A Letter to Me, at 14

A Letter to Me, at 14

By Natalie Kemp


You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her.


I know you’re trying so hard, too hard, to make her see you, but she won’t, not now, when you’re blossoming into young adulthood, not later, when you’re graduating or getting married or divorced. She won’t be there helping you get ready for school dances, or ever see you march in the band, or even ask you what you want to do with your life. When she is there, she’ll usually be drunk. It will, now and always, be all about her.

In fact, when you are going through the worst of your divorce and find yourself completely alone, she’ll call you one day, and your heart will leap when she asks if you want to go on a vacation, just the two of you, to Florida. You’ll jump at the chance, though part of you will question her motives right out of the gate. But you’ll push down your doubts and forge ahead into the make-believe land she inhabits.

You’ll find yourself alone, again and still, right there in Fort Lauderdale, as she takes off on the back of a motorcycle with a guy she met on the Internet. She’ll toss a handful of twenties at you as she giggles her way to the door and tells you to get whatever you want for dinner, that you’ll watch T.V. when she gets back, just like the old days when she worked second shift and you’d wait up for her, hoping she’d remember to invite you into the living room before Dobie Gillis reruns started. You’ll wait up for her in that Florida hotel room, but she won’t come back that night or for two more days.

While you wait for her to return, you’ll take the rental car she left you and go to the mall, alone. You’ll cry as you drive down the freeway, real, choking, foolish sobs that are way more about her than they are about your soon-to-be ex-husband. You’ll be 24 and hate yourself for still not being past this, for still needing your mommy, for never allowing yourself to feel justified in your anger toward her. You’ll still be making excuses for her, still apologizing and hiding and wrecking yourself with constant grief, anguish and worry. You’ll force a smile when she finally returns, giddy and still reeking of beer. You’ll pretend to agree with her when she says she thought it would be good for you to have some alone time.

At 30, you’ll be remarried and expecting your first child. She’ll live across the country, and she won’t come. You’ll cry to your helpless, sweet husband while you’re in the throes of labor that no, you don’t want more medicine or a drink, or for him to rub your back. All you want is your mom and nobody can even get her on the phone. She’ll never lay eyes on you when you’re pregnant, either time.

Years will go by, the same, jagged patterns carving out a tired rut. You’ll have insomnia and you’ll blame it on motherhood and being so busy and some kind of anxiety thing, but you’ll know the truth. Nighttime is reserved for worrying about her. You’ll make sure your phone is on because you know that someday, the call will come, and it will come in the middle of the night, but somehow, maybe not, if you don’t go to sleep.

If you don’t sleep, you can keep your world propped up, and hers, too.

Somewhere along the line, she’ll own some of it. She’ll actually admit, in plain terms, that she’s an alcoholic, that she’s fucked things up along the way. She’ll detox. She’ll promise to stay sober, but she won’t for long. She’ll be too far gone, too lonely, too far away from everything she knew and threw away.

You’ll start to feel a shift in your feelings when you become a mother, and you can’t imagine hurting your own children the way she hurt you, and you will lose your ability to empathize with her. You’ll overcompensate and coddle your kids too much, but it will be better than her neglect, which you can recognize in hindsight now.

You’ll realize you’ve given up on her when you don’t even cringe when she has manic, hateful fits on Twitter for all your friends to see. It will be like you’ve already mourned her passing. You’ll cling to the good memories you do have of her, back when you were very young, when she didn’t correct people who thought she was your big sister.

But then when you’re 15, cigarette in hand and smirk on her lips, she’ll casually tell you that you were a mistake, one that ruined her life. You’ll try to brush it off, to find some compassion for the younger version of her, pregnant at 16, only a year older than you. “She doesn’t mean it,” you’ll tell yourself.

And maybe she doesn’t, and maybe she loves you, but she will hurt you. She is your mother and she will hurt you deeply and repeatedly until you’re broken, and then she’ll sob that you care nothing about her. Nothing will appease her and nothing will shake her from the chains of victimhood. You will have to watch yourself so you don’t fall into the same patterns.

But know this, too: On the other side of the pain, when you’re well past 30 and a mother yourself and finally brave enough to accept that you have value, when you’re so far past 14 that you can no longer remember it sharply, there is love. You’ll find it everywhere because you have a big heart and relentless, unrealistic hope, and though you will never fully believe it, you’ll deserve the love that emanates from within you. You’ll hold out hope for her, too, to the end.

And I’ll be here waiting, trying to pass some kind of motherly love back to you through time, because you need it now, at 14, and you don’t even know it.

Natalie Kemp is a freelance writer based in the upper Midwest. She is a daughter and a mother, and feels compelled to share the stories that bind us all.

Photo by Scott Boruchov



Are You Anyone’s Sister?

Are You Anyone’s Sister?

By Maggie Mulqueen


Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.


It is because of my relationship with my two older brothers that I questioned whether I ever wanted to be a parent.

“Are you anyone’s sister?” my then four-year-old son, Taylor, asked one evening as I was making his bed, I suddenly felt tears welling up. It was a rare quiet moment between us. At the time he’d been trying to sort out family relationships—trying to comprehend how his grandpa was also his dad’s father. 

My brothers weren’t at my wedding. They weren’t at our father’s funeral. They have never met my husband or my three sons. In truth, I don’t know where my brothers are. I haven’t seen either of them for more than forty years.

So how to begin to answer this question? “Yes” was my answer and that is the truth. But of course, rather than ending the conversation, my answer led to questions that were harder. The next question was “Whose sister are you?” “Well, I have two brothers” I said. We were still on fairly familiar ground as I turned to the wall to hide my tears and tuck in the top sheet. “Where do they live?” “How old are they?” “When will I see them?” 

When my mother divorced my father, I was 12. The years preceding my parents’ divorce were filled with fighting that at times turned violent. Not long after, each of my brothers disappeared from the family. They severed connections with each of us, including each other. Their absence broke my parents’ hearts. I functioned in the world as an only child, shuttling between my parents for holidays and bringing the three of us together for major milestones in my life. I vividly remember the shocked reaction of my future in-laws when they learned I had brothers but no idea how to contact them. As a parent myself I now have more sympathy for my in-laws’ response. As a young woman I felt shame.

After tucking my son into bed, I closed his bedroom door and sat on the landing. Although my son had been satisfied with my answers that night, I knew more questions would come.

It is rare for me to be questioned directly about the topic of siblings. I have learned how to offer only enough information about my brothers to be polite. It can be especially awkward around the holidays (Who are you visiting? Who is coming to dinner? Where do your siblings live?). But that night I decided the tactic I take with the rest of the world, one of evasion, was not one I wanted to use with my children. I wanted to provide information that was age appropriate, while leaving the door open for further questions later. As much distance as I try to put between my childhood and myself, I didn’t want my children to perceive the topic of my family of origin as hidden or forbidden.

Like all parents, I wanted to foster close bonds among my children, and so I created many traditions to lay the framework for a strong sense of family among the five of us. But when my sons fought or pulled away from me, I felt myself panic. The intensity was rooted in memories of family fighting and laced with fear that my sons would leave me, as my brothers had left me. Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.

Taylor, who is now twenty-one, called home recently and said, “It’s time, Mom. I want to know more about your brothers than just their names and ages.” 

In the intervening years since that night when Taylor was four, the questions had been infrequent but I always answered them as truthfully as possible. As a young adult, however, my son has more probing questions. Taylor’s interest in family relationships became a theme in his own writing during college. This time I did not turn and hide my tears but trusted him with painful details of my childhood that few people have ever heard.

Even though he has never met his uncles, Taylor has questions—about what they look like, what they do for work. He also wonders if he has cousins. I could not answer these questions and doubt if I could even recognize my brothers after so many years. He is a nephew as I am a sister, but only in the abstract. Yet, the fact that I was a sister, the youngest in our family of five, shaped my childhood. The fact that there are two uncles my sons have never met has shaped their childhood as well.

Why is it that we have words such as “widowed,” “divorced,” and “orphaned” but no way to describe ourselves as siblings? Taylor’s recent questions led me to search the Internet. I tried to find my brothers, not necessarily to make contact with them, but to see if they were still alive and if I would recognize them. We are now all in our 60s, a far cry from the young adults we were the last time we saw one another. With some effort I found out they are still alive; both are married. There was no mention of either of them having children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any images of them.

The existence of the Internet has only compounded my ambivalence about connecting with my brothers. Now that it’s easier to find them, am I somehow obligated to do that? Some days I think I will try to contact my brothers, but other days I feel less inclined to make myself vulnerable to be hurt again. Growing up with them made me strong in many ways. We were competitive both intellectually and physically. Their presence taught me assertiveness and gave me insight into gender differences. Their absence has also made me strong, but in other ways. I place a premium value on relationships and pride myself on the depth and longevity of my connections to others. Ironically, I am probably a better mother to my sons because I had brothers.

There are also days when I find myself wondering if my brothers have ever been tempted to search for me, their sister. Has anyone ever asked either of them, “Are you anyone’s brother?”

Maggie Mulqueen, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, and mother of three sons. She lives and works in the Boston area.