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Visual representation of essay, 2022


Summer 2022

When I was a baby I used to sleep with my hands clasped together over my chest, a positioning my mother said she would also find me in when I felt upset. Initially, she worried this was a physical signaling of anxiety. She had never seen my older brother do anything similar before. But then she read in a baby book that the way I held onto my own body was a method of self-soothing, of calming myself down without need from others. The book also told her that when she found me in this position, she should not pick me up or console me, but allow me to take care of myself like I was trying to do already. 


It wasn’t until recently that I truly understood why this second part, of allowing me to be, was such a challenge for my mother, and how this difference of need to care and be cared-for created such fractures in our relationship and communication. 


As a stubbornly independent child, and eventually adolescent, and, okay, adult, I struggled to see help in a positive light, feeling like any offer of help translated to a lack of belief in my ability to succeed on my own. I also felt like I rarely needed it. From a young age I did all of my homework before going out to play without intervention, I made my own plans with my friends, and I definitely had my own ideas about the way the world worked. 


One of my mother’s favorite anecdotes about my childhood takes place during her first meeting with my preschool teacher, during which she was told that if I am crying she should call an ambulance. I think on the surface, she found this profound and affirming: she created a child that was strong, resilient. But underneath, I am not sure she could accept raising me without intervention, without what felt to me like holding my hand every step of the way, something I didn’t want. 


It sounds, and probably is, ungrateful to resist a level of care so many never experience from their mothers. And throughout my life my mom has used this word to describe me and our relationship. She feels taken for granted, while I feel unheard, untrusted in my ability. I can hear the door slamming in my head as I write this and it makes my body clench. We love each other so much. We really do. But we have different needs. And my desire to hold my own hands, clasped together across my own chest, doesn’t allow space for my mother to care for me in the way she desires so deeply. At times, her care felt like ripping my hands apart from each other, losing my carefully constructed self-control, but my resistance rips her heart. 


My mother was disowned from her family when she was eighteen. She felt abandoned and forced into an unexpected independence, a feeling she never wants her children to experience. Subsequently, she dedicates her financial and emotional life to ensuring our feelings of security. And has done so quite successfully. My mom expresses her love through acts of service, through immediate caretaking and unwavering reliability. She is a giver who often runs herself too thin. She is remarkable. And I’ve always known this, and I’ve always had gratitude for this, but I’ve also always struggled to communicate my gratitude in a way that reaches my mother. 


The one time my mother and I went to therapy together, our therapist used a physical anaolgy of hands to describe our relationship. Truly ept, she described to us through hand positions some common kinds of family relationships. At first, she held up her hands separated from one another in a way that framed her face, showing how some families have distance or no connection between one another. This wasn’t us, she said. Instead, bringing her hands together and tightly interlocking her fingers, my mother and I were ‘enmeshed.’ From the outside, enmeshment can look beautiful, an incredibly close bond, she continued, but from the inside it can be quite unhealthy. Ideally, my mother and I could get to a point where our hands are still together, touching, but our fingers are loosened, extended upward in opposite directions. Years later, my mother and I would get in an argument that finally helped me understand my role in this hand holding.


I am in my childhood bedroom packing for a trip and ask for some alone time to focus before having to leave the house for other plans. My mother incessantly opens my door to provide me with seemingly endless items she thinks could be useful during my travels. I lose my patience. She is devastated, offended. 

I calm down, and mentally prepare my apology in my bedroom. I choose my words exceedingly carefully, mindful to avoid further conflict. 

I enter her bedroom where she is laying on her bed, arms crossed, telling me she doesn’t care and isn’t upset. I stand in the doorframe, swallow my pride and own feelings of offence, recite my rehearsed apology, and tell her that I need to leave now. She screams back at me. 

My words didn’t work. 

Later that night I return home and she’s on the couch. I sit down next to her, and try to apologize again. She says she doesn’t believe that I am sorry, and if I really wanted to apologize before, I would have sat on the bed with her and held her hands. 


I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that she was asking for so much from me. I was the same then that I was when I was a baby: when I am upset, I do not want to be touched. I want to be left to calm down on my own. To go to my mother and hold her hands in a moment of anger is so outside of my needs and method of communication. But in this moment, I understood her need. 


It didn’t matter how many times I practiced what I was going to say or how thoughtful my apology was, she was never going to hear any words I said while I was standing in the doorway six feet away from her. She needed my physical contact, that evidence of my presence and commitment to staying beside her to prove my care. And this is not something that is easy for me to provide. I am a taurus, ruled by rationality and direct communication. My mother is a pisces, intuitive without need for words. 


But it hit me during this conversation that her need to care for me is not intending to rip my hands apart from myself, but rather asking for me to hold her hand in mine, to make space for her. To support her, not just by accepting her care, but by providing her with my strength too. And I think I am now able to do that, after growing into my own adulthood, because of the security she provided to me that she lacked herself. 


As a daughter, friend, lover, and educator, I think about how my stability, my groundedness can serve as a platform for others. I think about the privilege and care I was given, and how that will allow me to be a caretaker myself. And I think about how my desire to self-soothe, my insistence on independence really was a form of anxiety because of its manifestation as isolation. And so through my developing relationship with understanding my mother and responding to her needs accordingly, I am trying to move outside of my own comfort zone in order to open my hands and make space for her and others to grab onto them with me. Extending upward. 

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