I may have freaked out today’s writer when I first met her. Chelsea came into the Starbucks I worked at during college. I recognized her from church and excitedly started up a conversation with her. It went something like this… “Hey, I’ve seen you at the Vineyard…what’s your name? Cool, you want to visit Africa? My friend used to live there. Hey, my birthday party is next week. Here’s an invite. It’s Strongbad themed.”
The birthday invite may have crossed a line. Despite our odd first interaction, within a couple of years Chelsea became one of my closest friends. We shared a room during the hardest season in my life and she would read children’s books to me when I couldn’t sleep. We’ve lived together, cried together, and traveled Europe together with our dear friend Leigh.
When I asked Chels to post I had a sense on what direction her piece would take. I was surprised when I read her first draft, but immediately knew that this was a post that needed to be shared. I mean, how can we have a series on women without looking at our mothers?
“I’m becoming just like my mother.” If I put a coin in a fountain every time a woman muttered this in amused or semi-horrified exasperation, I’d be broke.
It’s an inevitable fact of existence: we will be like our mothers, whether we like it or not. We are like homing pigeons, and our mothers define a sense of “home” for each of us. They are the landmark we constantly return to: our most formative reference point. Even if we strive to be different from our moms, they remain the point on the horizon from which we are running. The primal cords that bind us together are deeper than our approval, angst, distaste, or admiration of their lives.
Our mothers imprint the very core of our being. From our first breath, their nurturing presence creates internal stability and order, a sense of peace to which we can return. Conversely, their absence or lack of emotional nurture, creates chaos in us that can remain with us for the rest of our lives. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, when a mom consistently responds to her baby’s cry of need, bringing relief and comfort, that child learns that the world is a safe place, and she is safe in it. Before she can even talk, she has a deep trust in other human beings, knowing that her needs are okay and can be met. This is the foundation to all of our intimate adult relationships.
As we grow from girls into young women, our mothers teach us our first lessons in gender roles, body image, and how to handle our emotions. The core beliefs that shaped our mothers form our first archetype of womanhood. Their self esteem directly impacts ours, particularly in adolescence. If they hate the shape of their thighs, we usually hate the shape of ours. If they are outspoken, characteristically, we, too, will vocalize our opinions. If they were comfortable in their skin, we find it easier to inhabit our own. Their choices are like broken threads, woven together to make an image what it means to be a woman. We inherit these incomplete tapestries, and every image is limited because our mothers are desperately human. If we are to truly love and embrace ourselves as women, we must reckon with our mothers’ legacies, because, in some sense, we will be just like them.
Reckoning with my mom
My mother was an atypical working mom. She stayed with us kids during the day and sang in smoky jazz clubs at night. She worked til 3 in the morning, went grocery shopping at the 24 hour market (blessedly sans kids), before crashing around 5am. My dad did the morning shift: breakfast and hustling us off to school, in order to accommodate her work life. By the time I got off the afternoon school bus, my mother had been awake for a couple hours, cleaned the kitchen, lit some vanilla candles, and turned up Anita Baker on the stereo. There was frequently a snack waiting on the formica countertop when we flounced in with our backpacks. To this day, a sense of home for me means a clean kitchen, yummy smelling candles, and something baking.
Mom worked in the basement where she had a home office, running a music booking service (she used a pseudonym so she could book her own band without appearing self promoting) and practicing congas to the horn blasts of Santana. She made dinner every night (casseroles of all kinds), and managed to make our canned pears look like bunny rabbits on a bed of lettuce and cottage cheese. We often had to wait an hour or more if my dad got caught up in a project at work, and she would pace around the kitchen with increasing frustration, trying to keep dinner warm. I never saw her confront my dad directly about this, but I saw her bottled up feelings leak out in circuitous and seemingly fruitless comments. It took me 27 years to figure out that if I wanted something to change, I needed to ask for it directly. (My husband is unendingly grateful for this discovery.)
My mom is and was a go-getter. She started her first home business at age 15 making neckties. Later, she earned a degree in fashion design and sewed all her own clothes, including a ton of glorious, sparkly jumpsuits when her band toured across America in the 1970’s. She cut up old stage clothes, reinventing them into Halloween costumes, and I had, arguably, the best dress-up box of anyone. Ever.
My mom sometimes forgot to pick me up from school because she was working and engrossed in a creative project. More than once, in the pre-cell phone era, I sat dejected for over an hour on the steps of my school. When she came to sports practice or drove the carpool, she ALWAYS had a pencil and paper handy to jot down song lyrics. Her expertise were in all things creative, so it wasn’t surprising when she suggested that I use knitted wool knee socks over my shin guards when I joined the soccer team, insisting that it was the same thing the other kids were wearing. (Fortunately, my father spared me the humiliation of this error by taking me to the sport equipment store to get real soccer socks.)
Weaving Broken Threads
I am now 30 years old and I have spent the last 15 years trying not to be like my mother. In many senses, despite her physical presence and her playful, affectionate personality, I had a profoundly lonely childhood. My mom didn’t know how to handle her own disappointments, hurts, and sadness, so she couldn’t help me navigate through the murky waters of my own heart. When it came to the pain and confusion of growing up and being a human, my mom and I didn’t have any of those wisdom-imparting talks I was so hungry for, like Marmie and Jo in “Little Women”. As an adult, I have pursued therapy and long-term friendships with women who receive my emotional messiness in an effort to fill that gulf… but no one else can ever be your mother. Grieving this disconnect and learning to love my mom in her limits has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest tasks of my adult life.
I can see the thread of her emotional absence, connecting so many of my choices. In my early twenties, I was convinced that I would be a stay-at-home mom, and that women who worked gave their kids major abandonment issues. I wrongly attributed my mother’s insistence on living out of her gifts in and beyond our home as the source of my childhood pain. I mistakenly believed that if she hadn’t worked, we would’ve been emotionally connected in the way I longed for. Determined to “not screw up my kids” (when I had them)—I looked with disdain on working moms in my community, superimposing my own emotional brokenness into their stories.
It wasn’t until 3 years ago that this deeply held belief was challenged in the most remarkable way. In my early 20’s, I started working as a music therapist and began writing songs to use with my clients… like my mother. I worked as an elementary school music teacher and used singing, percussion, storytelling, and acting to enthrall the kids…like my mother. Quite unintentionally, I learned some jazz standards to sing to clients and discovered that my voice lent itself perfectly to singing jazz…like my mother. (Damn!) Along the way, I took up my mom’s percussion habit and became a professional drum circle facilitator. But the big kicker came in 2011, when someone asked me the question, “What would you do, if you knew you could not fail?” Much to my own shock, I instantly responded, “I would be a professional singer.”
Since then, I have been slowly, fearfully, tentatively pursuing the very thing I believed was the source of my loneliness: a performance career. Yet, with each step I take to claim my unique gifts as a writer and singer, I feel like I’m coming home. The last three years have forced me to confront, again and again, the judgments I have made about my mom. I built myself a prison when I blamed her talents, gifts, and unction for my emotional pain. I narrowed my definition of womanhood to ensure I would be free of her influence. I wanted to be different. I wanted to make my own way. But as I look honestly, my choices have been reactive—not free. It is a great surprise to me that as I accept my mother more fully, I am becoming separate from her.
For the more I judge my mother, the smaller I must become. It is in embracing her messy, imperfect womanhood—in celebrating her unique flavor and all the ways I am almost exactly like her–that I can recognize the largeness in me. In becoming “like my mother”, I am becoming more myself.
The Unspeaking Center
(Rilke, The Book of Hours I, 17)
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth –
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.
Who is Chelsea?
Chelsea Davis wrote her first song in the bathtub at age 9, because her mother said, “Why don’t you write a song?” Her mom wrote down the lyrics & recorded a cassette of her singing it, and later recorded it at her dad’s recording studio. She is now a jazz singer\songwriter with her project The Aurora Crossing and just released her first big girl single “Caged Bird,” which you can download here. Chelsea blogs about inner healing, the creative process, and vulnerability. She’s grateful to her mother for modeling how to live creatively in every season of life. You can find her music & musings at www.theauroracrossing.com.