Things That Have Mothered Me That Are Not My Mothers

An illustrated tree is losing its leaves, which turn into birds as they move away from the tree

feature image by philipp igumnov/Getty Images

When I was young, I worshiped my adoptive mother. I thought she was infallible, strong, unconquerable. Even as she hurt me, I adjusted and decided it was on me to be a better daughter. I failed at that. I would often respond to questions from her with “I don’t know” even when I did know the answer because being in her presence wiped my brain, I stuttered and couldn’t make sense of my own thoughts. I was met with ridicule and violence when this happened, which only furthered my speechlessness.

In the times that she was most cruel to me, I turned to a vision of my biological mother, who I had never met, and hoped to be saved by her. My biological mother, in my mind, was tall and statuesque, she was well-read and could play the piano. I had always heard that I had “piano-playing fingers,” and that coupled with my favorite song “Maybe” in the musical Annie, helped me craft a vision of my biological mother that was worldly, talented, and kind.

On the day I turned 18, I woke up on my college campus and called the adoption agency I had been placed through. I left a message asking to speak with someone that could help me find my mother. After about a year and a half of searching and coming up with nothing, my investigator found her, and she agreed to meet me.

It didn’t take long for that to fall apart. My mother’s daughter told her that she didn’t believe I was “family” and that meeting me would be a mistake. So she called the whole thing off.

I’ve never felt mothered by the women who were entrusted with mothering me. Instead, I felt abandoned, neglected, and ridiculed. In my own way though, I have been mothered. Just not by the traditional modes and means. I believe that mothering is a loving act still, despite how I’ve been treated. I think of all the things that have taught me lessons and made me the woman I am and feel that, even if my mothers didn’t care for me the way I wanted them to, I still came out on the other side, not unscathed, but survived.


Anger

My parents’ anger, but especially the anger of my adoptive mother, scared me for years. I thought that being angry meant you always used your fist or your tongue to lash out and harm someone else. I couldn’t access my own anger for a long time, and instead defaulted to intense despair or, eventually, numbness brought on by the use of alcohol and drugs.

I didn’t really start reckoning with my anger until I was sexually assaulted and facing down a trial against the man that did it. I had violent dreams of beating him to a pulp. I bought a sharp tool to defend myself after long days at work and ended up stabbing a pillow with it 50 times. I felt marbled with anger, like it had completely embedded itself within me.

Once I got control of that anger, it taught me a lot, namely what I would and wouldn’t allow to happen to my body. From my mother’s unprovoked assaults to being raped, I realized after years that my body was mine and my anger was mine and I could harness it into something useful. I started training Krav Maga and taking self-defense classes. I learned that anger could come with a sense of empowerment and control.

Anger is not a burden. Anger is like a small fruit with a hard core. It has tough and bitter skin. You have to stretch your hands through thorns to pick it. It is a protective measure as much as it is an emotion. I had to learn that the long way, with lots of therapy and through the help of my trainer who was always there when I needed to punch something.

Anger can be nourishing, if you use it the right way, and if you are patient. You have to know how to handle it so you don’t get hurt. Handling anger, you have to bypass the thorns, dig your nails into the thick skin, and reveal the ripe fruit beneath. What you do with the tender fruit is up to you.


Autumn

I was born in October at the end of the month, on the day before Halloween. This has always come with a sense of allure for me. Autumn is my favorite time of year not only because I was born in its magnetic color, but because it houses so much of the energy I find central to my personality. Autumn isn’t afraid of the dark, isn’t afraid to get dirt under its nails, to get shadowy and reflective. Every year, in autumn, I feel a pull toward something greater than me. I look at the moon more. I write more. I’m constantly grappling with the question of why am I here, why was I born, and what do I do with my one life? I have in varying degrees begun to answer these questions, and when I ask what I am to do with my life the answer is always clear: write.


Solitude

I was about five weeks premature, which could have been caused by anything but was likely caused by my biological mother’s drug use. I was underweight and not very healthy at birth. I don’t know much about the days following my birth, but I imagine they were eclipsed by the loss of my mother. I was told by foster parents that I didn’t tolerate being held. I came into the world alone, and that lonesomeness carries with me today.

As a kid in my adoptive home, I also spent most of my time alone. Either I was reading, writing, or — in later years — chatting with friends on the internet. Solitude was the time I got to spend with myself and often away from the cruelty of my mother. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t cruel to myself. I often mirrored behavior exhibited toward me when I was young. I cursed at myself, insisted that I was stupid and worthless, hit myself.

There were of course very heavy times in my life, but I like to think of the things that made me feel light as well. Like storytelling, immersing myself in song lyrics, in poetry, and in fiction. In my solitude, I created surrogates for myself that were all-powerful. They were witches and vampires, they were loved and revered. I got to exist in a world that was much kinder to me than the real one.

Solitude is my companion, which I know sounds strange. There is something comforting in silence. Sometimes when I am alone in my apartment, which is often, I just sit in silence with my eyes closed, head titled back on a chair. Learning to be alone without harming myself, trusting myself enough to not be a danger when I was my only company, that was powerful.

If anger is a fruit then solitude is a sea. It washes over everything, pulls at your core, and washes you clean after a day spent among others. If solitude is the sea then the stars reflected in its waters are dreams. The capacity to dream is so important to my mental and physical health. If I can dream, I am at peace. If I can dream, I know that I am alive, and that is a gift after so many years spent wishing I wasn’t.


Purple

I have been drawn to purple as a color for as long as I can remember, in all of its shades. At some point in elementary school, we learned about the Phoenicians, and I began to associate purple with regality and royalty. When my mother and I got into arguments, or when she beat me out of anger, she would sometimes come to me after with a gift instead of an apology, and that gift was often lavender. Lavender scented soaps, lotions, and perfumes. I would swath myself in lavender to ease the pain of being rejected by the woman whose approval I wanted the most.

When I moved into my first solo apartment, I asked that the landlord paint the bedroom a cool lavender shade. My bedroom is my safe space and my sanctuary, and the color is half the reason. I’ve crafted a life that is much gentler now than it ever was before and as trivial as it sounds, I still come to the color purple when I need comfort, or when I need to feel confident and protected.


Birdsong

The first thing I remember being very curious about was bird song. Hearing the sounds, trying to track the bird down, wondering what it looked like and how it found itself in my city. My family lived in a neighborhood that, before gentrification, wasn’t a place that people visited unless they had to. My younger brother and I used to joke that when you crossed the border from our neighborhood, Garfield, to an adjacent one, Shadyside, the sidewalks suddenly leveled out beneath your feet, the sun came out, and the birds had color on their wings.

Seeing my first robin, my first cardinal, my first blue jay, all were monumental moments. Listening to the way they communicated with each other and asking questions about what certain calls meant, all of it opened up a window into the natural world for me. My curiosity was mostly relegated to the world of books and science, but when it came to birds, I was always in a state of wonder at their song and wanted to know more.

More often than not, the thing that wakes me up in the morning is the birds outside my window. They are loud and brash, but also sweet. My landlord recently cut down the trees outside my window so the noises have lessened, but I can still hear the crows and the sparrows when I listen. The first woodpecker I ever heard taught me to ask questions, a thing I was once very afraid of.


Disappointment

I’m a writer, primarily a poet, so my life is filled with 70% rejection. I submit to journals, I pitch to publications, and ultimately, more than half of them say no. Disappointment might sound like a cruel mother, but I have found that there is some solace in it. Disappointment taught me that people say no, and by extension, I can say no myself. I can reject lowball job offers, potential lovers, or any situation that I don’t feel fits my needs or desires. The power to say no has meant the world to me as an adult who has survived trauma, my “no’s” are loud and self-assured now whereas in the past they were a whisper, or not there at all.


Literature

The first time I ever saw myself truly reflected in a story was reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. I started a tradition of re-reading the book every year after my first read. There are many things that set me apart from the main character in the novel, and many things that bind us. I explicitly remember crying when a church member confronts Jeanette about her relationship with Melanie and tells Jeanette that Melanie never loved her at all. There was so much in that moment for me, as I had just gone through a heartbreak myself.

Of course, there was also the complicated mother-daughter relationship that is central to the book that made me feel seen albeit devastated. My mom was not there when I had my heart broken by a woman for the first time, she wasn’t there because I didn’t trust that she would care about it, that she had the capacity to talk about it with me.

Reading Oranges also compelled me to read Winterson’s memoir, and that experience brought with it even more tears. Her reflections on the loss at the center of adoption so eloquently put what I had been trying to say my whole life into words. Literature is good for that, making you feel like every pain you have felt in your life can be summed up in one paragraph written by an expert writer.

I have found mothering in the words of so many authors, poets, and fiction writers alike. I have had wounds tended to, fears assuaged, and triumphs lifted in the words of other writers. It’s the beauty in what we do as people who write. That hope that someone who is at a low point, or who is lost, will find direction in your words.

This is just a shortlist, but every Mother’s Day I find myself reflecting on these things, and being grateful for the mothers I have had. If this is a hard holiday for you, for whatever reason, I’m sending you love and wishing you healing.


We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! We need YOU to sign up for A+ to help keep this indie queer media site funded. A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year. If you can, will you join?

Join A+

danijanae

Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

Dani has written 84 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. This is gorgeous. The intensity of your experiences and reflections come out through the beautiful language. Thank you for sharing this with the world.

    Mother’s Day is both a wonderful and troubled holiday for me. Joy at celebrating a childhood I’ve created for my own kids that is very unlike my own, yet I still mourn my own lack of mothering. I find a lot of comfort in your words. Advice for unmothered women says to find other mothers: teachers, mentors, etc. But I’ve never been able to do that. My mothers have been the Moon, the Sea, the winds in autumn. This beautiful article has made me feel this is valid, too.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!