Both Sides Now — An Unusual Parenting Perspective
My story started so many years ago. I am coming up on my 46th birthday and the fab 40’s has become a time of reflection and paying extra attention while also caring a bit less about the mundane things.
I was born to a mom and a dad. Shocking, right? I don’t need to get into the whole birds and the bees thing to make that sink in. Or do I? I existed in a pretty easy childhood. I was a country girl, playing in the dirt, collecting wildflowers and running wild from dusk til dawn. The summer I turned 10, all of that changed.
My mom packed me and my siblings up and took us away from my dad. She claimed abuse, he claimed she had mental illness. At ten, I didn’t know up from down and this was all messy and conflicting. I was trying to be a good daughter, but I didn’t know who to trust.
Fast forward a few years and I was a teenager. I was on the verge of 14 and my mom was mean and accused me of things that I didn’t do like stealing her driver’s license and the pink slip to her car. Things were ‘off’ and as a teenager, I didn’t want to deal so I left to live with my dad.
Living with my dad was fine. He was messy in his own way which presented more in my late teens. Alcoholism is no joke and as a kid, it’s hard to comprehend why someone can’t control their habits. I mean, how hard could it be to stop yourself from things that are damaging to your own health as well as the emotional well-being of your family? It turns out it is very hard. Addiction is ugly.
My siblings joined in to live with my dad when I was 15. I was the oldest of 4 kiddos. The youngest being 7 years younger than me. The way my dad gained custody wasn’t exactly legit, but it happened and my mom sort of disappeared. She felt that her children had been ‘kidnapped’ yet instead of fighting the situation, she went on with her own life.
Obviously, this is my perspective and I never really had a clear conversation with her about it. I knew my mom through sporadic phone calls and the occasional meetup. She would say things like, “you’ve been blackmailed your entire life”, “don’t trust your father’s family” and my favorite, “your father isn’t really your father.”
What does a young person do with this information coupled with the fact that my mom’s closest friends and family had labeled her as bipolar and schizophrenic? At that age, I was impressionable and naive. I didn’t know much about mental illness as it was still so taboo. Now, I feel more confident in recognizing mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a professional, but I see things very differently now versus what I saw 25 years ago. My perspective and acceptance regarding mental illness has shifted greatly.
The years went by and the bulk of communication with my mom were conducted via email. Email felt safe and easy. There wasn’t emotion in email and that was my preference. I didn’t want conflict. I didn’t want to feel weird or sad.
As things evolved and life shifted, I became a mom myself. I gave birth to my first son in 2003 and his brother joined in 2005. This was life changing as you could imagine. I was a mom. I was in charge of raising and loving little humans that I created.
I started to question to many things that my parents had done but I also saw them differently. I saw them as people — not just as the messy parents that I had known. People who make mistakes. People who likely tried their best with what they had. I forgave the imperfections and understood more.
As a mom, I do things very differently than my parents did. I try to be more present. I love hard. I might try to control a bit too much because of my somewhat inconsistent childhood but I am here, putting in the work every.single.day. I’m mindful of self-care and try to be the best version of myself for my family.
Over the years, my mom has bounced around quite a bit. She was a caregiver for a few people and she ended up in Portland, Oregon about 13 years ago. The details are fuzzy and like I said, the communication was a bit inconsistent. Apparently, she was homeless for a short while, then she lived in transitional housing before she ended up in an apartment for several years.
She came to see us almost 3 years ago. My brother came into town with his family — his pregnant wife and two small boys, my youngest sister was also there with her husband and newborn baby girls. All of her travel plans were made, and she stayed in a hotel.
She was fairly quiet, and things felt awkward and a bit forced but in the whole time we visited, I knew it wasn’t about me. It was about us giving her the gift of seeing her children and meeting her grandchildren. None of us had ever really forged a relationship with her.
When she left that day, I fell apart. I felt sad for her. Sad that she didn’t have what I have as a mom. Sad for me that I didn’t have a mom like so many of my friends have. It was an emotional dump too say the least. It was a lot.
Writing is my thing so keeping up via email comes pretty easily to me. I don’t like to see emails pile up, so I do my best to purge daily and with that, I reply almost as soon as a new email hits my inbox. I fill up the emails to my mom with details about everyday life and I add some ‘fluff’. I keep the really personal things out of my emails as that opens up questions and things start to feel too personal.
This past December, I felt this huge pull to see my mom. I don’t know exactly where it came from, but it felt like something I had to do. I sat with it for a bit, but the same voice kept creeping in, “go see your mom.” So, I discussed it with my husband who was fully supportive and then I reached out to my sister who is four years younger than me. I had a feeling that she would join me on this journey. She said yes.
Somewhere between the calling to go and buying my tickets, I was watching an episode of This is Us and the Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now, came on. It was like an ear worm. I couldn’t shake it. Joni Mitchell was my mom’s era of music and this song — it just did something to my heart. It brought a flood of emotions. It was reminding me that this trip was important.
When my sister and I scheduled our trip, it coincided with my mom’s recent move. We thought, “Oh perfect, we can help her unpack and get settled.” It turned in to so much more. I had so many feelings and emotions, I felt quiet and humbled.
While I don’t know is exactly is happening with my mom. I know she has had some health issues which limit her physical abilities. I also know that there is something more, but I can’t put my finger on it, nor do I feel like it’s really my business. I have lived most of life without a ‘mom’ and I don’t need to be invasive of her mental health as I know this is a very sensitive area for her.
What I do know is that she has a lot of help from the state. I know that she was moved from one complex to another because of her building needing to be retrofitted. I know that movers came in and packed her stuff and moved it. I know that when we walked in, she was nearly in tears as she was so embarrassed and overwhelmed. I know this hurt my heart.
My sister and I — her being a schoolteacher with an awesome assertiveness about her — started the ‘job’ that we weren’t expecting. Within every box was a bit of chaos. Packers had literally wrapped up hangers, individual hangers. They threw her dog’s used pee pads in a box with her shower curtain, there were empty water bottles. It was the most confusing and saddest thing I’d seen in quite some time.
We divided and conquered. I took on the kitchen and bathroom and my sister helped my mom with the random boxes as well as her bedroom. When we wrapped up three days later, we had gone through every box aside from several boxes of paperwork that my mom insisted on going through.
We got rid of expired food, empty containers, clothes, excessive and unused cleaning supplies and so much more. We likely filled an entire dumpster with ‘stuff’. We organized cabinets; we bought a few new accessories. We also ordered her a new couch and a laptop to help her feel a bit more settled at home.
All of this ‘stuff’ had her feeling like she was suffocating. She didn’t know where to begin and that in itself is so overwhelming. She sent me an email afterwards telling me how grateful she was. She said she kept opening her cabinets because she was so happy with how organized they were. This made my heart burst. We helped her. We truly helped her in a way we hadn’t quite expected.
Helping someone clear their physical clutter can do wonders for their emotional health. No one wants to feel like they are living in unorganized chaos. No one wants to feel like their personal belongings are making them feel sad and overwhelmed. As someone who purges and organizes constantly, I can’t relate to this feeling but I saw it in my mom and I knew we could help.
What I do know is this, kindness is universal. What I have with my mom is unique and a lot of the relationship is more about her than it is about me. I feel like it fills her emotional cup to stay connected and that means a lot to my heart. We should all feel loved. We should all feel valid and worthy.
Both sides now — I am a mom. I am a daughter. The first is a constant for me and for my kids. Being a daughter to my mom feels complicated. My relationship with my mom is different. It’s not remotely like what I have with my own children. When I am with my mom, I feel quiet and unsettled. When I am with my own children, I feel whole.