I haven’t spoken to my mother – my biological mother – in about 6 years, maybe longer. My mother’s stellar parenting resume includes things like telling me that she might as well kill herself when I wanted to start spending more time at my dad and stepmom’s house as a teenager. Being the smart-ass I was, I told her that I would gladly provide her with the suicide hotline number I had learned about at school, so she could talk to someone about it. She wrote bad checks to my school jeopardizing my ability to go on a trip with my high school choir. She said absolutely nothing as her partner verbally abused her children. She told me once that she stayed with him because she didn’t want to end up alone like her mother. I abruptly moved out of my mother’s house when I was 16 after an argument with her partner ended with him punching the ceiling fan above his head, breaking a blade. I left with whatever I could quickly throw into a bag along with the older of my two younger brothers.
A few years later, I learned that my mother had opened a credit card using my information. With the support of my dad and stepmom, I reported the incident to the police. My relationships with my siblings and her side of the family became incredibly volatile. Instead of people asking how a mother could do that to her child, people were asking me how I could turn my own mother in.
After several months of not speaking, I reluctantly agreed to speak to her and try to repair our very broken relationship, though I knew I wouldn’t be able to trust her again. For a while, things were fine – undeniably damaged, but manageable. Eventually, I found myself lending her a substantial amount of money to prevent eviction. I was 22, and in no position to lend anyone money in any quantity. She assured me she would pay me back, but when I confronted her about it, she responded with lines like, “I fed you when you were a kid. I don’t think I should have to pay you back.”
The last time I saw her was when she finally agreed to pay me back the money she owed me. She thought that I would be open to a conversation if she paid me back. I wasn’t. I had recently moved to a new apartment, and I made sure my no one who would tell her knew where my new apartment was. Soon after she paid me back, I changed my phone number. I was done, and it was final. I knew that a continued relationship with her meant a lifetime of manipulation, guilt trips, and having my financial well-being constantly in jeopardy. Not to my surprise, she has done similar and arguably worse things to my sister and brothers. They did not make the choice that I did, which is okay.
There is a brighter ending to this story. The tumultuous relationship I had with my mother shaped how I feel about what it means to be family. Family is not a right; it’s a privilege, and despite the common belief that you can’t choose your family, I believe that you can. When I was 24, I asked my stepmom to adopt me. Of course she agreed. We started the paperwork, but we never finished it because we couldn’t figure it out without legal expertise. We talked about getting help from a lawyer for a while, but we never did it. It wasn’t because either of us has changed our minds. I think that we both feel that paperwork is not necessary to know what we know about our relationship. She’s my mom as far as I’m concerned. Like any family relationship, we have had disagreements, and there are things we don’t see eye to eye on. All the normal family struggles apply, but she’s never lied or stolen from me. You don’t have to give birth to be a mom. She’s the person I celebrate on Mother’s Day.
I have a whole dysfunctional shit show of a family, and it’s lovely. I’m confident in the decisions I’ve made about who I call family. Even so, I struggle with some questions. I have friends who have lost parents, and I wonder what they think. Do they think I’m an asshole because she is, after all, my mother? And how will I feel when the inevitable day comes that she falls ill or passes away? Will I feel guilt or shame? Sometimes I look in the mirror and can’t help but see the undeniable resemblance, and I occasionally catch myself doing things that remind me of her. Although, I did not pick up the lying, stealing, and cheating tendencies. Your wallets are safe around me. I promise.
Giving birth to a child is biology; being a mom – a good mom – is a choice. I’m fortunate that someone made a choice. Happy Mother’s Day to all who make the choice.