I want to begin by recommending another Substack newsletter: Nedra Nuggets. I’ve been following therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab on social media for awhile now, and today she made an Instagram post about how hard it can be to find a card for a parent with whom you don’t have a healthy relationship.
That was me with my mother. Every. Single. Mother’s Day.
I never really understood why, until quite recently. As I did the work to unpack the very painful relationship I’d had with her, I remember asking my therapist how it was that I hadn’t gone completely off the deep end. Many daughters with mothers like mind turn to very destructive ways to manage the pain of having a mother who didn’t attach properly and created an environment that was essentially upside down.
Her response was so revealing:
“Your dad was both mother and father to you.”
She was right, of course, as she was about so many things. And now I’ve written a book in part about how my dad made me the person I am today.
There was that time in 1988: right after I graduated from college with no job in sight, returned back home to Wisconsin for several months to stew in a whole lot of misery, until finally deciding to return to Washington DC where I’d lived while going to college. My mother was apoplectic about it, as she tended to be with most things.
Dad, on the other hand, recognized that it was the right thing to do. Shortly after I’d settled in, he sent me a cassette tape “letter.” Remember, it was 1988. I’m sharing a couple of excerpts from that recording on the day we celebrate mothers, because Dad doing double duty gave me all the support a child could ever hope for from a parent.
“I thought, let's get this going while it's on my mind, and I can get it done, and get it back to you so that you'll have it there, and it'll be all ready to go for you to report back to us all of the exciting things that are happening to you, which are going to happen. And there's no doubt about it in my mind. I just—I don't know. I have great feelings of—of course, I've had them all my life, but they even seem to be stronger now some way. I think this is going to be a real good year for all of us.
I'm very optimistic about this coming year, about the future. I feel very good about my job and my situation, and I feel that at least having a steady income gives me a base. I'm still keeping my eyes open, and if some kind of an enterprise presents itself that has very little or no risk connected to it, and I can make a little extra money, I want to do that…
I think that's going to work out well for me. I'm not sure about Mom. As far as Mom is concerned, why, you know, that's kind of status quo. We're just going to have to hang in there and keep her—stop thinking about how bad everything has been and how awful things are going to be in the future, because the things were bad in the past, and they'll continue, and all that. So, I have to keep working on her to keep forgetting about all that.”
It wasn’t until almost three decades later that I was able to start to understand how Dad tried to take care of my mother. He spoke to me on this recording in a way that respected my ability to understand her situation. Only I’m not sure I ever really did until many years later.
All I knew is that I found my mother very challenging to be around. Dad, on the other hand, was someone I knew loved and supported me, no matter what.
“I think you have a very bright future ahead of you. I—every time I think about the resume and those letters of reference and your positive attitude, I think you've inherited at least some of that from me. And I think you're so right to get back there and retain these connections that you have with these various people. And there's no question about it. The opportunities, I think, for what you want to do are at least started there in Washington.
So I guess the theme of this tape today is optimism and bright future. These are just kind of some of my thoughts as I was sitting here and looking out, and I see the sunshine, and I think this time of year is one that is very conducive to optimism because you’ve just come through the winter months when the sun is at its lowest ebb, and the days are the shortest, and now we're gradually seeing the days getting a little bit longer, and the sun seems a little brighter and warmer because the angle is getting better, and that sort of stuff.”
Dad was a philosopher of sorts. For whatever reason, I never recorded over that cassette. And when he was in the last chapter of his life, I was able to play it back for him and thank him for being there for me at a time when I had no idea what my future held.
Today, I honor him for the extra mothering he took on, without either of us even realizing it. Happy Mother’s Day, Dad.
I think it is a very tough thing as a woman not to have a 'good mom.' I never envied people their careers, or houses, or cars. I envied them their moms. Another thoughtful essay, Debbie.