Can Having a Child Help Me Get Over My Abusive Mom?

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Photo: Chad Ehlers/Stock Connection/Corbis

It has been almost nine years since I last spoke to my mother. You could break the spine of the DSM-V trying to diagnose her many mental illnesses: drug addiction, narcissistic personality disorder, quite possibly bipolar, with bouts of paranoia and megalomania. But really I see my mother as suffering from a spiritual autoimmune disease — an uncontrollable impulse to destroy anything healthy or good in her life, including me, her only child.

I want to say there was a definitive moment when I realized this, and that was the day I ended my relationship with her, but like my own battle with addiction, I had to suffer a long time, knowing full well that things were never going to get better, until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I simply stopped answering her phone calls (it helped that I lived across the country from her) and when she persisted in calling me 13 or 14 times a day, I changed my number. She has since tracked me down and leaves the occasional stream-of-consciousness rant full of conspiracies, accusations, and lies — she’s writing a book about me; she’s homeless and needs $50; she’s ready for me to apologize to her.

Some days I can sit with certain memories and feel genuine compassion for the brilliant and deeply flawed woman who gave me my life. This is, after all, the woman who moved a brick of cocaine so she could pay my tuition at a private school in cash. I can finally laugh about some of the darkest times, the awkward, almost Vaudevillian way she would hurl cans of soup at me, always missing — something I choose to see as a deliberate, though twisted, act of love. I’m not over it, but I get on with my life.

And yet, when the second Sunday in May approaches, and the advertising campaigns gear up, flooding my inbox with special offers for flowers and facials and hand-crafted keepsakes on Etsy, ads mixing too many shades of pink, urging me to “show her that I really care” – something inside me explodes. I spent 26 years not so much “showing her I care” but being her full-time caretaker. I was her chambermaid, her punching bag, and her unpaid intern. There’s no holiday for a relationship like ours.

This year, though, is different. This year I am pregnant with an almost fully cooked little boy, a few short weeks away from the big show that will transition me from daughter to mother.

I thought I would have had a major relapse of mommy issues during this pregnancy — in the past, this has meant cataracts of grief in the middle of the grocery store — but the opposite has been true. I have thought about my mother less in these past nine months than ever before. I can’t deny there are echoes of her life in mine. Like her, I am doing this alone, by choice, having decided very early in my first trimester that the best thing for both my son and me was to end my romantic relationship with his dad. Like her, I have outsize aspirations for this unborn little boy. (“You know the president of the United States was raised by a single mother,” I have told the boy in my belly several times already.) But what has sustained me through all the prenatal anxiety is the knowledge that I am so very different from her: sober, educated, older, and more mature (the latter two are not redundant). While I don’t have a lot of money, I have enough to pay a lawyer and a therapist to advise me; and what’s more, I have a network of stable friendships to carry me through whatever happens. I know I won’t be a perfect mother — there's no such thing — but I can guarantee that I will be emotionally present for my son in a way mine simply couldn’t be for me. I want his life to be so safe and consistent that he complains of boredom. The commonplace horrors I survived as a child will be things he only reads about in books or sees in movies.

Perhaps this psychic anesthesia I’m feeling about my mother right now is, like Braxton-Hicks contractions, my body’s way of preparing me for labor, making me calm and strong for the task ahead. Pregnancy is a remarkably efficient housekeeper, mentally if not physically. When something’s not useful — an old bookcase, the ghost of my mother — it’s simply thrown out to make room for the new baby.

While I can’t predict the future, this emotional clearing might be an opportunity to create a new experience of motherhood, starting with the day that celebrates it.  I have the chance to start to write a new script, both for me and my son. It will be a few years before I get so much as a painted macaroni necklace from my son on Mothers’ Day, so this year I have given myself two gifts — a prenatal massage appointment, and a new sense of deep faith: If that lunatic could do it, I sure as hell can.

Domenica Ruta is the author of the memoir With or Without You.