On Forgiving My Mother For Leaving Me When I Was A Teenager

Katie leaving

Her happily ever after took her on a journey away from me, and even though I don’t entirely understand that choice, I don’t condemn her for it. It’s a defining event in my life; I am who I am—strong, resilient, a survivor—because of it.

When I was in eighth grade, my mother and I were in a play together. It was a community production of Snow White called “White as Snow, Red as Blood.” I was playing Snow White and my mother was playing her dead mother, a ghost who visits Snow White in her dreams. (She had wanted the role of the evil stepmother, but they cast someone younger.) When people saw in the program that we had the same last name, they would exclaim, “Oh, how perfect! Mother and daughter playing mother and daughter!” I’d smile politely and nod. “Not much of an acting challenge, huh?”

No, I would think to myself. Snow White’s mother is dead, and a few months before rehearsals for the play had started, my mother had abruptly moved out of our house. She was living in a condo in downtown St. Louis, a world away from our house in the suburbs. I had reluctantly been seeing her on the weekends, but had refused to sleep at her new place. So she was, for all intents and purposes, dead to me.

At the end of each performance, my dad would pick me up in the parking lot behind the theater, sometimes engaging in strained small talk with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. I wanted nothing to do with either of them; doing household chores with a bunch of dwarves would have been preferable to watching their marriage of almost 20 years implode.

But I had a front row seat, and obviously, I had to side with my dad, a.k.a. The One Who Stayed. My mother ended up meeting a man who lived in Colorado and marrying him within a year. She moved there and essentially missed every high school milestone.

Then, without warning, my sympathies shifted. Whereas my mother had been the villain, I suddenly felt inclined to defend her right to leave to anyone who would listen. She had, after all, found True Love (a fairytale phrase if there ever was one) with my stepfather, whereas my father, despite also remarrying, had become increasingly bitter, especially toward me.

My two brothers could get away with anything, but my dad watched me like a hawk. Even at 15, I knew what was going on, why I was the target of his wrath—being female, I couldn’t help but remind him of the wife who left him. So I bore the brunt of his unresolved anger and grief.

When people asked me if I missed my mom, my new narrative went something like this: Yes, of course I miss her, but she did what she had to do to find happiness. In my mind she had become a champion of romance, the poster child (woman?) of Sacrificing Everything (Including Your Children) in the Name of Love. No, of course it wasn’t easy for her to leave us, but she had to! She had to pursue True Love!

That was my story and I stuck to it for years. I didn’t let myself get angry or think too critically about her actions. I buried my feelings in the dark forest of my heart, and then forgot I had buried them—until I experienced my first serious bout of depression in my early 20s.

I began seeing a therapist who started asking questions about my family history. There I was, trying to explain to a stranger what had happened all those years ago and insisting that what my mother had done was not traumatic, despite mounting evidence to the contrary (exhibit A: my severe trust issues and tendency to sabotage relationships to avoid being unexpectedly abandoned). Suddenly memories came flooding back, like how my father had wanted couples’ counseling, was willing to try anything to salvage the marriage, and she just hadn’t been interested. How she had surrendered full custody to him without a fight. It was like she just woke up one day and decided she was done with the whole having-a-family thing. My therapist posited that maybe she’d suffered a psychotic break. At the very least, the way she had gone about ending her marriage sounded pretty bizarre and selfish.

This was heartbreaking to acknowledge. For so long I had desperately tried to rationalize my mother’s irrational behavior. In order to not hate her, I’d had to make sense of her hurtful choice to walk out on me and my brothers (and consequently miss the majority of our childhoods). I had rewritten her role so that she was a heroine, not a quitter. And inevitably, my revisionist history was beginning to crack.

I remember very clearly the day she told me she was moving to Colorado. I was in ninth grade, at her condo, and she was helping me get ready for a school formal. When she broke the news, I started sobbing, smearing all the makeup she had just helped me apply. She rocked me in her arms. “I know this doesn’t make sense now,” she whispered, “but someday, when you’re in love, when you meet the love of your life, you’ll understand why I have to go.”

Now I’m 34 and have been in love, as deeply in love as a person can be, and I still don’t get it. But the good news is, I don’t think I need to. Her happily ever after took her on a journey away from me, and even though I don’t entirely understand that choice, I don’t condemn her for it. It’s a defining event in my life; I am who I am—strong, resilient, a survivor—because of it.

In recent years, she’s more than made up for the times when she wasn’t literally there for me when I was a teenager. If I need her, I can pick up the phone and she will get on a plane if I ask her to (I have actually tested this theory). If that’s not True Love, I don’t know what is.

Katie Vagnino is a writer, educator and poet currently based in Eau Claire, WI. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and has taught composition and creative writing at a number of schools/institutions including Roosevelt University, the Newberry Library and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit katievagnino.com.

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