The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)
I have trouble with people who maintain that their mothers are perfect. Are you dating a guy who can’t make a decision without running it by his mom first? Break up with him. (Unless his mother is Caroline Manzo from The Real Housewives of New Jersey, but she is the only exception.) Definitely end it with this guy if he and his mother have one of those dynamics where you can tell the mom always kind of thought she would end up with her own son. Trust me—leave. Do you think your mother always has the answer to everything, including great suggestions about your hair, clothing, and relationships? I recommend you examine your view of her. I want to be patient and let you discover it in your own time. That’s a lie. Actually, I just want to pull the entire rug out from under you and rush you to see the light.
Everyone’s parents have fucked them up in one way or another. This is part of the natural order. It’s the circle of life. Mothers are people—not angels from heaven or Ex Machina error-free service bots. Just because they pushed you out of their vaginal canals does not mean they have all (or any) of the answers. Before they had you, they were flailing around like idiots, just like you are right now. My point is, they are just people. Most likely extraordinarily flawed people.
Which brings me to my mother. Yes, yes, just like your mother, she did her best. But I was one of those kids who grew up thinking my mom was a saint. An actual goddess walking the earth. I worshipped her. But one day, I learned my mom wasn’t perfect. The day I learned this also happened to be the day my childhood best friend, Mia, and I fell out forever. It wasn’t a wacky coincidence. My mother was having an affair with Mia’s father.
I met Mia on the first day of fourth grade when I was nine years old. I was the new kid at school and no one would talk to me, except her. She was the only one who didn’t mind my bossiness and incessant lying. I’d just finished telling everyone at my new school that I was a bikini model from California, along with several other fabrications that didn’t exactly win them over. I remember thinking she looked like Tinker Bell, so lovely and scrappy, when she approached me at the lunch table to say hi. She had dirty-blond unbrushed hair and was beautiful, tiny, and fragile. We became instantly inseparable. We had a few other friends who came in and out of our world, but I only saw them as a hindrance. I thought she was fascinating, brave, and confident.
I became a part of Mia’s family and she became a part of mine. She had an older brother my brother’s age and a younger sister my sister’s age, so our families were perfect matches. We had sleepovers as often as our parents would allow us, and we spent our time choreographing captivating dances that we showcased for anyone we could get to hold still for five minutes. Our choreography secret was to match up the dance moves to the words in the song. For example, for Paula Abdul’s song “Cold Hearted,” we would shiver and act cold when Paula sang the word “cold.” We’d point to our hearts for the word “hearted,” and when that future American Idol judge sang the word “snake,” we would—guess what?—each make a snake motion with one of our arms, slithering it up our fingers, wrist, and elbow. Calling all America’s Best Dance Crew choreographers, we got you if you need help!
I had no doubt in my mind that we’d one day marry twin brothers and all live in a house together. It seemed like nothing could ever possibly come between us.
Our parents met at temple and became close friends. For those of you who aren’t Chosen Ones, temple is a very regular part of life for Jews. We’d go to Shabbat service Friday night and the kids would go to Hebrew school Sunday mornings. Every summer my family would join Mia’s at their lake house in upstate New York. It was five hours away by car, and her parents would drive in their station wagon that always smelled like cats and stale Fritos, but I didn’t mind as long as I could sit in the seat in the back that faced the cars behind us. We’d wave to the drivers of those cars, then give them the finger and disappear—greatest gag in the book. My deathly carsickness, which I’ve always been prone to, was worth having just to see the change in the faces of the people who were just trying to get from point A to point B and really didn’t need to deal with some stupid-ass kids telling them with their small fingers to fuck off. But we’d laugh our heads off for the whole ride.
Mia’s mom, Ruth, was similar in stature to my mom—kind of short, blond, with a killer bod. Given my blind spot for seeing my mother as nothing but perfection, I remember thinking that Ruth wasn’t as funny or bright as my mom. But she was kind and didn’t take any shit from Mia or me. When we were thirteen, she caught us smoking Virginia Slims and drinking Boone’s Farm on her roof (like a couple bosses) and she was not having it. She was a good mother and always took care of me like I was her own, like when she yelled at me when I snuck a Redbook magazine over to her house to share the sex articles with the other kids. I remember reading aloud that it entices a man if you dress up in his tie and nothing else. We were probably nine at the time, and she chewed me out, like a real parent. I recall feeling sorry for her, merely because she wasn’t my mother. In fact, I always felt bad for any woman who had to be near my mom because they weren’t her. She was, in my eyes, a queen.
This is a lot, right? I know.
As for Mia’s dad, Lou, he was a smart, overweight businessman who wore huge, thick-framed glasses. There was nothing flashy about him. He adored his family and they adored him back. He worked long hours so he could provide them with the best life possible. They were the standard nice, Catskills-going Jewish family on Long Island.
The summer I turned thirteen was a great time for Mia and me. We were becoming teenagers and we got to hang out constantly up at the lake house. After our parents would go to bed, we’d come alive, sneaking out and meeting up with local boys on the beach to drink and get felt up. When school started in the fall, we were never apart. She was so unself-conscious and strong. Not physically—she was basically a string bean—but she knew what she stood for, and I wanted to stand for it right next to her. She was whip smart but could be totally silly and without any ego, and she always made me feel like she wanted me around. I felt I’d met my soul mate. I had.
And then one day after school I came home and saw my mother slumped on the couch. She’d clearly been crying hard. Her eyes were almost sealed shut and her nose was really red. She was usually composed, deliberate, and happy, and I’d never seen her cry like this. It felt like the ground was shifting beneath my feet when she reached out for me with both arms.
“What is it? What happened?” I asked her. She opened her mouth to explain the tragedy to me but the tears started again and she couldn’t catch her breath long enough to tell me. Because she couldn’t communicate vocally, she had to sign it to me. Since she is a teacher of the deaf, we all know a good amount of sign language in my family. Slowly, her hands trembling, she rose and signed to me, “I am leaving your father. Lou and I have fallen in love with each other.” I signed the word “again” because I needed her to repeat herself. Again she signed, “I am leaving your father. Lou and I have fallen in love with each other.”
I was not shocked that she was leaving my dad. I wasn’t ever under the impression that she was too fond of him. I’d never seen them hold hands or kiss, and she’d always expressed an air of vague annoyance toward him. Even though my dad was funny and handsome, it was hard for me to believe my perfect mother had stayed with my imperfect father for so long. I thought of her as Mother Teresa for staying with a man who never deserved her. Looking back now, I of course realize how unhealthy it was that as a teen, I had such a strong sense of alignment with one parent against the other. My father was no angel. He drank in secret and I know he did dirtbag things behind my mom’s back (in their earlier days, I’m pretty sure she once walked in on him getting head from a hooker), but he never pretended to be perfect.
When she told me that she and Lou were in love, it didn’t register who she was talking about because it seemed so unlikely. My first thought was, That’s funny, Mia’s dad’s name is Lou too. But then I put two and two together. Flashes of dinners and trips and moments at the temple with our families shot through my brain. Even though I’d always found him to be plain, he must have been special somehow, because my mother was in love with him—and I never questioned anything my mother said or did.
She sat there on the couch looking so helpless and sad, seeming so alone and without hope. I decided in that moment that I’d be her savior. I threw my arms around her and said, “Well it’s about time. I always knew you were too good for Dad. I’m happy you’re in love.” When my mom heard these words, the wave of hugs and kisses and praise that came my way was overwhelming. I believe no one has ever been as grateful as my mom was in that moment. Looking back now, I’m horrified that she let me play that role. To allow your thirteen-year-old to be your support system while you are simultaneously ripping her world apart is not a kind thing to do. I was a child, new to my teens, and she was treating me like a seasoned psychiatrist. And because I was the kid who always followed her lead, who outright worshipped her, I thought this must have been completely appropriate. I actually felt honored.
After she stopped crying, I bravely sat next to her in silence. And then, as I had always been trained to do, I felt fine. I believed everything was going to be OKAY. When we were kids and would fall or get upset, she’d never ask if we were all right. Instead, she’d say, “You’re okay,” in an upbeat tone and trick us into believing it. This is how we were raised: we were always oppressively OKAY.
I went to bed that night feeling OKAY, if a bit uneasy. I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back asleep. I had a headache. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, hoping it had all been a nightmare. I was thinking about Mia and her family when I heard the back door being unlocked. I moved my curtains aside to look down at the driveway and saw that my dad was home. I took a step toward my bedroom door and paused. What would I say to him? Did he know? A sudden, sharp pain in my temple stopped me in my tracks. I winced and lay back down. I’d never experienced a headache like this before. A faint, almost inaudible knock on my door was followed by a whisper: “Aim?”
The door opened and my father was standing there. “Hey, Dad.”
He sat down next to me. “Hey, baby, I heard you moving around in here. Why are you awake?” I told him about my headache, and I looked in his eyes and could see that he had been briefed on his new shattered life. He seemed calm though—collected on the outside, but still broken behind his eyes. He used his thumb to rub my temple. I breathed in his smell deeply as he softly sang a sleepy rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year” by Sinatra. My dad sang this song often. His nightly standards also included “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “They Call the Wind Maria.” To review, these are songs about lost youth, stuffing down your feelings, and a hurricane. Not really a ray of sunshine for a kid. It hit me that this was probably the last time he would sing them to me. I felt a heaviness in my chest that stung and pulled me back into a deep sleep.
I woke up to pancakes, eggs, and orange juice on the table. My mom was bright-eyed and cheery and had an “It’s gonna be a great day” way about her. She talked to me as if everything were normal. She made no mention of the previous day’s events and neither did I. Then she asked if I wanted Mia to come over after school.
I thought, Is this a joke?
But I said, “Okay.” And my mom explained, “I don’t want all of this to harm your friendship.” Hearing her say this made me believe it was actually possible. I thought, I learned everything I know from this adult, and I trust her completely. If she’s acting like this is all OKAY, then sure, there’s nothing complicated about remaining best friends with Mia when our parents are having an affair. Nope. Nothing at all.
In retrospect, I wish my mother had been visibly affected by what was going on. How could she get up so early and smile so brightly? But that was always her MO—to decide on a new reality that made sense to her in the moment and force us to live in it with her. I know there is a lot that she hid from me and plenty I don’t know about what happened with her and Lou. But I wish she’d considered the ripple effects of her actions and then fought her desire to have this affair. At the very least, I wish she could have just been honest that she was weak and lost—that she pursued Lou because of the bad place she was in. I can’t speak for her, but I don’t believe she tried hard enough to think about everyone who would be affected by the relationship. Even worse, she got me on board. She made me my favorite breakfast and recruited me to be the cheerleader of her mistake. There was no “How are you feeling today, Aim? This must be a lot for you to deal with.” So I acted like there wasn’t. In the meantime, the stress and agony that was suddenly bubbling to the surface had nowhere to go, so it was promptly internalized.
I had a blinding pressure cooker of a headache for years to come.
As Mom cleared the dishes, I asked her where Dad was. “He’s moving his things into the office,” she answered with a frightening Stepford quality. Bam, pain—right at the front of my head. I went off to school anyway, feeling that I needed to be as sunshiney and strong as my mother. Nothing was a big deal as long as we didn’t act like it was. When I sat down in my chair for math class, I immediately saw that Mia’s desk was empty. I stared at it. Headache. Shooting, searing pain. Then just as the second bell rang, the classroom door flung open and Mia ran to her seat without looking at me. My eyes were fixed on her all forty-two minutes of class. She didn’t even glance in my direction. She looked cool and relaxed like always. She must not know, I thought. What am I going to say to her? “Hey, Mia, your family is ruined because our parents are two sad and lonely people who chose some fleeting moments of joy over keeping their families happy and safe. Do you want to go get some Sour Patch Kids after school?”
The bell rang and class was over. I packed up my books, breathed through my headache, and approached her. “Hi,” I said.
“Hey,” she said, and handed me a folded letter, while smiling like everything was fine. “Please give this to your mom, and promise me you won’t read it.” I nodded my head and I meant it. She skipped away and I immediately stepped into the bathroom and furiously opened the envelope. I was too curious. You definitely would have, too.
It was an utterly hateful letter to my mother—written by Mia. Each word more hurtful than the last. It was filled with angry questions and accusations, like “I thought you were an angel but you are the most evil thing I’ve ever seen. I hope you go to hell . . . You’ve ruined my family. How could you do this?”
Three spite-filled pages. I couldn’t believe that someone—Mia especially—could write something like this to my mom. In my mind, my mom was innocent. She’d painted herself as a precious victim, and she had successfully brainwashed me into believing in the romantic forbidden-love story she was living out with my best friend’s father. As far as I was concerned, my mother was Hester Prynne in this situation, and I wasn’t going to let these people burn an innocent woman at the stake for following her heart.
I marched down the empty hallway and stopped in front of the door to the biology class I knew Mia was in. Without thinking I barged in. “I need to talk to Mia,” I told the teacher. He must have heard the “don’t fuck with me” tone in my voice because he let her walk right out. She came into the hallway and shut the door behind her, at which point we were off. “I told you not to read it!” “Fuck you!” “How could you?” “I hate you!” Back and forth—both of us screaming and crying until two teachers had to break it up. While being guided away from each other we locked eyes. We both looked surprised. I was taken to the nurse’s office to calm down, where I lay on a cot and breathed heavily. By the time my mom came to drive me home, my head was throbbing, my temples beating like a heart.
In the weeks that followed, I got used to the headaches. I had to witness Mia’s mother sitting on our doorstep, begging my mom not to do this to her family. My mom did it anyway. I had to see Mia in the hallways at school while I was aching to talk to her. Hold her. Be with her as I had been every day for the last five years. It was devastating to go through such a confusing and stressful experience without my best friend. We stopped going to the temple where I’d just had my bat mitzvah. It was too uncomfortable to show our faces there after my mom had wrecked a home in the community. Thus ended an important chapter in my relationship with Judaism, the religion in which I had been raised, spending every weekend of my whole life studying and celebrating. My friends and my religion were gone. The whole town knew, and instead of being angry with my mother, I stood by her with a vengeance. I looked them all dead in the eye, daring them to just try to fuck with either of us.
I had to watch my father move from the office into a sad, sterile bachelor’s apartment on Long Island with a roommate. My mother rewarded my loyalty—or perhaps paid for her guilt—by giving me the master bedroom she used to share with him. Mia and I avoided each other for the rest of middle school and high school. I felt the familiar shooting pain in my head any time I would pass her in the hall or on the street. I missed her all the time. I still do. She reached out on Facebook a couple of years ago to congratulate me on my success, and I immediately gushed about how I missed her, how sorry I was, and how wrong my mom was. She never responded.
As for my mom and Lou, their relationship lasted all of a couple months. It was a very strange experience for me and my siblings. One year earlier we’d been on family vacations with Lou’s family, and now he was coming along on our family vacation to San Diego—as my mom’s boyfriend. He’d moved out of his family’s house and gotten a place of his own. It turned my stomach to watch them hold hands. I remember ordering clams and sucking them out of the shell the way we always did with my dad. But Lou insisted we use our forks. Watching him with my mom at the hotel pool, I could tell she was already over him. My brother, sister, and I all felt the same heaviness in the salty San Diego air, but she did her usual act of pretending everything was fine. She expected us to do the same, but this time we did not oblige. Something about that trip finally lifted the veil for me. I was beginning to see her for the flawed, confused, lonely human being that she was. No worse than the rest of us. But my imaginary image of her shattered and has never returned.
She broke up with Lou on the flight home.
In the years that followed, she dated several other men, swearing that each was “the one.” And through it all, I remained intensely close to her—all the way up through my twenties. I used to bring her to comedy clubs with me and we were very much a part of each other’s daily lives. We were enmeshed, with not a single healthy boundary between us. And I was always defending the questionable choices she made in relationships. We have had a different journey than most mothers and daughters. Maybe it helped my mom cope with life to manage and guard our relationship so closely. She couldn’t control or deal with reality, but she could control me.
Now, in our thirties, my siblings and I have begun to become more vocal with each other about the hardships of growing up with our mom. We’ve each had our own specific struggles, but they’re rooted in the experiences we shared of being emotionally suppressed or manipulated by her. As it turns out, being OKAY ALL THE TIME as a child makes for a difficult entry into adulthood.
When I was about to turn thirty, I was beginning to think about writing a book about my life (which eventually became this book). I went back through the journals I’ve kept from the age of thirteen and started reading what I’d written about Mia and Lou. As an adult reading the words of a child who was telling this awful story, I was able for the first time to separate my mother’s actions from my adoration of her. It became very clear that she manipulated me in unhealthy ways, and that the remnants of that manipulation were still a part of our present-day relationship.
With all this pain refreshed in my memory from reading my old journals, my mother happened to call to discuss my upcoming birthday. I remember her cheerful tone—the same one she’d had that morning so long ago when she made me pancakes right after turning my world upside down. “I know what we are doing for your thirtieth,” she said. “We are going on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and then we’ll get hibachi and massages!” I was suddenly flooded with anger. I told her, “I don’t want to go on a Millionaire Matchmaker date with you for my birthday!” This is not OKAY. Those are all things SHE would want to do on HER birthday, I thought. And then I was fully furious. I wasn’t just mad at her for having a short, destructive affair with my best friend’s father when I was thirteen. I wasn’t just mad at her for the string of other men who came into our lives after Lou. I was mad at her for manipulating me into supporting her through all this. And for making me believe the lie she was selling—the lie of her projected flawlessness and innocence.
So at the age of twenty-nine, I began to forge a new relationship with her—one with Fort Knox–level boundaries. Redirecting a relationship between two people who’ve been abnormally close for thirty years is not an easy thing to do. We had a period of my expressing my feelings about the past, followed by a period of our not speaking. I tried again and again to lay it all out for her, to explain my grievances and pain. And sometimes she did try to listen to where I was coming from. She stopped just defending herself and started to hear me, but ultimately I think it was too much for her to accept the gravity of what she had done—and the effect it had had on me and my siblings. We finally landed in a place where we have remained for several years. We are kind to one another but I keep my boundaries clear. We speak regularly and keep each other up to date, but far less frequently.
Now, after some years of reflection, I understand her a little better. Like all of us, she’s a product of her own fucked-up childhood. She was damaged by her own mother, who was an emotionally neglectful narcissist. I have no idea what it must have been like to be in her situation when she started the affair with Lou—to have three kids and a husband who didn’t make her feel loved. But I still wish she could have just been honest with us. And with herself. We’re all trying our best, making mistakes, and hanging on by a thread. I wish she could have showed us an authentic emotion or two, allowed us to accept weakness and vulnerability as a part of life. Life is full of pain and disappointment. I’ve made a whole career out of pointing this out and reliving it in ridiculous ways so everyone can laugh and cry along with me. I wish my mother understood this too.
It’s relaxing sometimes, just being human.
I still have to work hard not to internalize my feelings so they don’t manifest themselves in the form of headaches and other physical problems. And I’m still at my core a girl who longs for her mother. We all are. When I think of the moments in my life that I’ve felt the most comforted and loved, I think of her. Being tucked in at night, or walking into the house starving from volleyball practice to find dinner already waiting on the table for me. Feeling her arms around me as she carried me through the swimming pool. The safety of wrapping my arms around her as she slowly moved through the water, guiding me, loving me. She is still the person I want to talk to when I wake up from a nightmare. When I call her in the middle of the night after a bad dream, which happens a couple times a year, she always picks up the phone. Always. When she tells me, “It will be okay,” I believe her and go back to sleep. I love her.
But make no mistake, if I knew I was going to eventually become her . . . ? If it were like World War Z and I had five seconds until I transitioned into fully being my mother? I would hara-kiri myself without a second thought. If you’re a parent reading this, chances are you’re not as tricky as my mom. I know she is a rare flower. But don’t go patting yourself on the back too quickly. No matter what, you’re still going to mess up your kids too. And they’re going to hate you for a minute (or two or three) while they pick up the pieces of their childhood. Anyone who claims to skirt this system is just lying. And that’s a far worse offense in my book.
No matter what my mother put me through, I’m still grateful to her for raising me to believe I’m talented, smart, and beautiful. She made me who I am—someone who, ironically, places the highest value on being vulnerable, honest, and real. I wish we could have a normal mother-daughter relationship. If such a thing exists. I don’t know if that’s possible for us, but I believe family is a constant negotiation. I have never given up on her. I can’t, and I never will.