The L Word
I do not love my mother.
This is not something you’re supposed to say. Probably, you’re not even supposed to think it. And if you do say it, the person to whom you say it is very likely to either react with shock or to laugh nervously and say, “Oh, you don’t mean that.”
But I do mean it.
Please note that I did not say that I hate my mother. I do not hate her. But I don’t love her. Not in the way that people think you ought to love the person who gave birth to you and raised you. Not in the way that I’m supposed to.
This news particularly surprises, even angers, people who know that I care for my mother full-time as she loses her battle with Alzheimer’s. “How can you care for her if you don’t love her?” they ask.
The answer to that is simple: I am thankful. I respect what my mother has done for me, and I feel for her as someone who is struggling with something that no one should have to struggle with. I want the end of her life to be as peaceful as it can be, and for her to receive the best care that can be given to her. I’m willing to give her this because without her, I wouldn’t exist.
And this can all be achieved without me having to love her.
My mother did not physically abuse me or my sisters. She was not a monster. So explaining why I do not love her is not easily done, particularly in a thousand words. And I wouldn’t even bother to try except that I have grown weary of the prevailing notion that in order to be kind to someone, in order to treat them with dignity, that you have to love them. This is something that comes up again and again when you’re a caretaker, so it’s become something I think about a lot.
Instead of trying to explain my own feelings, I sometimes tell people about my friend Ed. Ed’s parents divorced when he and his brother were very young. His mother subsequently married a man who did terrible things to Ed and his brother, both physically and emotionally, while their mother pretended it wasn’t happening. This went on for years, until the boys were old enough to leave.
Years later, Ed’s stepfather developed stomach cancer, and his mother went blind. Ed cared for both of them until their deaths. He received no deathbed apology from either his mother or his stepfather for what had been done to him.
Ed is one of the kindest humans I know. When I asked him why he would do what he did for people who treated him as his mother and stepfather did, he shrugged. “I didn’t want to be like them,” he said. “I wanted to be better.”
Now, I am not Ed. If my mother had done to me what his did to him, I suspect she would be on her own right now. Although I admire Ed enormously, I don’t personally feel that willful abuse should be rewarded with kindness.
But my mother didn’t do anything of the sort. She was difficult and damaging in other ways, ways that I don’t think she even recognized as being harmful. In fact, I suspect she thought she was doing a really great job. And I think she was doing the best that she could.
We never talked about it, just as we never talked about anything else. Partly, I suspect, this is because I thought everybody’s mother was like mine, that every family was like ours. And because all of my friends seemed to love their mothers, I felt that the problem must be me. It was many years before I understood that it wasn’t, and that maybe my friends, at least some of them, were pretending too.
Even then, I felt guilty. I did not love my mother. This is not a feeling that children are supposed to have. And so I never talked about it. Not to my friends. Not to my sisters. Certainly not to my mother herself.
Now, of course, I can’t talk to her about it. Now, she doesn’t know who I am, doesn’t remember that she ever had children. When I pick her up at daycare in the afternoons, the attendant who brings her out always says, “Look, Kathleen, your son is here for you!” Every time, my mother looks right at me as if she’s never seen me before in her life, laughs, and says, “I don’t have children.”
She also does this: When I get into the car after securing her seatbelt, she turns to me and says, “I love you. I mean it. I love you more than anyone in the whole world.”
Sometimes, I ask her why she loves me. The answer is always the same. “Because you know how to do everything right.”
“Thank you,” I always tell her. “I try.”
What I don’t do is say, “I love you too.” I sometimes feel petty doing this, particularly as I suspect she wants me to say it. It wouldn’t kill me to lie to someone who won’t remember it 30 seconds later. But it took me a very long time to get to a point where I’m okay with not loving her, with not feeling like a horrible person for not loving her. I’m not going backwards.
Many of us were raised believing a lot of lies: Father knows best. Work hard and you’ll succeed. Family is the most important thing. Entire industries are built around maintaining the illusion, with holidays, cards, and gifts manufactured to reinforce on an annual basis just how much we’ve failed to live up to expectations that were never realistic to begin with. So, for those of you who might need to hear this, a reminder: It’s okay not to love someone just because you’re supposed to, because they gave birth to you, or you gave birth to them, or you share the same DNA. It’s okay. Really, it is. And if somebody tells you different, it’s also okay to tell them to go to hell...with love, of course.
Michael Thomas Ford is happy that the fireflies have returned for the summer. More Michael Thomas Ford