Love Letter, Unsent

Photo of the author being given a bath. Presumably by the author’s mother.

Dear Mom,

I miss you.

It has been exactly a year since we last communicated. I recognize our estrangement remains fully my choice, that I have only to pick up the phone and you or dad would without doubt answer. I think about that option every day.

I miss you—deeply—every day.

And, every day, I remember: sometimes we face decisions where all the options are bad. All that anyone can do then is choose the least shitty of the shitty outcomes.

And so I choose to orphan myself.

For me, losing you remains the least-bad option available.

* * *

I remember clearly that it was Valentine’s Day, the last day I replied to any message from you. One of the texts you sent, amid that final flurry of texts, simply said “Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you!” And I’m sure you thought that was innocuous. I’m sure you thought that, THAT, was a message I couldn’t possibly take issue with.

And so I would give you what you wanted.

But this is not how love works. This is not how anything works.

Every text message and email you sent me during that final 24-hour period pivoted on the word “love.” Every deployment of the word you could think of, each message seemingly removed from the context of all the others—as if you were running field tests to see which use of “love” was the most effective strategy for manipulating the recipient. Every strategy except the one that actually would have worked: honesty.

By which I don’t mean that I think you were dishonest in saying you love me. (I know you love me, and I hope you know I love you too. More than that, I believe we genuinely like each other.) But you were not being honest—not with me, and not with yourself—about what you wanted from me that day. Which was not simply (and let us please be honest about this now, a full year later) a phone call in which I reassured you about my life.

You wanted a phone call in which I performed brokenness for you.

You wanted me to prove that yes, I was broken enough to justify that unexplained deep unhappiness you were feeling [“see! a mother always knows!”] but no, not so broken that you needed to hold onto that deep and apparently-inexplicable [gimme a sec, I’ll explain it for you] unhappiness. Because, moment of honesty again? When I actually was broken, several years ago—when I was suicidal, and you were the first and only person I told—your response was not to demonstrate worry. Your response was to perform being pissed off.

To sic my scary dad on me. To uninvite me from the family Christmas. To buy me another one of those damn “cover up the fat daughter!” coats I’d begged you not to buy and then drive away. To repeatedly tell me how ashamed I made you feel in front of your friends.

So, you see, whenever you start bombarding me with “you are very loved and therefore you must call me immediately” messages, I know in my bones that whatever is troubling you? Ain’t got shit to do with me.

(Though, to be fair, text messages are hella preferable to earlier years when you used to call the cops on me, if I didn’t return your phone calls within a time frame to your liking. Do you have any idea how upsetting it was the night a policeman showed up on my doorstep, only to say “uh…call your mother ” and walk away? [Hint: the answer starts with “very.”])

After a lifetime of being groomed to respond with fear to certain commands, though, a person will respond with fear even when you change up the delivery method. No matter how many different ways you find to announce, “LOVE IS WHY YOU SHOULD OBEY ME,” I can recognize an annoyed policeman under a porch light when I see one.

You know what makes me saddest for both of us?

If you had even once admitted why you really wanted to hear my voice, I’d have called you in a red-hot second.

* * *

Let’s talk for a moment about the unnamed elephant in the room, shall we?

Let’s talk about my father.

Let’s talk about all the ways you have been talking to me about him since I was 14. Do you realize we’ve been having the same conversation now for over 30 years? (A discussion that you should properly have had with a close friend and not your school-age daughter, though perhaps I have always functioned as a bit of an oubliette for you: telling only me is as good as telling no one. Maybe even better.)

This conversation, to remind you, is the one that starts with you telling me how unhappy you are in your marriage, how trapped and controlled you feel—then somewhere in the middle you cry and I try to get you to think about leaving him—and it always wraps up with you saying something to the effect of how you never will, because what good would that do now. “My life is already over” were the words you used the last time we had this conversation, just a few years ago. And I’d’ve felt really sad for you at that moment, except that this was the same reason you gave me back when I was in high school and you were younger than I am now.

It isn’t that I don’t still find the sentiment sad. It’s that stalled repetition has finally worn out the engine that powers my empathy.

Pick anytime in the last three-plus decades, and you could’ve found me twisted and pretzeled into the most extreme desire to help you leave. To support you anyway I was able. There was a time, not so long ago even, that merely thinking a hypothetical “what if she actually left him?” was enough to drop me to my knees sobbing in imagined gratitude. But I have come to the end of myself, on this subject. And I have finally recognized that no matter how much my childhood self believes it is My Job to save you, you don’t want to be saved. You just don’t want me to leave you alone with him.

I have also realized that when you start rapid-firing messages that all say you have been suddenly seized with conviction that I am in terrible distress and so I must call home right away(!) to reassure you, what you really mean is that you are in terrible distress. And who wouldn’t rather see herself filled with maternal concern (“I am such an empathetic mother”) than admit to marital breakdown (“I am such an unhappy wife”).

“I love you” in this context means “save me from knowing myself.”

I get the sentiment, and the desperation behind it. I really do.

But my engine for playing this charade on command has finally worn out, too.

* * *

I wonder if you realize that I never intended for last Valentine’s Day to be the last time we spoke? This estrangement was never something I planned. When I finally got my head calm and organized enough to respond, I didn’t say “Begone with you!” or anything of the sort.

No. I said I felt manipulated. I said it felt unfair to turn “you haven’t yet responded to a casual email I sent you last night” into “you do not understand the meanings and obligations of love.”

I did not say (because I did not yet have the right words), but I meant: it is unfair to use “I love you” as a lever to control someone.

It is unfair, and it is unloving.

Another thing I didn’t say then, but have realized since: you also use “I hate you” as a lever to control me. Specifically, you tell me you hate me when my father is unwilling to tell me directly that he is angry at me. He takes his displeasure out on you, until you take your discomfort out on me.

That too is unfair. On all sides.

* * *

I have gotten so much better, over these months of distance. I have recovered parts of my brain, all the parts of myself, long lost in the fog of trauma and PTSD. Is that something you want to know?

Is it better or worse, to know that your child—your child whom I do believe you truly love—can only learn to love herself after she estranges from you completely?

I have no idea the answer to that. I don’t even know how to feel about you now, or about my father. I go into a jumble of conflicting strains: Compassion, because I do understand (perhaps better than you understand yourselves) the kinds of early pressures and childhood pains you each endured and how much they hurt and warped you. Anger, at the childhood pressures and pains I endured from the two of you and which you both deny and refuse responsibility for, to this day. And horror, at the ongoing dynamics of control and abuse that are unmistakable to my experience-trained eye when I am with you both.

(Baffled what I mean by that last one? It was not coincidence, shall we say, that during your final visit to my town, we all drank heavily every night you were here.)

* * *

So, here we now are. Valentine’s Day.


And I don’t know how to end this letter.

I don’t know how to make you know that I still love you, or that I know you still love me. Under all the words, under all the levers of the I love you’s and the I hate you’s, there is yet an abiding love that remains unspoken.

Perhaps if I put it like this: Please know, mom, there is no one on this earth—NO ONE—I’d ever chose before you…

Except myself.

All my love,

72 thoughts on “Love Letter, Unsent

  1. Connected so much with this one – only in my case, it’s my father. My favourite line: “And so I choose to orphan myself. For me, losing you remains the least-bad option available.” Exactly. It’s so liberating to hear someone else – so honestly, cleverly and eloquently – write the words that seem to have been struck somewhere in that black hole between my brain and my heart. And another concept I never thought of but rings so true it actually hurts my ears: “it is unfair to use ‘I love you’ as a lever to control someone.” Indeed, it is unfair.

    Thanks again, for your art, and your bravery to share this with others…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shelley, for pointing to those two lines. They feel to me the heart of what’s at issue in both the pain, and the decision, leading to family estrangement. It helps knowing they rang true to you too.


  2. Whew! Familial relationships are complex. The part that resonated with me was your mom making you her confidante about her relationship with your father when you were just 14. My mother did the same. She never spoke about leaving, but I was subjected to her unhappiness (at times) and dissatisfaction (often) with her marriage. I was close to my father! My way of processing this was to not marry. So, I’m 57– never married, no regrets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel as though — individual personalities and circumstances aside — the impossible and contradictory expectations placed on women by our society lend themselves far too easily to unhealthy mother-daughter relationships. Glad to hear you are regret-free on the choices you’ve made!


  3. This nearly brought me to tears. I read this in my car, feeling the sun through the glass like the heat I feel when I recall so many memories of my own mother. A complex, emotional and manipulative mess who loves me even though she can only express it in the most selfish ways possible. I went six months without speaking to her. I blocked her on everything possible, tried to move home as far away as I could, refused any family member who tried to tell me she was upset. But she apologised for my sister’s molester, tried to shame my sister into talking with him again, and yet she still couldn’t understand why I was furious. But I caved and did speak to her again. Luckily, I got a cat to console my loneliness and lack of connection at the time to anyone who could really be there for me in the darkness of night.

    You write beautifully, and I’m so sorry for your pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Willow. I’m so sorry for -your- pain! I wish there were better answers for how to cope with generations of pain and injury, passed down like a family inheritance, than the ones we have. Connections, wherever you can find them. Cats, always good to have in your corner! And then, time and distance…

      All best my wishes for true healing be with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Alice, you are an amazing and strong woman! I’m glad you are putting yourself first. It’s crazy to me as a parent to think how others use their love to manipulate, among other things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Anxious! It’s hard for me to understand, too… until I remember some people may have never experienced a NON-manipulative relationship, starting with how they were treated by their own parents. And then I just feel sad — but also grateful to be getting out, and thankful for the dear friends who model for me another way of loving!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very deep blog and it also hit home. I was estranged from both my parents also and it was only away from them did I find myself. I left all the bad feelings behind (or suppressed them?) and made a wonderful life with an amazing husband of 42 years with 5 great kids and 9 grandchildren. Hang in there..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, AgShap, and thank you for sharing that point of connection! It can sound to some people like an unforgivable betrayal, walking away from one’s parents, and I draw strength from knowing others have done so — and not merely survived, but thrived!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey there. I want to say something pithy, witty, wise. I’ve been composing this comment ever since I read your post earlier this week.

    I got nuthin’. Well, besides a remark about the “anniversary effect” I got nuthin’.

    You, on the other hand… I can’t let that go unacknowledged. I don’t want to gush, I don’t want to hyperbole (I know, not a verb) but…

    You got … such capacity for passion, compassion, the ability to know your thoughts, your circumstances, and best of all, for we your readers, the ability to express it all with a ferocious elegance and humanity.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh. Gracious. Thank you, Maggie! I am deeply touched that you have spent time with my thoughts, in wrangling your own response.

      These personal posts take a lot out me. And I don’t mean so much the writing — by the time I start putting words on the page, I have usually already spent months working through the feelings and the logic I am expressing — but more the aftermath. Nothing ever prepares me for the rush of (usually contradictory, always unpredictable) feelings that come in waves for many days subsequent to a post like this going live.

      That you sat with it too, that you came back days later to share your reaction…well, please know how grateful I am.


      1. Actually, that was one point I forgot to mention – I thought of it as I read the post the first time – “hoo boy, hope the fallout isn’t too tough to handle.” – After I wrote my “Trolls” post, I was out of commission for a full day. Cancelled appointments, closed the curtains, and adopted the fetal position, emotionally, if not physically.

        Power to you, my dear.


        1. Ohhh I’m sorry to hear that, though not surprised. If you don’t write posts like that often, you may not have expected the aftershocks — shaking loose other old memories (as you indicated in a comment to me re Trolls) or making unexpected connections is par for the course, especially at first.

          I have been doing this kind of inner excavation work fairly rigorously for several years now, and the after-effects have gotten much milder, I’m pleased to report! (After the first few pieces of what I eventually dubbed The Memory Project each led to incidents involving razor blades less than a week later, for a while my therapist made me develop a safety plan every time I wrote a new post. But even from those experiences too, I learned.) I hope when you felt fully back to yourself, you had no regrets.

          I read all the comments on that post; so pleased to see what a supportive community of readers you’ve got around you! That’s an aspect of blogging I especially love: how it can bring out the best in human connections.

          The occasional troll notwithstanding. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: m.wazatta
  8. Such a powerful letter. Coming from a broken family of dysfunction and a sister who has not spoken to my mother going on 7 years now, I respect all the times you actually had conversations. My sister wrote my mom off in a letter but never was honest with her about where her feelings were coming from, face-to-face. She spoke to my mother every day on the phone for years about her children and problems with her husband, was close with her, and then, based on a lot of pent up emotions and unspoken words, just stopped. She ended it with a letter. I respect what you have done and know how troubling these types of relationships can be. Thank you so much for sharing! ~Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing some of your own story, Anne, and my empathy for the pain you too carry. I am coming to realize more and more how impossible language is, on its own; how deeply communication depends on that well of silence beneath our words. Sometimes the silence is filled with love, sometimes anger or pain…and often it simply aches, with all that we cannot ever find words for.
      Best wishes, Alice

      Liked by 1 person

  9. We are sisters in so many ways. I wonder if your mom comprehends this at all. Mine would not as it would have taken some self-knowledge, and her secrets stayed buried. Even after her death, the secrets remain safe.

    Don’t ever doubt that you are taking care of yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are any number of clichés about the need to “love yourself first,” but the one I keep coming back to as a touchstone: “You cannot meet anyone more deeply than you’ve met yourself.” I think about that, and it’s easier to let go of certain relationships. It’s easier to go deeper into myself instead.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had a conversation the other night with a man who just got back from a leadership conference for senior, SENIOR corporate management–he was explaining that they were using all sorts of techniques in business these days to help managers find their ‘purpose’–not necessarily within the borders of their job or career, but within themselves–the idea being that as a more profoundly ground individual, that’s going to spill over into all aspects of your life (or at least that was my take). It made me think of all the talk of exploration and frontiers and conquering the seems to be the foundation of our past and present, and that perhaps the future is far more internal. Perhaps the only ‘frontiers’ left to truly conquer are the deserts and jungles within ourselves. You sound like you’re getting ready to plant a flag in the rich soil of your very own being. Do it. Don’t let anyone else lay claim.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. My mother played the mind-manipulation game up until her death, although she was the queen of the second-hand message, including internet stalking. My only request was that she speak to me directly, instead of sending messages through others. Her deathbed revelation was that a conversation requires listening as well as expounding, an insight she never would have reached if I gone along with the status quo. Not talking is hard, but I came to realize there is no point to talking if there is no actual communication going on through the words. The lack of communication is the truth, and the lack of words is the true expression of that. Hang in there…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A painful but unavoidable truth, isn’t it — the way that just “refusing to play the game” can mean having to refuse any and all contact, even. I am glad (for you -and- for your mother) that there was still a moment for revelation and connection, at the very end. I hope it brought your heart some ease.


  11. Thank you. Your post prodded most uncomfortably and I am not quite sure what to make of the lessons it points to for me, as a daughter painfully looking at her mother in a new and ugly light, and as a mother of an estranged daughter. Reading it, I felt guilty, but I am afraid to examine the nature of the guilt, which slips like soap always just out of my grasp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS Love the photo and how immediately recognisable it is as you, even though I only know your appearance from the other photos you’ve posted here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t it a wonderful picture?! I am fairly certain (based on details in the image and the also the physical print that I have) that this photo was taken by my grandfather, a funny, sweet man whom I adored.

        He was a news photographer for over half-a-century — right in the thick of everything from WWII aircraft bombings to civil rights protests in the ’60s and anti-war demonstrations in the ’70s — but his real passion was human interest photos. Small children chasing ducks, and then finding themselves chased in turn. Excited nuns at their first baseball game. And his grandkids. Always his grandkids… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I can’t speak to what all you need to work through, Florence, but I know that for me, part of the challenge of asking truly healing questions of myself is how shame and guilt get all knotted up together. Because shame is what makes my heart shy away from the pain; shame and its attendant fear that what I will uncover is not just that I have made mistakes and hurt people. but that I somehow AM a mistake. Which is an unresolvable belief, at core.

      What helped me the most, as a point of entry, was Bethany Webster’s work on “mother wounds.” This post in particular, which I share in the hopes that you may find it useful too, on your own journey:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you!
        Your talk of shame resonates with me. In fact, yesterday I had an assessment for therapy in the Women’s Therapy Centre in London (they offer means tested help – I am without means – and my name finally made it to the top of the waiting list). My introductory blubbing, was largely about shame. I realise that my very earliest memories are of feeling shame. This shocks me and I would love to understand where it comes from; was it the well meaning adults who cared for me? If so, how come? And if not? Well, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else. Original sin? (I’m anti-theist.)
        The blog post you mention I had already come across (and found you through it) and I have referred to it a couple of times in my own blog. I’m reluctant to mention mine when it is so ploddy in comparison to yours – blunt words expressing blunt thinking.
        However, it is a start! – inspired by a post of yours – after seeing the movie ‘Look at us now Mother!’ – on being handed a dick pick by a decorator.
        I can see that I have a way to go and I am making some slow progress.
        I look forward to reading your posts and am touched by your helpful replies. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m so glad to hear you are going to be getting some help. This stuff is incredibly hard to untangle by oneself. And impartial outside observations can be a great boon, given the kinds of questions you’re asking! Best wishes to you!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. This is just heart-breaking and empowering at the same time. Love is a strong weapon and when someone, even those closes to you, start using it against you it’s time to remove yourself and heal. Love is just enough. I applaud your courage, strength and honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kristina. Love is such a potent feeling — and “love” such a totem word — that it can indeed become a fearsome weapon. I appreciate you reading and sharing your kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “LOVE IS WHY YOU SHOULD OBEY ME,” –Oh, how true that was for my mother. So much of what you have written was true between my Mum & I. She used access to my stroke disabled Father as a weapon against me. Which I did not bow to. Explaining to two young boys why Grandma was not letting us into the house to see Grandad was difficult, but the honesty as paid off in my relationship with them.

    I too let time go by before I contacted her, so that the contact was on my terms. It was strengthening. You are being wise.

    She is now dead, but the greatest hurt anyone can do me is to tell me how like my mother I am. Trouble is I do look like her…..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. GOOD FOR YOU. And -wonderful- for your kids! The kinds of wounds that make a parent wound their own children don’t just spring up sui generis — I can’t believe anyone grows up in a well-adjusted home, then outta the blue one day, decides to randomly torture their own children — but get passed along through the generations. Family poisons don’t stop spilling over until someone finds the strength and courage to say, “it stops here. It stops with me.” What you did for yourself, and for your sons, will also benefit your grandchildren…and your grandchildren’s children and grandchildren…

      (The statement people make that always cuts me to the quick is “your father loves you.” Something inside me always feels desperately. hopelessly sucked underwater whenever someone tells me that — even when I recognize the intent is kind and the person doesn’t know the context in which I am hearing them.)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. You know, as I read through this, I realize the similarities in our histories. I simply had a different ending, at a different time in my timeline, so I have done much of my work after my mother’s death. As cold as it may sound, I have realized that there are reasons for me to be grateful that my mother is dead. For one, I do not hold the tension of whether ours is a resolvable relationship, nor do I have to test my fortitude in putting myself first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard that from other people: how there is a certain…ease, perhaps, in working through issues after a challenging parent has passed on. Certainly, whatever closure you reach can be entirely on your own terms. And I know other people have had moving experiences of deathbed reconciliations. I try to focus only on today — not think “what if” about this scenario, or that — but I can’t say I never wish for a particular resolution or another, from time to time.

      I suspect difficult families are like most painful challenges in life: we learn to make peace with the burdens we ourselves carry, for better or worse, and would not trade them in the end for weight we see anyone else bending under…

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I hear you, and I understand, in so many ways. You know, don’t you, that you are just about the strongest woman I know (even though “know” means only in this weird virtual sense of connection). You are giving me the strength to move forward, for myself, because I deserve to live. I could not be prouder of you and the path you’re on dear friend. Boldly forward we go…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I was SO PROUD OF YOU, when you finally made your decision! And now that you’ve decided (and also have the relevant background, having read today’s post), can I just tell you how hard it was for me sometimes last year, wanting to be supportive of your process and at the same time wanting to just bellow “run! save yourself!!” right in your face?? Y’see, I may, or may not, have engaged in an unhelpful degree of transference between your situation and my mother’s. [NB: I -totally- did this. But at least I knew I was doing it at the time?]

      Boldly forward we both go, INDEED…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That very reason, that unspoken bellow… it was smacking me clearly and loudly about my head. You, my dear, had the utmost restraint, but I heard you nonetheless, and I listened because I knew that I could not let myself down, but also could not let you down, nor my own children. I want my kids to know a strong woman, perhaps fearful and often feeling like she is jumping into the abyss, but determined to make her way as an example to them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Okay, I had to stop replying to all comments last night after I read this one, cuz you had me straight-up teary-eyed! Hand to my heart, I am profoundly moved to hear how you have chosen to use my stories as a tool for moving along your own journey.

          I think true strength is not about being fearless, but about knowing one’s own fear. Seeing it in front of you, feeling the heft of its weight pressing down all around you — and still stepping forward into what comes next.

          Liked by 1 person

  16. Damn.
    That’s some hardcore stuff of life, right there.
    You have my heart.
    I commend your resistance, your boundaries. You’re right to insist on terms. I made years of silence and distance with my father. Mending came slowly, but I’m glad it came. Words don’t really express it now, and love wouldn’t cover it, but what it is… I’m just glad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad for you, too.

      I hope there will be time enough, someday, to mend the relationship with my mother. I don’t know that it’s possible with my father, or with either of them while they are together? And time is not unlimited, since they are both in their mid-70s already. But, still. I hope there is a chance someday to mend…something.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, sweetheart. I really needed to hear that, just now! (When I think about the losses of the past year — my parents, both the cats dying — there is a part of me so bereft, I literally choke on the grief.)

      2017 MUST be the year you and I get coffee! 🙂


  17. I applaud you for this because I know too many times we sometimes put others before us especially family. Sometimes it takes time for others to learn to know what valuable person they have until we’re gone. So much emotions are involved I don’t blame you for needing to put yourself first, and it takes courage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Learning to meet our own needs first — which is, if you think about it, a necessary foundation to being able to meet anyone else’s needs, too! — can be a hard, slow lesson to learn, and to give ourselves permission to do. Thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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