My Mother, My Story // Samantha Ladwig

This article is part of our guest curated month examining the theme "Writing about the Living," which poses the question: How can writers protect their own privacy and the privacy of others

A wave of heat washes over me when my mother asks if I’m ever going to write a book. I nod with my face in my coffee mug. It’s Christmas Eve. Ralphie fires at Black Bart with his Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Range Model Air Rifle on the screen in front of us, motion smoothing turned on high. It’s our first Christmas together since 2014. Maybe 2013. The last ten years wash together, memories thrown into life’s never-ending spin cycle. The older I get the more the decade blends, made cloudy by depression and lack of food and too much food and hospitalization and drinking, lots and lots of drinking, and “sex.” I put sex in quotations because-I’m only 28. I often wonder if the next decade will drown this one. Sometimes I hope it will. In the same fashion as Sophia Petrillo—but I digress.My mother and I don’t talk about my writing. What I mean is, we don’t talk about my writing that deals with her. Short—and what I hope are powerful—attempts to untangle our relationship. Movie and book reviews, interviews, histories, you name it; they’re all open on the table, spoken about loud and proudly. My essays, on the other hand, are not.The first time I really wrote about my mother was in 2017, in the June/July issue of Bust Magazine. It looked at our estrangement, the years and events that led up to it and, of course, the world-shifting, upside-down aftermath. I’d written a few pieces prior. Pieces that I thought were self-actualizing but in reality were just anger-fueled stories that, despite holding some truth, lacked self-reflection and accountability. Those stories went nowhere.The Bust editor accurately titled it “No Ordinary Love.” On the Contents page though, the subheading read, “Getting out of an abusive relationship is critical self-care. But what happens when your abuser is your mother?” Abuser. That word sounds hard, intentional, and cruel. Not at all like my mother: bruised, childlike, and incapable. My mother is a lot of other things too: loving and manipulative and funny and mentally ill and smart and addicted and aware and exhausting. It’s possible that she’s never come across these pieces about our estrangement. I no longer share my work—any of it—on social media. The years have slowly infected each platform with family members and mutual friends who are quick to screenshot and send whatever I post her way. Sometimes I think that I’m protecting her from these stories by not sharing them, but I might just be protecting myself.This type of small town looking-out-for-our-own culture swings both ways. Months into our estrangement, my phone vibrated with a few urgent text messages. Each one projected an image of my mother’s recent Facebook post. She confessed to her followers that she was at a loss because her middle daughter had stopped talking to her. Apparently I stress her out.” Stress. She spoke as if all we needed to fix our relationship was routine exercise and a balanced diet. As if I didn’t spend each day in fear of a phone call from the hospital. Her post was met with a stream of sympathy, which made me question what I had done. Doubt has always been my family’s way of containing their chaos.When I was 19, I sat in the garage with my mom as she chain-smoked and told me that she was concerned about my stepdad. Tears ran down her face. The last couple of years had been plagued by unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and a sharp increase in empty beer and prescription pill bottles. She told me that he wanted to drive his car into an oncoming semi. Then she put her cigarette out and went inside to get ready for bed. I spent that night writing letter after letter to my stepdad, begging him to stay with us. As I was about to slip the final draft into his coat pocket, I froze. Possible outcomes of what I was about to do flashed rapidly through my mind. I didn’t want to get my mom into trouble for telling me. More importantly, on the off chance that this was another embellished story, I didn’t want to look stupid. Years of manipulation made me question myself out of doing anything. I didn’t drop that letter in his pocket. Instead, I went back upstairs, got into bed, and listened as he got ready for work, got into his car, and backed out of the driveway. Later that morning, I walked into the kitchen and told my mother that fear kept me up all night. “You’re being dramatic,” she laughed as she walked past me into the garage to smoke. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just having a bad night.” I sat in front of the TV all day while it played reruns of The Golden Girls until I saw my stepdad’s car pull into the driveway. My mom cooked dinner. I drove back to college later that night.It’s possible that she’s read these pieces too. My website is online and she’s notorious for being nosy, going through texts and emails and handwritten notes when you’re not home kind of nosy. Not to mention that the Bust piece went viral when it was published online. Amy Westervelt, a journalist and author of Forget Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood—and How to Fix It, asked me to be a guest on her podcast, Tell Me About Your Mother. I said yes, excited not so much for the opportunity to be on a podcast, but more to continue the taboo conversation of estrangement. Before Bust, I had written a report on women who were estranged from their mothers for Vices Broadly. My recently cut ties inspired it. I wasn’t ready to talk about my own experience so I decided to research it instead. I looked at studies and spoke with professionals. I posted a call for interviewees in my writer’s groups. There was a flurry of excitement about the piece. Dozens of women came forward with stories about their complicated relationships with their mothers. But like most families burdened by shame, half of these women were paralyzed with fear. In private messages, they told me that they would love to contribute to the piece but that they were scared. Scared that their mother would find the story and, despite name changes and anonymity, recognize them in it. There would be consequences. This isn’t a new anxiety. I hear it in the memoir writing workshops I teach, too. Most of the people who sit around the table have waited until their parent has died to write. My mom had me when she was 23. My hands would be crinkled and stiff with age if I waited until she died to get to work. More importantly, I don’t want to wait for my mother to die. She’s not an inconvenience. Despite all the memories that crawl up and out of my brain at inopportune times, usually I enjoy my mother’s company. It’s loud with excitement.I met Amy at a coffee shop near my 270 square foot studio in Los Angeles, right off of La Brea and Wilshire Blvd. It was an unsurprisingly hot day. The compostable straws we stuck in our iced coffees disintegrated as we walked to the Tar Pits to record. When we found an open patch of grass where we could sit down and set up, doubt struck and questions flew wildly. What if my mother finds this podcast? What if my sister finds this podcast and shows my mother? What if they find this podcast and it leads them to the Bust piece? What if what I remember and feel isn’t actually real? What if I’m wrong about everything? Like pressing “send” on the email that carried my final draft of “No Ordinary Love,” I knew that once Amy pressed record, there was no going back.Before we started, Amy gave me the rundown on how the episode would be structured: she’d introduce the Bust piece, read a blurb, talk a bit about her own experience with her mother, and then the interview would follow. If writing about my estrangement has taught me anything, it’s that our culture doesn’t accurately reflect the average mother-daughter relationship, and we need it to. We’re hungry for it. Because who benefits from the belief that women are either selfless caregivers or total shit? It’s this reminder that allows my fingers to move, and in that interview, my mouth, too. So when my mother asks me if I’m writing a book, and my body responds before my mind, I don’t lie and say no to avoid potential conflict. I take in our surroundings: the home my parents have built after not having one for the better part of the year, the Christmas tree and the holiday decorations and the platters of food and the bottles of wine and our pajamas and the dog lying under the coffee table and A Christmas Story playing on TV. And I nod my head yes, not going into too much detail but not shying away either. 

Samantha Ladwig is a writer, film archivist, bookseller, and writing instructor in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has been published by New York Magazine's Vulture, Real Simple, Vice's Broadly, Huffington Post, Bitch, Vox's The Verge, Bust Magazine, and others. For clips and more information, visit

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