This is the piece I read at the Kansas City Listen to Your Mother show in Kansas City. I’ve never published this before, and it’s one that I’ve debated about sharing. But thanks to the wonders of technology, there will be a YouTube video of me reading the piece so I’m also sharing it here.
The 180 Factor
Listen to your mother.
Truth be told, I have issues with that phrase.
Sounds simple enough, especially to my younger self. So I did just that. I listened to my mother.
I heard words like mistake, fat, plain, not fun and boring. But I didn’t just hear words,
of course; I heard the commentary that accompanied them.
“You should be glad you at least have pretty hair, so people won’t focus on your face.”
“It’s cool that I’m friends with your friends, and I bet they like me better.”
“You didn’t get asked to the dance? Huh. Why don’t you just tell me now that you’re a dyke, so I don’t hear it on the street?”.
Listen to your mother.
I was young–young in mind, young at heart, green with experience–when I listened to those words. So young that listening meant not just hearing, but believing as gospel the words that she said because of another overused command of my childhood:
Because I’m your mother, that’s why.
And mother knows best.
So listen to your mother.
It wasn’t until my oldest son, Adam, was a toddler that I understood that behind the word mother is a person. A woman. A girl, sometimes. Someone who carries beliefs and experiences that have absolutely nothing to do with her children but everything to do with the complicated person she is, just because she’s her.
It wasn’t until Nicholas joined Adam in the exclusive little club that gets to call me “Mommy” that I understood that the voice in my head–the voice of ‘mom’–didn’t have to become MY voice as a mom.
My personal reality is that the voice in my head came from a woman who used a teenage pregnancy to escape an abusive home. A woman who was raised by alcoholic parents. A woman who found lying easier than loving, unless we factor in the drugs and cheating that made love and lying one in the same in her twisted take on reality.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I understood that–biology aside–a woman can’t just BE a mom. She decides, sometimes moment by moment, which voice she’ll use as a mother. Will it be the default voice, or her own?
Because, if we’re being honest, the default voice in my head still uses words like fat, ugly and mistake to describe the woman I see in the mirror. And as much as I despise this voice in my head, I have come to appreciate it for being the beacon that guides me now that I am a mother.
I call it my 180 factor.
Thing is, my mother taught me quite a bit. I knew at a young age how to hide pills in the bottom of a twisted cigarette pack and that there are countless hiding places in the family home if you don’t want your husband to know which court papers had been served that day.
What she didn’t teach me was how to be the mother my kids deserve. Her gift to me, and the gift that I am forever thankful for, is teaching me how it feels to have a bad mother. For better or worse, the her voice is still the strongest voice in my head, but so is the knowledge that I must overcome it.
Because now people are telling my kids to listen to their mother.
My mother called me fat. Instead I choose to hear ‘love your daughter. Celebrate who she is, no matter her shape. Teach her that her body is hers and give her the means to care for it.’
My mother told me I was a mistake. I do my best to tell each of my kiddos, every single day, that God must really love me to have made me their mom.
My mother told me I wasn’t as ‘fill-in-the-blank-here’ as her. Her favorite word for this refrain was ‘thin’ but pretty and cool were close seconds. Instead I choose to celebrate whatever it is that makes each of my kids uniquely them. Math and science for Adam, art for my middle guy, cupcakes for my baby girl. I tell them that they are far too amazing to try to pretend to be just like anyone else.
It’s taken me 40-plus years, but I finally know that to truly listen to your mother, you must listen with all of who you are.
Listen with your head and know that what she’s said or done has everything to do with her issues, not with yours, and that it’s o.k. to pick and choose the words you decide to pass on to the next generation. Practice discretion.
Listen with your heart, and hear the pain of a woman who was too mired in her own muck to see how the damage trickled down to her girls. Practice compassion.
Listen with your gut. Call bullshit. Live with the wisdom that some women are, in fact, bad moms. Understand that you don’t have to be. Practice intention.
And no matter what, learn how to listen to YOUR mother.
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