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How to walk away…

November 6, 2015

Three months before my brother died in June of 2013, I ran into him at my aunt’s house. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. We sat in the hallway, chain smoking and talking about our childhoods, our pain, how damaged we still were. Carlos’s face drooped like a hound dogs, his cheeks caved in—the same look longtime heroin addicts get. If you have a heroin addict in your family, you know that look well. Carlos looked at me worried and said, “I’m scared something’s gonna happen to me and you and mom will never talk again.” At the time my mom and I hadn’t spoken in over a year.

As I write this, it is November of 2015 and my mother and I haven’t spoken in well over a year and a half. I’d be lying if I said I’m happy about it. The little girl in me will always want my mother to love me.

My mother has stopped talking to me countless times. This time I can’t tell you what it was I did or didn’t do, but in the past it’s always been because I didn’t do something or live my life the ways she insists I should. It doesn’t matter that I’m a month shy of 40 and left her house 27 years ago and never moved back. “I’m the mother,” she’s said, like that cancels everything else out.

Her silences have dragged on for months. And each and every time, I’ve gone back, my head hanging, wishing, hoping, sometimes even saying it outright, “Love me, please, love me.”

Every time except this time.

***

We have been taught to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of the family. That works and is wonderful when your family is supportive and loving and self-aware, but what happens when your family is not these things? What happens when your mother does not mother you? What happens when the love you need to function and be a productive member of society is not given to you by the people who are supposed to give it to you? Our culture does not teach us how to deal with these realities so we have to teach ourselves. This has been my life–teaching myself to mother myself and support myself and be there for myself. And I had to teach myself (am still teaching myself) how to mother my daughter in a loving, tender way. This is my journey.

***

I don’t know anyone who’s done it or at least I can’t remember if I do. Who am I referring to? People who’ve walked away from their mothers. Who’ve said, “That’s it.” This past lunar eclipse, under the red moon, I cut communication with my mother.

My mother has punished me for 39 years by denying me her love. I never had the audacity to walk away from her completely. I’ve gone months without talking to her, or better said, she’s gone months without contact. I’ve run into her at my aunt’s house during these silences. What’s she done?

She glares at me. Then she gets up promptly and says, “Me voy,” through gritted teeth. Her lips pulled back over her teeth like saran wrap. The same face that would send me scampering to a corner when I was a kid.

The last time she did this, my aunt’s best friend came out to the hallway crying. She hugged me and said, “I’m so sorry.” I shrugged. “How do you deal with that?” “I’m used to it,” I half-lied. The truth is that I am, but it doesn’t cut any less deep every time.

That day when she walked by me, she pulled her shoulder in so she wouldn’t touch me.

This is my mother.

I don’t know why she stopped talking to me this time. I know that in my grief over losing my brother, I was forced to face countless griefs I’ve been carrying, including the grief over being unmothered. I realized in my healing and in therapy that my mother is a bully and has undiagnosed mental illness. I realized I don’t deserve the way she treats me and the cruel shit she does. I never have.

***

A few years ago, I stopped by my aunt’s house with my sister-friend Jessica. I was there to pick something up. I didn’t know my mother was there. She glared at me like she does, then she stood up to leave. I introduced my friend, “Jessica, this is my mom.” My mother gave her a wide smile and shook her hand. “Hola.” Then she lifted her nose in the air and walked by without another word. No hello to her daughter. No blessing in answer to my “bendicion” as has been our tradition since I was a little, little girl.

When we left a few minutes later, Jessica stopped me in the street. “V…” she said and stared at me, her eyes wet. “We’re not gonna talk about what just happened?”

“What do you want me to say, sis?”

Jessica searched my face. I was numb or was trying to be. I shifted my weight and stared up the block at the tigueres on the corner. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. “I told you how it is between me and her…”

“Yeah, but… It’s different to witness it for myself.”

Jessica put her arm around me. We walked straight to the liquor store. That night, we sat in my kitchen and got falling over ourselves drunk. We didn’t talk about it again.

***

I don’t want to hate my mother. I don’t want to vilify her. I don’t want people to think her horrible or hateful or cruel. But more than that, I don’t want to hold it in anymore…this reality of my life. That I am unmothered. That this mother wound has been raw and open for a long, long time and I have to heal it or risk losing my mind.

My mother’s last message before I blocked her came on September 26th. Somehow she found out that I’m in a relationship with a womyn and she had to tell me what she thought about it. She called my relationship garbage. She called me stupid. She said my daughter would suffer as a result of this stupid decision. She went on and on about how stupid and sinful I was.

I know she’s projecting. I know she’s ashamed of having been in a relationship with a womyn, my Millie, for 20+ years. I know she sees that relationship as the biggest mistake of her life. I know all these things but none of this excuses her behavior. None of it. I won’t give her a pass anymore.

I didn’t respond to my mother’s text. I cried. I heaved. And I knew then and there that it was time to walk away. After 39 years of her punishing me by denying me her love, it took her trying to deny me this love for me to say, “That’s it” and “Ya!” and “I’m done.”

I blocked her under the blood moon while sitting in my partner’s backyard. I cried hard. I prayed. And then I let her go. I don’t know if it’s forever but I know that it’s for right now, and that’s enough. I’m taking my power back. At the ripe age of 39, I choose me. I choose my heart. I choose the little girl who somehow knew at 13 that she had to save her own life.

***

I’ve been reading a lot about the mother wound; articles and essays and books. I’ve been posting them on my FB timeline, in solidarity. To let the quiet ones know they aren’t alone. I know I am not alone in this. I know how it felt to discover a while back that being “unmothered” is a thing and there’s community out there for womyn like me.

This past week I posted an essay my friend Jessica (yes, the same Jessica) sent me: “Navigating ‘No-Contact’: When Estrangement from Your Mother is the Healthiest Choice. I quoted the essay, “We can’t save our mothers. We can’t save our families. We can only save ourselves.” Shortly after posting, two womyn responded. These womyn are mothers whose children decided to walk away from them. I wanted to be compassionate. I wanted to understand and show them love, but I couldn’t. I got angry. I got resentful. You see, it’s always the same thing: the mother gets the last word, the children are silenced and shamed. The mothers cry and say how hurt they are, but what about us, the children who did the walking away? What about me? I felt my pain being dismissed again. It pissed me off.

One womyn wrote: “There’s a human being on the other side of that silence.” She made it about her. I get why. I get that she was triggered. I get that her son hasn’t spoken to her in five years and she wanted someone to hear her anguish over it. I get that she was venting, releasing, looking for compassion, but I can’t be her soundboard, I can’t give her that compassion, and I resent her usurping my post and making it about the moms. It’s been about my mother for 39 years. I can’t worry about her anymore. I have to worry about me and my healing. I can’t apologize for that. I won’t. It’s about time…

***

My writing is full of references to this mother wound. It’s the core of why I write… It’s how I take my power back again and again.

I recently rewrote my artist statement and for the first time knew without a doubt that I’d gotten this one right…

When I write, I am a little girl again, sitting at my mother’s feet. She is sewing a flower onto a table cloth as she tells me stories of her childhood in Honduras where she endured the kind of poverty we only see in Save the Children commercials. I see her eyes go far away and know she’s back in La Ceiba. She grows quiet when she gets to the part about coming to the U.S. at 15. That’s where she always stopped, no matter how much I tried to pry it out of her. I write to fill in what came afterwards; to try to understand why and how she became the woman and mother she did.

 Mitch Albom was on point when he said: “Behind all your stories is always your mother’s story. Because hers is where yours begin.” In understanding my mother’s story, I understand why I’ve become this writer who insists on breaking these silences so neither I nor my daughter has to carry them. I understand why I tackle such difficult topics, like rape, sexual assault, drug abuse, sexism and homophobia, no matter how much they dig into me, because ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist won’t make them go away; it makes them ghosts that haunt you relentlessly. This is the root of why I became a storyteller.

***

I’m taking a Cave Canem poetry class and a few weeks ago our facilitator, Tracie Morris, had us write to our kidneys. This poem was the result:

The body knows

How do you teach your body joy?
Ask her to hold you when she doesn’t know how—to be held?
Ask your kidneys to breathe when all they know is   clench?
Ask your heart to open when all she knows is blood and      grief?
How do you let go and let love
When love told you:
“You ain’t shit!
“You can’t…
“You won’t…
      ‘cause you ain’t shit!”
How do you tell your pancreas:
“Thank you.    I love you”
When love is what you longed for
But didn’t get
Because mama was raped
And her mama was raped
And her mama too      was raped…
They were never taught
To hold and love                     tender
Never learned love      that didn’t crush
Didn’t teach girls to hate themselves
Think themselves vessels
For men to spit on and            in
How do you teach your daughter what you   were never taught—
To love
Cherish
Be fierce
Outspoken
Gorgeous.
Remember how you taught yourself?
Remember the stories you told yourself up in
that plum tree in that backyard
of your beloved Brooklyn
      all rubble and crack.
Remember how that tree taught you
      all thick branches
      and heavy fruit.
Teach your daughter the same way
Of surviving    thriving            living.
And forgive—            yourself
mama
mama’s mama
and her mama
They were just surviving
And teaching you to survive
the best way they knew how.
And, baby girl,
they never had that tree in their backyards
to teach them…

I’m still working on that forgiveness part.

***

Deciding to walk away from my mother has been the hardest decision of my life. It’s been six weeks and I think about her every day. I wonder if she’s okay. I wonder if she’s eaten, if she’s taken her blood pressure medicine, if she’s thought about me today… I know it’s the right decision. I know that it’s about time I work on the damage that relationship has done to me but I also know that I can’t pretend to be unaffected by it. That’s never worked before and it won’t work now.

I miss my mother. I will always miss my mother. I will always long for the healthy, functional mother-daughter relationship we never had. It’s why I work so hard to have that with my daughter…and with myself.

I’ve been participating in Oprah & Deepak Chopra’s 21 Day Meditation Challenge: Become what you believe. Yesterday’s meditation brought up a lot. I heard my mother’s voice telling me that I ain’t shit, “dejas la inteligencia en la escuela.” All those feelings of unworthiness came bubbling up to the surface. When I opened my eyes, my face was wet with tears. I held myself and talked to that hurting little girl inside. I reminded her that I am here, that I am holding her, that she is loved and worthy and enough. “Look at what you’ve done, baby girl,” I whispered. “Look at where we are. Look at what we survived. You’re a bad ass.” I swear I heard her laugh. We laughed together. For a moment, we were good.

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41 Comments
  1. susan t landry permalink

    wow–brave and difficult and searing. i empathize with every word–and my mother’s been dead for 22 years. writing is the path; it doesn’t change the past, but over the years it pulls us out of the wound, allows the jagged edges to smooth over little by little. forgiveness is a concept that may not be all it’s touted to be; i go for understanding, and trying to outrun the fear that i too was once, may still be, will always have in me the seed of bad mothering. i try and try like crazy not to pass it on to my son, who’s your age. thank you.

  2. Wow, I’m going through the exact same thing with my mother/family currently. While it saddens me that I’m not alone, I feel hope that I can get through this time as well and come out stronger than ever. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Excruciating read. As a mother. As a daughter. I’m terribly sad.

    Not every mother is perfect, but most at least try.

    I’m so sorry. I’m sorry about your brother too.

    What scares me is whether you are holding any guilt about it. The guilt could carry through your entire lifetime. I hope you know that it was HER and not YOU.

    ❤ hugs.

  4. Parent and child relationships are complicated. It’s always mind boggling when they are full of love and support, aren’t they? It’s probably more so for mother and child because they were once physically bonded in a way no one else can be, but I guess that bond doesn’t always last past birth. I hope you the best and really applaud you for your strength. To live the life we deserve, a happy life for ourselves sometimes we have to cut toxic bonds even when they can be super challenging and hurtful. I hope that you find peace of mind. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. I love you, you fierce, beautiful woman. Your vulnerability, honesty and pain in this piece is deep, but so is your strength and willingness to stand in your power. Thank you for sharing.

  6. niaitasanchez permalink

    Reblogged this on niaitasanchez.

  7. This is raw and honest and brave. Thank you for writing and sharing.

  8. brooke permalink

    I haven’t talked to my mother in 3 or 4 years. I can’t even remember. I think I kind of always knew that she didn’t like me, but what really hurt was finding out how much she didn’t care when I quit talking to her. It’s become easier as time goes on. I just keep reminding myself that she is the one with the problem, not me. This was a beautiful essay!

  9. Thank you so so much for sharing this. I appreciate it so much. The part about the mothers whose kids aren’t talking to them trying to get your sympathy…YES! I’ve never heard anyone address that before. I’ve been estranged from my mother for most of the last 20 years (I’m 52) and I always feel so isolated about it, with all the pressure and crap and mythology about mothers. Some mothers can’t mother. And it’s devastating because we weren’t mothered, and devastating again because there is so much silence and shaming about it. And I appreciate what you said about trying to mother your own daughter. I am too. And wrestling with how to talk to her as she grows up about why I don’t talk to my mother. And how you captured the whole mess of conflicting emotions. Everything was so right on in this piece. Thank you for helping to push back against the silence. It really helps!

  10. I’ve been following your story because it hits home. My grandmother practically raised me for the first five formative years of my life as my own Mom was held hostage and bedridden by three subsequent pregnancies and caring for newborns during the scarce months she wasn’t with child. Grandma scarred me in ways that still today, after 40 years of intensive therapies, leave me riddled with the belief that my very DNA is warped so that I am unhealable, warped to the core, a dirty little girl. As she neared the end of her 98 years on earth, just this April, I stopped myself from furthering the hurt that each exposure to her reaped. Against my siblings’ and my Mom’s urgings, I refrained from visiting grandma. Grandma noticed. She knew and I knew. Nobody else really knows why. Ironically, it was me who wrote and delivered her sole eulogy. Eloquent, every word true, respectful, as I was relieved to be on this side of the matter. That’s how damaging our interactions were, back in the day and lasting until 2015. The other night I dreamt that I visited grandma’s house: it was different, huge, with many fascinating rooms leading to rivers, tool sheds, gates, green pastures, stairways, water wheels, living spaces, and hidden compartments. The last room I entered, there she was, in her apron, with dozens of child-sized fists of dough neatly arranged atop a tabletop covered with white flour, which had spilt to the otherwise spotless floor. The aroma of fresh homemade tortillas wafted through the air. Grandma was finally at home, sending me a new memory to savor. But the stories of the scars remain. Vanessa, your words are my wings sometimes. Thank you for allowing me to share.

  11. thebewilderness permalink

    We can’t heal ourselves while we are in an abusive relationship, all the self help books say. We have to get out, grieve, and then sort ourselves out. I know this was true for me. I hope it will be so for you.

  12. theofficialanushka permalink

    This is so touching!

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. Sometimes the people in our lives our toxic and we need to trust in our gut the truth we face. It’s hard. It hurts, and it can still be right. Be as brave as you appear. Continue to learn from where you were to know where you are now and be a good mom to your daughter. Most importantly, always remeber who owns the problem.
    Thank you.

  14. The inner work pays off. Eventually you find your shining beautiful inner child and love her fiercely. I did dream work and some of it was very painful, but eventually there was healing and transformation of that tiny self. It freed me to let go of the need for my mother’s affirmation and then to forgive her and let go of that need that tied me to her so painfully.
    Persevere, but when the grace comes go with it and let go of all of it: the need, the hurt, the anger, the victim mentality. My favorite author is Anne Lamott, who dealt with similar wounds and the whole package. Her journey helped me let go of trying to force the process and learn to trust our inner child and inner grace.

  15. I’m Glad That You Were Recommended To Me. This Was Deep.

  16. Thanks for sharing! Live and love your life!

  17. Thank you for writing this Vanessa. I am in tears as I write this short message of gratitude. I recently reconnected with my inner child during a visualization exercise. I think about her everyday and this blog spoke to her. Thank you for speaking your truth and allowing others to see their own. Blessed. ❤

  18. Very recognizable. I broke off contact with my mother when my son was 11 months old. Eighteen years ago exactly today. (I just realized that!) I felt guilty for years, knowing how the outside world thinks of it, but they don’t know me or my mother. I don’t miss her, because I broke off contact at the moment I realized for good that that normal mother-daughter relationship never was and never would happen. I’ve been a better mother myself because of the break. I wish you strength. You probably already know, but just in case; there’s a group for children of narcissists. You can find it by googling. They focus a lot on that guilt.

  19. Thanks for writing and sharing this. I’m truly sorry you had to go through all this. Mother daughter relationships can become complicated at times. Don’t worry, you will hopefully heal from this. The way you have written this is very touching and deep.

  20. Biro Jasa Perijinan Usaha permalink

    so touching. no one is perfect, keep positive

    • Of course no one is perfect… Forgive me but I have to ask: are you unmothered? Do you know what it’s like to feel you have no choice but to walk away from your mother because she’s so terribly abusive? Please try to be more sensitive. Platitudes are dismissive.

  21. InnernetDIva permalink

    Thank you, queen, for breaking the silence that sickens and kills us. Whether swallowed or choked on, there is a lifetime of “lumps in the throat” to get past when a mother is too toxic for a mutually meaningful relationship. The kind we were “sold”. The kind we came to desire because it was all we knew. Bless you for giving voice to the silent ones and for being supportive of options that may challenge everything one has ever believed, except one thing – that we must love ourselves, first and fully, if for no other reason than we will fight to save what we love. I deeply appreciate your generosity of spirit. Wishing you well….

  22. good job with the piece of writing. 🙂

  23. also could you check out my blog and get it shared within the people of wordpress.

    • Hey. Thanks for reading. This is not how you get followers though. Want people to read? Write. Put your heart into your work. The followers will come. Good luck.

  24. Proud of you for choosing you first. I’m on the same journey. Lord knows it is not an easy one. But it is SO necessary. “We can’t save our mothers. We can’t save our families. We can only save ourselves.” YES! to. every. single. word.

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