How to give love as a mother when you are an unloved daughter

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
@emarianaranjo

It’s October and everything is still possible. There are 900 miles between me and my mother, between wondering whether there is hope for us and knowing there is not.

In the front seat of our rented Ford Explorer, my teenage daughter sleeps beside me, her lips slightly parted, the tinny sound of filtered music streaming through her earbuds. In the back, my ten-year-old son Gabriel delights in the vast selection of luxury seat controls. Whenever my husband dares to close his eyes, Gabriel adjusts his father’s seat warmer to the highest setting, then dissolves into laughter when Alex sighs, reaches over, and adjusts it back.

I laugh along with my son, indulgence a defining trait of my motherhood. It takes so little effort to love them. The thought renews my faith as we cross Nevada.

“You’re going to have fun at Grandma’s house,” I tell Gabriel, who’s never been there.

The trip was my brother’s idea—a year-long effort of jamming frayed thread through a needle in hopes of stitching his family back together. Later, I tell myself I won’t blame him.

At the bottom of my suitcase I’ve packed bookmarks printed with the cover of my debut novel, published several years before. She probably doesn’t even know about it, I think. I wonder how her career at the university has progressed in the last seven years, if she still tends a rose garden, watches the Yankees. I imagine our first timid conversations over coffee blossoming into forgiveness, even love.

*

Gabriel is staring at me with a stricken expression. “Why did she say that?” he asks. We’re standing in my mother’s basement where she’s dragged in bins of my childhood stuffed animals.

“Whatever you don’t take, I’m getting rid of!” She’d said it loudly and with cheer, the way she’d told me earlier, offhand over coffee, that I’d been disinherited.

“It’s okay, Gabe.” I smile reassuringly. My daughter looks away. The last few days had perhaps been hardest on her—as my mother’s chosen one, Abigail was forced to endure an endless shower of affection, praise, and gifts while watching her younger brother and her mother visibly snubbed. For Gabriel’s part, the personal rejection didn’t seem to bother him, yet on my behalf he was growing increasingly upset.

“Why is she like that?” he asks. I hesitate. There’s no denying my mother’s passive aggressive disdain towards me, and to pretend I don’t know what Gabe’s referring to would be unfair to him.

I kneel, take my son by the shoulders, and tell him the truth. “I don’t know. But I promise, it’s fine.”

“No, it’s not.” He turns away and begins pulling stuffed animals out of the bin.

“Gabriel—”

“Don’t you want your mouse?” He hands me a shabby gray doll with oversized pink ears. I’d once told him the story of this doll, how my stepdad had let a vacuum cleaner salesman talk him into buying a $1,000 Kirby because I’d wanted the mouse that came with it. I’d named the mouse Kirby and held onto him long after my stepdad, whom I adored, escaped to a saner life.

“What about him?” Gabriel lifts out a huge triceratops and wraps his arms around it. That one had been a Christmas gift from my father. As a little girl, I’d quickly learned the art of self-preservation and pretended not to love the gifts he sent me. Secretly though, the fuzzy brown dinosaur had been one of my favorites.

I hear again her sunny voice declaring in front of my children that whatever possession I leave behind will be the last time I see it, and suddenly I don’t want any of them, have no desire to bring into my own home a single reminder of my childhood.

“Gabriel, we can’t fit all of these in the car.”

“But they’re yours.” He’s agitated, insistent. His dark eyes sparkle with tears. It’s not just the dolls, of course. He is confused by her. Guilt washes over me for bringing my family here. For hoping, like a child. Instead of protecting, like a mother.

“Okay,” I say. “We’ll take them.”

*

She doesn’t answer me when I tell her goodbye. I try again, foolishly repeating myself as she stands at the kitchen window with her back to me as if I’m not there. My brother watches from the dining room table and says nothing. Later, I’ll blame him a little.

At home, I unpack my suitcase and find the stack of forgotten bookmarks at the bottom. Blushing, I set them back on my bookshelf.

At home, my children divvy up the stuffed animals and soon their beds are crowded with symbols of the past. My past. Which to them was worth saving.

I’m the lucky one, I write in my journal, thinking of the joy it is to be a mother who loves her children. I remind myself of this over and over in the months that follow, until I no longer weep privately at random moments, until the fall turns to winter and then to a new year. But before the autumn leaves have been swept away, I write down something else, committing it to memory before I can forget again: It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault.

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo is a writer in Tempe, Arizona. She is the lucky mom of two amazing children.

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