Motherhood Moments: Love Means Having to Say You're Sorry

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions

Jacquelyn Mitchard and her daughter. Credit: Jacquelyn Mitchard

Picture an old photo of your mother.

Now, picture an old photo of Grace Kelly.

That's the difference between old photos of my mother and those of most mothers. When women my age look at pictures of their moms, they're amazed at how much older their mothers got, even though, in pictures, they're much younger than the daughters are now.

I'm amazed by just the opposite.

My mother died when she was five years younger than I am now, but, at that age, was more stylish and exquisite than I was in my first bloom. That's just how it was. Not long ago, my youngest daughter found a big wedding portrait of my mother in the storage room.

"You know a princess?" she asked me.

That's how she looked, in her satin dress with the 58 buttons down the back of the bodice, and her waist that honestly measured 24 inches. In that picture, she looks the way she was -- gallant and smart, funny and charming, with a strong bright vein of mischief through her personality.

I loved how she looked. I loved how she smelled. I loved how she read. I loved how she refused to cook, telling my brother once, when he complained of a variation on Campbell's tomato soup, "You know, the first thing you need for pot roast is another mother." I loved how she adored me and absolutely believed I would be a sensation.

What I didn't love about her was that she regularly drank herself from Mama Jekyll to Mama Hyde, with a stop along the way at Mrs. Robinson. And even that would have been OK: She was just outrageous enough that flirting with the band at weddings (even if the band included my boyfriend) verged on tolerable. After the flirting and the dancing (she could dance; she could even still do a handspring, at the age of 50, although she would have considered the idea of exercise for its own sake a joke), there came another stage.

It was when there was more lipstick on the filters of her cigarettes than on her lips, and, along with the lipstick, she left the editor on what came out of her mouth. She was a sad clown then, a Pierrot with streaked mascara, and she was dangerous.

And even that, while not OK, would have been bearable, if she had ever, ever once, even once, said that she was sorry.

She weighed only 105 pounds, at 5-feet, 5-inches tall. And I weighed more than that when I was 13. But although it wasn't much more, not more than 20 pounds, it outraged my mother, who said I should start smoking or I'd always be a slob.

And she never apologized.

The only time I ever defied her, coming home from college to attend the wedding of two friends who were having a baby they didn't plan, she called me "slutty."

And she never apologized.

She intercepted and read my letters from a boy five years older, who died in Vietnam, and wrote to him saying that my father didn't approve and that we would never see each other again. By the time I found out and tried to explain that this message wasn't sent with my approval, it was too late. My invaded self was so wounded that I told her that if she ever touched another one of my private things, I would kill her in her sleep. Half an hour later, I was on my knees next to her chair, crying, telling her how much I loved her and that I was sorry.

But she never apologized.

I got used to that ... the never apologizing.

When the first guy I loved hit me, and he didn't apologize, when he said, instead, that it was "unfortunate," I decided no one would ever hit me again, and that, when I was a mother, I would never hit, and that I would never say anything like the things my mother said to me -- the bad things -- and if I did, I would apologize.

It was not a big worry, though, because I would never say any of those things, the bad ones.

When I did become a mother, my mother was already gone.

I could never ask her if it was a function of her generation or a function of her fear that she never said she was sorry when she was wrong, and that my father said he was sorry only once. Perhaps parents didn't, then. Perhaps apologizing seemed to be a '60s sign of weakness, a diminishing of authority that would dilute all other laws or examples by its semblance of self-doubt.

Yet, I have said things to my children that scald my soul in the memory. I once, in a rage, told the daughter I adopted at birth that I wished her birth mother could see what a writhing brat she'd turned out to be. My anger at my middle son once was so towering I slapped him across the face and told him to go live with the girlfriend who'd sneaked in through a sliding door to his bed. The words were worse than the slap.

My lips are not as loose as my mom's were, but the lock on them is faulty. I have done more harm with what comes out of my mouth than anything I've ever put in it.

Once, it took two hours, while I paced and screamed. I told my daughter to stand outside because I was afraid of what else I might say.

But I always apologized.

Usually, it's not hours, and it's never days. It's 10 minutes -- which makes my anger seem just like what it is, virtually a seizure. I always apologize when I'm wrong.

If you don't apologize to someone you've wronged, especially if it's your child, at some point that child starts to doubt himself, or herself, to wonder if he or she is wrong, or even worse, bad, or even worse, crazy.

I'll never be the mother my mother was, in some ways. I'll never be so charming or so much the mistress of the grand gesture. I'll never be the enthralling beauty in black satin whose wide-eyed little girl sits next to the lighted table and watches a pretty woman become breathtaking. I'll never be brave enough to outlive a husband and a son, as she did, during the Korean War and one year afterward, or to survive my grandmother -- whose evil guilt trips made my mother's rages look like patty cakes.

All that said, if one generation is in the water, then one is on the sand, and we hope that one will be up on the highway, and then the next one in the foothills, on the way up to the mountaintop.

If mine is on the highway, it's because they had a flawed mother, as everyone has a flawed mother. I have done so much that was wrong. The only thing that I did right was to admit it.

Jacquelyn Mitchard has written numerous books for adults, young adults and children, and contributed to several popular anthologies about love and parenting. Her novel "The Deep End of the Ocean" was named the second most influential book of the past 25 years by USA Today. Look for her next novel, "Second Nature: A Love Story," this summer, and read her blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.