I have mentioned my mom a lot on this blog, because my relationship with her has greatly impacted my experiences around sex, love, and relationships. A lot of what I have written has been pretty angsty, and in honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to write about her and my relationship to her in a bit more complex way.
My mom told me many things growing up, and implicitly taught me many things as well (about sex, love, and relationships):
-You have sex with someone you love and who loves you back.
-Don’t flip off people who drive past you and honk/catcall, because you don’t want to make them mad.
-I was like Persephone for wanting to have sex “so young”; I couldn’t wait for the underworld, so I just went rushing for it.
-How I look dictates how people treat me- my weight, my shape, my clothing choices, my hair, my makeup, my overall demeanor.
-Don’t be so serious about dating and relationships; just have fun.
-You should marry someone who is your best friend.
-If you are bi, you have to make a choice between having a relationship with a man or a woman. You can’t have both (at once).
-You have to “be sure” about your partner before you get married.
-Boys in high school are after “one thing.”
-Kids are too young in junior high to decide that they are LGBTQ.
-If she had had the family that I had, she would not have gotten married at 20.
-If she had had the family that I had, she would not have changed her name when she got married.
-I was beautiful and a babe and could do anything I wanted and succeed in whatever I wanted.
-You can’t trust men you don’t know: fathers of friends, men on the street, teachers, coaches, etc. You just don’t trust them.
There were so many mixed messages: don’t date seriously, but expect to meet your One and commit to them; you are smart and should do your own thing, but if you want people to like you then you need to always be pretty and presentable; you should never have an abusive or coercive relationship, but it’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
My mom’s messages make a lot of sense to me, now that I am older and that I can see her as her own person with her own life before mine and with her own bag of challenges. Growing up in a rural, poor, and abusive home meant that she was so ready to leave, however that was possible. Being molested by her step-dad for years created an incessant fear of men that she didn’t know intimately. She met my dad at 19, married him at 20, and had me at 30. She went through her 20s not sure if she wanted kids, but heavily invested in her work. Once she decided that she wanted a couple of kids, she was determined to create a life for her kids that was clean, middle class, loving, peaceful, stable, and pure.
My sister and I became the symbol for the childhood she never had, and we had to look and act the part. Matching clothes every Christmas and other major Christian holiday, new school clothes in the fall, participating in band, swimming, softball, soccer. Things that we were not allowed to do reminded her too much of things she didn’t like about where she came from: we couldn’t be in Cheer because many of the cheerleaders she knew got pregnant young, we couldn’t go to the Rodeo so central to our town because it reminded her of crass and “icky” cowboys in her rural hometown, we couldn’t go to sleepovers because she didn’t know the fathers well enough. We had to look nice (freshly showered always, combed hair, matching clothes), but not “slutty” (fake nails and dyed hair were no-gos, as were tops that had low fronts or backs). We got to go on family vacations to the coast and to neighboring states. My parents wanted us to enjoy “culture”: plays and art and music and literature. It was a middle class upbringing, which is of course comfortable and pretty easy for a kid. But it was also heavy with an air of racing away from a dangerous, toxic past; my mom was so determined to not let the same things hurt my sister and I.
Intergenerational hurt is so interesting. I am thankful to my mom, because she shared with my sister and I her childhood trauma, she went through counseling, and she made a conscious decision to keep her family (including her mom and siblings) at a distance so that their toxic dynamics didn’t impact the relationship she had with us. Not talking about trauma gives it even more power, and I am grateful that she has talked about it. And so I know that the impact of her trauma is substantially less than if she hadn’t taken any measures to alleviate her pain. And yet, that trauma had a lasting legacy on my life- my body and sexuality were constantly scrutinized and controlled so that she felt I was safe, and my decision-making capabilities were stunted until I was able to leave home.
I love my mom, and even though most of my work in counseling has been to undo a lot of the messaging I got from her, I am so appreciative of who she is a person and where she has come from. Other messages that she was clear about, and that have had very positive effects on my life, include:
-Education is important. Never stop learning.
-Take care of yourself: hot showers, sleep, good food, manicures and pedicures, taking a walk, crying.
-Find ways to be spiritual, and find the stories and myths that make sense to you and that you can appreciate.
-Spend time doing things that you want to do.
-Don’t be afraid of something that you want, even if it’s not conventional or the easiest thing to achieve.
The values my mom raised me with and the environment I grew up in meant that I gained and honed critical thinking skills at home and later in college. Those skills allowed me to grow in ways I never imagined when I was in high school. I am proud of where I have come from, even if it has also meant learning to undo and leave behind some of what my mom taught me.