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My Struggle Not To Turn Into My Mom

That moment when Steph Jagger realized she adopted her parent's penchant for emotional avoidance changed everything. And nothing.

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I read a book once about mothers and daughters. It centered on the myth of Demeter and Persephone—about the dance, the natural cycle of daughters leaving and returning, going away and coming back home.

I loved the book. At the same time, I found it difficult to relate to the dance they described. I felt my mother and I had done no such dance. If there was a pattern to the way we moved through the world, it would be a simple tale about a tide that moved in one direction and a young woman who split off from herself to go with it—part of her moving out with the ocean, the other part remaining, sitting empty on the shore.

This myth wouldn’t include a return. It would be about that woman, that daughter, slipping out of herself and then ebbing for thirty-five years, moving ever outward, drawing lines in the sand as she went.

I drew my first line when I was four years old. And the oddest thing about it was that my mother taught me how. It happened in the stairwell of Marineview Preschool in Vancouver, British Columbia. The details are a patchwork in my brain, a first collection of images that weave together to form my earliest memory. My mother and I were standing together just inside the doorway of the preschool. There was a staircase that led up and another that led down. We were to take the latter.

“Down we go,” my mom whispered, reaching out, suggesting I take her hand, which I did.

I used my other hand, my right hand, to grab the railing beside me, and together we moved slowly down the stairs, one big-girl step after another.

About halfway down I heard my mother’s voice prompting.

“Say hello,” she said softly.

I paused, looked up from my feet, and saw that there were two women standing at the bottom of the staircase, both of whom were smiling. I looked up at my mom. She nodded and smiled. I let go of the railing and offered a very timid wave.

One of the women waved back before moving up the staircase to greet us.

“Hi there,” she said, as she crouched down in front of me. Her voice was singsongy and kind. She smelled like Play-Doh mixed with sugar and spice and everything nice.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

I felt my mother’s hand move. She rested it gently on my back.

“This is Stephanie,” she said. “She’s a little bit shy.”

“Hi, Stephanie,” said the lady in front of me. “I get shy too.”

I looked up again at my mom.

“We’ve got her, Sheila.”

This was the voice of the other lady, the one who still stood at the bottom of the stairs.

“It’s just . . .” said my mom. “She . . .”

“We’ve got her,” echoed the woman crouched in front of me. “We’ve done this a thousand times.”

In that moment I felt a wave of worry move through my mother. I bobbed for a while inside of it. I knew this feeling. I was comforted by it. My mother’s worry was a sign of her love. It was the steady hum of her, the white noise that ran in her background, something I could fall safely asleep to. I reached up, hoping to grab her hand again, but instead of taking it, instead of floating together in this wave of worry like we normally did, she bent over, put her hands on either side of my face, and gave me a big kiss on the cheek.

“You’ll be fine,” she whispered, not in a tone of confidence, but rather, hopeful persuasion. Her words were coated in concern. What she said didn’t match what I sensed, what I knew she was feeling. It was the first time I remember feeling my mother move in two directions at once.

And then I watched as she turned herself around, made her way back up the stairs, and walked out the door. I was left on the staircase, swimming inside of her worry, which, in short order, had became my own.

Just before the door closed behind her, I collapsed onto the stairs and started to wail. My hands slapped on the rubber tread in protest. I screamed. The woman who had been crouching in front of me was now sitting beside me. Her arms were outstretched in an effort to comfort me. I smacked them away with ferocity, clumsily wiped at my face—my eyes, my nose, my wide, wailing mouth—and continued screaming. My hands became layered with dirt and dust as they moved back and forth from my wet, snotty face to the floor. To this day I hate having dirt on the palms of my hands.

When we went back the next day, I wore what my mother called “a brave face.” Only it didn’t feel brave. It felt like taking a droplet of my essence and flicking it from my fingertips. It felt like moving in two different directions at once.

Many things followed from those first days of preschool. Over time and a million unspoken lessons, I learned that although my mother felt things, she very rarely put those feelings into words. Instead, she chose action; she chose doing.

Her love was demonstrative and physical. You felt it in the way she hugged you and tucked you into bed. You tasted it in the cucumber sandwiches and the birthday cakes. You smelled it in the laundry. You knew she loved you simply because she was there.

I have many memories of being attached to my mother in a physical way. My arms wrapped around her waist in the morning. My face pressed up against the green velour robe she wore while filling the lunch bags we would carry off to school. Her fingers gently pulling through my wet summer hair as I sat curled up beside her on the dock—I used to watch the beads of sweat drip down her stomach before pooling in her belly button.

My mother gave me her physical body, but it seemed her emotional body was only partially there. While I can tell you what joy and contentment looked like on my mother’s face, other emotions seemed to be missing—sorrow and grief, for example, as well as deep hurt. I cannot tell you what emotional pain looked like on the face of the woman who raised me.

I could feel these things as a fleeting undercurrent, but I couldn’t see them on the surface of her. Words were absent too. There was no voice for her anger, no utterance of rage. My mother gave me many things, but candid conversation was not one of them. This was especially so when emotions were involved.

I came to understand that if my mother felt something uncomfortable, she simply moved away from it. She rolled inward. She busied herself, which was easy. There is, after all, a lengthy to-do list that comes with a family of six.

Through careful observation, I learned that nearly every feeling thing went without saying. These were the implicit rules for being a “big girl.” This is what it meant to be strong. I understand now that it takes a certain kind of courage to feel and then give voice to one’s discomfort. But growing up, as I watched those closest to me, I saw a different kind of courage, a courage of holding things in, of not naming things or speaking about them out loud, of storing them somewhere inside and moving in an alternate direction. My mother had this strength in spades. As did, it seemed, the rest of my family. A chatty bunch when it came to updating one another on the literal events of the day, but a bunch that used self-deprecation, sarcasm, and wit, or just plain silence about tender things, things like loneliness, sadness, anger, or despair.

I tried my best to mimic this familial fortitude, but I found it exhausting. This never-ending sensing and not saying was an onerous task for a feeling child, one who was also naturally talkative, obsessed with words and books and stories. Perhaps my love of words was born from desperation, from a deep desire for language with which to express a more complex range of emotions.

Once every month or so, this caused an implosion. On the days I felt overwhelmed by the feelings I had no words for, I would come home from school and quietly head to my room— the room where the ladybugs lived on the sill of the window. I would make sure the door was firmly closed behind me, and from there I would collapse on my bed in a long, moaning wail. I would cry for my mother over and over again—part of me desperate for her to come running with a basketful of words to soothe me, to tell me what I was feeling and how to make sense of it all.

But there was another part of me, a bigger part that had already moved out with the tides. This was the part that had been flicking away droplets of my essence for weeks, months, years. I know this because as I screamed for my mother, I was also muffling my face with a pillow.

Simply put, I could not let her hear me. Somewhere inside of me, I knew it would have been more painful to have her sit beside me as I cried out for words—feeling part of her move toward me while another part rushed quickly away. To avoid all of this, it was me who moved, in a million different directions at once, searching madly for some shore I could land on, for some anchor and buoy I could latch on to and hold.

After the tears, I would fall into deep sleep, only to be woken for dinner. This happened with regularity from the ages of five to ten. And once I hit ten, I moved directly to the nap. There was no crying, no muffling. Just napping. Just a desire to have the inky black tide roll in and temporarily take me away.

If you see a child every day, it’s almost impossible to notice them changing. You have to mark their height on the wall each year, or look at photos from each school year to convince yourself they’ve grown, to state with clarity that some significant change has occurred.

It’s equally as hard to watch the ocean and notice it’s ebbing. You have to commit the cycles of the moon to memory, or look carefully at the sand in order to be certain about which way the tides are swinging and what they’re taking out to sea as they go.

It was difficult to understand the tipping point, to know when I had flicked too much of myself away. What day or month or year did it happen? When, officially, was there more of my essence on the outside of me than remained living inside?

There was nothing with which to measure the change. There was no doorjamb, no moon chart, no actual lines in the sand. It was all just a bunch of moments, blurred and bundled together. It was darn near impossible for anyone around me to add it all up, to connect all the dots. And with no vocabulary for this leaking of self, there was no chance for me to voice it, to give it a name.

By the time I was a teenager this practice was seamless—my emotional body moved out with the ocean, and my mental self remained on the shore. The ease with which I split off from my self was astounding. My naps turned into long sleeps, sometimes thirteen or fourteen hours at a time. I developed a deep suspicion of emotions. I questioned people who talked about them. I judged people who displayed them.

Why can’t they keep it together? I would wonder in my head, not realizing I was the one who was splitting apart.

My family and the rest of the people around me lauded this performance—although it wasn’t called a performance per se, but rather my personality. For the most part, I was calm and levelheaded. I was a sensible, confident young girl. My life was not dictated by a whirligig of teenage emotions, particularly the “female” kind.

I was valued for my pluck, for having the kind of motherly wit that my mother taught me, and I valued this myself. Albeit sometimes rebellious, I was mostly referred to as a good girl. This happened over and over again until I resigned myself to this collective definition. This is what a good girl was—performative, without even knowing there was a play going on or a script in my hand, without even seeing the curtains as they opened and closed.

As Sue Monk Kidd once wrote, “Once we are caught in the pattern of creating ourselves from cultural blueprints, it becomes a primary way of receiving validation.”

It was so easy to convince the people around me that I was right there in front of them, when in fact, most of me was out on the ocean somewhere, treading water in a sea of roiling waves. And the person who was easiest to convince? The one hoodwinked by it all? Well, of course, that was me.

Adapted from Everything Left to Remember. Copyright © 2022 By Steph Jagger. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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