My mother worked in a bra factory. For much of her adult life, she was a pattern marker for Maidenform, the women’s underwear manufacturer, which was (and I believe still is) headquartered in our hometown in New Jersey. In my school years she woke long before me, had a cup of coffee, a scoop of cottage cheese and some toast, then spent a fair amount of time leaning in towards the mirror in her bedroom off the kitchen (her era’s version of “leaning in” as a woman), applying all manner of creams and makeup. Every morning she made me breakfast, and, when my school stopped its in-house cafeteria service, she packed me a lunch as well.
School lunches have changed since I was a kid. A little Googling shows that at least some children are being sent off with cheese cut into intricate animal shapes; carrot stars and cucumber hearts; neatly arranged compartments of color-coordinated snacks; little sandwiches decorated to look like pirates, owls, ladybugs. Most days I got something like a soggy tuna sandwich on Wonder wheat bread in a paper bag. Sometimes an apple. Or a Twinkie – the nutritional content and edibility varied wildly. But it mostly tasted alright, and it was always there, sitting on the kitchen counter for me.
“I sound like my mother!”
You may not have had a lunchbox as a kid; but you certainly had a mother. At least until science perfects its experiments in extra-uterine gestation, everyone comes into this world through the same basic door. Mom passes much on to us via genetics, but once through that door, we also learn and absorb a great deal from her – which we usually spend the rest of our lives sorting out. In other words: we all get a packed lunch.
I would sum up my relationship with my mother, who died two years ago, as one of traditional love and mutual disappointment. When I see how some of my friends are raising their kids, it’s hard not to notice the differences, all the things they’re doing right, the nurturing I didn’t get, the life-sized equivalents of carrot stars and cucumber hearts. And in my life I see not only what was lacking, but also the aspects of my mother that appear unbidden in my thought, my speech, my body like weird, uncontrollable holograms. I know I’m not alone. How many times have you heard someone exclaim, “I sound just like my mother!” or “I’m turning into my mother!” – and we usually laugh, but there’s a jolt of uncomfortableness to it.
You don’t have to hate your mother or have had a terrible relationship with her to observe her influence on you, and recognize that it is not always a beneficial one. In fact dealing with this issue is an important element of being a mature adult. The trap I see many people falling into is getting stuck on what they did or didn’t get. You unpack the lunch Mom gave you and discover the cheese is moldy, or the eggs are rotten. Maybe there’s nothing to drink, or no fruit or dessert. Maybe everything is edible but lacks that special touch. It’s a disappointment. Well ok, it’s important to realize that your mother did not send you out with a complete, well-balanced, artistically outstanding lunch. But it’s essential to not fixate on that. What’s essential is to get on with lunch. Whatever she transmitted to you (or not), there comes a time when you must stop blaming it on her or seeking it from her. You must address it in yourself, challenge it in yourself, give it to yourself, if you can. Trade for an apple, ask to share someone’s juice, get something from the vending machine. But if you open your lunchbox and do nothing but rant about your mother, you’ll starve. In this respect, there are a lot of hungry people walking around out there.
How do you untangle yourself from the unwanted aspects of your “inheritance” without waging war, blaming, or being bitter?
One way is to get some perspective on Mom. Whatever she is or was to you, you’re probably too close up to see her as anything but Your Mother. Step away, and other things will emerge. And I don’t mean abandon her or slam the door on her. I mean disengage. Drop your weapon, untie the ropes, and see her as a human being. Look at her as someone other than her child. She’s a person. What kind of person is she?
My mother lost two children, one of them an infant, her only son. Her father was killed when she was 6. How did she deal with it? How might the world have looked to her? I have to guess, because she rarely spoke of these things. Yet there were consequences. She hardened here, numbed there, made choices, adopted a certain tone – mostly in reaction to the pain that life brought her. How could I not inherit some of that? But I don’t have to harden or numb in the same way. I don’t have to use that tone.
I’m not talking about forgiveness, or excusing bad behavior. I’m talking about cause and effect, about learning where you come from and doing what you need in order to get a grip and move on. Instead of dwelling on what your mother “did to you,” ask yourself who she was and what you’ve taken from that – good and bad, for surely both exist. Celebrate the qualities you want, and stop perpetuating the ones that drag you down. Eat the carrot stars, toss the rotten egg. Give yourself the things you need to stand on your own two feet. Give yourself the chance to change the loops of belief that have been playing inside you since forever, those familiar tunes to which you dance.
Clues from the past
A certain scene involving my mother comes back to me often, like a recurring dream whose import I could not, until recently, construe. We were returning from the mother-daughter luncheon that was traditional at my all-girls’ high school. Someone had given us a ride from the banquet hall as far as the high school, but from there, since my mother did not drive, we had to take the bus.
It was a Sunday, and we waited quite a while on that corner in Jersey City across from St. Dominic’s Academy. My mother stood stolidly on the sidewalk as if planted there, holding her purse in front of her with both hands, gripping the handle as though she would need it later to get into Oz. I watched the traffic, admired my burgundy shoes bought especially for the occasion, and fantasized about escaping to college. What I distinctly remember is the silence between us. Why does this scene come back again and again?
She never said, and I never asked, but if I had to bet, I would bet, with startling, retroactive clairvoyance, that she was going over the luncheon in her head, comparing herself to the other mothers, painfully aware that they did not work in bra factories, that they, unlike her, had high school diplomas, had driven themselves home while we waited for the bus, her youngest daughter distant, distracted, a strange and unknowable creature of her own making, orbiting coldly like an asteroid in space.
I would bet on it, because I have had such thoughts myself. Most times, I can step outside of them and call them out for what they are, and feel a tremendous love and sorrow for my mother, who could not do the same. I know whose daughter I am. I know who packed my lunch.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. Her latest series of workshops combine conscious breathing and expressive writing to explore life’s juicy themes. Join her on May 21st for Sunday Labs: My Mother and Me.