(by Robin Bailey)
During the pandemic, I had an incredible amount of time to think. When there was no place to run to, and no place to hide, my thoughts came loudly and aggressively. “Not everything has to be fight or flight,” my husband told me one night when the thoughts were bombarding me. So, I sat. I sat and thought. And I slept. I did a lot of sleeping, and thinking, and planning, and reflecting during the pandemic. I went to therapy via Zoom and leaned on my friends near and far to help me process the things I had been avoiding, pushing aside, and shoving down. Conversations always seemed to come back to my relationship with my mom, and the limiting beliefs I told myself because of what had been reaffirmed through my life. As a third-generation educator, my life has been structured like a lesson plan. “Make a plan” may as well have been my mother’s motto. Her sing-song voice repeating “make a plan” is with me when I wake up, when I sit down for lunch, and before I go to bed at night. Until the pandemic, I always thought planning was slowing me down. Why can’t I just do it? I have the idea. I have the resources. Let’s go, already!
As Mom was a high-school health educator for over 30 years, health was the cornerstone of our home. When I see how my friends represent health, my mind wanders to Orange Theory classes, running outside, or drinking green smoothies filled with kale and apples. My mom was in it for the long haul: Small actions repeated over time create strong foundations for future success. Health was not just about physical movements; it was about having healthy thought patterns, healthy actions, and healthy relationships. When making a decision, my sister and I were frequently prompted to consider if it would impact us or others physically, mentally, emotionally, and if it would be respectful to our parents and their values. As a child, teenager, and young adult, I struggled with the guilt I held around the last part, and as a 30-year-old woman, I still struggle with it.
Mom often shared stories about her students. I heard about the ones who had mohawks and would use Elmer’s glue to hold their hair in place. I heard about the ones who had sex before marriage and got pregnant. I heard about all types of sexually transmitted diseases, and our shared household computer rotated images of these diseases as a screensaver. I learned about heartbreak, eating disorders, addiction, loss, and cancer through the stories she would tell of her students. Sometimes her students asked her to help them talk to their parents. Sometimes they didn’t want her support at all. Each story had a moral, and we would go back to the question of: When they were making a decision, do you think they considered how it would impact them physically, mentally, emotionally, and if it would be respectful to their parents and their values?
As an adolescent, I experienced jealousy. I wanted my mom to know this much about my life. I wanted her to talk through my decisions with me. I wanted help navigating, and I had no idea how to ask. I tested her instead. I went out of my way to engage in risky behavior to see if she would notice. The first time I came home with a hickey, she tossed a pregnancy test at me and asked, “Are you proud of yourself?” When I came home after smoking weed and lying that I’d been at a play, she turned off the TV and asked me questions about the plot. I lied through my teeth and accused her of being suspicious. She had every right to be. When I was sneaking through windows at night, she had floodlights installed in our backyard. She was doing everything in her power to protect me from the mistakes she had watched her students make over and over again. When I asked for therapy, the response from my father was, “You have everything in life, and you still aren’t happy?” but my mom was the one who took me to a therapist, paying in cash because she explained that there is a stigma around mental health. She told me that if going to therapy came up when I was applying to college or for a job, people would think I was unstable or unfit to participate. She was trying to protect me.
I know this because during a course about family dynamics in my Ph.D. program, the professor challenged us to ask our parents their interpretation of us. I called my mom, muting the phone to sob while she talked. I asked two things: What was her core word? How did she interpret me? The lump in my throat has returned as I type this, and the tears are stinging my eyes. She shared that her core word was “protect,” and she interpreted me as a challenge. I did everything to go against her wishes, and to push the boundaries. At one point, she described herself as an octopus, arms flailing trying to protect me from my next potential mistake, while I ignored her, charging forward. Doing. Not planning.
The pandemic came. My mom called me the day I was sent home from my role as a first-grade teacher and told me to make a plan for myself. “Structure your day. Make yourself a lesson plan. Don’t let yourself just sit there.” So, in true self action, I did the opposite. I sat there. I sat for two weeks on my couch. Eating, sleeping, crying, watching reruns and the news. I sat and let myself wallow in the unknown of the pandemic. Once teaching resumed and our district had a plan, I attempted to follow it. I taught when I was supposed to be on camera, and then I slept when I was off camera. After a month, I realized there was something that wasn’t sitting well with this routine. I was making my lesson plans and successfully implementing them, but outside of that, no plan. I felt myself falling into a depression spiral that came back to the intrusive and repetitive thoughts: “What is my purpose in life? What am I doing? Who am I outside of teaching?”
I begrudgingly made a doctor’s appointment. At this point, I had been on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication for two years. Within minutes of meeting the doctor, he got out a checklist for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Ticking off nearly all the items from the checklist, I felt a sense of relief. I had an explanation for my behavior, for my way of being. No sooner had I settled into that sense of relief, I was overcome with anger and resentment. If my mom was the health teacher I remembered her to be—involved, helpful, knowledgeable—why was I getting this diagnosis at age 29? I spent days and weeks pouring through memories, moments, and experiences from my childhood where I felt like I was in the right alignment with myself, but out of alignment with my mother. I kept envisioning how my life would have been different if she had known, if she had acknowledged, if she had seen me in the same way she saw her students.
I started pulling from the things that I did as a younger me, acknowledging past interests. Art became my focus. I explored different mediums, painted self-portraits that scared me, and allowed myself to make messes. I purchased a harmonium to apply the skills of piano I had learned as a child. My mother had nurtured both of these interests and had sent me for lessons. I spent my time furthering my yoga practice. I enrolled in a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. program through the University of Minnesota’s University of Metaphysical Sciences. I submitted work for and presented in over a dozen international education conferences. My inner child was delighted that after a long day of making messes, learning, and practicing skills, I would also indulge in playing the SIMS, an online computer game that simulates the relationships of the real world and allows the player to design experiences, clothing, houses, and interactions. This was the game my mother would chastise me for playing in my youth, because I could be out there doing or learning instead.
During this reflective process, the enjoyment of following my whims was followed by feelings of guilt, confusion, and hesitation to invest more time. What I came to realize is that I was repeating the words, phrases, and conversations from my childhood. It wasn’t my voice in my head, but my mother’s. It was the critical voice. And I realized that I had to protect myself. My mother had been protecting me my entire life, and she had been the one creating boundaries. I was on my own. I couldn’t see her during the pandemic, as she was the primary caregiver for my grandmother, aged 100. Even with vaccinations, our family did not want the risk of visiting.
So I took my ADHD medication and battled the inner monologue that was screaming at me to be fearful of outsider judgement. I made my plans. I carried them out. I played, and tried new things, and worked, and taught, and learned. It wasn’t the lesson plan my mother was used to, but it was mine. I tapped into my superpower of ADHD. I honored the whimsy of my mind at times, learned how to say “no” to myself, and began the hard work of setting my own boundaries.
Finally, one bright day in June, it was time. The mask mandate was lifted, our entire family was vaccinated, and I drove home to Ohio to surprise my mom and dad. I waltzed in the house and shared my feelings honestly, rolling up my sleeve to show a tattoo I had gotten. Mom hugged me for minutes on end and fed me cheesecake—a treasured recipe that has been passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me. I’d been waiting to feel love like this for years. Completely surrounded inside and out with support, physical affection, and honesty. After going through this experience—this pandemic, this depressive episode, this diagnosis, this year of reflection and learning—I finally felt worthy of my mother’s love. I finally felt at home in my childhood home, in my skin, and with my voice.
In the days that followed, I felt my mother’s presence with me as I moved through the world in a way I had never felt before. I heard her voice in my head guiding, not chastising. I felt her words come through me, and my actions mirrored the actions I saw her make when I was young. It was in these moments that I learned to pause and thank her for her patience and protection over the years. From there, I began to feel my grandmother’s presence in moments as well. I hear myself saying the same things they have said my whole life. I see myself honoring them in my habits, my routines, and where I place emphasis in my life. I am beginning to develop into this nurturing woman who will welcome her wild child home with cheesecake and open arms. I am becoming my mother, and I have never been so excited.
Robin Bailey is the Interim Senior Newsletter Editor for AERA Graduate Student Council and a Doctoral Candidate at George Mason University in Virginia. She is the author of Maggie the Moomaid. She can be found at www.mrsterlop.com.
11/2 c. graham cracker crumbs (about 10 full sheet graham crackers)
5 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 c. sugar
For bottom layer:
1 egg, separated
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
For top layer:
1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix ingredients for crust.
Press into the bottom of a 9-in. pie pan or springform pan, using the edge of a measuring cup.
Bake for 7 – 8 minutes until lightly browned. Set aside.
Beat egg white on high speed until stiff peaks are formed.
In a separate bowl, beat egg yolk.
Put cream cheese in a large microwaveable bowl and soften for 15 - 20 seconds.
Add cream cheese, 1/2 c. sugar, and 1 t. vanilla extract to egg yolk, mixing on low speed.
With a spatula, fold egg white into cream cheese mixture.