Over the summer, I was really sick for about a week. One minute I was headed to the park with a friend and my four-year-old daughter, and the next minute I was laying on the grass. For the next five days I couldn’t keep any food down and, on doctor’s orders, was taking Gravol just to get something to stay in my body. I was initially misdiagnosed as having vertigo since I had no other flu-like symptoms. Two doctors later, the problem was correctly diagnosed as an ear infection that had gotten so bad it was throwing off my balance, essentially making it impossible to be upright for a significant length of time.
The second doctor I visited before being properly diagnosed asked me (rhetorically, I’m sure), “Didn’t your mother ever tell you never to put anything smaller than an elbow inside your ear?” No, I thought, she hadn’t specifically told me that, although I was aware of the general rule. What got my mind reeling from this interaction wasn’t the doctor’s advice, but the manner in which he asked the question—the way he assumed that everyone even has a mother, and that all mothers are good at being a parent. “Actually, Doctor,” I wanted to say, “not all moms do that…”
First of all, not everyone has a mom. Let’s take a moment to note the existence of single fathers, widowers, gay dads, people who are raised by grandparents, and so on. Reality check: All questions beginning with “Didn’t your mother ever tell you…?” negates the experience of people who grew up without one.
In my case, I have a mother. I have a mother who’s had a complicated life, and with whom I have a complex relationship. My mother got married at 18 and had me at 23. She’d been married for 11 years by the time she and my father divorced when she was 29. (I was 29 when I had my first, and thus far only, child.) My mother was much younger than her siblings and considerably younger than my dad. They were hippies from different class backgrounds. My mother made her own yogurt, took me to dinner parties and dressed me in doll clothes (I was born premature). My father let me draw on a wall in his parents’ basement which he’d painted white for me. These are some of the things I know about my early years with my parents.
My parents were both heavy drug users. In my memory, my father was a more functional user, although he died—unexpectedly and unrelated to drugs—when I was only nine. My mother continued to use, despite seeking treatment, and she became an alcoholic as well. She got into a violent long-term relationship with my brothers’ father, with whom we lived for 11 years.
Despite her flaws, I was close to my mother when I was young. I have some pleasant early memories that seem “normal” enough, for lack of a better word. I think by the time my brothers were old enough to remember anything, the sometimes-functional, occasionally good days were gone. Our mother was erratic, she was often MIA, and both her and my stepfather were unpredictable and dishonest with us about everything.
My stepfather overcompensated for the strangeness of our upbringing by attempting to enforce standards and norms: Demanding straight A’s, 5 a.m. hockey games and imposing homework routines. My mother taught us things when she was around, alert and coherent. She still tries sometimes. But we learned, for better or worse, to get by without her and find other avenues for learning.
Sometimes the answer to “Didn’t your mother ever tell you…?” is a “yes” for me. But the answer is never “of course she did!” Sometimes my mother was passed out and missed a life lesson. Sometimes she was in detox or rehab. Sometimes she was around, but in bad shape. Sometimes she had different priorities, outside of parenting. And while my story is specific to my childhood and mother, I’m sure the sentiment is true for others—sometimes we learned lessons on our own, and sometimes we didn’t get them at all.
I cook a salmon recipe I got from my mother; and my daughter now knows it and makes it with me. My mother taught me the Hebrew prayer that’s said over the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) candles. She (the horror!) definitely taught me how condoms work. Unintentionally, she probably taught me a lot of other things that made me stronger as a person, too.
In the grand scheme of things, I don’t remember what my mother taught me about ear hygiene, although I’m pretty sure she kept Q-Tips in the bathroom. I do know that I never make assumptions that “all moms” are ever alike in any way. I’m a different mother—with different positives, priorities and flaws—than the one I had, although my daughter will learn from my experiences, too. One of the things I indirectly learned from my mother is that there is no such thing as “all moms…”
I try my best to remember this in my interactions with other people whose experiences are no doubt different than mine.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.