It was prom night, and I was 17. I had what felt like two pounds of hairspray in my hair and my mom still wasn't finished. "Why aren't these curls holding? Here, just a little more hairspray..." I had to physically walk away from her to get her to stop perfecting or curling or braiding. She would crack jokes the entire time, too. "Will you be dancing tonight? Make sure you wear deodorant." "Can I pluck this eyebrow hair? You're lookin' a little Einstein-y." Her spirits were always high, even though she was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments for her ovarian cancer. She was curling and spraying my hair, though she was completely bald at the time. Her dedication to me as her child — even when she was going through her own battles — is something I miss every single day, and it's one of the many reasons I'm afraid of becoming a mother. My bond with my mom is something I fear I could never have with my own future children, and maybe something I don't even want to try to have again.
It wasn't just in lighthearted moments like that when she was funny. One month before she died of cancer, my family took a two-week trip to the beach. She spent portions of the afternoon sleeping, so my brother's girlfriend, Anna, went in to wake her before dinner one night. Anna lightly prodded my mother's shoulder and said, "Paris, it's time for dinner." My mom didn't respond, so Anna tried again, "Paris? Are you OK?" When my mom didn't respond again, Anna started to get upset. But, just before Anna ran out of the room to alert the rest of us, my mom popped her eyes open and said, "Gotcha!" with the same playful look in her eye that came to be one of her staples — even as the last weeks of her life counted down.
Her sense of humor didn't only make her a joy to be around (people still reach out to me to tell me funny stories about my mother almost four years after her death), but it helped pull me out of my darkest moments. I was bullied in high school. At one point one of my classmates left voice messages on my cell phone threatening to rape me. First, my mom recorded the voice messages and played them for the boy's mother. Later, she made me an appointment with a therapist who's name was "Delight." When we were on the way to her office, my mom chided, "She better live up to her name, eh?"
She made delicious scrambled eggs, but, when she was too sick to make them, I would make them for both of us, and then sometimes I would feed them to her. On June 27, 2012, the day she died, I knelt beside her bed and held her hand until she stopped holding mine.
But it wasn't just in those moments where I was struggling that my mom's strength seemed to take on a superhuman quality. When I was in third grade, my mom faced breast cancer — a battle she barely made it out of. She had a double mastectomy and hadn't undergone reconstructive surgery yet. The doctors had given her these small, breast-shaped pillows to put in her bra until she had reconstruction, but one of the pillows was much larger than the other one, so she couldn't use them. Instead, she drew faces on them and called them Mr. and Mrs. Boo-bay. She would narrate them with French accents and do puppet shows with them at the foot of my and my little brother's beds. One day after one of these "performances," she had to shave her head because her hair was falling out.
My mom told me a number of times that her children — myself and my three siblings — were her life: "You're the light of my life, the reason that I'm alive," she told me once. And I was always aware of it. My mother didn't have a college degree (I was actually the first person on her side of the family to graduate from college), and she made money by holding a number of odd jobs to complement my dad's job in the Army. After my sister had two children, I realized that — if I did have children — my mother wouldn't live to see them. And, not only that, she wouldn't be there to guide me.
About a year before she died, we were lying in her bed together watching House Hunters International (one of our favorite ways to travel since we couldn't actually travel). I had just gone through one of my toughest breakups, and I told her, "I actually could picture myself having children with Taylor." She started to cry and said, "You don't know what that means to me. You would make a great mother." And I cried, too. But not because I knew she would never see me become a mother — though that thought weighs on me every day — but because I didn't believe her.
When I think about having children, I think about all of the ways I could fail them because I am not like my mother.
I didn't believe that I would be able to survive an abusive first marriage, be selfless enough to give up my career to take care of a baby, and then make jokes with boob pillow puppets while I was fighting breast cancer just so I could see my kids laugh. When I was 16 years old, I sent naked photos to my first boyfriend. What would I do if I found out my future daughter did something similar? What would I do if a mean girl at school then printed those photos out and put them in the public school parking lot for everyone to see? And what if my daughter was in so much pain that she would try to kill herself? Would I be able to fight for my daughter if something similar happened to her? Would I be able to feel her pain and comfort her without pushing her away?
When I think about having children, I think about all of the ways I could fail them because I am not like my mother. I don't want to be defined by motherhood or by my children — something that my mother made her goal — and I feel guilty because that definition obviously built something beautiful between my mother and her children. I wonder if the friendship I developed with my mother was only possible because of her dedication to me, and mine to her. My mother and I were ruled by our emotions and that made our dedication to each other easier when good things happened, and much harder when we fought.
I might not live up to being the mother that my mom was to me, but, more terrifyingly, would my child love me with the same devotion I had for her?
Because, sometimes, my mother wasn't perfect. When I was in elementary school, she once spanked me with a belt (and, at other times, a wooden spoon) for leaving chapstick in my pants pocket because it melted on other clothing in the dryer after she washed them. I argued with her in middle school before dinner one night, and she threw a plate at my face. After she was diagnosed with cancer a second time, she would spring difficult, painful questions on me. I raised money to take her on a trip to Paris, France, before she died and she asked if I was doing it "for the cameras," or to get attention. I was agnostic, and she asked me if that meant she would never see me again in an afterlife. She asked if I didn't want to see her again. When she was angry, she would scream at me, "I don't want to die!" Yet I loved her anyways.
I helped her get into bed when she couldn't do it by herself. She made delicious scrambled eggs, but, when she was too sick to make them, I would make them for both of us, and then sometimes I would feed them to her. On June 27, 2012, the day she died, I knelt beside her bed and held her hand until she stopped holding mine.
And that's my greatest fear: sure, I might not live up to being the mother that my mom was to me, but, more terrifyingly, would my child love me with the same devotion I had for her? Would they forgive me for all of my mistakes, and would they be strong enough to support me when I could no longer eat? Would my child hold my hand when I died? Would I cross their minds every day after I did?
My fear isn't not being loved — it's being loved so much by my child or feeling so overwhelmed by love for a child that it would replace my connection with my mother. When I look at photos of her or when I bury my face in her old clothing, I'm overwhelmed with longing. I miss her, and I don't want to stop missing her. I'm afraid of giving up our connection. I'm afraid my child, in a sense, would ask me to do that just because that's what mothers do.
When I ask myself these questions, I feel like I'm already committing some cardinal sin of motherhood: you provide love unconditionally as a parent, and sometimes that means accepting the risk that you won't get the same amount of love in return.
But they aren't questions I can stop asking, and I don't think it's entirely because I'm afraid that my future child's love won't measure up. At its root, my fear isn't not being loved — it's being loved so much by my child or feeling so overwhelmed by love for a child that it would replace my connection with my mother. When I look at photos of my mother or when I bury my face in her old clothing, I'm overwhelmed with longing. I miss her, and I don't want to stop missing her. I'm afraid of giving up our connection. I'm afraid my child, in a sense, would ask me to do that just because that's what mothers do.
I'm even more terrified that, when I'm doing my child's hair before a school dance or taking them to get ice cream, I will be consumed by that connection mothers are supposed to feel with their children, and, for a brief moment, I'll forget about my mother and what we had.
When I was in middle school, we had an after-school tradition as it got warmer outside. In May, the North Carolina heat would creep closer and closer to 100 degrees, and my mom would pick up me and my little brother from school and take us to an antique store around the corner that sold Hershey's coffee ice cream with mocha and chocolate chunks. We would sometimes take the long way home while eating the ice cream. My mom would play '90s music and her laughter would fill the car while my little brother, also quite the jokester, would use the language of old Army commercials to tell my mom he felt "Army strong" about a test he took that day. Her patchouli perfume, which I wear now, reminds me of those moments, and I don't want to give them up.
After my relationship with my mother, I'm terrified that I might be disappointed by motherhood. But, if I'm honest, I'm even more terrified that, when I'm doing my child's hair before a school dance or taking them to get ice cream, I will be consumed by that connection mothers are supposed to feel with their children, and, for a brief moment, I'll forget about my mother and what we had. I'm still not sure if it's a fear I'll be able to put aside.
In reality, though, no matter how many inside jokes I share with them and regardless of how hard I fight to make them smile — even while facing my own struggles — my future children won't erase what I had with my mother. The connection that I felt when my mom held me after a breakup, or the peace between us when her body was finally free from pain four years ago — I know that one is just for us.