Middle Ground With My Mother

I love books. Words and pages and binding- subplots and character study. Story worlds are my worlds. I grew up with my nose in a book most of the time. My parents used to have to make me go outside. Books were an escape, but also a friend. Lately though, my life has been so much in the way that I haven’t had the time to balance- so I haven’t had the inclination, let alone the free time to read a book. Between work, friends, writing and TV, things are getting hard to juggle.

But recently, something amazing happened: I had time to read a book. 2013 was an awesome year for my writing; this is the most productive I’ve been since high school. But, as I stated, it hasn’t left a lot of time for reading- something I love to do. I regretted that change in my life, so I made a commitment to this book- and I finished it. The book was called Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn. She’s also the author of a book called Gone Girl, which I didn’t read, that got pretty good reviews. I hope it was better than the one I read. But back to my story. In the book, the main character is a reporter writing about the murder of two adolescent girls in a small town- a small town that also happens to be the reporter’s hometown. So she goes there, on assignment, to try and shed some light on the murders. When she gets there, she’s forced to stay in her childhood home, with her mother, who doesn’t like or love her. She finds out later that her mother has Munchhausen By Proxy, a mental disorder that compels you to make your own children ill, in order to gain more sympathy for yourself. Anyway, the distant, abusive, totally dysfunctional relationship the main character shared with her mother made me so grateful for the one my mother and I share. But then it got me to thinking about how I didn’t always feel like we had a good relationship.

* Before I start this, I need to add a disclaimer that my mother is the strongest person I’ve ever known, a great role model, and the person I love most in the world. So this is not meant to malign, complain, or disrespect her. She is everything to me.

I am my mother’s middle child. Studies and research have alleged that the middle child is most often ignored. I believe this is true. I can tell you that I definitely felt that in my house growing up, and in my life later on. My older sister and younger brother always seemed to need some sort of extra help. The extra help brought extra attention, and I often felt lost in the shuffle. There were times when I wished I needed help, just so I could get attention. I knew that was the wrong way to go about it, but it seemed like the easiest way. It was as though my siblings were privy to some special magic that automatically made them less responsible and more needy. It sucked most of the time, the amount of time my mom spent just making sure they were okay, asking if they were okay. I often wished my mom would just ask me if I was okay. Most of the time though, she didn’t ask. Because she knew that I was okay, and that unlike them, I probably didn’t need help. And it was true. I took my parents’ independent genes and ran away with them, so most of the time, I really was good on my own, and didn’t need “help.” But it’s also true that sometimes I felt like I couldn’t “need help.” I felt like my mother needed me to be okay, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about me too. And I have to confess that I wanted that for my mother; I wanted her to worry less. I wanted her to catch a break. I couldn’t stand to see her upset about how things were going to work out with us; I wanted to alleviate that. But it puts a lot of pressure on you as a kid, to try and make everything okay. To exhaust everything your mind can think of to solve your problem by yourself, rather than just find an adult to make it a little easier. That’s a pretty heavy load to carry- even for someone who thinks they can handle anything (which is the kind of person I tend to be). But the problem with this scenario, is that I was just a kid. So even though my rational, logical self knew that my mother didn’t love me any less, or love them more, my emotional, sensitive, insecure, kid self was afraid that she did. I was afraid that the extra attention meant she liked them more, liked being with them more, liked interacting with them more. I was also convinced that their constant  need for help led my mother to lower her expectations of them- and that she expected far more of me than she did of them. It led to a lot of resentment between me and them- and between me and my mother.

I started to hate the fact that she saved them from everything, that she never let them land on their asses and suffer for their stupid choices. In my mind, she liked them more because she was always helping them, saving them, babying them. I often thought that if she let them hit the bottom just once, she’d have a minute to notice me, see me. I thought that was the solution. It did often occur to me that I didn’t want to be like my siblings, making the choices they made, doing the things they did- I didn’t want to be them. I just wanted my mother’s undivided attention; I just wanted her to myself, for once. I was jealous of every single one of my mother’s thoughts that they occupied, because I was convinced that she didn’t think about me as often as she thought about them. I was convinced that she told herself, “Shameka’s fine,” and then didn’t waste another thought on me. The conundrum to this: most of the time, I was fine- and she didn’t necessarily need to worry. But I hated thinking that she just made that assumption all the time- instead of worrying- like she did about the others. And the more I had these thoughts, the angrier I was at my mother- and my siblings. I was angry because there were a few times, isolated incidents, short periods, where I wasn’t fine at all. I just didn’t feel comfortable saying that. I started gaining weight in the fifth grade, and got glasses in the sixth grade. Talk about an adjustment period. In middle school, I changed from my neighborhood school (where I knew everyone) to a magnet school all the way in North Philly- where I got teased constantly by this one boy and all his friends (Interesting side note: the guy went to high school and grew up with people that I eventually went to college with, so we have lots of mutual friends and I see him all the time on Facebook- some of that hurt is still there, lol). But anyway, I had my share of struggles- but I never wanted my mom to worry, or think that I couldn’t handle it- so I never really said anything. As you can imagine, this was a confusing time. I didn’t want my mom to worry, but it still bothered me to think that she wasn’t worried.

I’m glad to say things are better now. I’m still the one who’s “fine” for the most part; I still feel like I’m the one my mother worries over the least- but I know she does worry. I know she cares, I know she’ll listen when I need to tell her that I’m not okay. But that took time. For a lot of years, my mother was in complete denial of all of this- she didn’t see it. Now, it’s not that she didn’t take me seriously or didn’t care, it was just that she, like most good parents, didn’t like to think that she favored one child over another, or treated me differently than my siblings. I think that she thought admitting this, or even considering the possibility, made her a bad mother. She didn’t want to feel like she’d messed up. So my mother was steadfast in her belief that she treated us all the same- but I didn’t see it, or feel it. As I got older, and was able to better articulate exact situations where I felt like I had been treated differently, she understood it more- and we got better. Part of the healing was also me growing up and realizing some key things: First- my mother tries to save my brother and sister as much as she can because she’s their mother. I mean, what mother wants to see their children fall down and get hurt? Especially when they can prevent it? No one. I understand this so much better as an adult than I did as a child. The pull inside that compels you to help and shelter the people you love is 1000 times stronger between moms and kids. Once I realized that, I stopped being so angry over my mother just doing what came naturally to her as a mother. Second– my mom does see me. She doesn’t see me in the same way, or interact with me the same, but she does see me now- and she did see me then. I took some time to think over my past and remembered all of the times my mom and I shared something special- and how we still share it today. Watching my mom in the kitchen for hours, gave me a love of cooking- and now we swap recipes. Reading my mom’s Harlequins (and other books, lol) all those years was the foundation to all those in-depth discussions we’ve had about how we love James Patterson and his character, Alex Cross. It led to me writing a manuscript last year, and my mother being the first one to read it. And those are things that are just for us; no one else can intrude on that. I’ve got something of my mother that is mine and no one else’s. And I’m happy to say that now we’re friends. I’m glad I read that book now. You appreciate your parents so much more when you read about bad ones.  At least my mom doesn’t have Munchhausen By Proxy. I mean, think about the bullet I dodged there.

P. S. – The main character also had a weird, destructive, dysfunctional relationship with her sister… but I’ll come back to that some other day.