***On May 4th, I was honored to speak with twelve other women at this event. This is not my account of the event, just my script. Look for my thoughts, feelings, experiences next week. Peace.***
Do As I Say, Not As I Do by Emily Heinis
When I had my first baby, each guest at my baby shower wrote a piece of advice on a notecard. They weren’t read aloud, but collected anonymously for me to bring home and read later. I could tell most of them from the handwriting.
From my sister: When they are bad, send them to my house
From my best friend WITH kids: Don’t panic when they start eating their boogers-immune system boost!
From my best friend with NO kids: Your baby is so lucky to have you as a mother.
And then, in my mother’s unmistakable handwriting: Do as I say, not as I do.
I sat pregnant and agape on the nursery floor. And I cried. Because this was the first time that my mom had admitted, and in writing even!, that perhaps she hadn’t been the worlds’ best mother.
I don’t have enough time to give you a detailed account of my “difficult childhood.” Stuff happened. Times were tough. Some of that stuff and those times were my mother’s fault. But her notecard was so important because I never knew if she felt it. Remorse, accountability, anything. Because we never talked about the stuff and the times or the feelings that came with them.
I had my baby. And another one two years later. With motherhood came more feelings. The intense, visceral, ridiculous loving bond I feel with my children? I never felt that from my mom. Does SHE love ME this much? Did SHE worry about ME like this? I dreamed of sitting down with her over a glass of wine and a game of Scrabble and mustering the courage to talk about the stuff and the times, instead of our normal chatter. But I just couldn’t.
Then, last summer, my mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and given mere months to live. My courage to bring up the stuff and the times and the feelings suddenly had a deadline. I wanted an explanation or an apology or SOMETHING. I had thought I would have years for these conversations to come up naturally. I thought she’d live with us when she retired. We were going to be the next Dorothy and Sophia! I’d thought for a long time we’d even write a book together. It would of course by made into a movie, starring Meryl Streep as Mom and Jennifer Lawrence as me. But now, we were running out of time.
At my therapist’s suggestion, we looked through old photo albums together. That worked for some good stories I had never heard, but it didn’t lead to any feelings talks. Real talks. And she was in so much pain, I couldn’t bear to cause her more.
Then one day as I was leaving, I told her I hoped she didn’t think I was an insensitive bitch for not being an emotional wreck over her illness. I told her I was keeping it together around her, to help her remain strong, too. She said she knew and thanked me. I said, “Well, I learned it from you.” And she replied, “At least I did something right.”
There it was: she had opened the door. She was acknowledging again that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But hearing her say it. With the feelings. Suddenly and completely, MY feelings changed. I was defensive. “Mom,” I said, “Don’t say that. Look at me. I’m awesome.” “Of course you are,” she replied, and we both laughed. Because neither of us had the courage to say more.
A few weeks later, she took a turn for the worse and rather than needing an explanation or an apology from her, I suddenly needed her to know how much I loved and appreciated her. I didn’t want her to die thinking she was a bad mom. Because really, she wasn’t.
I was able to list tons of things she did for us and instilled in us and provided for us. Things like work ethic and forgiveness and humor and the importance of family. And I DID list them. I knew she would shut me down in person, so I wrote her a letter. I left it with her to read on Sunday afternoon. On Tuesday, she called us to her. On Thursday morning, she died, just three months after her diagnosis. We never talked about my letter.
Since her death, I have found tons of evidence that she loved me as much as I love my kids, that she worried about me and protected me. She simply didn’t express her love for me in the ways I expected or wanted. I will NEVER know why she made some of the choices she did. But with tragedy often comes clarity, and I learned this: focusing on the negative for so many years made me an ungrateful daughter. My mom chose never to talk about the negative. She wasn’t sunny and optimistic, she just chose not to dwell on the past.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” wasn’t the most helpful advice she could’ve given me on caring for my newborn, but her words will live with me forever.
(Ann Marie Photography, official photographer and sponsor of LTYM Twin Cities)