I was raised by a successful woman. My Mother taught my sister and I to cook dinner for ourselves and our kid brother by the time I was nine years old. She used to work late nights at the same tech company she has worked at for as long as I have been alive, so we needed to fend for ourselves most nights.
The first thing she taught us to cook was lasagna. In retrospect that was probably an ambitious dish to start us off with, but we leaned quick and we never went hungry. As it turns out, learning to cook lasagna before you can legally drive a car is a very powerful, character-building experience. Really.
By the time my Mother was the age I am now, she had a six, a five and a three year old to take care of. She had been divorced from my dad for two years, and was working her way up the corporate ladder. We are living vastly different 27 year old lives, but I am the person I am because of her. This is mostly about her, the woman who raised me, but also a little bit about me.
I remember once as a kid we were stopped at a red light at a busy intersection. She had just gotten a new car, a stick shift. She hadn’t ever driven a stick before but someone taught her, probably my Grandfather so she felt confident enough to load her three kids in the car. Something happened though. The light turned from red to green and my Mom tried changing fears but the car wouldn’t budge. We were holding up traffic by this point, and a man in a car behind us starting yelling at my Mom. “Get the fuck out of the way!” Horns were honking and I looked at my Mom and saw that she was crying as she was trying desperately to switch gears and get the fuck out of the way. There was a real moment of frenzy. I remember feeling so panicked and worried. I didn’t know if this guy was going to get even angrier and hurt us? I had no idea. This memory sticks out to me because it was the only time in m childhood that I ever saw my Mother be vulnerable.
She was raised by a tyrant. My Grandfather, god bless him, has the temper of a lion. He would come home after working maintenance at a naval base in San Jose, CA and demand dinner and beer until he would become angry and punch holes in walls or in my Grandmother’s face or until he just passed out. After my Mother turned a certain age, she stopped giving a shit about upsetting him and often purposely did things to do just that. She would urge my Grandmother to leave him. “I’ll quit school and work two jobs. You can do better than him,” she would say. I’m not unaware enough to really believe that my Mom has never been afraid of anything, but as a kid this is how it seemed. In my mind she was a warrior goddess with a gold heart and spikes instead of fingernails. She is incredibly sweet and has a fuse as long as the Hudson River. But cross her just once and she will slay you without blinking an eye. Then she’ll come home, cook dinner for us while teaching my sister and I how to French-braid our own hair while teaching my brother how to throw a curve ball.
The best thing she taught me was this blatant, impressive self-sufficiency. Anything you can do, I can already do for myself. I opened a bank account when I was 17 because she once told me “Always have your own money, Teresa. Never allow yourself to get to a point in your life where you need to rely on someone to pay for you for anything.” Of course I knew that when she said “someone” what she was referring to was “men.”
My own father was verbally abusive to her and considering the household she was raised in, my Mother knew that when she had daughters it would be extremely important that she raise them to believe that to get the job done, they’d need to do it themselves.
My Grandma has never worked a day in her life and has relied on my Grandpa for most everything. I think my Mom used to resent her for that, and I believe my Mom felt that raising her daughters the way she did was absolutely the only option. There would be no bedtime stories about Prince Charming (instead we read books like The Wizard of Oz and The Babysitter’s Club which were heavy on the female heroine). My Mom taught us that not only COULD we rescue our own selves, but we SHOULD. I think my Mom believed that the less my sister and I had to rely on anyone, the less likely they were to hurt us. Now as a grown woman, I completely understand this reasoning. I seem to have built my entire adulthood on that very belief.
But, something isn’t quite right. In the midst of all my raging independence, when I feel sad I have an extremely difficult time saying “I am sad.” I seem to equate sadness with weakness and this is alarming to me. My Mom is not a robot so I am sure she spent a lot of time in her room after we had all gone to sleep feeling all the shit she tried to hide from us. This is why that woman is my hero, but I fear this is also why it is so difficult for me to ask for help.
When I’m sad or worried or stressed to the point that staying in bed all day seems like the only psychically possible thing to do, I do not call a friend to say “Hi, I am not fine.” In my mind, that is absurd. People are busy! Living their lives! No one wants to talk about the fact that I have been wearing the same hoodie for three days or that I haven’t cleaned my kitchen in even longer just because I AM SAD. Get the fuck out of here! This is faulty thinking because I know for a fact that there are people in my life who actually do care about me and how I am doing. They want me to be happy and care about when I am not. I’m not sure if my Mom had anyone to talk to about these kinds of things when I was a kid. Her entire life was her children and her career. I know she put herself last in most situations and I know I do not have any children to worry about, but I do not want to live my life that way.
As of right now, I am not fine. I’m unemployed. I think I have an ulcer. I have no idea how I’m paying rent next month, and I will have lived in New York for one year in two weeks. This should be a time of celebration and poignant reflection. Instead it’s a time of self-doubt and serious crisis and dread. I’m scared. I’m scared to admit I’m scared. I scared that admitting that I’m scared or worried about “making it” in NYC means something damaging to my Mom’s hard work. I need to snap out of it and lol to myself about all that though because the only thing my Mom has ever wanted for her kids is to be happy. Independent, successful and self-sufficient OBVIOUSLY, but most of all, just happy.
And I want that for myself too. The whole point of this is realizing that I don’t need to be strong all the time. I don’t need to slay the dragon by myself EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. I can be vulnerable and ask for help and be thankful that I have people in my life who I can cry in front of and it’ll still all be okay. I’ll still be okay. That’s the whole point, I guess. That’s the lesson for me.
Mom raised us to be unstoppable. That’s the best gift she has given us. The greatest gift I can give back to her is to just be the wonderful person she created. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.