had what my mom called a “brave face.” I just didn’t feel brave. It felt like taking a drop of my essence and brushing it from my fingertips. It felt like moving in two different directions at the same time.

Many things stemmed from those first days of preschool. Over time and a million unspoken lessons, I realized that although my mother felt things, she very rarely put those feelings into words. Instead, she chose action; she chose to do.

Her love was demonstrative and physical. You felt it in the way she hugged you and tucked you into bed. You’ve experienced it in cucumber sandwiches and birthday cakes. You smelled it in the laundry room. You knew she loved you just because she was around.

I have many memories of being physically attached to my mother. My arms wrapped around her waist in the morning. My face was pressed against the green velor robe she wore as she filled the lunch bags we carried to school. Her fingers gently tugged at my damp summer hair as I sat curled up next to her on the dock—earlier I had watched beads of sweat trickle down her stomach before pooling in her navel.

My mother gave me her physical body, but her emotional body seemed to be only partially there. Although I can tell you the joy and satisfaction on my mother’s face, there seemed to be no other emotions—such as sadness and grief, and deep resentment. I can’t tell you how heartache looked on the face of the woman who raised me.

I could sense these things as a swift undercurrent, but I could not see them on its surface. There were no words. There was no voice for her anger, no word of fury. My mother gave me many things, but frank conversation was not among them. This was especially true when emotions were involved.

I realized that if my mother felt something unpleasant, she simply moved away from it. She rolled inside. She is busy with herself, which was easy. After all, there is a long to-do list that comes with a family of six.

Through careful observation, I realized that almost all feelings are self-explanatory. These were the unspoken rules of being a “big girl.” That was what it meant to be strong. I now realize that it takes a certain amount of courage to feel and then express your discomfort. But growing up, watching the people closest to me, I saw a different kind of courage, the courage to keep things to yourself, not to name things and not talk about them out loud, to keep them inside and move in a different direction. My mother had a lot of strength. As did the rest of my family, it seemed. A talkative group when it came to informing each other of the literal happenings of the day, but a group that used self-deprecation, sarcasm, and wit, or simply kept quiet about tender things like loneliness, sadness, anger, or despair.

I tried my best to simulate this family stability, but found it exhausting. This endless feeling and inexpressibility was a difficult task for a hearing child who was also naturally talkative, obsessed with words, books and stories. Perhaps my love of words was born out of desperation, a deep desire to have a language that could express a more complex range of emotions.

About once a month it caused an explosion. On days when I was overwhelmed with feelings for which I had no words, I would come home from school and quietly go to my room – the room where the ladybugs lived on the windowsill. I made sure that the door behind me was closed tightly, and from there I collapsed onto the bed with a long groan. I cried over and over for my mother, a part of me desperately wishing she would come running with a basket full of words to comfort me, to tell me how I felt and how to make sense of it all.

But there was another part of me, a larger part that had already left with the tides. It was a part that for weeks, months, years had been rejecting drops of my being. I know this because when I screamed for my mother, I also covered my face with a pillow.

Simply put, I couldn’t let her hear me. Somewhere inside I knew it would be even more painful if she sat next to me as I screamed out the words—feeling part of her move toward me and another part quickly dart away. To avoid all this, I was the one moving in a million different directions at once, frantically searching for some shore to land on, some anchor or buoy to hold on to and hold on to.

After the tears, I fell into a deep sleep only to be woken up for dinner. This happened with regularity between the ages of five and ten. And when I reached ten, I went straight to sleep. There was no crying, no muting. Just dozing. Just wishing the inky black tide would roll in and take me away temporarily.

If you see a child every day, it is almost impossible to notice how he changes. You should mark their height on the wall every year or look at pictures from each school year to make sure they have grown so you can clearly tell that there has been any significant change.

It is equally difficult to watch the ocean and notice that it is receding. You have to remember the lunar cycles or look closely at the sand to be sure which way the tides are moving and what they are carrying into the sea.

It was difficult to understand the turning point, to understand when I had rejected myself too much. What day, month or year did it happen? When, officially, was there more of my essence outside of me than there was left to live inside?

There was nothing to measure the changes. There was no cover letter, no lunar map, no real lines in the sand. It was just a bunch of moments blurred and grouped together. It was almost impossible for anyone around me to put it all together, to connect all the dots. And with no vocabulary for this leakage of self, I had no chance to voice it, to give it a name.

When I was a teenager, this practice was seamless—my emotional body went with the ocean, and my mental self stayed ashore. The ease with which I separated from myself was astonishing. My sleep turned into a long sleep, sometimes thirteen or fourteen hours. I had a deep suspicion about emotions. I asked people who talked about them. I judged the people who displayed them.

Why can’t they stick together? I wondered in my mind, not realizing that I was the one cracking up.

My family and other people around me praised this performance – although it was not called the performance as such, but rather my personality. For the most part, I was calm and composed. I was a sensible, self-confident young girl. My life was not dictated by the vortex of teenage emotions, especially “female” ones.

I was valued for my audacity, for the motherly shrewdness that my mother taught me, and I valued it myself. Although I sometimes rebelled, I was mostly called a good girl. This was repeated over and over until I settled on this collective definition. That’s what a good girl was, a performance without even knowing the play was on or the script in my hands, without even seeing the curtains open and close.

As Sue Monk Kidd once wrote, “If we fall into a pattern of creating ourselves based on cultural schemas, it becomes a primary way of obtaining validation.”

It was so easy for me to convince those around me that I was right in front of them, when in reality most of me was somewhere on the ocean shore, treading water in a sea of ​​churning waves. And the person who was the easiest to convince? The one who was fooled by all this? Well, of course it was me.

Adapted from All that is left to remember. Copyright © 2022 Steph Jagger. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission of the publisher.

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