One of the best things my mother did for me was to teach me that it’s OK to tell family that their behavior is harmful to you. Even if it’s your mother.
Last year, I wrote a piece about how supportive my mother was for Mother’s Day. She’s been one of the most outspoken advocates for my ability to consent to sex work (as much as anyone can under a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy). I wrote about how my mother, a second-wave feminist, taught me to have compassion and to challenge my beliefs though her personal work educating herself about trans people and sex workers. My friends told me how much they envied the honesty my family had, and how accepting my parents were of my nonmonogamy, my queerness, my fatness, my politics.
This year, my mother and I are not speaking to each other.
I know, drastic change, right? So what happened?
I imagine you won’t be surprised when I say that it started with Facebook. Lots of my friends refuse to be connected to family on Facebook to avoid the inevitable clashes between parents and friends, particularly around politics. I was incredibly proud that not only could I be friends with my parents on the platform, but they engaged regularly with left-leaning political content. Sure, I’m an anarchist and my parents are liberals with libertarian leanings, but we have enough crossover to not bite each other’s heads off. Or so I thought.
But Trump got elected. And I mourned, fiercely and publicly and often. And I protested, fiercely and publicly and often. I expected my mother, especially, a survivor of sexual assault and gleeful misandrist, would be totally on board. We bonded over too many beers many nights, talking about what the resistance could do to combat the patriarchal onslaught.
And then she said something shitty and microaggressively racist on my Facebook wall.
Now, people make mistakes, or they’re not always aware of their privilege, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt and tried to explain why what she said wasn’t OK. Instead of being gracious, my mother became combative — manifesting first in defensiveness about her behavior, then in complaining about my inability to afford to visit that year, then in dragging my wife into the fray as referee. I tried to set boundaries, and my mother would scoff at them, telling me that I was being needlessly formal or seeing my boundaries as signs I didn’t trust her.
It took me a while, but I began to see the red flags of alcoholism in our interactions, the little ways my boundaries were pushed. Things that I would never again put up with in a partner — dismissal of my feelings, passive aggressiveness — I regularly allowed my mother to get away with because we were family. I thought back to my mother’s refusal to go to therapy and her mastery of deflection that caused us to clash so hard when I was a teen. I realized that this dance of gaslighting and crossing lines and one-sided ownership was one we had been repeating for years, and would continue to repeat until she admitted she had a problem. I knew I couldn’t keep dismissing her refusal to let me have boundaries.
So, I wrote a long email, expressing my frustration and placing some expectations on our future interactions. Clearly stated boundaries on both sides and an expectation of mutual respect has been how I’ve adapted from codependent partners to something more healthy, and I used those lessons in my message to my mother. I hoped that she would acknowledge how contacting my wife to drag her into our disagreement was not OK, and we could move forward with a better relationship.
I haven’t heard from her since.
Even so, I feel that we’re moving forward in terms of our establishment of boundaries, and I can recognize that as a positive thing. Instead of showing appreciation by sending flowers, I’m writing this piece to recognize that one of the best things my mother did for me was to teach me that it’s OK to tell family that their behavior is harmful to you. It’s OK to have a complicated relationship to Mother’s Day. And it’s OK to have a complicated relationship with your mother.