My mom grew up wanting to be a house wife. She and her younger sister spent, based on what I heard growing up, almost the whole of the 1960s watching television. This likely gave my mom a warped view of what it meant to be a mom; Donna Reed wasn’t exactly a documentary. My mom also spent the late 60s being anorexic.

She was the middle child, the Jan Brady, with an older brother (the most loved and also the most dead—he had a heart attack at 34, just like their dad), an older sister (she of the thyroid problem, which rendered her Twiggy thin), and a younger sister (the one my relatives on my mom’s side always talked smack about—she had 3 kids, plus 1 stillborn; didn’t work; and had the nerve to be a little overweight and for her home to be untidy). My mom distinguished herself in 2 ways: ironically, cooking and not eating. By her senior year of high school, my mom was down to less than a hundred pounds, passed out and spent time in the hospital, and was told that she either needed to start eating or prepare for a feeding tube. She opted to eat, but the eating disorder behavior would crop up for decades after and her physical attributes would be her sole source of pride.

Growing up, my mom was the good parent. She was chatty and funny and fragile. People love my mom. Well, they love her for a period of time. My dad always called them my mom’s “friends du jour,” and I have seen the pattern in action. My mom meets someone new, strives to please them by cooking for them, using her sexuality, and/or showering attention on them; people bathe in it. But, when something better or newer comes along, the striving stops and friends are left to fend for themselves. This usually results in the chums getting mad and dumping her or simply doing the slow fade. She doesn’t keep friends for very long. People get tired of feeding her ego or protecting her.

My dad was the bad parent. He yelled and screamed a lot. One time, I didn’t clean my room well enough, so he knocked everything on shelves onto the floor, dumped out every drawer, and made me start over. Another time, I brought a toy to school and it broke. When he asked what happened, I really didn’t know. He didn’t like that answer, so he jumped up and down on the toy until it was tiny chunks and powder. On my mom’s 40th birthday, my dad and I got in a fist fight. Other times, he was great: funny and charismatic. Children and dogs loved him. This is what bipolar people do (the mania deal, not the kids and dogs thing). My dad was diagnosed in my teens, but didn’t believe the diagnosis. Yay? Nope. Not yay.

I can’t look back and claim that my parents were terrible—they weren’t—but I can say that I dealt with more than I was prepared to as a child.

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By the time I was in the fourth grade, I felt obligated to protect my mother. This feeling manifested when I told my father “Fuck you. I hate you, asshole” and he knocked me out of my chair. My mom didn’t step in. My mom never stepped in. She would yell and scream and cry (oh dear heaven, the crying), but she didn’t protect. I did.

In many ways, as I grew older, I became a partner surrogate. My mom and I spent tons of time together and I told her how pretty and young she was (“You’ll always be 32 to me.”) and went on trips with her and I bought her presents. For my parents’ anniversary, I took my saved money and rented them a limo to take them to the best Italian restaurant in town and paid for their meal. When I was in my 20s, my mom’s partner didn’t do well enough for my mom’s birthday and I had to spend 300$ righting that wrong with lavish presents and a meal. I was a single mom; I didn’t have 300$. My mom’s philosophy was, “It’s only money; you can always make more.” For my birthday, she used her store discount to buy me a book while we were shopping together. And, it was after my birthday. That year, her girlfriend du jour got a full vacation to a spa.

Is it fair for an adult child to expect? Probably not. But, knowing that doesn’t make it not hurt. My mom loves me, but she loves being wanted more.

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Even as a child, I suspected my mom was cheating on my dad. She has never admitted it, but I remember visiting her male co-workers and being left alone to play, while they disappeared. She needed to be sexually attractive; she had always defined herself by her figure. In college, she used to flash my boyfriend. One year at Christmas, she flashed her wife’s tits at me by standing behind her and pulling up her shirt. That was the same holiday that my mom’s wife ground her foot against my mom’s vagina while we opened presents. When I was in 6th grade, I asked my mom why she wouldn’t leave my dad and take me away from their constant screaming and dissatisfaction and my mom told me: “If I left your father, I would just bring you from man to man.” When I was in high school and having (largely unwanted) sex with my boyfriend, my dad suspected and asked my mom to talk with me about birth control. My mom told him: “I hope she is having sex because someone should be getting fucked in this house. I’m jealous.” I stopped talking to her when she invited my son and I over and left pictures of herself naked and in bondage up on the fridge. Get down with your kinky self, but don’t show it to your grandkids; they don’t like that. She knew what she wanted. I suspect she also wouldn’t leave because my dad made more money and she couldn’t have raised me alone.

My parents divorced when I was in my early 20s. This was the freedom my mom needed. I was grown and she was in her early 40s. She went out in the world to have a good time. This meant she was gone almost all the time having sex with a number of people (yes, I know this because she talked about it at length). She cheated on partners and went from one to another. When I was attending college and raising my son (she didn’t help much, but we all lived together), she went to work a contract across the country. Around that time, her girlfriend got evicted and my mom had her move in with me. My mom cheated on her a ton, while she was gone; came home; and immediately kicked her out.

It was hard for me to spend my formative years defending my mom, only to have her dump me if someone else came along to pet her ego. My mom called herself a pillow princess; she liked her ego petting a lot. Oddly, when I dated, I was wary of men who reminded me of my dad, but I forgot to look out for friends like my mom. I spent my 20s collecting wounded bird women. I would love and support and compliment and present them and they would get a whiff of dick and ditch me hard. That happens, but it was the case with every female friend I had.

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For my mom and the wounded birds of the world, society protects them. One critique or poor response is met with anger and a sense of betrayal. “How could you say that to me? But, of course you would because you hate me. Everyone just thinks I suck.” Then , it was my job to reassure and I give damn good reassurance. As I grew up, my dad faded from the picture and I took his role in my mom’s life. She painted me as the controlling figure, the killjoy. At times, I was. But, raising your mom is hard work. Additionally, wounded birds are not held accountable, but daughters on the front lines are.

My dad and mom haven’t spoken since my mom got with her present wife. For 3 years, I didn’t speak to her either. This was a catalyst: at my son’s science fair, my mom’s wife took me aside and told me to tell my dad to not call my mom because it upset my mom. My mom apparently needed something and rather than advocate for it, she had her wife get me involved. But, that’s what happens when people think a child is stronger and more well-equipped than a parent. You become the person with agency. My dad still does it. He rails on about my mom’s wife and I have to step in and remind him that my mom is a fully capable human being and not a puppet of her wife’s. If my dad is mad at my mom, he can’t blame her partner; he has to hold my mom accountable for her actions.

My mom hates being accountable. My parents were able to stay married for so long because they were chronic pot smokers and drinkers. My mom became sober a few years ago because her wife threatened to leave if she didn’t get straight and deal with their marriage. It’s a little sad when your mom will do something for a partner and not for you, even though you spent your childhood begging for it. My mom actually asked my junior high and high school friends to smoke her out. I guess my mom needed to be ready to quit and just wasn’t until recently. Now, my mom talks about how much more she could have done with her life if she hadn’t checked out for decades.

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Nowadays, I talk to my dad almost every day. I never would have predicted that. But, when I started raising a child and was still raising my mom, I realized a lot. My dad didn’t react to things well and I won’t ever, ever defend him on that. I now recognize what working graveyard and trying to hang with a day shift family does. I know what it is to try to create a home without help. I know that parenting isn’t what my mom represented it as. Apparently, I was in charge of myself after I hit 12. Why? I wasn’t making good decisions: I spent every morning as a latch key kid buying candy at the local mini-mart. I also know that my dad had a shit upbringing and has spent his life as an injured animal. He snarls and bites. My mom exerts power by pushing people to that point and then crying. She likely doesn’t do it on purpose, but it works. New people will line up to protect her. My father, the beaten dog, and my mom, the canny fox.

My mom and dad aren’t perfect and my relationship with them isn’t either. Any time my mom and I got into a fight, she would say one of two things: “There’s no point in fighting with you; I won’t ever win” and “You’ll be sorry when I am dead.” She isn’t wrong on either point. I will call my mom today and I already bought her a present. I will probably see her soon and be glad that I have. But, I am also glad I took a break from her. On our current footing, I can love her, but I don’t have to protect her and I am happy for that every day. I do wish that she could have gotten the joy from me that she got from people wanting to have sex with her and I wish she had wanted to protect me. But, I like my life and it is the life my mother gave me.

TL;DR: My mom is fucked up and I love her.