A love letter to children who had to cut ties with their mothers
This essay discusses child abuse and suicidal behavior. Please read with caution if these subjects trigger you.
You are among friends here. I will never ask you why you did it. I won’t strain to keep my face from contorting as I blurt out, “But she’s your MOM.” I know what it takes for a child to break up with their mother. I know how many years you’ve spent trying to alter your own needs and hopes just so you can fit within the inadequate container she provided. I understand the depths of fatigue you must reach before finally cutting that most sanctified of cords.
I know why you had to make that choice. We cut off contact with our mothers for the same reason we cut off contact with anyone else: The relationship prevents us from moving forward with our lives in a healthy way. While our individual circumstances are unique, the root of our motivation is as universal as the confusion we face once we’ve taken back control of our lives.
Ending relationships with mothers seems uniquely difficult for people to understand. Fathers are commonly absent in stories throughout popular culture, but mothers are glorified. So, in real life, when a mother does not behave in a loving, motherly fashion, it rattles the foundation of our society’s idealized family structure. Instead of believing the child’s pain, too often we interrogate the child for their decision to cut ties. Was it really that bad? I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that. Were you maybe being too sensitive? I just can’t believe a mother would say or do that to her child. She did her best! I’ve heard it all; you’ve heard it all—usually in social situations where you’re backed into an awkward corner of either detailing toxic memories that you don’t care to disclose or once again taking the blame for your own abuse. It sucks.
I am one of three people in my family to break up with their mother—the other two are my mom and dad.
When I say “mom,” I am referring to my step-mom—the woman who helped raise me and with whom I have a beautiful, complex relationship consisting of all the ups and downs of any mother-daughter story. I call my biological mother, who I no longer speak to, my mother. This creates a lot of confusion, but standard designations to differentiate my biological mother from my mom don’t sit right with me. Yes, my mom is technically my step-mom, but “step-mom” feels too distancing for the woman who is the feminine head of my family, who supports me emotionally. And biological mother sounds like someone I had little to no contact with growing up, as if she was too far away to cause the damage (or bestow the few gifts) that she certainly did.
So my mom is the second matriarch to come into my life after marrying my dad when I was very young, giving me three brothers. I primarily lived with my mother, and spent weekends with my dad, mom, and brothers. It was hard for everyone, but I didn’t know the extent of my own parents’ tension with their own mothers for many years. I was so distracted by my own trauma.
Once I got older and we could compare notes, my parents and I mapped out a familiar pattern of gaslighting, manipulation, and cruelty in our childhoods. Eventually, with their support and the guidance of an excellent therapist, I was able to cut off all contact with my mother in a way that was healthy for me. Having unpacked my own maternal trauma, I became closer with my parents. I was able to understand them and love them more fully than ever before. I also finally understood how my dad could have gotten involved with someone like my mother—he had been primed to accept her behavior as normal.
My mom, dad, and I all sought out romantic relationships that followed the patterns we’d learned from our mothers early in our lives. It’s common—we were naturally drawn to erratic behavior and intense adoration, followed by intense hatred or punishment, control and emotional manipulation, and the intoxicating promise that if we just perform exactly right, then we can keep the explosions at bay.
Abuse takes many forms. We name our abuse to make sense of the chaos—physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, psychological—but it’s all abuse. Abusers seek to control their victims by taking away their agency, stripping away basic human dignity and autonomy. I remember standing in the kitchen as a young teen, sobbing while my mother screamed at me and called me names that I’ve never been called again in my adult life. When the stress of that moment caused me to finally lose control of my body and collapse to the floor, she shifted gears. She said that I was crying for show, that I was trying to make her kill herself and that she was going to do it.
In my 20s, I would play a similar role in a scene with a boyfriend. I’d sob on the floor while he threatened to hurt himself with a knife. I think when we have primary relationships that are deeply confusing and dissatisfying, we attempt to correct the cosmic record by seeking out some kind of do-over—all in the hopes that maybe this time we’ll finally say the right words or behave the right way, and be considered a Good Person by the authority figure who has let us down. But we are never successful, and the pattern must be broken. The old ways must shrivel and die completely before we can fully form healthy attachments, starting with ourselves. We must repair and rise above the damage done to us. There is a fundamental, foundational crack in self-image that occurs when your mother does not meet your basic needs. Yet, within that crack, there is an opportunity to see a glorious, divine truth:
No one, not even the person who grew you inside their own body, has the power to tell you who you are or what you can become.
Read that again. We are free.
At an early age, we were forced to find our own mirrors of self-worth because we didn’t see that reflected from our mothers. Now, we have a special sight—one that can only be earned by navigating darkness. I didn’t understand this fact for many years—I only felt sad and angry that something had been taken from me, that I had been denied a relationship that everyone around me seemed to take for granted. And I had! We all had. But we’d also been given the radical power to validate ourselves. While it may take us years of work to gain access to this self-respect, we know deep down that we cannot rely on others to tell us who we are—not even those who are meant to love us the most. We must do it on our own, and stop looking for love from manipulative people who warp our self-image. We become our own mirror.
So, my fellow children who dared to walk away, I wish you a happy Mother’s Day. If I could, I’d send each and every one of you a bouquet of roses and take you out to a nice brunch.
You stepped up to mother yourself when the original holder of that title failed to show up for you. You stepped in and protected yourself when you needed protecting.
You found a way to break through the burden of societal expectations and walk into the great wide expanse of a life free from abuse. You are seen, you are believed, you are heard, you are admired, and you are loved. And if you forget, I’ll hold up your mirror if you’ll hold mine.