The most complex relationship I’ve ever had is with my mother. Only a handful of people know that prior to finding out my mum was terminally ill I didn’t like her very much. I loved her, that was a given, but like? That was a lot more complicated.
The rift that tore us apart came when I was 14, when I found out mum had been having an affair with her best friend’s husband. The women who gave birth to me, who held my hair back when I was sick, who trudged miles through a snowstorm to get me medicine for an ear infection had just broken my heart. When I was little I idolised her. She was the cleverest person I knew, she was generous, funny and strong. On that September night my trust disappeared. I was always her ally and found the lies over her cheating harder to get over than the infidelity. My parents separated for one whole night and after a short session of marriage counselling their relationship was back on track but I couldn’t forgive her actions that easily.
Mum and I spent the three years before I left home at 17 arguing. I used my parents marital woes as an excuse to act out and started drinking, dressing provocatively, going to nightclubs and kissing guys much older than me. When mum and I fought we would both be cruel in a way that only a person who really knows you can, we’d pick on each others insecurities and use them as weapons. When I left home we didn’t talk for six months and I honestly didn’t miss her. Once I saw her in the supermarket and walked past without acknowledging her, an act I found out 10 years later hurt more than our verbal sparring ever did. When I left an abusive relationship and turned up on my parents doorstep physically and mentally broken it was mum who was reluctant to take me back. I heard my parents arguing through the thin walls and her not wanting me to stay because I was “trouble”. Years later, when my marriage broke down and I ended up staying with my parents (again) I overheard my mum tell a friend, “ I don’t know why she’s upset, they had nothing in common.”
There’s a U2 song that reminds me of us, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” and this verse punches me in the gut every time:We started to repair our relationship in my late twenties, thanks to my best friend (and now sister in law) who adored mum and couldn’t understand the years of animosity between us. I tried to explain that mum had shattered my trust, broken my dad’s heart and obliterated my belief in Happy Ever After. She told me to grow up.
I was 30 when mum got sick and I want to say the years of resentment evaporated immediately but it took time. We got drunk one night, when dad was out with friends and aired out a lot of the feelings that had tortured us both. We decided to forgive the past and treasure the little time we had left together as mother and daughter. Mum told me she was jealous that every time I had gotten myself into a bad situation, be it with a boyfriend or a job, I had always left. Mum had been married to the same man for 36 years and in the same job for 27 and had wanted to leave both many times but never felt brave enough. I learned more about mum in the last 14 months of her life than I had in the previous 30 years.
When mum died I regretted all the years I’d spent arguing with her, it was all such a waste of time and energy. She was flawed but I am far from perfect. There’s no law that says you have to like your parents but holding onto anger for a prolonged period of time is utterly pointless and emotionally draining. If you have truly toxic people in your life, by all means cut them out. But when you love people you need to make sure they know it, even if they piss you off and make your blood boil sometimes. Before it’s too late.