My Mom and Me

by Martha Stark, MD / Faculty, Harvard Medical School


I present now a case vignette that I wrote in 2012 and have entitled “The Struggle to Accept and Forgive.”  It is actually a story about me and it is a story about acceptance and forgiveness.  It took me years to understand that the capacity to relent is ultimately a story about acceptance and forgiveness.


It is only somewhat with tongue in cheek that I offer the following, rather sober reflection:  It’s because of the way my mother loved me that I feel I need to work as hard as I do, but it’s because of the way my father loved me that I can.


So what follows is a story about my mom, dead now for eleven years (she would have been 104 this year).  In 2011 my dad died at 98; he died of a broken heart, from missing my mom so much.


On some level, I don’t think my mother ever really wanted to be a mother.  It took years and years for Susan (my sister), Doug (my brother), and me to put our finger on it but, ultimately, the three of us agreed that it was probably Mom’s reluctance to be a mother that made her so difficult.  It was not so much that she did bad stuff as that she didn’t do enough good stuff.


Mom had started out in a promising career.  An undergrad at UCLA, she had gone on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia and had then worked, for a number of years, with the anthropologist Margaret Mead.  But in her late 30s, after she had given birth to the three of us kids (we’re all two years apart and I’m the middle child), Mom decided by her own choice (everything was always by her own choice) to shift to a less demanding job and to work only part-time.


Mom performed her motherly duties but we sensed that there was no real pleasure for her in taking care of us.  She didn’t like cooking, she didn’t like doing the laundry, she didn’t like making the beds, she didn’t like housecleaning, she didn’t like picking us up after school.  She did these things but she didn’t like doing them.  She didn’t necessarily say that she didn’t like doing them, but we knew that she didn’t.  We did everything we could to help her out but that still left a lot for Mom to do.


Mom was especially reluctant to take care of us when we were sick, so we soon learned not to get sick.  I learned that lesson so well that I have never missed a day of work or school because of illness – except when I was seven and had chickenpox.  Susan and Doug have held themselves to that same high standard.  We did not want to burden Mom.  Or, perhaps more accurately, we did not want to run the risk of being sick and feeling the pain of having Mom be only begrudgingly available.


Meanwhile, Dad, with whom I had always had a very special connection, was gently, kindly, and lovingly present but he was not a very dynamic presence in the household.  He was either at work or, when not working, busy with his chess matches, his bridge tournaments, or his “contests.”  It was Mom who assumed most of the “childcare” responsibilities, although she was also very involved in the community, the church, the school.


Somewhat surprisingly for us kids, Mom and Dad actually had a very sweet, tender, and loving relationship.  Of course the three of us kids gave Dad (and his capacity to accommodate) the credit for that.  But Mom and Dad had a pretty wonderful 65 years together including their daily “Happy Hour” before dinner (always half a glass of wine for each and their 65 years of Scrabble for which they kept a running tally – in the earlier years Mom the high scorer, in the later years Dad the high scorer – and ultimately, by the time Mom died, a tie) and always their hour of reading to each other before bed.


But back to my story.  Meanwhile, and this was the killer, all the neighbors loved Mom, the mailman loved Mom, the cashiers at the bank loved Mom, everybody loved Mom.  Particularly annoying for me was the fact that all my friends loved Mom.  But that’s because they didn’t have her as their mom.  She was, admittedly, a wonderfully interesting woman with a broad range of experience and interests and lots of fascinating stories that she was able to recount in a very engaging and often hysterically funny manner.  And she was a good listener, remembering details about people’s lives and always interested in hearing more.  People would confide in her, and she would offer them wise counsel.  She was charming and gracious all right, but mostly to other people.  On the home front, well, not so much.  Susan, Doug, and I found her to be a difficult woman.


Fast forward many decades:  Susan, Doug, and I have all created reasonably satisfying lives for ourselves.  We all have life partners (I’ve been with my sweet Gunnar for 33 years) but, sadly and tellingly, none of us ever wanted to have children.


During my 20s and 30s I spent years and years, in first therapy and then analysis, struggling, amongst other things, to make my peace with Mom’s limitations as a mother.  But even after all my years in treatment, Mom was still an enigma to me.  Unanswered was the question:  “Does Mom know that she is more generous to the neighbors than she is to us?”  I just couldn’t figure that one out.


I worked so hard in my therapy to grieve the reality of my mother’s failures as a mother but I’m not entirely sure that, even after all those years, I ever really came to terms with the pain of my heartache about Mom and the pain of my loneliness in the face of her lack of warm-fuzzy availability.  Nor, sadly, did I ever really get to a place of wanting to open my heart to her or of enjoying my time with her.  Fortunately for me, I guess, I was also working on, and accomplishing, other things in my therapy but never did I really master the pain of the grief I felt about my mother’s reluctance to be a mom.


Again fast forward to 14 years ago and a weekend during the summer of 1998, when there was a big family reunion at Ogy, my family’s summer cottage on Lake Keuka, one of the Finger Lakes in western New York State.  Mom was 90 at the time.  Most of the extended family were staying at the cottage but Mom and Dad were staying at a small hotel close by, and Gunnar and I were staying at a bed and breakfast within minutes of the hotel.


Upon Gunnar’s encouragement, bless his soul, Saturday evening he and I made a surprise visit to Mom and Dad at their hotel.  I had already spent time at Ogy with Mom and Dad and everybody else, during the day and into the evening on Friday and during the day on Saturday.  But Gunnar wanted me to have some extra, special time with my parents.  I didn’t want that particularly, but my dear wise sweet Gunnar said he thought I should do it anyway.  So I did.  I almost always do what Gunnar says I should do.


Somewhat surprisingly, the visit, which lasted for hours, was wonderful.  The four of us settled into a cozy parlor at the hotel and ended up having an absolutely fabulous time.  We shared stories, reminisced, laughed, giggled, teased each another, talked about living, commiserated about dying; it was unusually intimate, delightfully enjoyable, and deeply healing.  Afterwards, I held Gunnar close and thanked him from the bottom of my heart for having had the wisdom to know what I needed, and, perhaps, what Mom and Dad needed as well. 


The next morning Gunnar and I got up.  Our plan had been to head back to Boston.  But Gunnar said he thought I should visit my mother again; this time it would be extra special because it would be just Mom and me (Dad was wrapping things up at Ogy).  So Gunnar dropped me off at the hotel and headed on to Ogy to join Dad and the few remaining others.


When the owner of the hotel appeared at the door and I told her that I had come back to spend some more time with Mom, this kind-hearted woman almost wept for joy and whispered excitedly, “Oh, I know your mom will be so happy that you have come back to visit her again!” as she whisked me upstairs to my mom’s room at the top of the stairs.


The Moment of Relenting

I’m not sure if it happened when I stood in the doorway to my mom’s room or if it happened over the course of the next several hours of hanging out together and relaxing into each other, but what I do know is that as a result of our time together that wonderful day, something inside of me shifted and that, after years and years of holding it against my mother that she had had so little desire to be a mother, especially during my younger, more vulnerable years, I softened inside.  I guess I finally relented.


I might never have had this opportunity but for Gunnar’s wise intervention.  It really was he who got me to the threshold of her room.  But what happened next was something that I did, perhaps something that Mom and I did together.  I stood in that doorway, looked at Mom’s frail frame in the overstuffed chair by the window, beheld her absolute amazement and delight at seeing me there, felt that something inside of me yielding, and, much to my surprise, I rushed over to Mom and enveloped her frail body in my arms.  I think we both wept as we held each other close.


Mom and I then proceeded to have one of the most precious, most intimate, most loving, most profound conversations that I have ever had with anyone.  For reasons not entirely clear to me, I think I was able, for the first time in my life, to step back from my need for her to be my mother. I had always looked at her through the eyes of a young and vulnerable child wanting a good Mommy to take care of her.  Not unreasonable, I suppose, although, with respect to Mom, it wasn’t really her thing.  As Karl Menninger once suggested, wanting the right things is reasonable but wanting the right things from the wrong people is unreasonable and a setup for heartbreak.


Relinquishing Infantile Need

But that warm, brilliantly sunny day in August of 1998, I let go of my need for my mom to be something she wasn’t, and, after five decades of relentless pursuit, began to look at her through more loving and accepting and forgiving eyes.  I had never really looked at her as the deeply wise and wondrously complex, even if damaged in certain ways, woman that she was.  I had always been filled with need and she was the object of my relentless desire.  Sadly, I had spent a lifetime wanting her to be something she wasn’t and would never be. 


Present All Along, Just Waiting to Be Found

But that amazing, transformative day in August of 1998, when I stood in the doorway of that room, looked at my beautiful and vulnerable mother, seated in her overstuffed chair by the window, the summer breeze billowing through the lace curtains, I guess I kind of fell in love with her.  To think that she had been there all along, waiting to be found and I had never guessed!  I had been so caught up in needing her to be what I needed her to be, that I had lost sight of who she really was.  A little limited to be sure, certainly with respect to enjoying the mothering part, but an amazing woman nonetheless.  And I felt so blessed to have found her.  I had been so busy wanting and needing what wasn’t that I had lost track of what was.  Thank goodness she lived as long as she did so that I could have that opportunity!


Gunnar and Dad returned.  Mom and Dad, their bags packed, were in the car, ready to leave.  We had already exchanged wonderful hugs but as Dad was about to back out of the driveway, I impulsively ran over, leaned in through the window on my mother’s side, and kissed her again, this time on the lips.  It was a very, very sweet and memorable moment.  I had finally made my peace with who my mother was – I was finally accepting her – I had finally forgiven her.  It had been years in the making, but the moment of relenting happened in a heartbeat.  And it was so easy.


Acceptance, Forgiveness, and Appreciation

For 50 years I had been searching for my mom.  But it was only once I had let go of my need for her to be a certain way that I was actually able to find her and accept her and forgive her and understand and appreciate what an amazing woman she was.  And to think that I almost missed it because I was looking for something that wasn’t.


Mom died three years later.  But she and I savored every moment of time that we had together during those last precious four years.


Mom, I am so proud of you for having been, so unapologetically, who you were.  Thank you for having had such faith in yourself, in us, in me, even during all those earlier, more difficult years. You steadfastly advised me to shoot for the moon, reminding me that if I missed, I would still land amid the stars. 


Thank you, Mom, for taking the risks that you did and for giving me the space to take my own risks and to make my own choices.  Thank you for giving me the courage to dream.  You gave me permission and encouragement to go for it, to seize the moment without fear, to make whatever mistakes I might need to make in order, ultimately, to find my truth.  Thank you, Mom.


Because Mom had such courage and such wisdom, my own journey through life has been so much richer.  Just knowing that Mom had already passed that way before me, paving the way by her courageous example, has made my own pilgrimage so much easier.


In Honor of My Mom

I am reminded of a beautiful poem by Will Allen Dromgoole called “The Bridge Builder” (Doud 1931).  It is about an old man who is nearing the end of his life’s journey and a fair-haired youth following behind him.  For the purposes of my story here, I am thinking of the old man as representing my mom and of the youth as representing me.


Interestingly, Will Allen Dromgoole was a woman with a man’s name.


An old man going a lone highway

Came, at the evening cold and gray,

To a chasm vast and deep and wide.

Through which was flowing a sullen tide

The old man crossed in the twilight dim,

The sullen stream had no fear for him;

But he turned when safe on the other side

And built a bridge to span the tide.


“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,

“You are wasting your strength with building here;

Your journey will end with the ending day,

You never again will pass this way;

You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,

Why build you this bridge at evening tide?”


The builder lifted his old gray head;

“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,

“There followeth after me today

A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been as naught to me

To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”


No Regrets

And by the time the end came and Mom looked back, I think she had few regrets.  Over the years, when I, struggling as I was with this business of getting older and trying to create something meaningful along the way, when I would ask Mom if she would ever want to do it all over again, without fail Mom would say that she was so glad to be exactly where she was in her life, that she had no regrets, that were she to be able to do it all over again, she would have lived her life in the very same way, doing the very same things she had chosen to do the first time ’round. 


But there came a time, several months before her death, when, knowing that she was nearing the end of her life’s journey, Mom told us that she was ready to die.  Though her mind was as sharp as ever, her body had become old and frail.  She told us that she wanted to die but that she was afraid. 


Finding the Strength Within to Overcome the Fear

Mom, who had never before been afraid, was now frightened.  But somehow, bless her, over the course of those several months prior to her death, she managed to overcome her fear of dying, eventually finding within herself the faith and courage to face her death bravely.  And so she ultimately welcomed death, once she had decided that the time was right to go, and she let herself die.


It has been said that “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear...” 


So in the end Mom was able to die as she had lived, with grace, dignity, and courage.  I am so proud of her.  When you’re able to do something that makes you afraid, that’s what constitutes real courage.  And Mom had that. 


For me, living has been so much less scary because of the way Mom was able to do it.  And so, too, the thought of dying is now less scary for me because here as well, Mom showed us how it can be done in a way that preserves one’s dignity. 


Saying Good-bye and Letting Go

And because Mom was able to let us know that she was going to let herself die, it gave all of us the opportunity to say good-bye to her, to thank her, and to give her permission to do what she wanted to do, which was to choose the time when she would actually die.  She and I had a beautiful last visit before her death.  Thank you, Mom, for being you and for giving me all that you did.


Oscar Wilde (1998) once said, “Children begin [life] by loving their parents; as they grow older, they judge them; and, [when they become older still], sometimes they forgive them.”


Yes, it took me years to understand that the capacity to relent is really a story about acceptance and forgiveness.