My daddy died when I was 6. He was a farmer and was also working part-time at a cattle auction barn in the next city over when he dropped with chest pain. It had been troubling him for about six months and he was just starting to talk to his doctor about it. That afternoon, he died at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse. It was 1967.
Many years later, my mother mentioned an incident shortly after his death that I only vaguely remember.
We lived out in the country, and there was a big fork in the road with our route home on the left and the cemetery where he was buried on the right. There was a long-closed little country store in the middle. I often looked over at the cemetery as we drove by each day on the way home. About three months after he was buried, I started crying at that place in the road, and my mother pulled into the small parking lot of the store.
She asked what was wrong. I don’t recall what I said — probably something about missing daddy. But years later, she described what that encounter was like for her. She said it was the first time she looked at me and really realized that, hey, her daughter is a separate person.
I was 6.
I knew my daughters were distinct individuals and not an extension of myself from the moment of their birth. And anytime I held on too tightly or tried to impose my views on theirs, they reminded me — gently or angrily — and I’ve tried to respect that and let go in an age-appropriate way. My whole purpose in life as a mother is to love them, teach them, send them out into the world and be here as a safe person for them when they need me.
I know my mother loved me. But she never understood there was any boundary line between her and me.
I wish so much that my mother had understood healthy boundaries back then. All I remember of that brief conversation is that I felt like my mother really SAW me. Me as an individual, with my own feelings, thoughts and experiences of the world, separate and distinct from her. Maybe seeing me that way for the first time.
This story has always felt profound to me, like it was a big clue to the dynamics of my relationship with my mother: Me as an extension of her. It was hard for her to see me any other way. Hard for me too, to feel like I couldn’t breathe and wanting to reach escape velocity while also loving and feeling RESPONSIBLE for my mother.
For many years, from age 6 to about 16-18 or so, she called me her little “sounding board” because I listened to her when she needed it. I listened to her so much that it felt like there was only her and no “me.” I made good grades, was an angry and lonely kid, but otherwise I didn’t really exist except as her daughter. Not as Effie.
I think I instinctively tried to distance myself as an adolescent, and she saw that as not loving her. The family did too. They all grew to think of me — and respond to me — as someone who is unlovable, ungrateful, just forgettable or contemptible.
I loved my mother, deeply. Hated her in some ways because she and I were dysfunctional as hell, but she was always, always, always my mother.
I’m still thinking about this a lot, because my therapist has worked with me for several years and has told me many times about my marriage, “You married your mother.”
So … does that mean I love him but also am incredibly irritated by him and want to pull close AND to pull away?
This growing-up shit is hard, folks. Even in my 50s.