CW: Sexual assault, maternal abandonment
So as it turns out, I’ve had an awful lot going on and haven’t updated in the last two months. My apologies. I’ll likely write a catch-up piece when I have the spoons and the time, but for now, on the eve of Mother’s Day, I wish to share a story with all of those out there who, like me, have a strained or completely absent relationship with their mom. Take care of yourself while you read this, and know that if your heart is feeling empty, mine is there with yours. ❤
Several years ago, I was in a very confusing relationship. Hell, it was a confusing time in my life, and the relationship was a major, but not singular feature contributing to the overall miasma. I met someone I fell for almost immediately. I met this person (name and pronouns are unknown at this time) online, and after a few dates, things picked up pretty quickly. We spent a lot of our time together, then almost every day. We started spending the night with each other more and more. After a few months, we decided to move in together.
At first, I was over the moon. This person was male assigned at birth, very sweet, very much in touch with their femininity, and in every conceivable way subverted stereotypes of toxic masculinity as I knew them. They had long, silky hair and had a penchant for floral prints and prairie dresses. They were soft spoken and gentle. I thought this was the kind of person I’d been looking for my entire life, whose qualities I’d always wanted but had never been able to fully articulate. The sex was amazing. We had so much in common. Their family was great. It all seemed like such a good decision.
The night before we were supposed to move in together, I caught them in a pretty big lie. A close friend of theirs told me she and my partner used to have a sexual relationship. This wouldn’t normally have bothered me, except that I had asked them about it before and they flat out lied to me. When they came to my apartment that evening, we argued and I asked what else they had lied to me about.
This is the part where everything I thought I knew about this person completely came unraveled.
They told me that in their not-so-distant past, they had raped not one, but two of their female friends. My ears were ringing as if a bomb had gone off in my living room. Given what I had known about this person before, if they had told me they liked to put puppies in a blender for fun, I could not have been more shocked and sickened. Writing this now, it’s hard to put into words how horrified and perplexed this news made me at the time. I still haven’t fully made sense of it. We talked about it for hours. I sobbed and yelled. They told me the particulars of what happened, which, for the anonymity of their victims, I won’t repeat, though I still remember it word for word. It still haunts me as much now as it did then.
They told me that in the years since, they had gone through extensive therapy. One of their victims had forgiven them and they’d made amends. One said she never would, and they accepted this reality as part of her healing and their reformation.
Now, dear readers… I can tell you this is one of those things for which there is no “right” way to react. The guide book of life has a blank chapter where this situation ought to be. I sent them out of my apartment that night. I needed time to think. Mind you, we were supposed to move in together the very next day. Our boxes were packed, our lease was signed, our truck rented. I had to make a snap decision about whether to dump this person, or forgive them; whether to invest in this relationship or reject this person I had grown to love. It put everything I know and knew about myself to the test. What kind of feminist would I be if I were to continue loving this person who had so grievously wronged two young women? Then again, in terms of accountability, this person had made attempts to better themself and move on. Is every person who commits sexual assault disposable? At what point do you have to stop outing yourself as a sex offender?
These are questions I can’t say I could answer differently today. I don’t believe in disposability of human beings. Many women and trans people in communities of color have long-held traditions of holding their friends, family, and loved ones accountable for their actions, rather than relying on ostracism or the prison industrial complex. I want to believe in people. I want to believe in the power of transformation. No person is the sum total of their most heinous act. We can be much more than that. Even in my pain and anger, I wanted to show compassion.
I made the choice to commit to them, to remain in their life and become a part of their family. I believed them that they had made attempts to change themself, but I hated that they had lied to me. I told them I wanted them to enter into therapy with me. We saw a couple’s counselor for many months. We made plans to move to the west coast together, and were even handfasted, with the understanding that if we were to marry someday, it would be well after we had worked through some of the shared trauma of both of our histories. Being a survivor of sexual assault, this news about this human being I thought I knew so well was not exactly something I took in stride.
During this time, I felt very alone. I have never known someone for whom this has happened, before or since. I sought counsel in the one person I believed I could trust, who would really “show up” for me — my mother. I told her what my partner had told me, that they had raped two women, and that I wasn’t sure what I should do. My mother is also a survivor and a feminist (although we subscribe to vastly different philosophies). I had shared with her so much about myself over the years. She was the first person I came out to as a teenager. We told each other everything. We had experienced so much collective trauma that I believed she would be the only person who could possibly understand. I don’t remember much of our conversation; only that we drove around at night, and I was drenched in tears the entire time.
Despite the fact that my mother had been abusive to me my entire life, made me frightened and made me feel small, she was also frequently my only confidant. I knew she would be there for me in a crisis, even though it became increasingly difficult to rely on her as an adult. I likewise became increasingly aware of her shortcomings and the undiagnosed and unacknowledged mental illness that caused her to lash out violently, angrily demean complete strangers in public, and disown almost every person in her life who failed to meet her standards. After recovering from decades of alcoholism, the other diseases that had been muted by liquor came to a head, and she was left with little to no coping skills to deal with them. I always felt that I was exempt from being cut off as she had done with other family members and friends, having come from her own body, being half of her just as I am half my father’s child. I felt that sharing with her this immense burden would be safe, and that I would be supported.
A year or so went by. My couple’s therapy sessions with my partner were going nowhere. Our relationship was poly and I had been dating people who were a much better fit, and I felt that it was finally time for me to move on. I could never fully accept or process what they had done, and other red flags were present that I couldn’t ignore. It was a lot messier and more complicated than all this, as it so often is. A few months after ending things with my partner, I met someone new. I met someone I would go on to be with for years, someone who was very important to me.
My mother, however, was far from supportive. You see, it was also around this time that I began coming to terms with my gender dysphoria and my desire to transition. I didn’t have the language for it, but I began telling friends and lovers that I didn’t identify fully as female. I started crossdressing and using masculine names, searching for a better fit. I visited trans support groups to gain insight into my identity. I met and dated others from these support groups, and the person I wound up with after my painful breakup was someone AMAB and identifying as genderqueer/NB. (Name and pronouns here again withheld for reasons.) I knew my mother as a TERF before the term was coined. She always expressed her disdain for trans women and crossdressing men, and I wasn’t sure how she would take my transition. Still, I refused to keep myself or my relationships a secret.
It was important for the people in my life to get to know this new person, and I wanted my mother to get to know them. I warned my partner, and they agreed to meet her. Around this time, however, my mother’s symptoms were getting worse. She became steadily angrier. She sometimes had good days and sometimes had bad days, and it was hard to tell what mood she would be in at any given time. She often dredged up and blamed me for things I had apologized for years earlier. She remembered an email exchange we had some years before that had ended in my telling her off; she remembered a time when I didn’t hug her the right way; she kept score for every Christmas and birthday where I didn’t give her the right kind of present and made me bitterly aware of how much it hurt her. She had a way of making me feel inadequate and inconsiderate in my every breath and fiber of my being. To this day I struggle with gift giving and the general feeling that I am somehow a disappointment. Even after I apologized repeatedly for all of these things, she never forgave me and would find new times to bring them up. Whenever we fought, it was always my job to take the blame and to be the one to apologize, no matter who had done what to whom.
She had started dropping subtle hints that she didn’t approve of my past relationship. I’d imagine any mother would have their concerns about their child dating a known and admitted rapist. I’m sure I’d be afraid for my child’s safety and would express my qualms as well. My mother, however, blamed me for staying in the relationship, as if by participating in the relationship, I condoned their past actions — as if I was colluding with a rapist, as if I were to blame for something they did before I knew them. She seemed to take it as a personal offense. I was already out of that relationship and had started a new one, but my mother wouldn’t let it go.
I made plans to move out of my hometown with my new partner, back to their home state. On my partner’s birthday, I asked my mother if she would give us a ride to my employer to pick up my final check. I had sold my car in preparation for the move and didn’t have a way to get there. During the ride, the tension in the car was palpable. I hated to ask her for a favor because she always found a way to make me feel like shit for asking. She would remind me of a time when I couldn’t do a favor for her, or if I had done something for her, I hadn’t done it the right way. This isn’t the stuff of cutesy sitcoms of a nagging mother, but feeling like being trapped in a car with a live snake. I hoped having my partner in the car would help act as a buffer. I was wrong.
My mom was texting at a red light, and it turned green. We sat there for a few seconds when my partner mentioned the light had turned green. My mother snapped at my partner for this, what she saw as an unjustified correction to her behavior. Even though I always found it hard to stand up for myself, I wasn’t going to let her extend her abuse of me to my partner. We began to argue. It lasted until we were out on the highway. Finally, she dropped the bomb she’d been saving for just such an occasion — the words no amount of time will ever help me forget: “You’ve been dead to me since you married that rapist.”
I don’t know how many of you are still reading this admittedly quite lengthy story. But if you’ve ever been told by your mother that you are dead to her, you know it is something you can never forget. I still hate her for saying it. I hate her because after she said it, she dropped me and my partner off at the next exit, without money or a way home. I hate her because it was my partner’s birthday and we had to walk to the nearest bar, call a friend for a ride, and in my embarrassment and grief, accept a ride home from her husband, whom I didn’t know terribly well.
I hate her most of all because after she said it, after she pulled over to the side of the road to drop us off, I leaned into the car. I looked into her eyes, totally dry to my tear stained and pleading, and said, “Your mother died when you were young and you haven’t had her around because of it. You’re opting out of my life now.” She nodded with a “fuck you” look on her face and drove away. The last time I heard from her, she emailed me to ask if I wanted my baby pictures back or if she should destroy them. In her email, she told me how much she missed me and how hurt she was by what had happened, and wondered how I could be so cruel.
This time, I refused to apologize. I didn’t even respond and haven’t spoken to her since. It was over five years ago.
I’d like to say my life has been instantly better as a result of her departure from my life, but that would be untrue. The hate I feel today is something that sometimes makes me feel ashamed, and sometimes wanes to a sad, detached compassion. I wish I could purge it from my heart, but I’m not there yet. I still have strange dreams where she and I fight, or we hash it out, or we abandon each other all over again. I still miss her, or at least things about her. I miss having a mom, even if it’s not necessarily the same as missing her specifically. I miss having someone there to witness my milestones. My mom has missed my name change, my life in a new gender, my entire undergrad career and graduation, my moving out of state twice, my marriage, my divorce, my business ownership — all of it.
The last five years of my life have been an amazing time of self discovery. I’ve grown and flourished as a person. I’ve pushed myself to become the best person I can be. I’ve become a gifted public speaker and educator. I’ve shared knowledge about self, sexuality, race, gender, and a plethora of things which are of immense importance to me; many of which she is responsible for inspiring. I’ve become a more committed feminist and activist, moving from volunteering part time at Planned Parenthood, to working as a team lead on marriage equality campaigns, to traveling out of state to act as a medic at anti-KKK protests. I’ve become a stronger and braver person in so many ways. In short, she’s missed out on a lot, and I’ve missed out, too. I wish I had a mother to hug me and tell me she’s proud of me and who I’ve become. I’m very proud of myself and I wish I could tell my mom, “It’s because I had a mother like you.” In some ways, perhaps it is. I have grown up both because of and in spite of what she has taught me.
If you are without a mom this Mother’s Day, or your mom isn’t able to be the kind of mom you deserve, know that I am here with a big, wide open heart for you. Our kind of loss is seldom talked about, but know you aren’t alone. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship with a parent, sibling, or any family member, let me state this for you in a way that perhaps no one in your life has told you: You don’t owe your misery to anyone. Remember, love isn’t abuse, eternal resentment, disavowal of who you are, or constant anger. If you need to break away, and can do so, feel free to. I give you permission. It might not be easy, and it might hurt quite a lot, but your sanity is worth it. You are worth it.
For a nice exercise in surviving this upcoming holiday, check out this awesome post by Barbara Carrellas.
Take care of yourself, and do what is best for you.
Image credit: http://www.photographywest.com/