The Relentless Files — Week 6


*An essay every Friday in 2016*

Here’s the thing about being unmothered, sometimes that reality sneaks up on you and kicks you straight in the chest, an uppercut to the chin, and straight right to the jaw, so you’re left feeling so distraught, you don’t know what to do with yourself.

And you know that’s why you cut your partner off mid-sentence and hurried off the phone…

And why you asked your daughter to hug you a few times…as if it’s her job to console you…but you don’t know how to say it, to tell them how your insides are aching, because you think they’ll judge you because today you heard yet another video calling feelings weak…

I asked my aunt about my mother the other day. My aunt called her during the blizzard last week after months of no contact. My mother told her she went outside for a little while while it was snowing because she was alone and “the loneliness gets to her…” I imagined her trudging through Brooklyn in the snow. It’s falling in thick billows. She puts her head back and opens her mouth. She lets the flakes fall on her face. She starts to cry at the beauty of it all. How can things be so beautiful and yet so painful at the same time.

I want to call my mother. I want to reach out and hold her. I want her to hold me. I know I can’t. I know I can’t trust her. I know she doesn’t know how to love me. I know she doesn’t know how to be tender with me. I know that it’s not my fault. I also know that that shit still shatters me. This week I had a hard time holding that reality, staring at it, being with it and it not breaking me into a million pieces. This week that shit hurt. It hurt bad.

This has been my life. I know that I can’t wait or expect for my mother to come around. I know I can’t wait or expect for her to love me the way I’ve always wanted her to. I am 40 years old and I know that and that shit still devastates me. I wrote these lines while I was sobbing…

I’m sometimes (read: often) terrified that I will fuck up my relationships because I’m so damaged. I’ve done it in the past… I often don’t know how to talk when I’m aching, so I bottle it up. I hold it in. It’s like trying to hold my breath…eventually the instinct is to gasp, except sometimes that gasp is whip lash from my tongue. I scream. I yell. I get snippy… I take it out on people…like my daughter and my partner. I’m afraid that they will get sick of it, of me…and they’ll leave. Because everybody leaves. Everybody… even my mother couldn’t love me. Why should they? How could they?

These are the things that whirl around this unmothered woman’s head when she’s in the thick of the chasm. When I’m not in it, I know this not to be true. I know that this is just the abandoned little girl in me crying. I can talk myself out of these thoughts or I can speak to them directly and tell them, “No, they are not your mother. You are safe now. I got you.” It’s harder when the pain has planted its flag in my heart.

This unmothered shit fucks you up. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés likened being unmothered to walking through the world without skin. It’s only in digging into the pain that you start to see the ways that you’ve sabotaged yourself as a result of it. I know I don’t deserve what she’s done. I know I deserve love…in my mind I do…but sometimes the heart aches so bad, it can’t believe that. Think about it, if the one person who is supposed to love you not matter what, doesn’t or can’t, the damage that does is undeniable and deep. So deep sometimes you don’t realize that’s the place you’ve been functioning from for so much of your life…


The other day I read a post by an author who talked about her mother discovering she’d written a book. The mother said she had to attend her daughter’s book release. She had to be there…for her daughter. To support her. To show her pride. They cried together. The young woman spoke about how her mother was her hero, her everything. I’m ashamed to say that my insides twisted with envy. I imagined what that would look like…for a girl to know that her mother has her back, no matter what. I can only imagine. I can only make it up. I hope I have gifted that to my daughter. Provided her with what I didn’t have. I hope I am the mother to her that I wanted…but I can only hope that’s what I’m doing, what I’m giving her. I don’t know for sure. Yes, I can look at her and see her shine. Most days I look at the ways she navigates the world with such fearlessness and compassion, and I think, “Yes, I did that…” But some days, when the ache is digging deep, I have trouble. I had a few days like that this week.

This week it was me who leaned on my daughter for love and acceptance. This week it was me who needed reminding.


I don’t know many people like me…who are unmothered. I taught a six hour free Writing Our Lives class last Saturday where I took twenty seven writers through the essentials of writing the personal essay. I took them through the 5 Ws and H of personal essay—the who, what, when, where, why and how of this kind of autobiographical writing. I share much of my own stories when I’m doing this work because I believe you can’t expect your students to reveal themselves if you don’t show them chunks of who you are. When I said I was unmothered, one of the students asked, in exasperation: “Is she alive?” I nodded and said: “Very much so…”

I thought of these lines in the essay, “They Call Her Saint” in my memoir Relentless:

I didn’t know there was a term for me until my brother die in June of 2013; when I was dealing with my grief and all the grief that grief brought up, including the grief over my antagonistic relationship with my mother.

They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.

According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED:  deprived of a mother:  motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes> takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered daughter.


The spring 2016 Writing Our Lives class (Essentials of the Personal Essay) is full. I added two seats and there’s still a waiting list. I sat with that this week…how successful I am. How I am living the life I dreamt of. I am a writer. I am an educator. My work is published widely. I regularly speak at universities and conferences about autobiographical writing and the writing life. I get messages all the time from people who laud me about my work and how it has affected their lives. So many thank me for writing about these taboo topics; for revealing secrets that have held so many of us in chokeholds for generations. I sat with that this week, when I was deep in the ache of my unmothered reality. I posted this Facebook status:

Sometimes, no matter who supports you, all the love you get, all the kudos and successes and congratulations, it’s the one you don’t get that is loudest. I’m not speaking about haters or “friends” who don’t know how to show you love when you do something big. That’s wack too but what I speak of is deeper than that… I’m talking about family. Like when that seat where your mom should be is empty. That shit digs and it will take a lifetime for me to not be shattered by that empty seat every time I notice it… And please, before you respond with a platitude, try to imagine what that shit is like…


My partner and I had a heart to heart about how I was feeling. It’s always the ones closest to you that feel the pinch of your emotions. She asked me if I’ve ever thought of the possibility of not feeling this way…that there won’t be a time in the future when I won’t be sent reeling by news of my mother. I didn’t know what to say. I can’t imagine it though. That mother wound is so deep, it sometimes feels like it will take lifetimes for it to scab over and heal.

I think about her every day. I wonder if she’s eaten. I wonder if she feels alone. If she’s cried. If she’s laughed. If she’s felt loved. I wonder if she thinks about me. I wonder if she worries. I wonder…

I hope one day to not be so tortured by it. I am working on not beating myself up over it. It’s tough to walk around so wounded especially if part of that wound is my own shit around feeling so hurt by her. I want to be stronger. I want to not be unphased. I want to be impenetrable… I am an emotional person. My partner says it’s my Moon in Pisces. I think about all the times I was told as a kid that I was too sensitive. “A ti no se te puede decir nada,” mom would yell, as if it was a bad thing that I was so affected by her cruelty…as if it was abnormal. I still walk around with that—feeling abnormal for being so affected.


When I was grieving my brother I discovered a lot about myself. One of the most startling was the realization that I’d fallen in love with mirrors of my mother since I was twelve—emotionally unavailable, hyper-critical, callous, cruel. I remember when I first wrote those words: I’ve fallen in love with the same man over and over again since I was twelve—emotionally unavailable like my mother. I threw the journal across the room.

I see now that I repeated this cycle not just with my mother but also with my friends. I can look at the friendship I had with one woman and clearly point out the many ways that she was just as narcissistic as my mother. Once, when I told her she’d hurt me, she shook her head wildly and asked, “How? How I have hurt you, Vanessa?” It was more of a declaration. A clear “I have never hurt you.” Later she said, “I’ve never been wrong.” I ended our friendship not long after, though I confess it dragged out longer than it should have. I can’t say she’s entirely to blame. You gravitate to what and who you are. I was just as wounded as her. Then I decided to heal…that was the end of that relationship.


As I write this, I am sitting in my poet friend Samiya’s kitchen in Portland, Oregon. I’m staying in a room that says “Weird Fucks” on the door. I’ve been at this kitchen table for hours, a fireplace to my right and an open balcony door to my left. A crisp, green breeze is wafting in as I type. The air is so different here in the Pacific Northwest. “Cleaner” doesn’t cover it. A frisky orange cat named Curtis is on the table in front of me. Ms. Thang has no chill—twice she’s jumped right on my hands and keyboard as I was typing, but she’s so cute you can’t stay mad at her; it helps that she purrs the minute you touch her. I wish I wasn’t allergic. There are poems everywhere in this house; a picture of Eartha Kitt in the bathroom. Affirmation quotes on the walls above the closets and doorways. I believe this is the perfect segue before I head to Newport for the Tin House Nonfiction Winter Writing Workshop weekend at the Sylvia Hotel where I’ll be staying in the Alice Walker room. It’s the first days long workshops I’ve been to since 2013.

On my flight here, I stared out the window as I felt the plane start to descend. I felt it in my ears, they start to clog up and I sometimes get pressure headaches. (Pro tip: chewing gum does wonders. Trust me.) I looked out at the snow-capped Rockies and remembered the picture I sent my brother Carlos in June of 2013. I was on my way to my fifth consecutive VONA for a residency with David Mura. The Rockies weren’t covered with snow, Carlos was alive, and mom and I had committed to building a mother-daughter relationship. We were good as long as I did what she wanted and lived the way she wanted me to.

It’s two years and eight months later, my Superman is gone and I don’t remember the last time my mother hugged me.

It’s now been six months since I talked to my mother. The last time I saw her was in the rear view of my partner’s car. She was cursing and yelling. I thought she was going to chase the car. I told my partner to high tail it out of there. This was my partner’s introduction to my mother. It was also the first time she saw me cry. I fell into her chest, sobbing. A loud sob that shook my body. My partner held me until I stopped shaking.

This week I was brought back to the aching of the mother wound. I had a few hard days where I was back in that longing, devastated place. I felt myself walking around the world without skin. This week I was acutely aware of the skin I lack. The one I’ve tried for so long to stitch to myself. This week I felt it fall away. I was raw. And as I sit at this table in Portland, the crisp green dusk air blowing in (it’s true what they say about air in the Pacific Northwest), I know that it’s okay for me to feel all of this. I know that this does not make me weak or broken or in need of repair. It means that I am healing. It means that I feel. It means that I have not been destroyed by the circumstances of my life…by my mother’s inability to love me. I think of a line in a Sade song, “You know tenderness comes from pain.”

I just read a micro-editorial by Edwidge Danticat, “Empathy Overdose”, where she talks about how overly sensitive she was as a child. I felt like she was writing my story. I thought about the times I was told that I was overreacting, that there was no need to cry…no need to feel what I was feeling. I think about what my therapist told me two years ago: “When people deny you your feelings, they deny you your existence.” I remember how that statement bowled me over. It still does all this time later.

One of the ways I’ve positively channeled my hypersensitivity is through my writing. Not just by reporting what it’s like to constantly feel the raw rub of my own emotions, but by imagining what it’s like for others to experience theirs. People who are over sensitive tend to fall in love more deeply, feel a bit more heartbreak, all of which can be put to good use in all kinds of writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. ~Edwidge Danticat

I think about how this applies to my writing about my mother. I remember when I read the first draft of A Dim Capacity for Wings (the memoir I was close to finishing when my brother died) and felt the resentment dripping off the page. I thought to myself, “This isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to vilify my mother.” I went back in, this time paying closer attention to how I wrote about her.

Here’s the thing: writing about my mother has helped me see her as the damaged woman that she is. So often while writing about her, I’ve thought to myself, “How did you survive that?” I also know that while she’s had an incredibly difficult life and has endured violence and traumas that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, this doesn’t give her a pass for how she treats me. It doesn’t make it okay for her to be cruel and callous and malicious. It doesn’t mean I have to accept that treatment and it certainly doesn’t mean I have to have her in my life. It’s not my job to heal her. It’s also not my job to put up with her treatment. I’m still working on the forgiveness part.

The other day I read an essay that’s stayed with me. In “Why I Don’t Use the Word Forgiveness in Trauma Therapy”, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC writes: “You don’t have to forgive in order to move on.” I had to read the line a few times. It’s revolutionary, really. I’ve been stuck for so long on this want to forgive my mother and have felt guilty about not being able to. See, I could and likely would be more willing if she wasn’t still so cruel.

I was also taken by these lines: “I work with people who have experienced horrific traumas at the hands of other people. These traumas include acts of sexual abuse, rape, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse. Some of the perpetrators are relatives and some are not. Regardless, the degree of trauma in each of these cases is significant and has had a major impact on their lives and well-being.” Why was I so affected by this? Didn’t I tell you earlier that I walk around feeling abnormal for being so affected?


My flight to the Pacific Northwest included a four hour layover in Seattle before taking a connecting shuttle to Portland (remind me later to tell you about how the shuttle plane had propellers and shook the whole 45 minute flight to PDX!). In Seattle, I met up with a dear friend who I haven’t seen in a while. She too is unmothered like me. We talked about what that’s like. How few people understand us. Our frustration at people who insist, “but she’s your mother.” My friend, I’ll call J, got hit by a car a few years ago. Her mother sent her a get well card. She closed it by saying, “Stop dancing with Satan.” I gasped at the nastiness of that…the connotation that J brought this onto herself because of her lesbian lifestyle.

How to forgive someone who continues to treat you so horribly? I don’t know…Imma have to sit with that one.

This is what I know right now, at this moment—I’ve committed to healing my heart and loving myself. Over the past twenty months since my brother died, I have grown into the woman he always said I was and I’m doing what he told me to do just days before he died: I’m writing our stories. Sometimes happy endings look different than we thought they would. Sometimes they’re actually new beginnings. And those beginnings are hard because you question everything you thought to be true. You wonder if this wound will walk with you forever. You wonder if there will be a day when you will get up and not think about your mother and not wonder what she’s doing, if she’s happy, if she thinks about you. You wonder if you’ll ever be able to stitch some new skin onto yourself. For today, it is enough to know that I am on this journey of healing and I am committed to it. It won’t always look pretty. It won’t always be easy. But I’m used to difficult journeys. It’s how I became relentless.


      • ‘Just jumping in the conversation here…me too (like smfleegal).
        You’re speaking to me, Vanessa, when you say, “I don’t know many people like me…who are unmothered.” The conflicted feeling you get when you meet someone from the old days and they politely ask, “How’s your mother?”

        Mother is imprinted on us, in our DNA, it’s no wonder we feel profound loss when our corporeal counterpart is within reach, but out of touch.

        From another of the many unmothered.

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