Who’s My Mother?

Raised by two different toxic maternal figures, the writer has spent her life looking for someone to nurture and guide her. And she found her in the most unexpected place.

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“You were supposed to be an abortion,” my mother told me more than once. I can’t remember how young I was the first time she said it, but I can still smell the smoke from the cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, as she sat on the floor, her legs folded up, balancing a can of Budweiser on her knee. “An abortion,” she repeated as she leaned forward, closing the space between us.

When she was drunk which was often, my mother was powerful, confident. It didn’t matter to her, drunk or sober, that she got pregnant at 16 with my oldest brother and dropped out of high school, or that she could barely read—she didn’t really need to as a waitress at the mall’s local steakhouse. These things about my mom bothered me—even when I was a little girl. As an insult- and fist-slinging drunk, she wasn’t giving me much to admire.

And she knew it—she copped to it during a momentary lapse of sanity when I was 7, grabbing me by my shoulders, her beery breath in my face, slurring perhaps her most parental advice she’d ever dispense: “Don’t grow up to be like me, Dawn.” I never told her that I’d already made that decision. 

Because I’d believed I already found my role model: my stepmother. I met her shortly after my parents separated several years earlier.

My stepmom was nothing like my mom, at least so it seemed: She’d graduated high school, studied French, didn’t drink (except for a glass of Asti Spumanti on Christmas Eve), and wore skirt suits with spongy shoulder pads to work. I remember sneaking into her closet once to find a pair of her crème-colored heels. I slid them onto my feet, wobbled to my bedroom, and “taught” my stuffed animals how to say, “I love you” in sign language. Her education and polish and stability made me believe that she was better suited to be a parent than my mom—that indeed she was a better mother.

But I was 6 then, and may have been too needy to recognize that my stepmom wasn’t the caring and wholesome woman I thought she was. Within a few short years, I’d watch her façade of a sweet and saintly baby lover crumble, and discovered how similar the two women were. My mother’s cruelty may have come out after a few drinks, but all my stepmom required was privacy and a ballpoint pen.

Like the time I’d had a huge fight with my older brother, who’d just come out of rehab. My bratty, 9-year-old self busted into his room screaming at him to get off the phone one day while he was talking to a potential employer—had I known, I wouldn’t have done it. My brother didn’t get the job. I immediately regretted what I’d done, and scrawled, “I hate myself” on the brown paper covering one my textbooks. The following morning, I noticed something that knocked the air out of my lungs: My stepmom added two words on my book, in black ink and all caps, directly under my scrawl: “YOU SHOULD.” 

Shortly after my 18th birthday, I left home for college. I wasn’t even halfway through the fall semester when I learned that my stepmom had packed up our gold Monte Carlo and moved to Florida to be with man she met on the internet. She called me a few days after she reached the Sunshine State to explain that her leaving for Florida was just like me leaving for college. Only I knew it wasn’t. It was during that time that I considered reaching out to my mother for some support. So, I arranged to visit her at her home in Philadelphia. I arrived to find her drunk and rambling on about the plastic tubes jutting out of the oxygen tank she needed for her COPD while slinging a half-smoked cigarette in the air. When I told her I was in college she looked at me and said, “So what. You think you’re better than me now?”

I finally gave up. I figured that trying to carve out a healthy relationship with either mom was as useful as moving deck chairs on the Titanic. How is it that I could end of with two mothers incapable of being … motherly? Whom could I go to for dating and career advice? Who could teach me how to bake a potato, or at least fold a fitted sheet? If I couldn’t look up to at least one of my moms, who could I look up to?

I considered the women, aunts, and older cousins in my extended family but there wasn’t one I felt I could trust—I didn’t even feel I could connect with. I sought out mentors after I landed my first corporate job, joining professional websites, attending networking events, and women-only luncheons hoping to find “the one.” But the women I encountered were too busy, or saving their mentoring magic for the newly graduated.

My therapist, Joan, was one person I came close to connecting with—she made me feel safe. After one emotionally taxing session, she gently pulled the box of Kleenex tissues I was clutching from my hands and gave me a hug. I nearly melted in her arms. I forgot how sweet a hug could be when it’s coming from someone that cares. And then I remembered: a therapist is there to provide services, for payment. And so I convinced myself that I actually paid her to give me that hug.

As the years passed, I surrendered my search and got on with my life. And, of course, once I stopped looking for “the one,” I found her. Not where I was expecting—nor whom I was expecting. The Food Network’s Rachel Ray taught her how to boil potatoes and make spaghetti and meatball “stoup.” YouTube videos showed her how to conquer the fitted sheet. Through trial-and-error and loads of therapy, that woman learned how to nurture and provide for herself. It didn’t happen overnight but this woman, without even realizing it, became her own role model and best friend. As it turned out, I didn’t need to go far to find “the one” because I already knew the woman I needed all along.

That woman turned out to be me.

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