“I tried everything I could think of,” my mom says to me, “but your brother hated you.” She finishes her statement with a little laugh, as if to say she couldn’t believe my brother would hold anything in his heart for his little sister other than love.
She is driving. We are on our way back from an errand that had taken us an hour from home. As we (that is she and I) have always done, we spent the drive there and back talking and sharing. We grab on to opportunities such as these, because we don’t often have the opportunity to talk like this. We talk all the time, but on drives such as these when we are alone, we can really talk. She can share and I can share openly and freely. I can tell her about my imperfect life, and she can do the same. This is what we’ve always done.
My mom and I used to travel quite a bit. Just the two of us. We usually had a purpose for our trips (to meet a friend, to see a concert, to shop somewhere new), but we just enjoyed stretching our wings a little bit. She wanted her kids to see things from new perspectives, and what better way is there than from a new location. Because I was the youngest, I managed to see these new perspectives with her alone.
The brave, adventurous soul that she is, she let me drive her from St. Louis to Atlanta a couple of months after I passed my driver’s test and obtained my permit. I only took a wrong turn once that entire trip. We were both so proud, although I was practically skipping around Atlanta, giddy that I hadn’t killed us in a fiery crash on the way down. That was one of many trips we took where we spent most of our time talking about nothing in particular and yet everything all at once.
That trip was seventeen years ago now. It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed. And yet, it feels like a lifetime ago.
Today, as we drove an hour from home, I had seized the opportunity to tell her all about my troubles. I opened my soul and dumped all of my parenting troubles (tears included) at her feet, for her figurative inspection. I confessed my parenting flaws and faults, hoping for absolution. I never asked for it, but I am inwardly begging her to tell me I am not a terrible mother. She never says whether I am or not, either. Instead, she tells me about her parenting troubles.
“Your brother was so jealous of you,” she says, starting off the story. “I read all the books I could find. I listened to the experts and I tried everything. I tried everything I could think of. But your brother hated you.”
She doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious from her story that my brother’s hate for me was a problem. It was a problem she lost sleep over. It was an issue she didn’t have an answer to, something she couldn’t fix for her children, both hurting because of it.
As she tells her story, I think of all the fights I instigated with my brother. I think of the fights he finished too, and how much those usually hurt. Typically, those fights hurt my pride more than anything. I thought he was the coolest, and I wanted to be exactly like him.
He was three years older, and he wasn’t my only brother. There were two more and a sister besides. I was the youngest; my brother who hated me had been the youngest until I came along and bumped him up to older brother. I suppose he couldn’t forgive me for that.
“I stayed out of your fights as much as I could because that’s what every book I read said to do,” she said. “But one day, I thought the two of you were going to really hurt each other.” I try to remember which day she’s talking about. But there were too many fights and too many times I was sure we did really hurt each other.
“I sat him down on the couch and gave him a long speech. I told him he couldn’t get up until he could admit that deep down, he really did love you.” She pauses here, laughs again, and looks at me as she stops at a light. “He sat there for hours.”
I asked why he was in trouble and I wasn’t that day. She tells me about breaking up the fight and telling us both to apologize. I apologized. He refused.
As we drive on, stopping to run our errand and then continuing to talk once we’re back on the road, she tells me about other times when she felt that she wasn’t enough for her children. She tells me about my oldest brother’s terrible attitude when she first married my dad.
My mom was married and divorced once before she met my dad. My dad was, too. They both made mistakes before they met, and they continued to make new mistakes after they married. They joined two families together, him with two children and she with one. It wasn’t easy. They spent their honeymoon moving and intermittently screaming at each other as nothing went right as they hauled furniture and merged households and families.
As my mom talks about how tough of a transition it was when my oldest brother came to live with them full time, I try to put myself in her shoes. She never thought there would come a day when he would let her in and let her like him, much less love him. He pushed her away at every opportunity, usually as hatefully as he could muster. He seemingly worked hard to tick her off and make her miserable. She said she felt bad for thinking a 10-year-old could be such a manipulative jerk, but she couldn’t see past it. He wanted her to hurt. He wanted her to leave. He wanted his dad to himself, just as it had been before she came along.
She reflects back on her choices, painting a picture of a life that isn’t so different from my own. Sure, she didn’t have Netflix or probiotic supplements or organic, non-GMO vegetables, but underneath all of the outward differences, we’re not so different.
My mom reminds me that none of it got easier for them. My oldest brother finally let her in, but it took years. When one kid was finally happy and on to a new phase in development, another issue would arise. There was a never ending stream of difficulties, always testing her and pushing her. There was always something happening that could potentially suck the joy right out of every moment if she let it. It was never easy.
And at times, she couldn’t see past the worry. She couldn’t feel past her own defeat and inadequacies. At times, she couldn’t carry on but instead cried and dumped her soul at her mother’s feet, just as I was doing.
She didn’t offer me advice. She didn’t tell me I’m a good mom. What she did instead was much more powerful. She reminded me through her stories that her and my father are flawed. They never got it right. And they never got it completely wrong, either.
I did the math: my parents have spent 36 years of their lives parenting their children. That doesn’t even include all the parenting after age 18.
36 years of experience, and they don’t have all the answers, either. They’re terribly flawed people doing the best they can—just like me.