Happy Undermothered Day: When a Mother’s Day Cost Me a Mother | Addie Tsai
My love and I discuss the essay I plan to write as he prepares to leave to wait in line to buy an exclusive vinyl released for Record Store Day. This essay, about my decision to refuse to publicly tell my (white) mother Happy Mother’s Day on Facebook. I remember that my brother recently sent me a Facebook message of screenshots of some old poems I wrote for my mother years ago when I was naïve and young and desperate for her love, desperate for her to be okay. One of them is a Happy Mother’s Day poem. I reread them to my love across the granite marble breakfast bar in our kitchen. We both laugh until tears stream down both our faces at the childish rhymes I wrote—she was admired in worlds over, / she was unique as a four-leaf clover—and the lines that unknowingly brought the subconscious up to the surface—I hope that when you finally wither away and die, / that we’ll be together in hearts and souls, by and by. / I hope this friendship and love will go on forever, / and that it will never end, a hopeless endeavor.
Reading the poems takes me back to the very beginning, how the history of my writing life began when I won a contest for a similar tribute poem for my mother for Happy Mother’s Day. My love reminds me of something else.
“Your brother is wrong to do that. Jesus.” he says to me as he walks over to the shoe closet to get ready to leave.
It continues to stun me how easy it is for me to miss those intentions from complicated family members, even fifteen years of therapy later.
That’s when it hits me. Mother’s Day. Less than a month away.
“Oh, you think he’s doing this because of the whole Mother’s Day bullshit,” I say, more to myself than to him, slowly putting it together.
“Without question,” my love says emphatically.
After he leaves, I click on the part of the Facebook message thread that contains all of my previous chats with my brother until I find the poems.
just reading this
it’s so beautiful
is so sweet and intelligent
I was so touched when I read this
u could publish it to show how your writing started so young
I think to myself; maybe I will publish these poems, but not in the way my brother imagines.
I long ago came to terms with who my mother has been throughout my life, and more importantly, who she could never be. I don’t exactly blame her, knowing what I know from where and what she came. Besides, after fifteen years of individual therapy and ten years of group therapy, I knew I had to accept who my mother was in order to have anything left over for myself.
On paper, my parents shared custody of us. The timetable of that custody was based on my mother’s reliability. Whether or not she could get out of bed, due to being stoned out of her mind or too hung over to drive. Whether she was still in the bed of some man she’d met at the club and with whom she spent the night. Whether she was having one of her dark spells; whether whether whether whether whether whether whether whether whether. Whether she could show up. There were the times during my childhood where she came to pick us up at the arranged time, and she was happy to see the three of us and took us on grand adventures. There were times where she didn’t show up. There were times where she showed up three hours late. There were times she would call hours after she was supposed to arrive, saying that she had to pick up a shift at the diner or because she was sick, or because her car wouldn’t start, or so many other reasons I no longer recall or of which I could no longer keep track.
My mother was like that ring in The Lord of the Rings—a sparkly, precious gem I could never get close enough to, or have for very long. Somehow she always managed to slip through my fingers.
I did everything I could to make myself what she would want—as most children of abandoning parents, I thought if only I could make myself exactly what she wanted, then maybe she would stay. Perhaps she would no longer need all the things she left me to chase instead.
Her inconsistent abandonment was only part of what I would come to accept about her. The most loving part of myself, the most accepting and blameless part of myself, eventually learned what to call the rest of what she was; a person who lived with mental illness. This naming was necessary for me to come to terms with what my mother was, and more importantly, to understand why she could never truly be a mother to me.
My mother coped by chronically smoking marijuana and consuming alcohol, along with many other vices. Because I witnessed these mechanisms, it would become increasingly difficult for me to understand her overwhelming financial struggles—including benefiting from food stamps and other government assistance, child support from my father while he technically kept us mostly full-time, and taking the allowance my father gave my sister and me in order to buy us milk and other groceries.
I suppose I should be relieved that she had something that would make her levels of anxiety and depression manageable. When she was not under the influence and relief of these chemicals, she was erratic and unwieldy. We never knew what typically childish action of ours could cause her to unravel. My father had always used violence to keep us under control, and my mother knew more than anyone how much we needed her as an escape. Her violence was different. It was less controlled or provoked. Unhinged. Once, she beat my brother senseless with metal hangers when he didn’t want to walk on the beach during a vacation to South Padre. Once, she beat us in our bedroom with yardsticks while a boyfriend waited for her in the next room because we’d clogged up the line using three-way while she went to the club one night. We couldn’t show anger or sadness ourselves—a slammed door was an invitation to more trouble. My mother was very strict with us about drinking and smoking, and other acts of rebellion. We had no choice but to be the container for all of my mother’s inconsistencies, her volatility. On the rare moments that she would understand the shape of cruelty that her moods could take, we were required to hold her endless guilt as she spiraled over what she had done, even when we were the ones she had done it to.
From the earliest age I can remember until I started therapy, I tried to hold it all for her. I wanted to save her. She wasn’t the only member of the family I would try to save—but she was the first. Like cream, I inhaled the narrative she built around her inability to show up for us—that she was always the victim. I held onto that narrative so long and so hard because I needed it to be true. It would have meant there was a reason my mother couldn’t be there for me. I would learn that there was a cost for this narrative, that she would never truly take responsibility for her actions, or her inactions. I would learn that as long as I let her, she would abandon me, in smaller and larger measures, for the rest of my life.
I cut off all contact with my mother almost fifteen years ago—as it so often happens, the last straw could practically be considered mundane. I stopped speaking to her after she called me at the last minute to cancel plans to attend a ballet performance with me because her foot hurt. I’d find out the next day when I met her for lunch that she and her friends had chosen, instead, to go dancing all night. I could no longer continue to fight for the time and attention from someone for whom I seemed so unimportant, so low on her list of priorities.
I let her back into my life just before my wedding, ten years after I stopped speaking to her. Over Facebook message, she gave me the apology I’d craved my whole life. Without fully realizing it at the time, I’d allowed the sentimental frenzy of planning a wedding to collapse the walls I’d spent so much work and time to build to preserve my mental health.
Ten years later, a promise that she’d spend my birthday with me and meet my love turned into my mother deciding to get a risky weight-loss procedure. In classic form, she sent me a cascading series of messages, about the wound that wouldn’t close, how much pain she was in, how she felt psychotic, etc. etc. etc.
Once again, I was in the position to play adult, to tell her it was okay if she couldn’t show up, I would be fine, as always, as ever, as before.
Ultimately, I would discover it would not be my mother’s under-mothering and emotional exhibitionism that would cause us to fray at the edges like an old article of clothing. It would be a holiday to celebrate mothers, mothers who ultimately made more sacrifices than my mother ever could.
In one of the years between the many poems I wrote to her to affirm her in the ways I kept hoping she would affirm me and when I let her back in after ten years of divorcing myself from her because she sent me a thoughtful apology, I made a choice to no longer wish her Happy Mother’s Day. I would wish her Merry Christmas and Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Easter, but I would not publicly or privately wish her those three little words ever again. The mother I wrote about in those poems was the mother I craved. The poems were my way of trying to imbue it into being. I needed so desperately to believe that somewhere in there, that mother would come to life, and love me. When I was in high school, I found an old velvet ring box in her closet. I wrote her a note that I had folded so that it would fit inside. The note gave her instructions. It was a note of love, and if she had any love for me, she would return the note with her own message of love. It would not occur to me until I came upon the note years later that as a child, as an adolescent, as a teen, I was never sure of my mother’s love for me.
The space between my actual mother and the mothers so many in my life shared tributes for on Facebook devastated me every year. I do not say that to mean that I believe those mothers to be perfect—although for much of my life I did romanticize the suburban mother I was not meant to have as part of my story. Still, I could see that they were mothered in a way that I would never experience.
I came to understand that to buckle under my mother’s implicit pressure that I perform for her on this day, and help craft this image that she was this kind of mother, would only serve to remind me further of just how far removed she was from the mothers we celebrate on this day. I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be the container and the image-making machine for someone unable to be there for me.
After Mother’s Day 2017, my brother wrote me a series of messages shaming me for not telling my mother Happy Mother’s Day on Facebook. I responded by telling him that I have my own complicated relationship with my mother and that if she needs to speak with me about this, she can address it with me directly. Soon after this exchange, my mother sent me several messages, one about money she lent me several months prior, and some gift she sent (my mother had gotten into the habit of sending me random knickknacks she would then use as a reason to communicate with me, to see if her package had arrived). I had asked her to lend me money so my partner and I could move into an apartment. She told us she could lend me some of what we needed, a huge help, but that all she was asking for in return is that I say something to her on “special days.” I didn’t know what this meant, and I paid it little mind, given that she was my mother, and this was one of five times in my entire life she’d been able to do this for me. Frankly, I felt I was owed it.
I’m past expecting flowers, candy, gifts or cards but 7 words a year doesn’t seem to be unrealistic. Happy Birthday Merry Christmas Happy Mother’s Day I love you. Have a good Thursday. Let me know about someone around to get the pkg. It usually only takes 5 days. If I’ve done something to upset you please let me know.
She wrote while I was waist deep in hiring committee business for three straight days. I assume that having seen I’d “seen” the message but had neglected to respond made her anxious, and so she began to send me more messages:
If I don’t hear back to confirm, I’m going to send it to your school, just to be sure someone is around to receive it. I’m concerned you both might be out of town.
I’m fine. I’ve said my piece
I’m moving forward.
Even though she was willing to let this go, I couldn’t stop thinking about how quickly I felt her hijack my peace of mind. Not to mention, I didn’t feel I’d done anything wrong, to begin with. I responded.
I’d just thought I’d explain why I’ve unfriended you on Facebook. For me, Facebook is a personal, intimate thing – a connection I reserve to those I feel safe with. I appreciated your apology when we reconnected around the time I got married, after several years of not speaking. It was always a trial run for me, to see how our reconciliation would proceed. Certainly, you have been generous in certain ways, which I appreciate. However, it has taken me much effort to get to the place I am at now – a place in which I am a happy, functional, healthy human being. A great deal of that effort has been made due to the pain and damage you have caused me. I have made my peace with the kind of parent you have been and continue to choose to be. However, to be continuously made to feel that what you give me as a mother is conditional upon behavior you expect, imply, or outright demand of me does not make me feel safe or comfortable. You are free to email me when you need to. But for these reasons, I am no longer in a space where I can be connected to you via social media. I am sorry if it upsets you, but I must do what I need to do to be at peace and contentment in my life.
My mother never responded to that message. Instead, she chose to stop speaking to me. When my birthday, which is also my twin sister’s birthday, came, I discovered through Instagram that she sent my twin gifts reminiscent of those she used to send me. This time, I received nothing in the mail, not even a greeting card. Even the gifts she sent my twin were burdened by her emotional impulsivity and dissociation, a kind of punishment of me through a celebration of her, just as Mother’s Day had become.
When she moved back to my home state, just a few hours away, I would learn of it through my twin sister, as an afterthought. I am sure my siblings thought I shouldn’t care if my mother moved close to home again, or that she had stopped contact with me, since I’d done it first, but since when do the mother and child hold the same responsibility? I suppose when I’d stopped contact with her before, I always imagined there would be a place where my mother would finally show up for me, in all the ways I’d dreamed her into the writing of the poems I sent her throughout my childhood. When my mother used Mother’s Day as a bargaining chip, I learned that the door for that dream would close forever.
On Mother’s Day, 2018, I wrote the following post on my own Timeline, for me, for all the undermothered children of social media:
I’ve had a long history of tricky Mother’s Days, having not come from the kind of mother that unites so many on days like today. I learned a long time ago to become the mother for myself that I longed to have in my own mother, but who simply wasn’t cut out for that kind of mothering. In the absence of that kind of mother, I also learned to accept (without desperate need, without expectation) mothering in all forms from all bodies and lives who I met in my long journey through the world. I’m grateful for those women who’ve helped me figure out life and so many others who aren’t on social media, but who I’m thinking of in gratitude. I’m also thinking of all those for whom this day is hard, and for many reasons.
The next morning, I read my father’s private Facebook message regarding my brother’s comments on my post before I saw the comments themselves, in which my brother publicly shamed me for my post. My Asian father had taken it upon himself—a rare occurrence—to write a supportive private message of me to my brother, urging him to respect my feelings towards my mother and to at least not air his grievances in such a public forum.
Addie has worked very hard to establish herself. No matter what her social or other personal preference she choses [sic] I support her no matter if I agree or not You can’t change her feelings towards your mother as that’s real and your mother has to work on it. Since it’s her Facebook and I know you care for her, I would respectably ask you to make some of your comments private as we both don’t know all the things between her and your mother.
My brother wrote several single comments to the post, which I deleted after I made screenshots of them to send to my therapist:
Adults communicate 1 on 1. They don’t make public posts throwing their own mother under the bus on Mother’s Day. Helping you with money and emotional support, even as an adult.
To attack your own family like this is lacking self-love. You really need to do some inner work and healing and take responsibility for your life and stop blaming the person that has done SO much for you.
Who helped you get your own apartment? Who helped you get contacts? Who paid for those EXPENSIVE glamour shots you love so much?
I didn’t respond to his comments. A previous student did, however, who sung my praises and read my brother: Anyone who attacks their kin on social media needs to grow up. Reality check: Addie is amazing and everyone loves her
I wrote my brother a more loving message than the one I wrote to my mother, for I didn’t blame him he had become my mother’s enabler and keeper of her sad stories. I knew more than anyone how hard that role was to let go of. Both of my mother and brother’s reactions were telling in what they revealed they believed motherhood was—how little, how much. After a childhood fraught with enmeshment, trauma, and child abuse, boundaries would become my lifeline.
Thinking back on the first poem I wrote called Happy Mother’s Day, which won third place for a contest and set me off on my journey towards writing, and thinking back on the poems my brother sent to me to try to, it seems, remind me of how much “love” I used to have for my mother in these poems, was its own reminder of how small I tried to make myself in order to make her big enough so that she would love me.
For me, Mother’s Day is no longer a day in which I act as a witness for all the mothers who my mother wasn’t while I sit in my room and cry alone. Mother’s Day is now about celebrating those people who have mothered me when I desperately needed but didn’t have a mother that I could rely on. It is about celebrating myself. It is about having learned how to be my own mother. To many, it may be a simple day, one filled with a family brunch and flowers or chocolate, but for me, Mother’s Day is a stance where I say enough is enough. Where I live inside my truth and body, no matter what it costs me.
Addie Tsai is a queer, non-binary writer and artist who teaches courses in literature, creative writing, humanities, and dance at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a doctorate in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, _Dear Twin_, is forthcoming from Metonymy Press this fall.
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