BERKELEY'S NEWS • SEPTEMBER 26, 2022

On becoming my mother

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JANUARY 17, 2019

In high school, I was unremarkable in all the usual ways: insecure, stressed and embarrassed. I was embarrassed of everything about myself — my style, my thoughts, my lack of athletic abilities and, of course, my mother.

I grew up in Massachusetts, amidst a sea of fast-walking students fast-tracked for elite colleges. We all acted as if we were adults, pretending to be sure of ourselves while showing up to high school in business casual attire. Against the buttoned-up community of my seaside prep school, my mother stood out because she didn’t conform to anyone’s expectations. She couldn’t help but be herself. She was always late, overly empathetic and emotionally vulnerable. She’d cry at sad songs and argue with me in parking lots. She was passionate and unapologetic about the things she believed in: poetry, God, yoga, nature walks. I thought a lot of those convictions were trivial.

In contrast to my mother, I was meticulous, punctual and accountable. I imagined myself a serious, unemotional academic. I placed myself on a path of excellence, of good test score after test score, of perfect grades and college admissions. Emotional vulnerability had no place in my life. Productivity was what mattered.

I kept my thoughts and feelings to myself, as I thought emotion was weakness. My mother’s vulnerability only made me more guarded, telling myself I was nothing like her. That was hard to do: my mother and I look the same, I’m often told. Her face — that open book, showing every emotion — is mine too. I fought that openness. I was hiding my emotions, playing the part of a cross-armed, tight-lipped teenager.

She was selfless, loving, and sure of herself — so comfortable with herself that she didn’t falter when I pressed her to be more emotionally restrained. I saw parts of her inside me, but they were too irrational — they felt too deeply, wanted too much and hoped too earnestly for my single-minded focus on success. I thought strength was stoicism and that hope only bred disappointment. I pushed these emotional parts of myself away and urged her to do the same. I told myself I would never become her.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to get as far away as possible. I knew that Massachusetts was too crowded with high expectations and familiar faces for me to ever carve my own path. In the wide-open spaces and sparkling cities of California, without the weight of comparison, I could grow into whoever I wanted to be.

In my quest to be unlike my mother, I stumbled after her footsteps. At 17, my mother’s untempered spirit took her from Massachusetts to California, pulled by the same romantic stories that I was.

Now, she visits me and we walk around San Francisco. She remembers being my age, being here. “I come alive in this city,” she tells me. I know what she means, because I do too. The place sets us free, allowing us to feel and think without judgement. I thought I was running away from her by coming out here. But we both became ourselves in this place. I found part of her here along with her openness.

I realized that my obsession with crafting some better version of myself had a lot more to do with self-hatred than self-improvement. I was scared of people who accepted themselves, always thinking they’d figure out I was pretending to be confident. My mother was the biggest threat to my performance: she loved herself and me, without reservation.

I began to accept my mother only after I began to accept myself. I am learning to love myself, starting with those things I used to hate — my body, its hair and limbs, the parts that jut and the parts that slouch, the muscles that move me and those that shake. My mind, the way it sometimes races with anxiety. That other part — my mother would call it soul. That part that aches, that swells, that rushes with emotion. I came here intending to fall in love with the place. But I felt my mother here and saw her in the mirror, and I fell in love with that too.

Learning to love myself is like learning to walk all over again, but this time I am taller and have farther to fall. But I trust myself because I know that my mother will walk with me, hand outstretched, to steady me when I fall. I thought those emotional parts of me like hers were weak — I tried to drown them. Now, they are the strongest parts of me. Finding my mother in me taught me that vulnerability gives you resilience. I realize that I am something that was made, first in her womb and then by her side. I have no god, no creator but her.

I will never become my mother. The shoes do not fit, and they are not quite my style. She is nurturing and patient, moving through the world with an open heart. I remain skeptical, restless, analytical. But I accept her now in a way I couldn’t before. I know now that her openness scared me because I was emotionally closed. I see her strength, in raising us to live truthfully and passionately. I see her power, in leading with love, even when the world did not respond in kind. I will never be her. But I am becoming her daughter.

Contact Madeleine Gregory at 

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