It’s nearly Mother’s Day, and like most dutiful daughters, I’ll make my way to the card section at the neighborhood grocery store and search for a greeting card for my mom. I’m sure my now-grown children are doing the same, and I’ll get cards with hand-written notes full of love, as well as the occasional flower delivery to boot.

While my kids and I have certainly had our share of disagreements over the years, especially during their teens, our overall relationship is one of closeness and ease. Motherhood came easy for me, and I can say without a doubt that I’ve loved every minute of it (okay, maybe not all of those teenage minutes, but every other one!)

Unfortunately, that closeness and ease isn’t quite the same between me and my own mom, and all those prickly feelings make choosing a Mother’s Day card challenging at best. I sift through the hearts and flowers, the best mom evers, the fervent displays of love and respect that don’t really fit mine and my mother’s relationship. And yet, it was my mother who helped me become the mother I am, one who created a world of security for my children that I didn’t have in my own life.

Growing Up

I was four years old the first time she left. She and my dad were in the midst of a divorce, and while they both have different versions of the way things went down, the fact remains; she left. I went from a fairly normal day-to-day life to one where nothing seemed like it would ever be normal again. My dad was suddenly a full-time single parent, shell-shocked at the idea that my mother could just disappear. I wasn’t shocked, however, or even very surprised.

Not the Mom Hallmark Depicts

Even when she was there, my mother was always somewhat ephemeral to me, fleeting, only present in sporadic moments. I always felt a sense of distance from her, an almost clinical detachment at times. Sometimes things were good, and I remember her teaching me how to make jam, or singing songs with me. Other times, she was impatient, aloof, disconnected from the very idea of parenting a small child.

I don’t think she ever especially wanted children, or thought much about having them. She was just 20 when I was born, and her dreams were much larger than my small-town father. Rather than reveling in motherhood, she felt trapped. And when the chance came to run, she took it.

She was gone for a year the first time. Then she suddenly reappeared, acting as if nothing had happened, offering no explanations. Maybe she didn’t think I noticed, or that because I was with my dad, it didn’t matter that she wasn’t there. For the next couple of years, I saw her on the occasional weekend. There were times when months would go by when I didn’t see or talk to her, and when she did reappear, it was always as if nothing had happened.

Things improved as I got older, and I actually lived with her for a few years when I was in my teens. I was a good kid, never got into trouble, and I think much of that had to do with the fear that she might leave again lurking in the back of my mind. She was a magical creature to me, one that could and sometimes did vanish, so I treaded carefully around our relationship, always on eggshells, unsure of my place in her world. And because it was like that for most of my childhood, I never thought of it as odd or unusual.

It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I began to grasp the enormity of her abandonment. Everything else paled next to that tiny being in my arms, and to leave them, well, it was beyond comprehension. 

It made me wonder, more than ever, how my mother could so easily drift in and out of my life. But realizing just how little she was there actually helped me when it came to parenting my own children. I didn’t understand everything about how to be a good mom, but there was one thing I knew: There would be no distance between myself and my children, no disappearing acts. 

I wasn’t perfect, I made lots of mistakes, but we worked through them, and I was always there. As the saying goes, 80 percent of success is showing up. I did the one big thing my mother couldn’t do. I showed up.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever fully understand the reasons behind my mother’s distance. I know she had a rough childhood, with damage that left her unable to trust people, not even me, maybe not even herself. But I also know she loves me. 

There have been moments between us when I felt it, and it was enormous, as deep as any mother’s love for their child. I’ve seen her watching me from a distance, her face raw with emotions she was unable to express. And I realize, especially in those times when she does pull away, that it was never motherhood itself that scared her. It was love. It was the vulnerability of having a human who relies on you completely, who you are bound to let down in some way. For someone like my mom, that had to have been terrifying.

Motherhood isn’t easy. We stumble around, not sure if we’re doing it right, trying and failing and trying again. I’ve had plenty of parenting fails, but I’m here. I’m not ephemeral, I’m not temporary, I’m not ever going to be gone on the wind like the stuff of dreams. No matter how scary, overwhelming, or just plain messy motherhood can be, I’m here for all it.

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About Jody Ellis

Jody Ellis is a freelance writer who specializes in beauty, health, travel, fashion and social justice. She is currently part of a fellowship with Community Change, a non-profit focused on writing about social policies that impact low-income families. Her work has appeared in publications such as LennyLetter, Huffington Post, BBC Future Planet, Civil Eats and Eater.

View all posts by Jody Ellis