Patti Davis Had a Notoriously Difficult Relationship With Her Mom, Nancy Reagan. She’s Lighting a Candle This Mother’s Day to Make Peace With It
Last year, when I was doing promotion for my book Floating in the Deep End, a woman on a webinar told me about her mother who had Alzheimer’s and the difficulties she, as a caregiver, was having. Something in what she said gave me the impression that she’d had a difficult history with her mother.
“We had a lot of problems,” the woman said quickly. “But I’ve dealt with that. I’m over it.”
It wasn’t an appropriate venue for me to pursue this, but what I wanted to tell her was that we don’t get over a difficult parental relationship, particularly with our mother—the person who carried us for nine months and gave birth to us. The best we can do is find ways around that history. I don’t think we help ourselves by saying that we’re over it because then we don’t acknowledge the weight that the relationship has on our lives, and the ways in which we might carry it into other situations.
I remember one Mother’s Day when I was young, probably around seven. It was morning, and my parents’ bedroom door was open, so I went in to say good morning. My mother had gone into the bathroom, and my father was still lying in bed. I went over to him, and he shook his head sadly. “I forgot to get your mother a Mother’s Day card,” he said. I ran into my room, got out a piece of paper and crayons, and I made him a child’s version of a card so he would have something to give her.
Reflecting on this now, it seems understandable that the man who would never have forgotten my mother’s birthday, or their anniversary, would forget Mother’s Day. Motherhood wasn’t a big focus of her life, so the day designated to honor mothers passed in our home with little fanfare. I don’t really remember any other Mother’s Days, although I do recall either making or buying cards. But in my family, there was no significance put on the day.
Like many people, I had a challenging relationship with my mother. While there were some interludes of tenderness and love, most of our years together were ones of conflict and tension. And like many people, I kept reaching for what was not there. Our mothers are pivotal figures in our lives. They stand behind us in the mirror, casting a shadow over how we see ourselves. Wanting more from them becomes a pilgrimage, but every time we think we might have arrived at the place we’ve been longing for, it’s a mirage. It took me a very long time to get off that pilgrim’s path and accept that I would never have the maternal safety net that others have.
There was one realization that made everything else start to fall into place, and it was this: Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your mother’s words were harsh or unsupportive. It doesn’t matter if she made you feel like you weren’t worth much. Ultimately, what matters is that you believed her. That’s the voice that trails you through the years–your own. Once I saw that, I could accept that there would always be an empty place in my life—it was not something I would “get over.” But I could build up a life around that hollow place with other people who would be supportive and loving. Mothering is not always done by our mothers.
So now on Mother’s Day, I light a candle. I light it to commemorate the long journey I’ve taken to find some peace with my history, to embrace the lessons I’ve been able to learn, one of which is to sometimes mother myself. I light it as a reminder that the shadow of another person doesn’t have to dim your own light. And I light it in prayer that my mother—if she returns in another life—might know the joys of motherhood and the transformative power of maternal love.
That she will open her heart to children and be grateful for everything that rushes in.
Patti Davis is an author of many books, including The Long Goodbye, in which she explored the experience of losing her father to Alzheimer's. The lessons she learned from the ten years of her father's illness inspired her to create a support group program for caregivers of people with dementia called Beyond Alzheimer's. Her most recent book, which is an extension of that support group, is Floating in the Deep End, which you can order here.