A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay about my relationship with my father. It was a challenging piece to write, not only because I was attempting to condense what is perhaps the most complex relationship of my life into a thousand words, but also because it required me to revisit parts of my past that I had been all too happy to forget. Although, as I explained in the article, I had already done much of the emotional labor necessary to process and make peace with these experiences, reliving them once again through my writing was still a difficult task.
Additionally, there was also the matter of my mother. Every week, she reads whatever I have written, no matter what (Hi Mom!). No matter how awkward or personal or otherwise challenging the content is, she reads every word. Last year, when I was finishing my Ph.D., she even read my entire dissertation from start to finish, which I am pretty sure makes her the only person on the planet to have done so other than my doctoral advisor. I know, pretty sweet, right?
However, the problem with knowing that she would read this particular essay was that in it, I would also, inevitably, be writing about her. Not a ton, of course (the piece was entitled “Daddy Issues” after all), but because she was also present in that house, mentioning her was unavoidable. Although it was my father whose psychological warfare was most overtly damaging to me as a child, the truth was that I also held some resentment toward her for not doing more to protect me. Growing up, I often felt that I was left to stand up for myself against him on my own, and this perception made it hard for me to write about the experience honestly whilst knowing that she was bound to read whatever I had to say.
Thankfully, after a few long hours of wrestling with this predicament in front of a blank computer screen, I finally managed to navigate my way through it. Although it would have come as a shock to me in graduate school, where I loathed writing more than anything else, I have since come to find the process of composing these in-between essays to be extremely therapeutic. Every week, I get to sit down and sort through my shit, and often, it is only after I have finished writing an essay that I come to understand my thoughts and/or experiences surrounding a particular matter. “Daddy Issues” was certainly no exception to this rule, and so I came away from my computer that day feeling a new sense of clarity and lightness surrounding my past, present, and future relationship with my father.
At first, right after the piece was published, nothing really happened. My mother and I usually discuss my newest essay at some point during one of our many weekly phone conversations, but that week had been particularly busy for me, and so, I sort of forgot about it. Especially because I had already discussed the topic with her prior to my writing the piece, I didn’t think much of our lack of discussion after it came out. However, the following week, when we were talking on the phone as I was driving home from work, she took a deep breath and then told me in a serious voice, “you know, I read that piece you wrote about your Dad....”
At first, I thought that this was not going to be one of our better conversations. Although, as I said above, most of my childhood beef was centered on issues pertaining to my father, my mother and I have also had our fair share of tension and disagreements. Thus, especially when she followed her opening remark with a disclosure of how she felt like she wasn’t really present in the essay, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh shit, here we go.” I really didn’t want to fight with my mother about the past, which was why I had very intentionally left her out of the article I had just composed. Yet in that moment, I thought that surely, we were headed for an argument anyway.
But then, something remarkable happened. Well, three things, actually. And because of these three things, instead of having another tense and ultimately somewhat unfulfilling conversation with her, my mother and I had what turned out to be, at least in my opinion, the best conversation of our lives.
The first thing that happened was that my mother validated my childhood memories of my father. Sure, I had already gotten a bit of validation on my own and through other sources, but there is nothing quite like having the adult who witnessed it all up close and personal tell you that what you remember is correct. In fact, I know it may sound kind of crazy, but when she told me (while citing specific examples) that it was actually way worse than I remembered, I felt a huge sense of relief. Yes, it also left me with a great big pile of new emotional shit to sort through, but even this realization made me feel as though at last, I was finally getting somewhere.
The second thing that happened during this phone call was that my mother also validated my experiences of her role in my childhood. She listened to me explain how I perceived her handling of conflicts between me and my father, and she provided me with additional context and information that helped me better understand past events and her perspective. Not surprisingly, it turns out that there was a lot of stuff going on behind closed doors that I was unaware of. But that being said, she also acknowledged and accepted my childhood perceptions, and both owned her actions and apologized for how they had affected me. And particularly because it seems that, at least for now, my father and I will never be able to have this kind of conversation, receiving such validation from my mother gave me an especially important sense of closure.
The third thing that happened during our conversation was that my mother told me that she had learned how to be strong and stand up for herself from watching me stand up to my father. Listening to her admit this made me feel a bunch of complicated emotions, ranging from a sadness for her that she must have not known her own worth or how to insist on it before, to an immense pride in myself with the realization that I must have been a pretty kick-ass (and incredibly resilient) little kid. Then perhaps there was also the realization that I didn’t just go through all of that crap for nothing, but that something good, beyond my own self, ultimately came out of it. Or maybe it was just that finally I was able to hear and truly accept some praise from my mom.
Whatever the reasons, I came away from this conversation with a whole new perspective. Like I said before, I knew that the process of writing The In-between essays was incredibly important and therapeutic for me, but as a result of this experience I now have also come to realize that perhaps it is equally therapeutic for my mother to read them. Even though she and I talk on the phone all the time, these essays provide a window onto my inner workings that she would otherwise not get to see. By reading them and discussing their content with me after, she and I have both gotten to know a great deal more about each other, and my hope is that it has also provided her with a similar sense of closure and clarity that it has given me.
So, thank you Mom, for reading this essay, as well as all the other essays that have come before or will follow since. Thank you for sticking with it even when the content is difficult (sorry about the blowjobs and nipple clamps—I probably should have warned you about that one beforehand...), and thank you for not shying away from the messiness. Most of all, thank you for being there to witness me figuring myself out, and for giving me the opportunity to feel seen, heard and understood as I make sense of my life in the in-between.