Published on September 3rd, 2020 | by Miun Gleeson0
An Inheritance of Pain
I became mother-less six weeks before I became a mother. I was informed my mother no longer wanted to be in my life, the culmination of several months of her increasingly distant behavior. But the news was still unexpected, devastating and particularly cruel in its delivery: via text, communicated by a third party, and while I was in my house of worship that is Target.
“Sorry to tell you, but your mom doesn’t want a relationship anymore,” the text read. I read it in disbelief as I stood in the detergent aisle. My eyes desperately scanned the shelves in search of confirmation, and then I read it again. I found my husband in the next aisle and practically spat out the news in disbelief. I held out my phone as proof of such cowardice and abandonment. Who would do this? How can this be happening?
The sting of that rejection, without any real explanation, was profound. The timing was especially unforgiving. It was the ultimate irony, of becoming untethered to my own mother while being inextricably bound to my unborn child. I’ve always wondered how this could have affected my eldest daughter whom I was pregnant with at the time. Because that kind of pain is visceral. On a cellular level, even. Could my daughter feel my pain in utero? Did I genetically “transfer” my own hurt?
I cried endlessly during those newborn days after my daughter was born. Hollowed out from exhaustion, the postpartum pain was etched in me. Leaky breasts, thunderous headaches, and the constant sensation of being unhinged from my own body. My baby and I would cry in unison, synchronous in our distress when we weren’t competing in anguish. Our pain ran on parallel tracks, with me confronting the reality of a mother who wasn’t there while my daughter faced the specter of a similar maternal absence, at least emotionally.
I have shouldered a sense of guilt, of the consequences or even harm I may have inflicted on my daughter. I worry if I indulged too much in what wasn’t there for me, in desperate need of my own mothering as I became a mother. I turned to proxies in my OB, a lactation consultant, Google, and new mom message boards. There is, after all, a postpartum education to be had; a curriculum of witch hazel, peri bottles, and fenugreek. But I had none of the emotional scaffolding to hold me up during that first month. The isolation and loneliness were tremendous.
What could become of a baby that was mothered with such brokenness in those early, formative days?
My daughter, now 8, feels everything deeply. She is sensitive and empathetic. Her trenchant observations both belie her years and break my heart. In equal measure, she will ache at the suffering of homeless people, abandoned animals, and any hint of playground inequities. She is attuned to my own personal pain, whether it’s just a headache or the heartbreak of my father’s death. When my daughter is overwhelmed, she seeks refuge in the silent embrace of my arms, in the scrawling pages of her journal, or in the quiet corners of her room. I often worry about her undercurrent of pain and the intensity with which her feelings get hurt. This is too much for a kid to feel. This is where my guilt seeps in, mathematically auditing the cumulative toll of how my pain became her pain.
But I’ve come to learn that there is a fundamental difference between “pain” and “feeling.” It’s a distinction that has offered me some forgiveness.
Because this child is also full of joy and exuberance. There is a musicality in her laughter, a lilting cadence in her speech as she discovers a snail shell, shares a hard-earned magic trick, or gleefully recounts her younger sister’s latest antics. She is the most generous listener when you have good news to share, saucer-sized eyes and hands clasped in anticipation. She is wholly gracious in her expressions of gratitude, whether it’s for an extra cookie after dinner or the smallest of trinkets. She feels the full complexity of human emotion more acutely than many adults.
With her, I see a redemptive, hopeful quality to her emotional intelligence. I may look back on those newborn days with a sense of sadness, even shame, but I’m grateful I was roused out of the fog to forge a different path. Because there comes a point where you decide what you will do with the pain rendered by others. For me, I knew it could not dictate my own motherhood.
So if I “transferred” anything to my daughter during those earliest, desperate days together, perhaps my daughter’s inheritance was very much the notion of pain. But as she grows, I’m heartened in recognizing the thoughtful way she attends to all of her feelings and a capacity to care that naturally endears her to others. My obligation, then, is to transfer the message that we are not the sum total of pain meted out to us by others. What is most consequential is what we do with it.
I hope that will be her ultimate inheritance of pain from me.