Family & Friends

On Emotional Health: I Was Not the Mother They Expected

2311082825_800aec7c90_z“Mother and Daughter.” Art by Andrea Gutierrez via Flickr

I have wrestled with the idea that I never really knew my mother. After her death, I assumed that it was too late to understand our relationship, but when I examined who she was [“Discovering My Mother Too Late”] when she was not being “mother,” I found much more about who I am. I discovered that we did have a relationship, a strong bond, but not one that either of us recognized as such. It was organic: without intent, and without any sense of mutual interest in the other’s trajectory. It is clear to me that I am rooted in the same earth as she. Still, as mother and daughter we were far from knowing or understanding each other.

One day long ago I visited my younger daughter and at that moment, was feeling sorry for myself because my second marriage was coming apart. Looking for reassurance that I was not totally to blame, I blurted out, “I think I’ve been a terrible mother.”

As a rational person, she responded, “Give me an example.” I’m not sure what guilt-ridden memory I dredged up, but it didn’t matter. “That wasn’t important,” she said. “The worst thing you ever did was to make me wear that hideous pants suit that Nana bought, to school. Kids were cruel; they teased me and I cried, and then you were at work and I couldn’t come home.”

I was amazed. I had always thought of the pants suits, which my mother-in-law had bought for both girls, as adorable.  Upon learning that this was the worst thing I had ever done, I felt great relief. My intent, after all, was to dress my daughters attractively, and if, in this case, it had turned out badly, I was not responsible. In fact, I thought at the time that the issue was a little trivial.

Much later, I asked my older daughter about the pants suit affair, and she confirmed that she agreed with her sister. It was, she said, not something one’s mother would do to one if she were a truly thoughtful and understanding mother. She laughed as she said this, but somewhat edgily.

I went on to divorce their father. Although it was a mutual decision to separate, I felt much guiltier about not providing a normal family environment for my children than about any previous “bad mother” issues. I felt guilty about thinking about myself, about falling in love again, marrying and then divorcing again. I thought about discussing this with the girls, but never did. And then, fairly soon, they established their own goals, and moved into their own new worlds. For a few years we saw quite a bit of each other, and then, less and less, as we made our own ways.

I began the pursuit of an intellectual life, earning advanced degrees, putting aside an earlier career in order to find out how far I could push myself. For more than 25 years, my life has been just about me. In the early days of this solitary pursuit, my mother supported me both financially and emotionally. It was evident, however, that she had no idea why I had chosen this life, nor why it was so satisfying to me. She did give me a lovely graduation party when I received my doctorate, but was not convinced that I should have spent all that time away from the “real” world.

It is, however, my very real world. [Dr. Fertig is presently, and has been for the last 25 years, a Professor of History at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia.] It is a constant exchange of information: with congenial colleagues and with students who have taught me volumes about how they learn, and make me eager to find new ways to convey the importance of history. My grandfather taught me that curiosity is a virtue, and my academic life is driven by it.

Meanwhile, both of my children have done well for themselves, not in conventional ways, but in ways about which I continue to be astonished and excited. Part of the astonishment lies in my inability to imagine myself living either of their lives. Both are artists. Although each has had to find other sources of income with which to buy time for her art, they continue to amaze me with their creativity.

Occasionally, I sense that, like my mother, they are confounded by what I do. My younger daughter came to visit in order to sit in my classroom and watch me teach. That seemed to be for her a summative experience about what I do, although teaching for me is more like sitting on the porch and rocking after you’ve cleaned the house and mowed the lawn. The older daughter calls me “Dr. Mom,” but we have never had a conversation about the joys and seductions of academic life. To be fair to them, we talk a lot about heady stuff: Buddhism, art criticism, music, the environment, and lately, the catastrophic consequences of the Scottish referendum (my younger daughter lives in Scotland).

But beneath our exchanges, like a low-grade tinnitus of the mind, I sense that I am really not the mother they expected. When I first went to work as a museum exhibit designer, I wore jumpsuits and drove a Volkswagon bus, and I remember my younger girl, then perhaps 7 or 8, saying plaintively, “Can’t we have a station wagon? Won’t you ever be a normal mother?”

Quite recently I heard an interview with a young actor about a film he had just finished. The interviewer asked him if he found it difficult to meet his director’s expectations. The actor replied, “I never try to meet anyone’s expectations. If I did, I might lose myself.”

I never met my mother’s expectations, although I did try. It was only when I stopped trying that I found the ways in which I was my mother’s child, which meant finding myself. She was very game in supporting me when I knew she doubted my choices. It was an issue we avoided to the end of her life.

I have tried not to direct my children’s trajectories. I was once asked what I wanted them to be, and the first thing that came to mind was: “kind.” I knew that I was being asked about professions, but I honestly had more interest in finding out, rather than determining, what they would become. I remain uncertain about what I may have unconsciously conveyed.

I believe that my expectations have little or nothing to do with who they are, or who they ever will be. Nor should that be of any importance to them.

Conversely, their expectations of me may have little to do with who I am, but the possibility exists that who I am has something to do with who they have become. More than likely, I will never know what that is.

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