rosie the riveterI have seen my mother for the last couple of decades.  I have watched my mother through the eyes of a child and now the eyes of an adult.  And the differences inherent in those two views is staggering.  One would love to say that there is more understanding and more compassion as a child becomes an adult; but in reality all there is, is more reality.  No longer is my mother capable of hiding who and what she is, her adult child now sees her through experience and heartache.  The reality changes to suit the past, and I will never be the wide eyed child believing that my mother is infallible.

My mother cannot accept help.  She cannot grasp a helping hand; she is literally incapable of looking at someone and asking for anything.

Let me give you some of the background.  My mother grew up in New York; a product of a successful businessman often away from the house, and a bipolar mother.  In the time of my mother’s youth there weren’t all the drugs and therapy for bipolar as there is today.  It wasn’t considered a disease, but rather a condition – a distinction that resonates in society today.  With three younger siblings, it was my mother’s duty to take care of the necessities when her mother couldn’t.  And her mother couldn’t often.  She changed diapers, she babysat, and she made sure they were moving in the right direction.  She did it not only out of necessity but a deep desire to earn praise from her father, whom she adored.  Despite his busy schedule, he relied on my mother, the eldest, and she lived for his smile.

She left for college in North Carolina, turning down scholarships so that she could get away from the responsibility of her family. Her sister, only ten months younger was popular, beautiful but most of all free.  My mother needed to feel that.  And she did for a brief moment; until the popular sister moved to North Carolina and the rest of the family followed shortly afterwards.  Now the responsibility she had ran away from, was closer and closer.

My mother did want any novelist, poet, or author would tell you is the next step, she ran away with the man.  I believe that she loved my father for his popularity, for his brash style and his need for adventure.  My rather staid and sheltered mother found an outlet.  They married although to this day I am not aware of the details nor why they got married; and five years later they would have a child.

But like all escapes, there are often curves in the road that you cannot see.  For my mother this was the realization that she married a child. She married a man who needed to constantly travel, have the best of everything, and wanted to sleep with every woman he could find. He was never faithful, he was always fun and rarely serious about the things that mattered to my mother, and he lived a life that he choose, not one they built together.  He wasn’t interested in his children, expect to brag about them or pet them on the head.  He wasn’t interested in the symphony, the concerts, the plays, the arts, the sports his daughters were in.  My mother came full circle and was once again taking care of it all.

Knowing this background, I understand why my mother chooses not to rely on anyone. Even a simple car ride to the airport becomes an epic and tragic story of one woman who can’t simply say, thank you.

As I child, I didn’t see it.  I saw that my mother was the rock, the one I could count on, and the one to turn to when the cards fell out of my grasp.  She was the one I knew would keep the nightmares away; and while that was in many parts her job, what I recognize now is that she did it because there was no choice.  She raised me and my sister in the strict and often disciplined household, because she had no choice.  There was no one else to rely on.

But how can we ever look at the self-reliance that my mother has built, and applaud her?  In some ways there is no doubt that she is a stronger and more capable woman, but at what cost?  What has she paid in terms of freedom, love, and even adventure?  What has she given up by looking at her life and determining the best she can offer is her own way.

I am bipolar, and one of the major things I have learned with this disease is that I must lean on others.  I have bad days, when the meds aren’t working, when the darkness is most acute, and I most rely on those I love to take care of that which I can’t.  I have learned that I don’t have a choice but to rely on others when there are no other options.  It is a lesson I learned the day I saw my first child; and I realized that I couldn’t care for him at the exclusion of my own health.  Neither one of us would have made it.  But this is my lesson, one much different from my mother’s that I learned out of trial, fear and a reality I have never been able to escape.  I wish that I could do it all, rely only on myself, but this disease makes that literally unattainable.

So which is better, my mother who relies on no one, or me who is required to rely on others even when she doesn’t want to?  Which journey is most likely to end in a fiery mess?  Which journey is most likely to end in a disaster our children won’t recover from?

I believe that unfortunately, like most of life, the answer is somewhere in between. There are those that need to learn to give a little, and those who need to learn to take a little. Life is about balance, about finding the middle ground that allows for growth and ultimately our own happiness.

I don’t want my mother to change, I want my mother to see me as an adult who might be able to help.  This would be an almost impossible task for her; I will forever be a piece that represents her own repression for the last sixty years.  I wonder who my mother would have been without the responsibility, without the demands placed on such a young child. Would she have grown up the same, always helping for that one smile? Would she have married a man who would have taken on half the duties, or would she have always reverted to doing it herself?  Is it her past, her character or simply her life?

Our mothers change as we age and I don’t mean physically but in our eyes; their children see in them new histories, new stories, and new reasons.  Things that we took for granted for years upon years become a ridiculous fight for independence and acknowledgement.  We can’t change our mothers; no matter how much we need to.  We can change ourselves, learn from our mothers and find a ground that supports our life.  But this takes the reality that those we have depended on most in this world and turns it upside down and inside out.  Those who we saw from our cribs, are not the ones we see from our child’s crib.