When my mom remarried, she pulled me into her closet and handed me a long flowery dress and silver flats. I was 30. I wanted to wear my navy dress and high heels.
“I have an outfit,” I told her.
“It’s my wedding,” she said. “Can’t you, for once, just do what I ask?”
For 55 years, my mom and I have been at each other — constantly poking the soft spots and picking at scabs. She judged and gave unsolicited advice. I sassed and spoke my mind, often hurting her feelings.
I wanted a mom who I could trust with my secrets instead of one who chided me when I came home drunk and then ratted me out to her manicurist. I wanted a mom who remembered my friend’s names and invited us on girls’ trips. Most of all, I wanted a mom who loved me no matter what.
Looking back, I can see I wasn’t the easiest kid to love. I was cruel. I’d like to say it was a 13-year-old thing — me trying to find my way beneath the awkwardness and self-doubt of adolescence, but my behavior was consistently horrible well beyond the teenage years.
“Once again,” my mom said, “you’ve left your dirty pot in the sink.”
I rolled my eyes and walked to my room with a full plate.
“If you keep eating macaroni and cheese, you’re going to get fat.”
“Mind your own business,” I told her.
“I’m your mother. You are my business.”
“I hate you!” I screamed and slammed my bedroom door.
She screamed back, “I hope you have a kid just like you!”
This was the way we communicated. Change the subject from food to grades to friends to attitude. Nothing I did was good enough.
At 24, my mom and dad divorced. One day, my mom invited me to lunch. She wanted to “talk.” As my mom got out of her car, she said, “Don’t you love my new shoes?”
“They look geriatric,” I responded. I didn’t care if I hurt her feelings.
At the table, she started in about my dad. When I put up my hand, she said, “Why won’t you listen to my side?”
I felt like a traitor at the mention of my dad. He was the parent I felt loved me unconditionally, like I thought a parent should. I stood up and smacked my palms down on the table. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about this.”
I stormed out of the restaurant.
After that, we didn’t speak for six months.
At 36, when I had my first baby, I asked my mom not to come. Two pregnancies later, we were in between fights, so I threw out an olive branch to her. In my hospital bed, I read the newspaper as I waited for the baby to do his thing. The doctor appeared when I was fully dilated. My mom sat between my legs. When I asked for privacy, she said, “I didn’t come all this way to miss anything.”
Sloan — the last one ― the one my mom watched emerge from my body is now 13. He rolls his eyes when I speak, lies to my face, and is mean like I was. I’m short-tempered and angry around him. I criticize his eating habits and judge his friends.
Last week, I received yet another call from two of his teachers complaining about his behavior. When I confronted him, he stormed out of the kitchen and slammed his bedroom door. Before I could shut myself up, I yelled, “I hope you have a kid just like you!”
I don’t need to wonder what I did to deserve this child — I know. He’s just like me. Call it karma or call it genetics. According to a recent psych evaluation, my kid is struggling with real challenges: ADHD and ODD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder I’d heard of, but Oppositional Defiance Disorder was new to me. According to Johns Hopkins, “Children with ODD are uncooperative, defiant, and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures.”
Before Sloan’s diagnoses, I researched wilderness programs and military schools. I wanted him out. It may sound evil for a mom to say such a thing about her child, but a child with ODD is often disruptive to the entire family. The house is tense — one sideways glance sets off a tantrum. What’s left is the ugly side, the screaming, impatient, I can’t take this anymore side.
Research also suggests that genetics account for about 50% of the development of ODD. Did I have ODD too? If so, I wonder if a diagnosis and therapy would have helped my mom and me all those years ago. Maybe we wouldn’t have fought so much. Maybe we would have understood what the other was going through. But we didn’t have those tools.
Sloan’s diagnoses dissolved some of the resentment and anger I feel toward him. But I’m bruised. Being his punching bag for 13 years has broken me. Being a punching bag for 55 years broke my mom too. Now, I see she did the best she could with the child she was given.
I feel hopeful that with a good therapist to help us, Sloan and I may learn how to communicate more effectively, and Sloan may learn the tools to navigate life without losing his patience or pissing people off.
When I read this essay to Sloan, we were both in tears.
“I’ll go to therapy with you, but can we talk about this now?” he asked.
He reminded me of all the Mother’s Days he woke up early to cut fresh flowers and make coffee, so I would feel special. “Blake and Jackson (his older siblings) don’t do that,” he pointed out.
I was seeing only the bad stuff. He was right.
“I promise to do better,” I said. “I love you like crazy.”
“Me too,” he said.
When I read the essay to my mom, she said, “I’ve always loved you, Alli. Even when you were nasty.”
What I’ve started to understand is that maybe loving your kid unconditionally doesn’t mean you take the hits and love anyway. Maybe it means you protect yourself but leave a door slightly open for your kid to walk through when you’re both ready and able.
I think my mom always had an open door for me, but I was too angry and wounded to walk through it. I knew I wasn’t the child she’d hoped for, but I wanted to be loved for who I was. I imagine she wanted the same. What I’ve learned is that I wasted valuable years. And for what? The reasons feel petty and pointless now. For 55 years, I focused on my mom’s bad side. We all have one. Parenting a child just like me has forced me to focus on his good side. It has allowed me to understand my mom — to forgive her and myself.
But time is running out. My mom has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neurological disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It mangles your body until you can’t even swallow. Three to five years is the typical survival rate. ALS is always fatal.
It’s been three years since my mom was diagnosed. She just turned 80. Before the diagnosis, my mom was mistaken for my sister. Her zip, intellect, and naturally flawless skin hid her age. The oil paintings she expertly created with her now crooked and weak fingers line the walls of her house, her clients’ houses, my brother’s, and mine.
Every time I visit, she’s less and less mobile. She cannot open a jar. She cannot pull up her exercise tights, so she wears loose pants. Her arms and legs are twigs, and she has shrunk from a solid 5-feet-4-inches to under 5 feet. She needs help walking up the stairs to her house. I know what’s coming and there is nothing I can do but sit with her, watch the cardinals take turns at the feeder, and wait for the family of deer who comes twice a day for the corn her husband spreads outside their kitchen window. I can show her she matters to me now and how much I love her.
On my most recent visit, I was complaining about Sloan, and she gave me advice like she always does. “Therapy and patience. He’ll come around,” she said. I listened knowing she just might know what she’s talking about. Maybe it made her feel good to know I am going through the same hell she went through — I don’t think so. She looked at me with compassion, not satisfaction, and I started to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “You’ll get through it.”
“I’m sorry for being such a tough kid.”
On the way out to lunch, she looked at my frilly skirt, white T-shirt, and gray cashmere sweater. Then she looked down at my white sneakers. “Would you like to borrow some shoes?”
I didn’t make a mean comment about her flats, and she didn’t insist I follow her into her closet and hold me hostage until I acquiesced.
No, this time. I laughed. “Thanks, Mom. I’m good.”
A few seconds passed as we stared at each other. There was a softness in her eyes. For the first time in my life, I want to push the pause button on my relationship with my mom. I want to slow down and enjoy her.
I smiled. She smiled. Then we turned to go.
And that was that.
Allison Langer is a Miami native, University of Miami MBA, writer, and single mom to three children, ages 12, 15 and 17. She is a private writing coach, taught memoir writing in prison and has been published in The Washington Post, Mutha Magazine, Scary Mommy, Ravishly, Modern Loss, and NextTribe. Allison’s stories and her voice can be heard on Writing Class Radio, a podcast she co-produces and co-hosts, which has been downloaded more than 750,000 times. Allison is currently working on a memoir.