How I Learned to Stop Hating My Mother
By Gretchen Voss
"What about me?" I spat at my mother as she sat frail and broken in a
wheelchair, her legs too wasted to carry her emaciated body.
It was Christmas of 1999, and my father, two brothers, and I were at a
family-counseling session during my mother's second — though not her last —
stint in rehab in Florida. My father had found her a few weeks earlier, lying
half-dead on the couch, her once-pristine condo looking like a homeless
person's final filthy squat, splattered with puke and diarrhea. I guess our
tough-love tactic — booting her out of the house in New Jersey to go "deal
with herself" near her sister in Florida, plus my father's recent visit on
their anniversary to announce that he didn't love her anymore and wanted a
separation — was too much for a woman who had always defined tough. When my
father scooped her off the couch and rushed her to the hospital that day, the
doctor glared at him and asked my mother, "Who did this to you?"
What a stupid question, I would have said to the doctor, had I been there.
She did this to herself.
So there we sat, on uncomfortable seats under the blinding sun on that
suffocatingly humid day, as the counselor prattled on about what my mother
needed from us to get her healthy. My mother explained that she was feeling
physically better and mentally optimistic — hell, she was even making jokes.
And I just unloaded. I told her that I had always hated her, that she was a
lousy drunk, that she deserved everything she was getting. I wanted her to feel
my pain. I wanted her to cry. I had never seen her cry, and she didn't that
Was I being selfish? Maybe. But that's how we are with our mothers, judging
them by how well, or how poorly, they looked out for us and how they prepared
us for life. It's a role that we see strictly from our point of view, stripped
of all backstory, all emotional narrative — except for how it pertains to
So the question of what made my mother such a catastrophically bad one never
occurred to me until the other night, when I was dining with some girlfriends
and talking about the uniquely feminine compromises and frustrations we were
tussling with while working and raising kids. And it got me wondering what my
mother's were and how they drove her to lose herself nightly in a bottle of
After three failed rehabs, a couple of DUIs, and at least one serious
flirtation with death, my mother quietly quit drinking for good about five
years ago. Since then, we slipped into a peaceful détente and, terrified of
testing it, never, ever talked about our 30-year war. But suddenly, I realized
I needed to. Now that her mind was clear, now that I was in a place where
understanding could take the place of judgment, I wanted to hear from her what
the hell had happened. After all, we are mirror images of each other — blonde
hair and blue eyes, high cheekbones and small builds — and I'm at that same age
and stage of life that she was when everything fell apart for her.