When You’re a Mother Who Needs Her Mother (Who Needed Her Mother)

At Family Equality, we know that every family story is unique. To honor and recognize the complexities of Mothers’ Day in our community, Family Equality’s Chief Executive Officer, Stacey Stevenson, shares a piece of her motherhood journey—as a mother who needs her mother who needed her mother. 

“She gives my kids the maternal figure I never had.” 

I uttered these words to a co-worker a few months after my mother moved in with us. I was quite proud of myself for being able to make such a revelatory statement; yet another feather in my “evolved cap.”

Sure, my mother and I had a strained relationship. Sure, we did not show affection. Sure, I didn’t feel love growing up. But now the maternal instincts that I so desired from my mother when I was a child showed up for my twins. It was a win-win situation.

At first, I said those words with a smile—not one tear or crack in composure. I delivered my lines  with such surgical precision that my wounds were barely noticeable.

But the wounds were still there. I had just gone numb, and I didn’t even realize it until I asked my mother why she didn’t like me when I was a child.

We were driving to visit my aunt. The ride was quiet as usual, with a spattering of niceties and small talk here and there. My mom and I didn’t really have conversations. I think we both found it difficult to communicate with each other.

Before her nervous breakdown, my mom was motivated, a hard worker. Now, she was a shell of her former self. Although she had me at the age of 18, she managed to leave an abusive relationship and finish nursing school—all while being a single parent. But her breakdown was imminent; a result of living with trauma and putting self-care, mental health, and healing on the back burner.

As I drove, I churned over how to broach the subject. Now that I was a mother and absolutely adored my kids, I wondered why my mom didn’t feel the same about me. I nearly talked myself out of asking by the time I found the courage and just blurted it out. “Mom, did you know when I was growing up, I felt like you didn’t like me?”

She looked surprised and said, “Why would you think that? I’ve always loved my children.” 

“Well, I didn’t know or feel it,” I said, trying to hold back my tears.

“Was I mean to you?” she asked. 

“Yes, sometimes,” I said. “ Mostly, we didn’t show affection or emotion. We didn’t hug or say I love you. You just acted like you didn’t like me.”

She was silent for a moment and asked, “Do you think I treated you that way due to all of the problems I had in my life?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I’ve always loved my children,” she repeated.

It was not the outcome I was looking for, but it was enough of a confirmation for me. She gave me the only love she knew how to give.

And as we sat there quietly, I realized we were two women who desperately needed our mothers. And my mother’s mother desperately needed her mother and so goes the generations of unanswered need.

You see, my mother was not the root of the generational problem, but she was certainly my connection to the root system. When a tree’s root system is overexposed to water, fungus attacks. Just the same, overexposed to pain, my family became a dysfunctional system. 

As a mom, and as a daughter, I realize I have a choice: Decay with the rest of the system or be replanted. It’s not an easy process or a simple choice. Like most root systems, our ties are intricate, complicated, and far-reaching. But by doing the hard, real work, I know I am setting myself free to create a new system of my own—for myself and for my sons.