As a kid, my favorite part about spending the night at friends’ houses was the challenge to make their mothers love me. I was determined to be the perfect young lady. Never once did I complain about their food or talk too much or disobey their rules. As a result, I was invited back, again and again, to be part of my friends’ families for a little while, but it was really the mothers who made me want to come over.
Their houses always smelled fantastic like they’d been baking all day. The mothers helped the children with homework. Everyone got along and actually seemed to like each other. I made sure I was funny and talkative and not shy like most of the time. I loved the way the families were relaxed, never walking on eggshells, just living seemingly in peace and harmony. It was too embarrassing to admit I wanted what they had.
Most of the time, I didn’t reciprocate and invite my friends to sleep at my house. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my mother whose bed was the couch in our living room. My mom hoarded so much junk that it overflowed our tiny place. I’d beg her to throw some of it away, but she always refused and got angry. I didn’t realize then that she couldn’t throw things away even when she wanted to because it was a symptom of her mental illness.
I knew my mom had problems with depression, which also contributed to the mess in our apartment. At my young age, I didn’t understand her diagnosis well or anything about mental illness. Nobody really talked about it back then except as a shameful secret in the family. My mother threatened to kill herself repeatedly, leaving me to cry and worry about where I would go if she died. I was still young enough to think that the world revolved around me.
Sometimes I’d stay at my friends’ houses for a couple of days in a row or even more than a week. I made sure to stay in the background and not talk too much so I wouldn’t get sent home. I was never disagreeable or too wild, and I respected the family rules. All the while, I tried to make sure each mother loved me to replace the love and attention I wasn’t getting at home. I stayed away from the fathers, and they stayed away from me. I’m sure all they saw was another kid in the house wanting to be fed.
The mothers were a different story. I could tell they felt sorry for me, although I wasn’t sure of the reasons. It didn’t really make a difference to me what they thought as long as they loved me. I’d stay close by to help them with dishes, laundry, or whatever they wanted. My poor friends got sick of hearing that they should behave more like me. My need to not go home turned me into a goody-goody. Whenever one of the mothers talked with my mother, they always mentioned my sweetness and impeccable manners. My mom would look at me with a surprised face as if she didn’t know me at all.
There was one mother, in particular, my friend Mark’s mom, who I believed was the mother of my dreams. Her name was Chrissie, and she seemed to have an air of grace around her. She was a timeless beauty, slim and petite, but her hugs were bear-sized and filled with love. She never spoke a bad word about anybody and treated Mark with great affection. She was so proud of everything he accomplished.
Whenever somebody said a mean thing around Chrissie, she would scold them gently and say they were being “a tiny bit bad.” That was the worst thing she would ever say about somebody. She seemed so perfect with her shoulder-length blonde hair, her gorgeous face, and even the way she walked and talked. I would have given anything for her to be my real mother, but I knew it wasn’t my place. Still, I thought Mark was the luckiest kid in the world.
Even though I never told them, I was super jealous of my friends with their perfect families and lovely houses. One time my best friend, Susan, canceled plans with me because she was going shopping with her mother.
“Ew… on purpose?” I asked her while rolling my eyes.
“I like spending time with my mom,” Susan told me.
It was such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t relate at all. Maybe my mother loved me, but she definitely didn’t like me enough to hang out together. I felt the same way after years of her neglecting me. Susan didn’t realize it, but what she said made me feel lonelier than ever. I wanted a mom to take me shopping or out for ice cream, just not the mom I had. It made me sad that I couldn’t sit down with my mother and confide in her and talk about boys and school and everything else. She had so many of her own problems that there wasn’t room for mine.
I finally found my own grace when I turned 29 and became a mother for the first time. I never knew I could love a human being as much as I did my son. Everything about him was perfect. Although I suffered a bout of postpartum depression, which became the springboard for my own battle with mental illness, it was completely worth it. Being his mother calmed me down and gave my life purpose. I haven’t always been a perfect mother, but my son’s grace by forgiving me made us even closer.
Becoming a mom made it easier to forgive my own mother. I realize that she did the best she could for me despite suffering from depression her whole life. That is tremendous strength in itself. All the little things I did for my son on a daily basis made me aware that my mom had done the same for me. She wasn’t perfect either, but I’m grateful for everything she did to raise me on her own.
Chrissie passed away a few years ago, and I cried as hard as I would for my own mother. The world seemed darker now that she wasn’t there to spread her love and joy of life. I’m still in touch with some of my pretend mothers. Talking to them always fills up the empty space in my heart.
My mother passed in 2018. My feelings for her were complicated, but I’ve been able to come to a place of forgiveness. I miss her now in a way I never imagined I would.
There’s something else about trying to be part of another family that I didn’t understand until now. In somebody else’s house, I was never able to be myself. All the tiptoeing and forced smiles may have endeared me to them, but they could never love me like my mother did or the way I love my children. When I became a mom for myself, I realized that the bond is unbreakable no matter what happens. Now I have my own grace and beauty on the inside with my family the way Chrissie did.
My kids don’t love me because they have to, but because it’s what they want. Still, when one of them brings home a little friend that seems lonely, I’m extra kind to them. I remember what that’s like and how much I needed some kind of direction. I do this in honor of my pretend moms.