My mom was a headstrong, independent woman who felt like she was dying in her suburban life. Just as the feminist movement was rising in revolutionary 1970s London, she undertook her first trailblazing move: walking out on me and my father when I turned 16 to move directly next door and live with three hot college guys!
A week after my 16th birthday, my mother cornered me in the kitchen and said, “I’ve given your father and you 16 years of my life, and you’re old enough to take care of the dog, your father, and yourself.” Actually, the dog arrived when I was 8, but that’s 56 years in a dog’s life, so she clearly loved the dog more.
I was caught in a ball of confusion and hurt, split down the middle, as I teetered between the convenience of her being next door and the inconvenience of witnessing her unapologetic abandonment each time I exited my home.
I coped by compartmentalizing my life: friendships, school, mom’s new independent life, and home life with dad. My best friend’s family home became my refuge, along with my friends at school. They normalized my teenage life, lifted my spirits, and never questioned nor shamed me.
Developing autonomous ties with my older siblings provided me with a sense of belonging and assisted me in navigating my parents. Finally, music (particularly Diana Ross’) and dancing were — and always will be — my rescue, a means for me to express myself, let go of the pain and tension, and find joy in the midst of the crazy.
I never held my mother responsible for her departure or her subsequent acts. I never confronted her about her selfishness. I didn’t reach a breaking point from the newest flood of her mother’s wrath until a few years before she d.ied.
I saw a therapist who told me, “What your mother did was wrong. What she expected of a 16-year-old wasn’t normal, and you don’t need to make excuses for her anymore. She left you, a child, to handle it on your own.”
She freed me of any shame and validated my newly chosen path. My childhood shaped the person I am today. I learned to listen to both sides of a story, to have an open mind so I could navigate and flourish in the pure absurdity and beauty of life and people, while finally understanding that I can’t fix everything and the importance of setting boundaries.
In the end, our mothers are flawed, but she offered me the gifts of courage and acceptance for all the agony she caused me. I’ve always believed that I chose to be born to my mother so that she could toughen me up for life while challenging me to think not just outside the box, but far beyond it. This is something I teach my children.
Breaking the cycle of a toxic mother-daughter relationship is possible, but first, you may have to look at the story from your mother’s point of view. And then, hopefully, you’ll find a greater capacity for compassion, love, and forgiveness.