Sunday, May 11, 2014

Have I a Mother There?

I stopped in to visit my mom recently, and she hugged me tight, and said, "I've missed you. We don't talk as much anymore, and it makes me sad." It made me sad, too.

My life has changed dramatically in the last few years. I used to be a stay-at-home mom, spending my days seeing to my family's needs. It was a good life, and I don't regret the years I was able to be available to them, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was also a busy life, but it seemed that I always had time for what really mattered, the people who really mattered. I had regular outings with my friends, sometimes as playdates with the kids, sometimes a well-deserved girl's night out. And I spent a lot of time with my mom.

Growing up, I wasn't close to my mom. I have seven siblings, brothers all, so my mom was kept busy caring for us, cooking for us, cleaning up after us, trying to get us to pick up after ourselves, attempting to get us to mind our manners. I don't envy her that job. We weren't an easy lot to raise, and she frequently lost her patience with our antics. It seemed to me that she was always angry, unhappy with the life she 'chose', and I tried to stay out of her way as much as I could. I have a few happy  memories from my childhood, but most of what I remember is colored by the contention that is a natural byproduct of a large family, living in a small home, with limited funds.

Once I reached adulthood, and moved out of the family home, my mom and I were able to establish a different kind of relationship. We became friends. She has always had a fabulous sense of humor, and an ability to see the funny side of most situations. She was, and is, well known for her wit and intelligence. And we frequently found ourselves laughing together at life's quirks and inconsistencies. I considered her one of my best friends, and we talked often, on the phone when I lived out of town, over lunch if I lived close by. I visited with  my mom several times a week, spilling the details of my life to someone I knew would be able to help me make sense of it all, and could get me to see the absurdity in taking any of it too seriously. She was my confidante, my therapist, my adviser, my mentor, and my best friend. I felt lucky to have such a mom.

Then, four and a half years ago, I went through some pretty big changes. I had been raised in the church, by a mom (and a dad) who were devout practitioners of Mormonism. The church meant everything to them, and played a big role in all our lives. Their faith continues to be very important to them, and I don't begrudge them this, as I can see how they have benefited from their devotion, and have both found the meaning and comfort that they felt were missing from their own upbringing. Both had experienced traumatic family break-ups, and tragedies, that they attribute to their family's lack of faith in God, and Mormonism. But finally, at age 49, I realized that I did not share their beliefs, and I left the religion my parents cherished.

The past few years have brought other changes to my life, as I returned to work full time, and went back to school, pursuing the master's degree I've always wanted. Those activities, combined with caring for my husband and children, fill my days almost completely, leaving precious little time for relationships I once held dear. Such as my close friendship with my mom. And knowing that I disappointed her by leaving the church has contributed to the distance between us.

For over three years, I avoided the crucial conversation that I knew would break her heart, in fact generally avoiding conversation with her at all. I lived in fear of her rejection, and I knew that she would blame herself for her failure to keep me faithfully in the fold. I knew my mother wasn't responsible for my apostasy, but I also knew that the church's teachings about a parent's duty had sunk deep into her heart, and I did not want to contribute to her sense of failure as a mother. I have never felt that my mother failed me; just the opposite, in fact. It is to her credit that I stayed faithful for as long as I did. She taught me well the tenets of her faith, and my attempts to live by those tenets were out of a desire to please her. But, once I allowed myself to acknowledge that I did not believe the story of Mormonism, I could no longer go along with the practice. My mom also taught me integrity. I could not act in contradiction to what I believed in my heart to be true. She may not like it, but she has to take credit for that as well. Model authenticity, and your children will follow suit

Finally, I girded up my loins, and I had 'the talk' with my mom. It went as expected, with her expressing her deep disappointment, and wondering out loud how she had failed me. I attempted to reassure her that she was not a failure, but the conditioning runs deep. It was a very difficult conversation, one I am glad is behind me. I don't think I could do that again.

That day was a new beginning for us. The wall that had grown up between us started to come down, piece by piece. We began talking more frequently, as I was no longer living in fear of being 'outed'. But, our talks were still somewhat stilted. It was difficult to know what topics were safe, and which would cause her more grief. She had expressed fear that my decisions would no longer be sound ones, made with God's approval. I tried to let her see that the fruits of my choices were good, that I was still a faithful wife and mother, and a contributing member of society. But there were many things I did not share with her, such as my new-found freedom to explore previously forbidden territory. I knew that she did not want to hear about my occasional forays into the land of the infidels. The drinking of alcoholic beverages was of particular concern to her, as the daughter of an alcoholic, and I shielded her from my experimentation. Not all truth is useful.

Many times it felt like we were dancing around a giant elephant in the room, neither of us willing to acknowledge its existence. And it wasn't the behavioral changes that were the most difficult to talk about. It was my changed philosophy of life that proved to be a sticky, uncomfortable topic. Leaving religion causes one to rethink many other presuppositions, and come to vastly different conclusions than one had previously reached. And many times, believers assume that others share their particular worldview, whether the topic be the purpose of life, or current politics, or what constitutes proper moral behavior. And learning how to navigate these topics without causing offense requires a skill many don't possess. Defensiveness is a natural reaction when one feels their way of life is being questioned or challenged. Emotions tend to run high in these circumstances. So, most of the time, we avoided talking about anything of substance. And I was beginning to accept that this was the new 'normal'. What we once had was no more, and there was no going back. Call it collateral damage. Authenticity indeed comes at a price.

Then came that visit a few weeks ago, when my mom told me how much she had missed me. Then she bravely broached the subject that lay at the root of our disconnection. She told me about a conversation she'd had with a friend, who had been informed of my apostasy, and how they had both cried, grieving together my loss of faith. And, interestingly enough, that conversation did not offend or disturb me, but instead opened the door to honest communication. I decided in that moment that if we were going to have any kind of relationship at all, we each need to be free to express our true thoughts and feelings, without fear of offense. We need to be able to talk about those things that move us, and make us who we are at our core. I don't mind my mom 'bearing testimony' to me about the church, as I know that her testimony is an integral part of her. But in return, I need to feel free to talk about my own hard won convictions and beliefs.

As we began to converse, my mom, for the first time, asked me what some of my issues were with the church. I reminded her of what she had said to me in the beginning of our conversation, about how much she missed me, and missed being a part of my life. I told her that I had missed her as well, as she is my mom, the one and only person in my life with whom I have that particular connection. The mother/child relationship is unlike any other relationship in the world. I grew inside of her, attached to her physically and emotionally, closer to her than I will ever be to another living soul. Except for my own children, of course. I had always felt lucky to have a close relationship with my mom, as I know many people, my mom included, who have not had that same experience with their mothers. The maternal bond can be broken in a variety of ways, and frequently is. And I was lucky enough to not only love my mother, I liked her. I could share my life with her, my feelings and my experiences. We laughed together, a lot, and cried together on many occasions. As I said before, she gave me comfort, and counsel, and support. That's what a mom is, and what a mom does.

Growing up in the church, I had been taught that I had a Mother in Heaven, who existed alongside my Father in Heaven. But she was never a part of our worship, we never prayed to her, we never even talked about her, other than the occasional brief mention of her existence. She was a silent partner to our Father. The only reason I've ever been given for this is that she was too sacred to be exposed to the vulgarities of humanity. And we were expected to become like her. But she wasn't really a mother, not in the truest sense of the word. She was not my mentor, nor my counselor, nor my friend. She was not there for me when I cried out in the 'dark night of the soul'. She did not send comfort my way when I struggled, or cried, or prayed. She was an absentee parent. She had no part in my spiritual upbringing. She existed only in a hymn. And once I allowed myself to consider her non-existence, I let go completely of any remaining belief in God himself. Without Her, I don't want Him.

So, when my mom told me how much she missed me, I asked her if she could envision an eternity separated from her children? Denied a presence in their lives, a place in their worship, simply for being 'too sacred'? Unable to comfort them, or counsel them, or just laugh with them at the absurdities of life? What part of this sounds like heaven?

My mom looked thoughtful, and said that she had never before considered this point. Then she added that she would just have faith in her Father in Heaven, and His plan. And I don't blame her. It is a frightening thing to consider the nature of our existence without heavenly parents. Faith in an interventional, personal God isn't an easy thing to let go.

But for me, if that is the only heaven offered, then I politely decline. The only kind of mother I want to be, is the kind of mother my mom is to me.