Updated: May 9, 2021
The mother-daughter bond may give rise to the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement. It is an intense yet uneasy affinity braided out of the many conflicting emotions, guilt, love, recognition, hatred, rage. ~Rita Felski
For years, I made grave mistakes in my personal life, which largely impacted the adult relationship with my daughter. As of today, it’s non-existent.
There’s been nothing in my life more devastating than that of the strained and threadbare relationship with my Celia. As of today, we haven’t spoken in over two years; I haven’t laid my eyes on her in seven years. I voyeuristically try and follow her on social media sites—anything for a glimpse into her life to know how she is doing and that she’s okay, but all I see are the shrapnel she’s left behind; she’s either blocked me or set her pages to private. She wants nothing to do with me.
Shamefully, I accept the responsibility for the severed relationship. However, I did not choose to walk away. Most of what she claims as the centerpiece of her anger and resentment towards me are the many different marriages and relationships that I’ve had with men since her father and I separated and divorced in 2003. I’m saddled every day with the guilt and shame of not being the mother that I should have been or the role model I so desperately wanted to be. However, I’m saddened by the lack of empathy and inability of my daughter to not remotely entertain the thought of reconciliation. Perhaps she's internally forgiven my shortcomings, I can't speak to that. If she has, hopefully, it has brought peace to her life. I recognize and acknowledge that my lack of mothering wholly affected my daughter and destroyed our future as mother and daughter, a bond that is vital. Yes, I can blame her father for myriad issues that I believe contributed to the brokenness, but I am the one responsible for my part in all of this. One thing I am certain of is the weight of a person's upbringing and the profound effects it has on their ability to function as an adult. When I think of reparation and forgiveness through the lens of dysfunction, I can't say I blame her for wanting to be nothing like me. Here's what I know.
Until my current husband came into my life, I carried within me the heart of a little 7-year-old girl listening in to her parents’ conversation about how deeply her big brother resented her existence or how she was the "midlife mistake" or what a burden she was on her mother because she didn't behave or walk or talk or act exactly the way her mother wanted.
I see how these conversations shaped my entire life and the half of a "whole" person I grew into. I never felt like I belonged anywhere, and more than anything, I wanted to belong, especially to a man because that's what my mother told me "mattered the most." My mother made it clear to me from a very young age that a woman finds her value through a man’s love. I thought a man could give me what my family didn’t. I started at a very young age dreaming of the perfect man, wedding, children. It was an escape from the mental and physical abuse I endured. I was a child trying to morph into a woman far too young and with no guidance or direction from my parents. I had no identity of my own. I believed my identity would be formed in the arms and bed of a man; someone who could take care of me. I believed my body--the aesthetic--was the only tool I needed in order to feel worthy of love. It took many years, many partners, and a lot of bad, unwanted sex, to break that mindset.
Not only were there a myriad of intimate relationships in my life, but I mirrored my mother’s behavior with my daughter as I raised her. My mother was a screamer, granted I was not always the best kid, but my mother screamed or cried or threatened me as a child whenever things didn’t go the way she was hell-bent on making them go. That’s the way I treated my daughter (both of my kids, actually). These patterns trickled deep into the caverns of my parenting behavior; its effects were inimical. I was doing what I learned to do—what was modeled to me as the “way to parent.” I never hit my children, but I also didn’t protect them from my “learned” parenting techniques.
My daughter’s middle school years were the toughest on all of us, but mostly her. When my daughter was eleven, I went from one dysfunctional relationship to the next. As my world was crashing down on me, I allowed my drama to seep into her life. I created a very unstable environment for her, yet I was trying to hold onto her with a vice grip. She knew even at the young age of eleven that our environment wasn’t healthy. And the only way Celia knew how to tell me was to try her hardest to get away from me, which was something she did quite frequently. I didn't physically abuse her, ever, but I also didn't mother her the way she deserved and yearned to be mothered. She was way smarter than I gave her credit for. I went from long-term relationship to short-term relationship, to a 3rd short-lived marriage, to an unhealthy 18-month relationship with an extremely controlling, wealthy man (a time which I refer to as my Fifty Shades of Shit).
I moved my daughter and me from place to place and frankly, she grew weary and untrusting of my ability to discern between a good man and a bad man. The problem was, I’d never known a good man.
My father was not always a good man. Yes, I said it.
Celia grew tired of the fights between me and whoever-I-was-dating-or-married-to. She grew tired of having to wipe away my tears after the last break-up. She grew tired of new people coming in and out of her life—our life. Conversely, her father had a stable life. He had been in a stable relationship and marriage with the same woman since we divorced in 2003; that felt safe to Celia.
In the moment and through my own chaos, I didn't listen to her clarion cry for my attention. I was too busy trying to mother myself as a grown woman without the slightest fuck as to what I was doing to my little girl.
I often say that if I could have one “mulligan,” one do-over, it would be never to have married my daughter’s father, but if I'm honest, I’d ask for a do-over at motherhood. Now that my daughter is a grown woman, I look in the rear-view mirror of her child/teen-hood years with much angst. I am hard on myself. I could have, I should have, done a better job. To this day, I look at other mothers and internally scold myself: why couldn’t I have been like that mother? Without even knowing their personal story, I automatically award other mothers a medal of honor while I compartmentalize myself into the “bad mom’s club,” where I am the sole member and forever-president.
Sometimes, when I see mothers and daughters out shopping, eating, laughing, loving, I begin shape-shifting— morphing the faces of the duos into the faces of Celia and me—stepping out of my world and into that relationship—fiercely wishing, pretending that it’s us. Time stops: for a brief flash, my heart is whole as I fulfill the moments that I’m no longer privileged to share with her. The moments, present and future, that I no longer get to call ours. Reality is crushing. I blink, and the faces of these strangers become the most authentic rendering of our relationship—unidentifiable. I begin beating myself up until once again my emotions coil into the fetal position dying a death I wouldn’t wish on any mother, ever. I crawl into a corner of myself—a space no one can get to.
If I’m feeling this way, how must she have felt—perhaps this is precisely how she felt when I didn’t bother to hear her begging for my singular attention, “Mommy, can’t it be just the two of us? Why do you need a boyfriend? Why do you need a husband?”
“Celia, baby, I deserve to be loved too,” I’d say.
But isn’t my love enough, mommy? That’s what she was trying with all her might to tell me.
Today I hold on to the memories I shared with my daughter. Despite the state of our relationship, some of the best times of my life were spent with Celia. We laughed and loved a lot. We loved to shop and have our “girls day out,” which would always include some sort of meal—we never went anywhere without eating and laughing. We would sing at the top of our lungs during car rides; we’d talk about her hopes and dreams—what she wanted to be when she grew up—which like every little girl, changed from week to week. I’d look to the right of me as she sat face forward in the passenger seat of the car—from one year to the next, she’d grow taller, more beautiful, more autonomous. My little premie, look at what an amazing young woman she’s grown into, I’d think to myself putting my eyes back on the road. It was hard not to stare at her. Celia has always mesmerized me—the whole of her—not just the aesthetic.
“I love you CBGB,” I’d say with a smile, looking at the road ahead.
“I love you too, mama,” she’d reply. It didn’t matter that she was 17. I was still her mama. I wonder if she still thinks about those times?
Mother’s Day is the worst day of the year. With my mother deceased and the estranged relationship with my daughter, Mother’s Day is solemn and heavy. I don’t want to get out of bed, I can’t look at social media, talk to my friends, and I don’t want to celebrate mothers. I know this is selfish. Every Mother’s Day I’m swallowed whole by the quicksand of shame—it engulfs me in a matter of seconds. It squeezes the very breath out of my soul and leaves me for dead. There are no more phone calls, no more cards, no more Mother’s Day brunches with the two women whose bodies I was once connected to. The cord is cut. The only thing tying us together are the memories. And that’s what Mother’s Day has become—a memory. An assortment of thoughts that break me. I can’t get out of my own head on Mother’s Day.
I open my nightstand to the right of my bed. I reach for the leatherbound Bible that holds the cards of many past Mother’s Day. The one on top is the last card I received from my Celia: Mother’s Day 2013. I trace my polished index finger over the words she lovingly wrote:
Happy Mother’s Day Mama. Thank you for all you do for me and all the love and support you give—only you could do it. I love you! Love, Celia. Xoxo
It’s been six years since I’ve seen my daughter. Although it’s been nearly seven since her bitterness towards me manifested (a few days after she graduated from high school). The details of our estrangement I choose to keep private. She did not ask to be brought into this narrative, nor have I spoken to her about her inclusion. I have texted her often, but make sure to keep my distance per her request.
If my Celia is reading this: I am so sorry for forcing you to live inside my chaos. I love you; my door is always open, and my heart is full of the memories we share, and I pray for reconciliation. Life wasn't perfect, but for the time we did share we laughed and loved—a lot. Even through the hardest days. And there were some really hard ones.
Readers, I implore you:
Hug your children, call your mom, tell them you love them.
Forgive them. Kiss them. Appreciate them—faults and all.
We are all human. We fail, we falter, we fall. But we are also created to forgive.
Spirituality calls for forgiveness. And family is the most precious gift in the world
I talk to God a lot about this situation. I often wonder why He hasn’t healed our hearts. But then I remember that His time is not our time. I believe that He is working in our hearts, softly speaking to us and guiding us to the place and time where only He could put the broken pieces back together again. I have faith, it’s all I have: It’s the foundation of my very being.