Opinion | Learning the Lessons of My Mother’s Unlived Life

I learned I wasn’t wanted during a party game. One Christmas, home from college, I went to a holiday gathering of families with my parents. After dinner we played a game where husbands answered frank questions on behalf of their wives. When my parents’ turn came, the host asked my father, “How many children did you want when you got married?” My dad, ventriloquizing my mother, snapped, “Zero. Definitely zero.” She nodded along, unfazed, as everyone in the room laughed uneasily.

Her blunt response rattled me, though it didn’t surprise me, or anyone else in the room. Low-grade frustration and resentment, paired with unwavering, tight-lipped competence: She would mother us by accomplishing the checklist mandated by the job, which involved subjugating what she wanted to our needs. But this didn’t mean she would love it.

Before you think my mother must be a monster, she’s not — besides being shockingly honest, she’s curious, brilliant, with a laugh that’s loud, melodic, and inspires others to laughter. And she loved my older brother and me, even as she refused to take a knee at the altar of motherhood.

Perhaps her parenting style would have been different if she had been mothered herself, but she felt the sharpness and pain of not being wanted by her own mom, in fact actively disliked. As the oldest of seven in a poor household in Iowa, my mom looked after her siblings, a parentified child who lived with a scarcity of both food and opportunity. My grandmother was largely uninterested in her kids, and often cruel to the girls specifically. My mother went to a now-defunct nursing school, met my doctor dad at the Mayo Clinic and signed up for his dream — an upper-middle-class life out west with horses and kids. Sure, she didn’t want children or large animals, but it was a safe choice, one she could manage.

Unlike her mother, my mom didn’t shirk the practicalities of the job. She read all the parenting theories, pursued all the extracurriculars for both of us and picked the right schools for us to attend. She ran our existence like air traffic control, and she made all that labor invisible. She was good at it, but it’s just not who she wanted to be. As an adult, I understand and respect this; but as a child, I wanted the mommy-and-me outfits, stuffed-animal tea parties and mani-pedi dates as a manifestation of her bliss in the role. I wanted her to be like other moms, who at least had the good sense to perform their devotion to their children, ritually and publicly.

My brother and I attended boarding school for high school, an unexpected turn for two kids from Montana. My brother was desperate to go, and so I followed. Homesick, I remember asking my mom to send a care package.

“What’s in a care package?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, you could send me brownies?”

“You want me to bake brownies and mail them across the country? Why don’t I send you some money and you can go to the grocery store and buy some brownie mix?”

My mom mothered so as to keep up her side of the bargain, an agreement she made with my dad but never with me. Instead of giving me her delight in my presence, delight she couldn’t fake, she would give me what she wanted for herself: opportunity. Untethered and unbridled opportunity.

I used to watch as she read Ms. magazine, sitting upright, at the dining room table. She came of age during Second Wave feminism, when women kind of had a choice, and kind of didn’t. This made my mom’s ambivalence about motherhood starker and more insistent: It’s within the realm of possibility that my mom’s life could have gone a different, more ambitious way.

As a child, I sensed her envy and her longing as she surveyed women who were “doing something” with their lives. She saw herself in these important women’s faces. She rated her talent and intelligence as equivalent to theirs, if not higher, even as she was sidelined as support staff for the next generation. It is tough to be your mother’s jailer. My mom gave me everything, and for this, received nothing that she wanted in return. This is a heavy inheritance.

I tried to pay my mother for her sacrifice with good behavior, to make the destruction of her own unrealized ambition worthwhile: I was a high-achieving child, winning awards, earning accolades, holding my own at adult dinner parties. I wanted to reflect my glory back on her, to make the oblation of her talent worth it. I wanted to earn for her the title of “good mother” through what I accomplished, even as she insisted, with unvarnished honesty, that my achievements were my own and that it’s not a title for which she much cared.

But I care. As Carl Jung famously said, nothing is more influential in a child’s life than the unlived life of the parent. My mother’s unlived life ricochets inside my life. My mom is an ardent reader — it’s probably no coincidence that my brother is a book editor and I make my living with words. And like her, I have children — but I wanted mine.

In this anxious inheritance from my mother and my grandmother, I’ve both under- and overcorrected. Most of what I provide to my kids is nurturance, care and a soft lap before bed. I have excellent paid help to address many of their practical needs. I indulge them a lot. They participate in zero extracurriculars and do not have great table manners. I have no clue whether they’ll go to college, much less a good one. I devalued what my mother gave me — structure, scaffolding — to give my children what I didn’t receive: the unrelenting insistence that they are wanted.

I once thought my desperation to prove and claim being a “good mother” was a hangover from a performative childhood. But as I’ve grown further into motherhood, weighing my own identity against my mom’s, I recognize that her ambivalence is not only a familial trait but also a cultural one: I carry it, too. You can love your kids deeply and hate being a mom. You can hold your children to the bone and still proclaim how sucky it is to be a female parent, in America at least, with our lack of paid family leave or high-quality day care, and the cultural insistence that “good women” should stake their entire lives on the opportunity.

While my mother largely swallowed her resentment and observed the niceties, I am done being good. I am not only done but also furious that I feel so cleaved in two. This anger is a flame sparked by my grandmother, and probably by her mother, too. My mother turned her anger into a steady kitchen fire but in me, it roars.

I’ve built my own emotional freedom on the pyre of my mom’s honesty, on her willingness to give voice to resentment when so many women felt compelled to lie. Even though it was painful at times when I was a child, particularly because she was different from other moms (though I insist, not that unusual), she did create a coherent narrative for me. This narrative has proved to be less emotionally confusing than for some of my friends, who can sense and yet not name their own mothers’ frustration and rage. They seek to resolve this angst through their own good behavior, not recognizing that they are the collateral damage of their mothers’ anger but not its source.

It’s not actually about them. The ambivalence comes from a societal expectation that you should love the identity of mother and love your kids. There are some women for whom these are easily conflated and conjoined, but for many, they are not.

Elise Loehnen is the author of the forthcoming book “On Our Best Behavior” and the host of the podcast “Pulling the Thread.”

Source images by George Marks and Jiojio/Getty Images

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