The thing I most wish my mother (and the world) understood about my decision to cut her out of my life eleven years ago, is that it was a decision rooted in love, not hate. Love for my attentive daughter who was becoming increasingly aware of how long it took me to emotionally recover from phone calls and visits with my parents.
I didn’t want the Cirque du Scary, headlined by my mother and I, in the portfolio of my daughter’s childhood memories. I chose distance because when we’re together, I become the worst version of myself.
Can’t you just choose to act differently? Try harder?
I used to think so.
I just turned 40 and I’ve been seeing therapists since I was 19. I’m on medication for depression and anxiety. I’ve written through the anger. Cried out the hurt. Analyzed, mapped out, and charted the rejection — my mom’s and mine. I’ve done two residential self-help retreats — one was eight intense days specifically targeting the healing of childhood wounds.
And I’ve never stopped looking for answers.
When I look at that list, I don’t see a person who’s not trying. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and give her an A+. Her report card would read, “Shannon continues to apply herself fiercely to this assignment.”
I once shared a cab with three women en route to an after-conference party. The subject of families came up and one of the women mentioned the shit vacation she’d recently had with her parents. They hadn’t spoken in the two months since.
“I get that. I haven’t spoken to mine for nine years.” I offered. Another woman responded, “Two months is one thing, but nine years is extreme. You need to do something about that!”
Years ago, I was assigned a therapist who became obsessed with reconciliation the moment I mentioned estrangement during our first (and last) session. He said I had two choices: aim for reconciliation or find a way to remain indifferent to the situation.
I hoped he was wrong, I said, because for the sake of my mental health, I couldn’t be in a relationship with my mother and indifference isn’t my jam. "I'm not here to criticize you, but you're coming to me two years after not speaking to your mother. How is that not indifference?" He asked.
Indifference (noun): Lack of interest, concern, or sympathy.
The therapist asked if I would like to see my mom pay for what she'd done. How can a person both want revenge and remain apathetic, I wondered?
So why all the estrangement shame? Why isn’t my decision compassionately celebrated?
If it were a friend or partner instead of my mother, I’d be lauded as brave and aces with boundaries. Is it the sharing of blood? Is blood the thing that gives us license to indefinitely cause hurt?
In the movie "Parenthood," Keanu Reeves has a line that’s stayed with me since I saw it in the early ’90s. After his character shares with his girlfriend’s mother that his dad used to wake him up by flicking lit cigarettes at his head and demanding breakfast, he says, “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car — hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”
The great thing about family is that even when things get really shitty you stick together. But that’s also the dangerous thing about family. Sticking together is the expectation and can be the opposite of what you need to be okay. To feel safe. To respect yourself. To stop eating and breathing guilt and shame and hurt and loneliness.
My mom is most definitely not a “butt-reaming asshole.” She can be lovely. Growing up, she held my hair back when I puked, sat at the end of my bed while I talked about my day, and — my fave — called me her “Little Chicken.” She shuttled me across the city to my best friend’s house every weekend, made birthday cakes with money baked inside, and worried when I got home late.
But it wasn’t enough.
I have deep compassion for the ways my mom was hurt by her own family. If I could go back, I would scoop my little-girl mom into my arms and tell her she is loved and worthy and enough. Nobody did that for her and she was unable to stop her wounds from leaking into our relationship. She parented from her own unmet needs, as all parents inevitably do.
When my husband and I found out I was pregnant, he was a pastor. Our world was full of people who wanted to shower us with love and casseroles. My heart-shaped uterus meant a breech baby and a scheduled C-Section.
Knowing the exact day and time of Emma’s birth allowed us to make a pre-announcement. Because we suspected we’d be flooded with visitors from our church family, we decided to tell everyone — even our parents — no visitors on that first day. We wanted to create a bubble to enjoy and absorb this being we created.
My mom did not respond well. She didn’t care that my in-laws respected our request. She decided being a maternal grandparent gave her VIP access. We fought daily the week before the birth. It was hard to see her make it so personal, but I stood my ground.
The moment they pulled Emma from my belly, my heart rate dropped. People panicked and I thought, “I want my mom.” From beneath my oxygen mask, I asked my husband to call her. Later, when I woke in my hospital room, safe and stable, I expected to see my mom. I knew she’d be waiting to hear how I was and be relieved I’d changed my mind.
My husband shook his head. “Sorry, Babe. She said she made plans she can't shuffle.”
Even writing this now, almost 13 years later, it sounds like fiction. I can’t imagine being so tangled in my own hurt that I’d make my daughter’s — anyone’s — birth experience about me. Maybe it was ridiculous to ask people to stay away that first day? But we were a couple of idealistic kids.
Even so, you show up. You. Show. Up. That’s your job as a parent.
When my mom finally came, two days later, she made little eye contact, noted that my husband's parents got to see the baby first, and left in tears.
I have a million stories like this. There’s no one thing I can point to and say “that was the end of us.” The end is the culmination of years of emotional neglect and abuse — a pile with more bad memories than good.
She did her best for me the way I’m doing my best for Emma. But it turns out that sometimes our best isn’t good enough. Sometimes our best leaves our little people wondering about the stability of their worlds, ashamed of the anger growing hot in their bellies, afraid these feelings about their own parents make them monsters.
And sometimes our best means we give our little people enough strength and courage to recognize and end destructive relationships.
My mom deserves forgiveness. I one hundred percent believe that and I forgive her. I forgive her, I forgive her, I forgive her. But forgiveness doesn’t mean I have to remain in a relationship with her and allow her to keep hurting me. Forgiveness doesn’t mean sacrificing myself to please someone or an entire culture of someones.
I worry a lot that letting go of my mom means I’ll inevitably lose Emma. ''Grandchildren learn how to treat their parents by the ways in which they see their parents treat the grandparents,'' says Dr. Matti Gershenfeld. ''If you're estranged from your parents, the odds are your children will become estranged from you once they become adults. That's the model they're learning.''
Maybe? Or maybe I’m modeling radical self-love. The kind that allows a person to care for themselves by doing one of the most painful things imaginable. And instead of feeling shame and self-loathing, my daughter might know how brave she is.
It’s what I hope for myself one day.
One year ago
Many of my musings about design and user experience usually relate to the web or mobile; these environments are quick to prototype in but are also ephemeral, with no real physical presence in the world. Such realizations led me to thinking about user experience in the real world and how some of the pains I’ve run into can improve through thoughtful design. One such pain I’ve given a lot of thought to is the perfect public restroom design.
When I say public restroom, I’m referring to the single toilet, locked door versions found in coffee shops and fast food establishments that result in such varying experiences. These are some of the thoughts that occur when I encounter a Starbucks restroom, for example:
“Is there someone in here already?”
“Is this door going to stay locked?”
“Where do I put my backpack or jacket?”
“I really hope there’s no pee on the door handle.”
This could all just be personal paranoia, but I’ll bet I’m not alone in some of these concerns. How do we make this a comfortable, or at least less stressful, event for people to go through?
A Walkthrough Solution
Let’s focus on just the approach, the door. This portal to the potty is the source of nearly all of my problems, so thinking through its design should provide simple solutions for public restroom owners everywhere.
As I walk up to the door, how do I know if it’s already occupied without going through the awkward dance of jiggling the handle, hearing a stressed “Occupied!” emanate from the other side, and feeling like a jerk for interrupting what should have been a peaceful time in their day? Of course, this design challenge already has a solution present on every airplane in the nation—the most elegant solution: that simple sign on the outside of the door that switches to OCCUPIED when it’s locked. Adding this feature to the restroom leads to solving another issue: confidence that door locks and stays locked.
There are many restroom doors in the world with those weak, flimsy handle locks; the ones that, when turned, give a timid click if you’re lucky and always seem a little too loose for comfort. They give little confidence to the user if the door will stay locked or not. Give me a deadbolt or give me death. I don’t want to “lock” the door, go about my business, and have someone burst in due to some weak latch not doing its duty. Deadbolts give a strong, confident thud when I turn them. They may also act as the switch for the OCCUPIED sign on the outside of the door. Without the aid of a battering ram or a super-powered kick, there is no way anyone is coming through that door unexpectedly.
In the event I forget to lock the door, the next issue of being caught with my pants down, can be solved in two steps. First, make sure the door swings inward, and second, position the porcelain throne behind the door—not directly behind, of course, you don’t want a door to the knee or face in addition to the surprise of an accidental intruder. This gives the current attendee some buffer time to shout out words of occupation before the bathroom burglar has a chance to spot them on the pot when bursting into the restroom.
To finish off this fabled door’s design, it should have two key items attached to the back of it. First, a sturdy hook for bags, jackets, etc, because no one wants to place whatever they’re carrying on the questionable floor of the public restroom (that’s one stigma that can’t be solved with the currently available technology). Finally, due to the inward swing of the door, be sure to add one of those fancy foot pedals for the germaphobes who know there is at least one person who didn’t wash up after doing their business and won’t dare risk being tainted by the knob on the way out.
The restroom door doesn’t contain any attachment to the building’s plumbing or other internal systems, so replacing or modifying it should be a simple process. Change the lock and hinge direction, add the necessary tooling as described above, and your customers’ experience will increase exponentially*. Take a chance, and don’t forget to wash up on your way out.
*This is a theoretical design, so no results are guaranteed but go ahead and give it a try anyway.