Hiding in Plain Sight

Happy Mother's Day

May 6, 2011 by

When I brought a tool box with me to my first post-college apartment, my roommates were amused. Hammers, screwdrivers, a hand saw, vise-grip pliers and wrenches were, to say the least, not a typical sight in apartments occupied by artsy, bohemian twenty-something women such as ourselves.

This strange contribution to our new home was vindicated a few months later when the kitchen sink drain clogged. One of my roommates called the property manager, who told her that since it was a weekend it would be a couple of days before a plumber could come by. So I hauled out my trusty pipe wrench, put the dish pan under the drain trap, and twisted off the clean-out plug. After a cascade of fetid grunge-water poured into the dish pan, I reached in and pulled out the half-macerated food and other un-nameable horrors that had caused the clog. My roommate stared at me in amazement and said, “How did you learn to do that?” And I replied, “My mother taught me.”

My mother taught me how to do a lot of stuff. At her side I learned how to read, write, split firewood, do math, solder copper pipes, play cribbage, drive a stick-shift, rewire lamps, cook, wash laundry, eat properly, and plant a garden. From my earliest years, my mother instilled in me a love of learning and a desire to be the best person I could be.

But my relationship with my first and most influential teacher hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.

Somewhere along the line I came to believe I was in a fight for the survival of my very soul. I felt as though my mother wanted me to be her clone, a husk with no personality of my own whose only purpose was to parrot her every feeling and belief and do whatever she told me to do. And because I refused to do that, I felt like I was constantly being criticized and second-guessed about the choices I’d made: I clearly hadn’t thought it through, and I should have done this or that or the other thing, and she’d told me that was a bad idea!

I began to feel like I couldn’t even be near her without being smothered by shoulds and ought-tos and why-did-you-do-thats. And the more criticism I got, the more I dreaded visiting or calling.

This went on until last year, when I got an e-mail from my mother begging me to tell her why I was so distant and cold toward her. Instead of the defensive resistance that had become my habit, an unexpected thought crossed my mind: I’d believed I was being kind and compassionate by not expressing my feelings, but the truth was that I was afraid to do so — and this was causing my mother just as much pain as it was causing me.

I didn’t want this kind of relationship with my mother!

She is the woman whose example led me to become an intellectual and spiritual explorer. She taught me that women are strong and brave, that being female doesn’t limit my life options, and that I should never accept being treated as a second-class citizen. Through her I learned to be an engaged citizen and to have high standards for myself and the people who shared my life. My mother was my first role model and my first hero.

But when had all of that disappeared?

I was so tired of feeling like I had to be on guard when I was in her presence. I was sick of holding my tongue when I felt like I was under attack. I was fed up with the utter physical and emotional exhaustion I felt after spending a day with her. My heart ached with the grief of feeling so cut off from the woman who gave me life. And I didn’t want my mother to die believing that I don’t love her or care about her.

So I put on my big-girl pants and wrote her a long e-mail. I told her everything I’d never dared to say before. I didn’t hold back and I didn’t pull any punches. After I hit the Send button, I spent the rest of the day living in dread. I was sure I’d get screamed at, guilt-tripped, or–worst of all–abandoned. Or maybe my mother would drop dead or kill herself, and it would all be my fault.

The last thing I expected was sincere thanks. But that’s exactly what I got.

A long phone conversation and lots of tears later, it finally hit me that although my fears probably did have a basis in fact a long time ago, I wasn’t the only one who’d changed over the last 42 years.

It’s been such a relief to be able to take off my mask. I’m grateful I don’t feel the need to shut down emotionally when I’m around her, and I’m glad I can see her with a mind unclouded by our shared baggage.

I’ve discovered that all the great things about my mother that I thought had disappeared, were hiding in plain sight all along.


About the Author

JaneA Kelley Has Written 2 Articles For Us!

In 2003, I began writing a cat advice column, Paws and Effect under the noms de plume of my cats. Eight years, three paying jobs and numerous freelance gigs later, I'm still writing Paws and Effect. I'm also the editor of Catster's Kitty News Network blog and I do lots of other cat-related freelance writing. By day, I work as a communications officer for one of the largest community foundations in New England. I'm an active volunteer with my local SPCA, and I love to work as a "techie" in local live theater productions.
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1 Comment

  1. JaneA – Thanks you for bringing a dose of reality to our Mother’s Day Marathon posts. As we’ve seen Mother/daughter relations are complex and not always “sunshine and roses.” I admire your courage to reach out and be honest with your mom. Truly inspirational.

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