Three and a half years ago I survived a trauma few straight people experience: I was disowned for being gay.
I don't remember precisely what came between the initial "Is there anything you want to tell us?" email and the standard, best-a-bigoted-parent-can-do closing line of "We'll love you anyway!!" My emotional memory tells me that my mother was true to form, which would entail a series of overly emojied, heavily caps-locked references to my not being "saved" and subtle digs at my having failed at adulthood by not marrying and being properly procreative.
Many enlightening conversations with extended family later, it's become clear that my mom uncovered my covert "gayness" via a Google search that revealed the tell-tale LGBTQ rights group among my nine Twitter followers. She was then compelled to swoop in on the wings of grace to concern troll me back into heterosexuality.
Even 32 years of being continually blindsided and having someone attempt to claim my agency for themselves hadn't been enough to prepare me for that moment. Though I had been expecting some long-dormant grudge of my mother's to eventually create an irreparable rift between us, I couldn't have prepared for this scenario. I sat squinting at the walls of my condo with the "Huh?" "But..." "Are you seeing this?" look progression of a campy rom-com working its way across my face.
Yet as the brow furrow from attempting to unbend the pretzel of her logic fail lifted, I was completely calm. The shift happened quickly. I realized that despite being caught off guard, my response to her veiled accusations had been gentle, but honest; I'd expressed love and healthy boundaries only to have her step all over both. Now, I simply didn't have anything more to say to her. I wasn't angry; I was just done.
The way my mother has come in and out of my life on the waves of her moods and emotions creates less upheaval as time goes on, but this week is hard for me every year.
Flat out, Mother's Day sucks for some of us. We all have our reasons, those of us in the Challenging Mother Club. By the time "the day" arrives, we've been inundated by commercials and email offers and reminders of how much everybody loves their mothers. Just step inside any public space right now and you'll be inundated with reminders courtesy of capitalism: Your mom is great! All moms are great! Don't forget to prove to your mom and the world that her greatness has monetary value!
And then there's us: the defectives, the unlovables. For years I had thought I was the only one.
Even before the gay disownment, this time of year was always uncomfortable for me. Some years it was downright painful. We're supposed to love our mothers and tie ourselves into gratitude knots to please them. My not feeling compelled to present myself for continual emotional and mental injury from my mother doesn't mean I don't love her. It simply means I've chosen to stay alive.
This decision has largely made me a pariah — even with close, trusted friends. Everyone struggles in their parental relationships; what was wrong with me that I couldn't just suck it up and deal, people wanted to know. Hell, for years I had wanted to know.
Most people don't cease contact with their parents and can't conceive of a situation extreme enough where they wouldn't endure whatever family idiosyncrasies are part of what make them a cohesive unit. The more I found this to be universally true in my personal encounters, the more alone I felt, and the fewer people I could confide in about anything. I stopped mentioning my parents altogether; I clearly just didn't have the language to explain a lifetime of pain in a way that prompted empathy from the listener. My escalating disappointment in people fueled by such consistent judgment created a heaviness that became impossible to bear.
Finally, last year, I snapped under the weight of an AT&T promotional email seeking to goad me into earning my mother's love with electronics:
I was quickly on a #RealMothersDayCards roll, confessing to the ether through snark that Mother's Day sucks for me, not every mother is great and, frankly, the impossible double standard that demands we believe every mother is perfection while criticizing miniscule details about her approach to child raising — what mother and author Avital Norman Nathman calls the Good Mother Myth — injures the whole lot of us. Motherhood sits on a pedestal as the ultimate expression of our value as women. No wonder the path to a healthy relationship with Mom looks to most of us like an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course.
I paused my Twitter rant and discovered people were joining in. It seemed I had struck a nerve and was not the defective, unfeeling daughter I feared myself to be after years of failing to transform our relationship into a model that lived up to societal expectations.
Some people on the thread provided balance with endearing silliness:
Others bared their souls in cathartic refutations of abuse and abandonment, describing their painful relationships in terms of who they had worked to become by shedding the restraints of their youth and learning to love themselves:
Before stepping back to let those voices fill the space and find community, I posted a truth I still proudly claim today as my guiding light and my power:
People have returned to the hashtag this year for a chance to connect before those of us in the Challenging Mother Club banish ourselves from social media Sunday. Their honesty is striking. The insight into the mixed bag that is human relationships is a bit like free therapy. Even those who have truly brutal histories often express a tempered gratitude for the person they have become, in part because of who their parents are.
Some are updating their stories, reporting growth and promise. My heart swells with joy and sadness reading their reunions as I remain open to the possibility that one day my mother will be interested in a relationship with the person I actually am.
Perhaps, years from now, our relationship's sharp edges which have long injured me will soften and, reflecting back, my recollection of the complexity of our relationship will echo the sentiments of author, performer Kelly Carlin: