— Relationships —

When Mother and I Role Reversed

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Every Mother’s Day I think about how my own mother and I role reversed when I was 12. After my father died, I became the mother, and she became the daughter, roles we still play to this day. Mother would be surprised to learn she’s been a role model for me in ways she couldn’t have imagined, or wanted. By example, she showed me I wanted to be the polar opposite of her: strong, independent and determined. While I’ve never had children, our unconventional relationship taught me much about nurturing and mothering. I just didn’t know I would be my mother’s caretaker for the rest of her life.


After my father died, the fine threads that held mother together unravelled. She retreated to her room and kept her shades pulled; a zombie zonked out on grief and Valium. I would take money from her purse and ride my bicycle past the bowling alley to the grocery store, buying as much food as would fit in the small wire basket of my bike.

It wasn’t long before mother was afraid of living in the house without my father, so I rode my bike to the hardware store and bought chain locks for the doors that led outside. I took my father’s drill, and just as I’d seen him use it, I installed the locks. I made sure the boy down the street regularly mowed the lawn, and I babysat to earn extra money. I continued to get straight A’s until mother—who knew nothing about my life; how I was doing in school, or that I was a great kid—would make arbitrary decisions about what I could and couldn’t do.

By my senior year of high school I’d gained 20 pounds and was failing one of my classes. Even so, I received two college scholarships but had to accept the one in my hometown and live at home, because mother needed me. After the first semester of my freshman year in college, I gave up my scholarship, got a job and married the first boy who asked me out. I knew it would be a short-lived marriage, but it was the only way I knew to distance myself from her.

The only time she’s been “the mother” was when I had breast cancer. She would call, offering love and support, and would send me her favorite books on prayer and healing. For the first time in my life, she was the mother I’d always wanted. She’d tell me how much I was loved and urged me to see myself as whole, perfect and healed by God’s love. She stopped signing her cards with “Mother” in quotes. Instead, she signed them Love, Mom, as though on some level, she knew she was mothering me, instead of the other way around. After I finished chemo, she resumed her “Mother” in quotes signature, and if I mentioned having had breast cancer, she looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.

Mother is needy in ways I’ve never been able to make right, and as the parent in our relationship, I used to feel like I failed her. When she came to my home to visit, she ruined nearly every gathering, and on more than one occasion, flew home because she wasn’t the center of attention, or she’d gotten her feelings hurt. She’s never wanted to know about my adult life, and when I’ve tried to share things with her, she interrupted me in mid-sentence with something like, “I thought we’d go to the tea room for lunch.” Even though she has dementia, last week I tried, again, to tell her about 1010ParkPlace. She paused and looked at me and said, “The salad here’s not as good as it used to be.”

As she retreats further into her shrinking world of dementia, I will continue to be the mother. I’m grateful God gave us those six months when I had breast cancer, because I’ll always remember that brief time when I wasn’t her caregiver. I hope she enjoyed being the mother as much as I loved having one.

Love, Brenda


  • Jennifer Connolly May 9, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Heart wrenching Brenda! You are a strong woman, because you had to be. I lived a similar story of becoming the adult at a young age, but for different reasons. That time you had breast cancer, and she mothered you, must have felt like a double edged sword. Amazing how she could rise to occaisson and make you the priority, when she had to.

    • 1010 Park Place May 10, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      That she rose to the occasion shows me how strong the parent/child relationship is and our desire to see our DNA continued. After my treatments for breast cancer and I went back to being the parent, I can’t say I was surprised. I think mother’s always been mentally ill. I don’t know much about her story, because she never told me, but her childhood must have been so very difficult for her.

  • Jan Hasak May 9, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Very moving story. I am so sorry you had to take on that role, and are still acting as parent to your mother. Life can be complicated in so many ways. I am glad she did become your mom for that time when you were treated for breast cancer. You got a first glimpse into the real mother for whom you longed. Thanks for this honestly frank Mother’s Day post. xxx

    • 1010 Park Place May 10, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      I loved seeing your Facebook photo of you and your sons. I hope you’ve had a great Mother’s Day!

      • Jan Hasak May 10, 2015 at 11:49 pm

        Thanks, Brenda. I did have a wonderful day, and I am enjoying the visit of my son from Texas. Love, Jan

  • Dr. Margaret Rutherford May 10, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    This can happen when a parent dies too soon. And the other is not psychologically strong. So sorry this was in your life Brenda. You became an adult far too soon.

    • 1010 Park Place May 10, 2015 at 4:17 pm

      I never had a childhood, even when my father was alive. He was so strict: My life was all about making straight A’s and practicing the piano. My 20s was when I was finally able to “play.” I dug for Mayan artifacts, landed on aircraft carriers, raced cars, etc.
      Thanks for the insight, Margaret,

  • Leisa Hammett May 11, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Oh, wow, Brenda. Thank you for sharing this. Beautiful. This makes me admire you all the more. I wrote about my mother today, too. This may not be your take on things, but it is mine. http://leisahammett.com/forgiveness-a-mothers-day-gift-for-both-of-us/

    • Leisa Hammett May 11, 2015 at 6:20 pm

      And forgive me (ha) if seems like my adding my post was for advice. Never meant that and realized it could be taken that way after I posted it. I am recalling that lengthy thread we had in our midlife group about our mothers. So, in some ways your and my thread are follow-ups of that. I realize you may have not participated in that discussion, however. xo

      • 1010 Park Place May 11, 2015 at 11:32 pm

        No worries. I didn’t take it that way. xoxox

        • Leisa Hammett May 12, 2015 at 5:02 pm


    • 1010 Park Place May 11, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      Your post was wonderful. I just left you a comment. We share many of the same feelings. It’s difficult, this walk through life. We all have our issues and burdens we deal with, but we often fail to realize our parents dealt with their own burdens, as you astutely pointed out. You and I are made of tough stuff and have grownup to be amazing women. BTW, I believe the forgiveness you referred to is for ourselves. Even if we never verbally express forgiveness for what someone’s done to us, by forgiving them, we’re able to let that go. God knows we’ve got enough to deal with, so finding ways to lighten my plate is welcome.

  • 1010 Park Place May 12, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Your note makes me realize there are other kids out there who’ve experienced similar things. Not just kids of poverty or who’s fathers are in prison or who’s mothers abandon them, but kids from seemingly good and solid families. That Bill and I found our way and became stronger for it is a testament not only to those who provided us with stability, but our will not to get sucked down the same rabbit hole. Bill’s great parenting has been a conscious effort on his part to be the parent he never had. I admire and celebrate the man he became. Thank you for sharing.

    • Mamavalveeta03 May 17, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Well said, Brenda. Thanks for the affirmation!

  • Helene Bludman May 12, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    This is heartbreaking, Brenda. You lost your childhood way too early.

    • 1010 Park Place May 13, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      While that’s true, I also became self-reliant and resilient. I’ve survived more than you can imagine.
      Thank you!

  • barbarahammond May 12, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    As the daughter of an alcoholic, I became the parent to my brother when I was 10. I raised him and the youngest as best I could. Mom was married six times I know of and nothing was ever her fault. It was ‘daddy du jour’ at our house and some were real doozies! I think you did your best with more grace than I. I had to sever ties completely, and I don’t regret it. But, look how we rose up! Cheers to us!

    • 1010 Park Place May 13, 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Oh, Barbara!
      You had it worse than I did. I wasn’t responsible for a sibling, and didn’t have revolving daddies through our door. BTW, I severed ties with my mother for four years.
      Yes, cheers to us and all the strong women who’ve battled “something” in their lives.

  • Esther Zimmer May 13, 2015 at 11:58 am

    This left me with tears in my eyes, Brenda. What a brave post, it’s sad that you lost your childhood and that your relationship with your mother – apart from those six months – is not how you would have wished, but you write about it with such grace. It’s also going to give a lot of other women who have their own mother-daughter issues a lot of comfort, and it’s true too that those of us who don’t have children can still be nurturing, I personally appreciated that point. xx

  • 1010 Park Place May 13, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Hi Esther!
    Thank you for your compassion. What is it about mothers and daughters? Jealousy on their parts, perhaps, or fighting for our independence? I marvel at close mother/daughter relationships and wonder, what must that be like?

  • Vilma Sicilia-Sceusa May 16, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Brenda I commented on my blog but wanted to make sure you saw my reply to your comment:
    Thank you for reading Brenda. Your kind words are truly appreciated. I read your Mother’s Day post and I wanted to tell you that I empathize with your situation. It has been said that when you lose a parent you often lose the other to grief. This is what happened in our family as well. My father lost the love of his life and it was very difficult for him to move on, he too suffered from depression so my sister and I tended to take on parental responsibility. Wishing you peace and happiness. Vilma (www.thatgirlisback.com)

    • 1010 Park Place July 5, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      I just found your nice note. You understand what it’s like to parent your parent. I’m sorry you and your sister were in that position. Thank you! I appreciate it.

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