From Toxic Mother to Loving Grandmother: How I Learned to Forgive My Mom After My Son Was Born
She wasn’t there for me when I was growing up, but she’s ready to be the grandmother my son deserves.
Confusion flickers across people’s faces when I tell them I’m moving back to my hometown of Philadelphia.
“For work? Your husband’s job?”
“But San Francisco is so lovely,” they mutter. “The beach...the palm trees.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. San Francisco has the ocean, a seemingly endless number of wineries, and weather that is so consistent you never even have to talk about it.
Going home again wasn’t my plan. I was (and still am) the kind of person who scoffs at the “big-city girl goes home” plots in Hallmark movies. My fantasy adult life involved moving away from home and setting down roots in a new place.
“I’m moving to be closer to my mom,” I tell people when they ask why I’m traveling thousands of miles from where I had my son and bought my first house, from the place where my husband has lived for the last 20 years.
My mom. Those words catch a little in my throat. If you’d told me at any other point in my life that I’d move my small family to be closer to my mother, I would have suggested you get your head checked.
She was never the mother of the year. I’m not sharing anything she wouldn’t tell you herself. When I was growing up, she was often depressed, anxious, and codependent on my difficult father. My mom was there for me some of the time, but at others, she was hardly present at all—emotionally or physically. I was often terrified to bring friends home because I never knew if she’d be manically happy or passed out on the couch watching Oprah.
Her clinical depression was so bad that she nearly didn’t make it to my wedding four years ago. And the most difficult part was that she didn’t even seem to care.
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But my mom is a different person now. She found the right mix of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes to become healthier. She wants to be a part of my life. She desperately wants to be a part of my son’s life. And my heart explodes a little when I watch her with Charlie.
She may not have been built to be the world’s best mom, but she has everything it takes to be a varsity-level grandmother. She loves nothing more than to chase squirrels with Charlie, show him how to squeeze mashed yolks into a deviled egg, mix pancake batter, and draw him pictures of dinosaurs. My kid has an endless appetite for badly drawn giant lizards. And, honestly, I hate drawing giant lizards.
My life in San Francisco was pretty, and it looked great on Instagram. But we struggled every day to make it in a city where we had no family. Child-care costs were upwards of $4,000 a month, without a weekly date night. If one of us got sick, our well-oiled machine of part-time day care, nanny share, and babysitters fell apart, and one of us fell behind at work.
I’m not saying my mother is the solution to all our child-care needs, but she’s part of the village of family and friends we will find in Philly. I’ve never been a person who is very good at asking for help. But as we try for our second baby, as I struggle to maintain my career as an author, and as my husband works to build his own company, I’m ready to admit that we need it.
I had to let go of a lot of baggage and residual bitterness so my son could have the grandmother he deserves. I still look at the earrings my mother-in-law gave me on the morning of my wedding and think about how my own mom didn’t come to see me before the ceremony. I still think of the times she forgot to pick me up from after-school care and the lacrosse games she never made it to in high school.
But then I look at the cows she painted on the wall of her guest room the day after Charlie learned to say “moo.” And I think about the toddler bed she bought and put together so he can sleep over when I have to go to meetings in New York.
Becoming a mother means letting go of fantasies about how your life should look. I thought my perfect mom life included a beach, palm trees, and sweater weather. It doesn’t. It involves forgiving my mom, asking for help, and going back home.
Jo Piazza’s most recent novel is Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.