Self-esteem is influenced by so many things. Our upbringing, culture, family situations and finances, friends and religion, all play into our feelings of self-worth. When our self-esteem is low, we have a tendency to cover it up by trying to compensate in other ways, like bragging about our accomplishments, even if it is trivial to others. My mother was an expert at hiding her low self-esteem. I did not realize her situation until it was almost too late.
Growing up in a family of all girls was not always easy or fun. Although we were all close, we bickered and fought a lot. My mom wanted us to be educated in many areas. She loved music and had a beautiful voice, so we all started piano lessons at age eight. Most of us went on to play another musical instrument in band. I learned to play the clarinet, and I sang in school choirs and plays. I also took tap lessons as a young girl. Additionally, Mom made sure we learned sewing and cooking skills. She started us in 4-H clubs that she was the leader of, and encouraged us to try out for things such as plays, drill team, sports, etc. Mom also had a love of poetry, and would try writing some of her own.
These are all good things to do and to be encouraged to do. The problem was that mom would never acknowledge us in these areas. Only in public she would twist the accomplishment to point to her. “If it wasn’t for me, my girls would never be here doing this…,” “My daughters are not talented, unless I push them to be,” or “They get it from me.” Even in her own efforts, such as her poetry, she would find anonymous poems and call them her own.
Mom was never a good disciplinarian. It was always, “wait until your dad gets home.” I remember finding her ranting or crying to dad in our utility room because one of us had refused to do as she demanded. She was quick to anger if something was not done her way, or right away. None of us looked forward to dad’s punishments, but he was more prone to talk it through, and work it out with us. Mom was, “my way… or the highway!”
As I got older, married, and started my own family, my issues with my mom remained, but I started trying to figure out why she acted the way she did. My mom was well liked by many people and I would often find myself thinking, “why?” and “What do they see in her?” or, “If they only knew what she is really like.” My mother always dressed nice. Even though she was overweight, she always made sure she looked nice. She even wore wigs at one point. She had weekly appointments at the hair dresser and loved shopping. She also prided herself in her fake nails, too.
As a mother, myself, I began to think my mom was over stepping her bounds when she would ‘correct’ my child rearing strategies, or question my methods. My sisters and I would often talk about her and her meddling at every family get together or in every phone call with each other. This went on for years.
When I moved to the same town as my parents and spent more time with my mom, my reasoning for why she was the way she was grew stronger. Within a year, my youngest sister passed away. My mom was distraught and lost. She blamed herself, she blamed my sister’s husband, she blamed others. It was a vicious cycle. I went on many car rides with her and just listened to her sorrow, grief and regrets. She even got to a point where she convinced herself to believe that she had actually written a song, and that she sold it to a local artist who recorded it, and published it on a tape. Mom even bought each of us a copy of the tape. We later found out that the song had been written by the artist and recorded two years earlier. I think the song had brought her so much comfort and the words so close to her own thoughts, that she internalized and personalized it. She was getting worse.
A few months after my sister’s death, my mom’s older sister came by to visit on holiday. I had the opportunity to talk with my aunt about my mother. I expressed my concerns and frustrations about my mom, everything I had always shared with my sisters, and even things I kept to myself came out in that conversation. My aunt sat quietly and listened, then, when I was done ‘venting,’ she shared something with me that pierced my pride in a way I will never forget. She said my mom had poor self-esteem, a very serious case of it. That it was something she had struggled with all her life, but never wanted anyone to know. I had not known this.
Everything started to make sense to me now. The things mom would say, the desire to always share what she had accomplished, or special groups she had joined. Why she was always dressing nice to feel good, her need to share her singing voice and poetry, her wanting to help us raise our children so she would feel she had raised us right, and her deep need to overcome her guilt of my sister’s death. I started to see my mom with new eyes. I could get a sense of her struggle. I began to feel sorrow for her, and I began to feel guilty for my lack of care. I started, from that time forward, with an exerted effort to see her with new eyes. It was not easy. I had been so caught up in years of thinking of my mom in an unpleasant manner. Habits are hard to break. I could not change her, or her feelings, but I could acknowledge them. I could see her as a beautiful mother who loved her children, but struggled to love herself. She needed that affirmation in word and deed.
I was scared to approach her about my guilt and desire to apologize for the years of ill feeling towards her. I was scared that she would be upset or do something crazy, so I kept them to myself. It was difficult to change when my sisters were around and the topic of ‘mom’ came up. I tried to gently steer the conversation to a different topic, but was many times unsuccessful. I suppose I was a chicken. My desire to have new eyes failed over and over again.
I struggled with these thoughts and feelings clear up until mom lay on her deathbed. My mom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 73 and in her 75th year she made a turn for the worse. Along with the dementia, she had diabetes, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s and general poor health. It reached the point where the doctors could no longer do anything for her. We placed her in a care center and waited. Dad was with her daily and I visited at least every other day.
A couple of weeks before she died, I visited my mom. Many things had been plaguing my mind about my relationship with her for nearly my entire life. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for all of those years of feeling ill towards her, and the countless bad things said about her during conversations with my sisters, my husband, my kids. I felt guilt for not approaching her since speaking with my aunt years before. Why had I waited so long? Was I so caught up in my own life that I neglected my mom’s feelings? Did I ever have the new eyes that I committed to have towards her? I felt horrible. I needed to fix it. I needed to tell her how sorry I was, and I needed to change. But, would it do any good? She was in a state of near comatose. She was not aware of her surroundings, of people, of life. Would she be able to know I was there and hear my words? Maybe she could. I did not know, but I needed to try. The pain I was feeling, knowing it might be too late, made my stomach churn.
I bent over her bed side, cradled her head in my hands, and kissed her forehead. A surge of regret, and love, flashed through my body all at once. I poured out my soul to her, and tears ran down my face and dripped onto her cheeks. She laid there, nearly lifeless, but for over 15 minutes I confessed, cried and begged. I knew I would never have the chance again, as her death was nearing any day. I needed to let my mom know how much I loved her, and how much I had needed her, and how grateful I was for all those times she had pushed me to be better. I could not imagine living another day resisting her humanity if I did not share with her in that moment. It would be too late, and I would have missed an opportunity to change in a way I desperately needed. In a way she needed me to change, even though she was not alert, and in a way my family needed me to. I had already waited too long.
It has been nearly a decade since that moment at my mother’s bedside, and it never gets easier to remember. Writing this story down has reminded me of who I want to be. Who I want to be, for the time I have left with my kids, with my grandkids, and with my husband. I do not want to be the person I was towards my mom all those years… I want to be better. Not for me, but for everyone else. My heart changed that day, and the new eyes I so longed for will stay with me forever.