From all outside appearances, my life probably looks kind of cool. My first book, Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates, and Other Dispatches from the Dating World, just came out. As a writer, I’m psyched: I’ve been on TV and radio a few times; reporters have called me for dating advice.
But if you want to know the truth, my life is not that cool right now. Because my mother is no longer speaking to me.
And it’s my fault.
It all started in mid-December, when my mother landed in California the day before ABC News called me to see if I would go on “The View from the Bay” to talk about dating as a single mom. How freaking exciting!
The catch? It was my daughter’s winter break and she was home from vacation; I’d promised to take her and a friend ice skating and I had no backup childcare. So, I went into panic-planning mode and made a flutter of phone calls.
Of course, everyone was working the next day, or already scheduled. That’s when I thought of my Mom. Six years ago, she fell in love with Morocco where she’d relocated on a Fulbright to teach English literature. Now she spends half the year in Rabat, half the year in California, and even though she had only just returned and we had not seen much of one another yet, maybe she was available?
If you know anything about my relationship with my mom, then you know that we’ve been rather distant over the past decade. I’m proud of her for taking off on an empty-nest adventure — you go, Mom! — but I do miss her. When she’s out of the country, we write each other once a month, and chat less often on the phone. So, when she comes home, it’s a transition for both of us. Picking up the phone and asking for her help when she’d only just landed — even though I was in a pinch — felt hard.
Still, when I called my mom she was thrilled to come and spend the afternoon with her granddaughter. And when the TV producer called later to invite the whole family to the studios, my mom was even more excited to come along.
As you can imagine, my thoughts were chasing each other in circles: live TV! What would they ask me? How would I answer?
But there was a deeper worry too, one that went below those anxious TV trembles: my mom. How would she respond to what I had written about her in the book, a book she herself had not yet read? Mother-daughter relationships can be so complicated, and ours is a classic model of this. We fought through most of my childhood and adolescence. Even after I left home, our visits were tense, with both of us afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. She has always felt that I’m too critical of her. Maybe I am. But when Mae was born, my mother flew in from California hours after her birth. It was the first time in years that we hugged each other and held on. Now, I feared that my words might have ruined our tender link forever.
When I turned Single Mom Seeking in to my editor last spring, my mom was hardly mentioned in the book. One of my former writing professors in NYC had offered to read the manuscript. She finished it in one night and called both me and my Seal Press editor. While she really enjoyed it, she saw a glaring omission in the book: my relationship to my mother.
“I feel it needs one or two more paragraphs to clarify an important hole in the story that frustrated me,” she said. “I felt desperate to understand Rachel’s relationship to her own mother.”
She urged me to give a bit more background on this family dynamic, and how it affected my desire to not only be a mom, but to try and be an ideal one.
In my post-writing exhaustion, I pounded out two paragraphs about my mother and shipped them off. In hindsight, I made a mistake. Even writing a book-length description of our complex relationship would have been insufficient. How could I have characterized our whole relationship in just a few sentences? Impossible. I was doomed to oversimplify and misinterpret. In order to tell the truth, I would have had to admit my own faults, and show my mother’s strengths. But under the deadline gun and exhausted from the entire process, I sent this one page to my editor. And I’ve been worried ever since.
The morning of my TV interview, as promised, I took the girls ice skating. It was actually a good way to calm my nerves, as I went around the rink, holding the girls’ mitten-hands. Back at home, I jumped into the shower while the girls played with dolls.
My mom arrived at my house, and after a quick kiss-and-hug, we piled into my car. She used to be a high school speech teacher, and on the way, my mom coached me for the interview: “Say ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah.'”…. “Don’t smack your lips.”
I soaked it up, all her advice and support.
But just after we rolled through the toll booth at the Bay Bridge, my skin got hot. I gripped the steering wheel.
“Mom, I have something to tell you,” I said.
“It’s the book, and what I wrote about you.”
She looked hard at me. “I had a bad feeling about this already.”
“I want to apologize in advance,” I said. “I wrote about you from this place of pain, and now that the book is out, I regret how harsh I was–”
I remembered sitting at my desk, in the middle of my living room, typing the words “lifelong disappointment” and feeling somehow relieved. I was done with the book.
But now I imagined my daughter on some distant day, putting those words to paper about me. Those words would break any mother’s heart. And they did not, even then, mean what I had wanted them to mean. My mom had not been a disappointment to me, but rather we — the two of us, our relationship — had been marked by frustration and regret. What I meant was: I was lonely for her; I wanted us to be closer but didn’t know how. Especially now as a mother myself, I wanted us to finally come together.
And recently it seemed like my mom wanted that too. In the past year, she had made an effort to be closer to me. She’d learned how to use email for the first time in her life, so now I could write little notes and send photos. Last winter, when she was home, we had our first mother-and-daughter night out in years, when we went out for Chinese food and caught the movie “Walk the Line.” Maybe we had been trying, one step at a time, to be friends.
At the TV studio the girls snacked on the cookies in the waiting room. Someone pinned a microphone to my butt. My mom snapped photos of me, and handed my card to anyone who would take it. She was beaming.
The interview went well, except that I said “exactly” too many times and did this weird blinking thing with my eyes.
Back at home, my mom asked if she could see The Book.
I got one of my brand-spanking-new author’s copies and signed it: “Mom, I Love You.”
I handed the book to her. She sat on the sofa and started flipping through the pages. I knew what she was looking for. It’s just human nature, right?
Mae sat down at the kitchen table and drew in her notebook, mid-point between my mom and me. I couldn’t bear to just stand there. How would my mom respond? I turned my back to her. I wasn’t breathing.
I sped into the office and sat down at the desk.
Within moments, The Book flew across the room, just in front of my chest, and hit the wall.
Had she been aiming for me? Maybe.
She was crying. I did not move. I did not speak.
“How could you?” she said. “After everything I’ve done for you?” she said. “You used me today.”
“I didn’t use you,” I said.
“Your book is trash,” she said. “It’s not even well written.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She spun around, out the door. I called after her, but she was gone. I phoned her twenty minutes later at home, and she said that she didn’t want to have a relationship with me.
How does it make me feel to be cut off from my mom? There is no pointed simile to describe it. If I were a page torn from your favorite novel, loose and floating to the floor, this might come close. You might pick up that page and tape it back into place, between the covers. But, the damage done, you will still see the torn place, hastily patched-up.
Is there any way to redeem myself?
I don’t know.