Apologies to Helen

By Susan Estrich

May 9, 2020 5 min read

"When you're a mother, you'll understand."

How many times did my mother say that? And how many times did I think, "No, I won't, because I'll be a better mother"?

I tried to be a perfect mother. And I failed. For that, I have apologized with all my heart to my children. Because I am, after all, just a flawed, imperfect person struggling to do the best that I can. I need my children's love as much as my mother needed mine.

But I didn't get that. I didn't give it. And for that I am profoundly sorry to a woman who I can only hope felt my imperfect love.

My mother was anxious and insecure. Her mother had been heavy and died young; she embarrassed my mother as a girl when she took her to confront her father's mistress. But my mother didn't tell me that until her late 70s when flying down a Florida highway. She wished that her mother would die, and then she did. How unbelievably painful. And then her father quickly remarried, and the world went to war.

Growing up, my grandmother was never mentioned other than an occasional reference to how perfect she was and how much my mother adored her. I never saw a picture of my mother and grandmother. Actually, I only recall seeing one or two pictures of her. Ever.

So my mother did not tell my sister and I that we were beauties and princesses, and I spent a lifetime reeling from that. Were we really fat and ugly? We were not. Projection. My mother's father had another princess. When my father left, my mother had a nervous breakdown. Men came and left. My mother married and divorced and married and had a few boyfriends in between. She needed to have a man in her life. She lived in terror of getting fat, of not being desired, of being alone; she lived in a state of constant anxiety that something would go wrong. She married a nice old man who finally made her feel more financially secure. She passed at age 80. At her funeral, my sister and brother and I joked about her spending a lifetime worrying whether we would be.

And where was I as my mother struggled? Calling once a week. Racing up the career escalator as fast as a prison escapee would, because in that world, I was as secure as I was insecure in my mom's. We had a good period when I was a young law professor and we lived in the same town and went to the movies and ate Chinese food every Christmas. Why didn't I say we both looked good? Then I moved, and then moved twice more.

I hated my mother's neediness and sadness. I remember, as a law clerk, sitting in my little walk-up shaking with grief after a call with my mom. I was a fixer, but I couldn't make anything better, and I couldn't bear to hear it. She needed more from me, not for me to come up with a man for her (although she wouldn't say no) but for me to remind her of all the wonderful qualities she did have; of how much better-looking and more attractive she was than these old men; and, most importantly, of how much I loved her. Why didn't either of us ever suggest we take a trip together? Just the two of us, or with my sister, too. Could we have ever cut through it — all the hurts and injuries that had led us to injure each other? Was our love for each other strong enough to overcome the hurts and the rest that led us to be each other's hardest critics? I believe it was. Or that it might have been. Or at least that it might have given me the grace at this stage of my life to accept who I had become.

But I was too afraid to try. It was too hard. I couldn't face it. On the night of the 2004 election, I was on a street corner with a phone in my hand and a TV camera in my face, fighting with my mother in between making comments on the election (as Fox arranged all the male talking heads at a table inside the studio). Fox News could have lived without me that night. My mother, not so sure.

Mother's Day isn't usually a time to say you're sorry, but maybe it should be. I am profoundly sorry to my children. Is it a surprise that I find myself alone, like my mother, seeking peace? I am sorry to my children for the times I have let them down; for the days I've spent sick and anxious and depressed; for the times my judgment failed me. But for my kids, I am trying to do better. For my mother, Helen Freedberg, daughter of Ruth (Frank) Freedberg, I am sorry.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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