You’ve heard insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but it’s actually how quickly they let you leave the hospital with a newborn when you have your first child.
“You mean I don’t need a parental license? No certification? I don’t have to pass any tests??? I just get to take this MOST IMPORTANT THING TO EVER HAPPEN TO ME home and wing it?”
No book can prepare us for this, although I did read them all.
48 hours after 36 hours of labor and…
the hospital provided us with a cart to haul all our loot and belongings to the car.
I sat in the hospital bed nursing like a pro thanks to the 352 page book, Breastfeeding Made Simple (not a joke), and our daughter’s totally genetic love for groceries. I was so in love and in awe. Despite the lack of sleep, rough delivery, and family tension I told my husband that I felt like I had postpartum euphoria. If one could embody the heart-eyes emoji, I’m pretty sure I was nailing it.
My husband was loading the cart when my Mom walked in. She’d arrived from the East Coast the day I delivered and months prior we’d planned that she’d stay for a week or so to help.
As she entered the hospital room her hands were one inside the other - not a full wringing of the hands...just the fingers of one hand inside the grip of the other right at her chest accompanied with a slightly pained look on her face. It’s what she does when she has something to say, but doesn’t want to say it...or knows full well what she’s about to say is a word grenade, but can’t help but pull the pin.
She stood to the right of my bed and told me that she’d changed her flight and would be leaving later that day instead of a week from now like we had planned.
My head fell like a 400-pound weight supported by an al dente noodle. Although this wasn’t the first time I was disappointed by my mother’s behavior or decisions, I realized in this moment I had been carrying around the hope that she could be a different kind of Grandmother. I also realized we had no other plans for support in place; all the other out-of-towners that were possibilities for support had left town and the thought of reaching out and explaining where my mom had gone carried with it a level of complexity and vulnerability I didn’t have the energy for.
Warm tears, from the deepest place that tears can come, pooled in the corners of my eyes and splattered against my baby girl’s skin.
My mom began rattling off, what sounded to me like, ridiculous reasons for why she wasn’t staying a full week..
Head-scratching excuses like these were familiar to me. I’d heard them when she couldn’t come visit me in college (an hour away from where she lived), when she surprised me with the news that she’d be moving to the east coast for a man (when I was 21 and support-system-less about to graduate college with plans to move back in with her), and when she told me, just a few months prior, she wasn’t going to be able to make it to my baby shower.
I did not hear these flat excuses, however, when it came to showing up to any of her out-of-state high school class reunions to relive her glory days.
You might be thinking, “Huh, Mika, should have seen this one coming. Sounds like insanity,” but my mom is a wild dichotomy. For example, when I was younger she would ask me repeatedly and excitedly, like no less than 75 times, “Honey, when you have kids, will you let me babysit them?!!” and then would squeal in excitement at the thought of watching her own grandchildren. She would talk about the things she would do with them, how close she would have to live to them, how often she would see them, and joke about how she might just have to live in my basement. There’s this almost manic-ness, in her mind, about how she could be relationally, but none of it is reality. When I was a kid I didn’t understand that these grand illusions weren’t going to happen, because I had no idea she wasn’t capable of this kind of intimacy.
Fast-forward to when I was pregnant with her first grandchild I, her only child, asked her if she thought that having a grandchild would make her want to move back to where we were. She said very matter-of-factly, “No, I don’t think so. I like the weather here.”
While the shreds of hope I had remaining for her ability to be a nurturing and present Grandma were streaming out of my eyeballs in that hospital bed, she said, “What’s the matter, honey?” I had no words. I just looked up at her through my tear-filled eyes.
She gently sat down on my bed and grabbed my leg. With what felt like all the drama of a soap opera star, the sleaziness of a car salesman, and the breathiness of Judy Garland, she said, “If you want me to stay, just say it and I’ll stay,” while looking longingly into my eyes.
Waiting, again, for ME to fill HER up.
“Just say it, and I’ll stay.”
“Look at ME. Beg ME. Need ME. MAKE THIS ABOUT ME,” was all that I could hear.
Me. Me. Me.
And in that moment, a switch inside me flipped. Despite the years of hurt, disappointment, unresolvable issues, emotional and physical abuse, and tolerating atrocious offenses I had kept that switch unflipped. Don’t get me wrong, we’d had our battles, but until now they all had ended with me sweeping my own wants and needs under the rug and going back to acting like nothing was wrong in order to survive. With my 2-day-old diapered baby in my arms; her new furry skin touching mine, I did something for her that I hadn’t yet been able to do fully for my almost 27-year-old self.
The air wheezed on the way into my flared nostrils and with all the nonverbal accoutrement of a possessed person in a horror movie I growled,
“Fuck. You.” I had NEVER said these words to anyone before.
She kept talking. The head-scratching explanations were mounting.
She didn’t stop. She put on her confused, sad puppy-dog face and her mouth kept moving.
At the top of my lungs in the brand new, small, and quiet maternity ward (like EVERYONE heard. every.one.), “GEEET OUUUUUTTTT!!!!! GET OUUUUUUTT!!!!!!!! FUCK YOUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Over and over.
Historically, my husband would be the first of us to lose it or set a firm and uncomfortable boundary with my mother, but on this day he was the calm one. I blame, and am grateful for, the increased amount of oxytocin bathing my brain and igniting my momma-bear response for my daughter and myself that day.
He just kept saying forcefully on repeat, “Jan, I think you need to leave.”
I had held out hope for years that the mom I was attached to could be my mom, and that hope broke on this day. I continued screaming - ugly-cry, howler-monkey, throat-injurious screaming - as she looked at me, somehow self-pitifully, while being escorted out of the room.
My husband remembers returning later to find our favorite nurse at the foot of my bed. “She was so nice that day,” he says.
I’m pretty sure she was mostly just assessing me for postpartum psychosis and making sure I wasn’t going to kill myself or the baby after discharge.
I haven’t thought about this day in a long time and I worry, now that I’ve put it down on paper, you’ll wonder, “Soooo, is this “relationship expert” saying I should just tell the people in my life to go F themselves?” Nope, nope, nope, that’s definitely not what I’m saying. AND I don’t know that I would do or could have done it any differently this day.
This reaction took 26.8 years to erupt. 26.8 years of walking on eggshells, people-pleasing, avoiding, backing down, and wondering if there was something deeply wrong with me. Years of chances, years of therapy, and years of graduate school had finally convinced me that I had developed a ridiculous and self-harming ability to tolerate an inordinate amount of crap from people because it’s what I had to do in my childhood to belong.
Boundaries come in all shapes and sizes (here come my yard/lawn boundary analogies 🤦🏼♀️). A simple lovely row of flowers works for some people, but there are those who will trample the flowers, kick over the white picket fence, and excavate the 8ft wooden fence you’ve installed in an attempt to clearly communicate this is what’s mine, and this is what’s yours (or this is what’s ok, and this is what’s not ok - like...it’s not okay for your dog to poop over here). You might have to learn to build a ridiculously tall barbed wire fence with a lockable door. The door will allow you to let the mostly healthy people in, and the barbed wire will protect your squishy and vulnerable heart. Both are necessary if you don’t want to run the risk for your heart hardening for the world…. and for yourself.
To put it shortly, I have learned that a row of vincas doesn’t work with my mother.
My reaction was not perfect. I am not perfect. I know, that’s super rare for *experts* to admit. Let’s be clear about this before you read any further: my background isn’t perfect, my family of origin isn’t perfect, my current family isn’t perfect, and my college days were definitely not perfect.
If you want your life inspiration to come from someone who didn’t have a shitty beginning (not the shittiest) and a really messy middle I would recommend not reading any further.
I’m writing this for those of us who were dealt imperfect cards, yet who still have at least the teensiest glimmer of belief in the possibility that this could get better. For those of you who want to believe it’s more about how we play the cards, that we can create a different kind of family and life than the awful or ho-hum one we grew up with, that we can choose to deal different cards to our own kids, and that we can break decades-long family patterns in imperfectly-perfect ways.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it and tell you it’s not hard, but I hope the stories to come help convince you that it’s all SO worth it.
While this all seems like an objectively terrible way to start my motherhood journey I think of this day and feel pretty darned powerful about it. At 2 days old my daughter taught me something I hadn’t been able to really hear from anyone else: your worth and value isn’t dependent on someone else’s behavior. My mom’s inability to be the kind of grandma my daughter needed her to be had nothing to do with my daughter’s worth and value. Zero. Zilch. Nada. THIS. WAS. CLEAR.
I’d read it in books, I’d heard it from therapists, experts, 78-page-long CV-touting professors, and spiritual leaders, I AGREED with it in theory (cognitively)….but nothing had deeply untangled my heart from the belief that my worth was dependent on my mom’s ability to nurture me, and a whole slew of other things outside of myself, in the way that the love I had for my 2-day-old daughter did.
I could see her worth and value more clearly than I could see my own. This, in and of itself, helped me see my own more clearly.
My daughter has been one of my greatest teachers.
In the chapters to come I hope to share how my heart was slowly, but surely, untangled and how years of self-doubt, self-hate, depression and anxiety were unraveled. I'm not just going to tell you the theories behind having happy and healthy relationships; I'm going to bring them down to Earth with real life stories.
I'm going to throw myself under the bus in cringe-worthy ways. I'm going to write chapters that my husband won't want me to share. I'm going to piss some people off with my perspective. And I'm going to break down really big ideas into actionable and practical strategies so that you know WHAT IT LOOKS like, WHAT IT SOUNDS like, and WHAT IT FEELS like to navigate relationships with the people you love the most in a way that simultaneously honors YOU and THEM.
And I'm doing all of this for those of you who've wondered if it might be impossible for you to have happy relationships or to love yourself fully.
I have been there.
YOU deserve happy relationships,