Did I Fail My Mother?

–All the things I should have said, and didn’t.

My mother was a beautiful woman. Achingly so. Beautiful and funny and smart…and desperately unhappy. Others might have a different impression. But I know what I know.

When I was growing up, there were signs — so many signs of just how miserable my mom was, but, as a kid, I didn’t know what to do. Or maybe I didn’t pay enough attention. I was too busy birthing my own demons, many of which took root in the often horrific shit going on in our home, behind closed doors. That is a story I’ve been meaning to write, but I’ve been holding off. Soon. I hope.

In spite of outward appearances, our family was anything but “typical.” Yes, we were middle-class. Yes, we lived in the suburbs. And yes, we put on a good front. We were adept at pretending. Unless things got really out of hand, we kept our skeletons where they belonged: Hunkered-down in a back closet.

Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I could hear them wail for release.

Don’t get me wrong: We had great times, too and I have the memories to support them. The rest…I’ve pretty much shut out. Unless I can’t sleep. Then, the “other stuff” comes flooding back.

My father, a Jew, and my mother, Italian, and a gentile cared for us kids the best way they knew how. I was the oldest, followed by my brother, four years younger and my “baby” sister, who was a full ten years younger than me. She was, in fact, a “mistake.” But I thank God for that mistake every day because I don’t know what I’d do without her. However, this story is about my mother. An enigma to me, even now, I wish I had known how deeply depressed she was. I mean, I knew she wasn’t happy, but I didn’t understand how ingrained that unhappiness was.

Both my parents suffered from depression, during a time when people rarely spoke about their emotional issues. It just wasn’t done. I wonder now if we had talked about it, if meds could have eased their pain. To the best of my recollection, I never brought it up. Not once. And that’s on me. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

If I told you that my mom and I had the perfect mother/daughter relationship, I’d be lying outright. Oh, we loved each other very much. In fact, I adored her but I think I sucked at showing it. Something…some invisible gauntlet kept me at arm’s length. My sister never had that problem. Both my parents doted on her and she deserved their unconditional love. When they were both diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, my sister moved them into her home and cared for them with a dedication that took my breath away. In fact, I wrote about it here.


Twenty is hella young to have a kid. How much did my mom give up to have me? To raise me? She was just a kid herself and my dad was only a year older. What were her hopes? Her dreams? How could I not know these things? Where was I all those years?

I didn’t know because I didn’t ask.

Mom came from a big Italian family. She had four siblings, three sisters, and an adoring brother. And they, along with my grandparents spoiled me rotten when my mother and I went to live with them after my dad was sent to Korea. In fact, he was in Japan when I was born. I didn’t learn, until years later when I was grown and married that when my mom was growing up, she and her siblings had to be “parceled out” to other family members because they were in dire financial straits.

My grandmother came from money, from what I was told. And her family didn’t like the fact that she’d married a common truck driver, so, when they ran out of cash — I mean, five kids after all — my grandmother’s family refused to help. They were strapped and desperate, so my mom and her siblings lived with other family members temporarily, until their situation improved.

When my mom told me this story, my heart broke for her. I actually ached at the thought of what she must have experienced. After she told me, I was stunned that I hadn’t known this earlier.

My mother had her secrets.

Both my parents were drinkers. I hesitate to say “alcoholics,” but the time for denial has long passed. And most of their friends were drinkers. Together, that made for a pretty raucous bunch. And some of the parties at our home were wild, boozy affairs where the police were often called. It was a damned good thing that my folks’ best friend was a cop and was always front and center at these brawls. Then, after everyone went home, in the wee hours, my mother and father fought. Viciously. More about this when I can summon up the guts to write it.

Before my mother accepted a job outside the home, she took a lot of “naps” during the day. I’d find her passed out on her bed more times than I care to count. She looked so vulnerable. And she was. But, again, she drank. A lot. The booze, as it is for many of us, was a cushion. Something to keep the monsters at bay.

I’m sorry, mom. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I need to get this out. Because I love you.

My mother was a strong woman. She proved that almost five years ago when she was dying of lung cancer, but she was also a deeply wounded woman. I think part of that was due to her never realizing her full potential. What did she want to be…to do? Did I ever ask her? I should have tried harder. I had the key — and I dropped it and kicked it under the bed. Like a petulant brat who’s gotten tired of her toys.

My sister has a stunning, framed photo of our mother hanging on her family room wall. It was taken when she was named “Miss Motorola.” Sometime in the fifties, I believe. My mother worked there. I don’t know how long, or even, what she did. The giant purveyor of TVs, radios, and other electronics of the time had a beauty contest and my mother won. We kids used to giggle about it, as ignorant children do, but it meant something to her. And we never talked about it. My sister probably knows. She helps me with the “blank spots.” Some of her revelations have been stunning.

What if my mother had taken a different path? Hadn’t met my father and gotten pregnant with me?

As I got older, we argued frequently. She had a nasty temper when she’d had too much to drink, as did my father. Unfortunately, I inherited that particular gene, along with depression and OCD, and I have to be ever watchful…ever vigilant…that I don’t turn into my own version of my parents. That sounds terrible and I don’t mean it to as I inherited a healthy helping of the “good stuff,” too. But I have to be honest with myself or I will sink like a stone.

There are days when I think I’m becoming my mother. It’s the oddest sensation. I’ll move in a certain way, or say something just as she would have said it. And when I cook, I make far too much food, just as my mom did. Although that’s where the comparison ends because she was a fantastic cook. Still, it’s like she’s inhabiting my body. I know many women can relate: We feel like we’re becoming our mothers. We laugh about it. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, it’s more than a little scary as I see my mother’s face. I used to take after my dad, but as I’ve aged, I’m my mother all over.

So, yes. I have regrets. A boatload. I wish I had done more for my mother. Said more. Questioned more. Does she know how much I loved her and still love her?

Wherever she is, I fervently hope she does know. And I hope it’s anywhere rather than in that cold, hard ground next to my dad. I pray they’ve both taken flight, together.

Finally, I have one last thought: Why does everything come to us so late?

Thank you for reading. I truly appreciate it.


Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn
Sherry McGuinn is a long-time, Chicago area, advertising/marketing writer, blogger and, for the last fifteen years, screenwriter. A big-time dreamer and proud of it, Sherry has had two short films produced, one in L.A., the other in New York. Both won several awards and screened at festivals but she is still "fighting the good fight," in order to become a full-time, working screenwriter. A passionate straight-shooter who never rests on her laurels, Sherry writes about damn near everything because how do you encapsulate…life? Unflinching in her determination to “just tell the truth,” Sherry strives to educate, engage and inspire others to follow their dreams. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Sherry resides in a Chicago suburb with her husband and their three fabulous felines.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Unfortunately it is only as adults, or even with the loss of parents, that we begin to understand many aspects of the lives of those who are no longer there. We embrace a deeper understanding. Perhaps the fact that we no longer have our loved ones next to us leads us to understand the reason behind many of their actions which, until then, were incomprehensible, contradictory and even repugnant.
    Parents are our first love. It does not matter how many conflicts or how many differences we have had with them: they are unique and irreplaceable beings within our emotional world. Even if we are now autonomous and independent, even if our relationship with them has been difficult, when they are no longer there, we miss them as “never again” of that protection and that support that, in a way or in the other, they have always made them present in our life.
    However, one of the great losses of life is that of the parents and it can be difficult to overcome if there has been injustice or neglect in the care we have given them. For this reason, as long as they are alive, it is important to be aware of the fact that parents will not be there forever, that they are, genetically and psychologically, the reality from which we were born; that are unique and that our lives will change forever after they disappear.

    • “Our lives will change forever after they disappear.” How true, Aldo. As usual, your insights are right on the money. This is something I struggle with quite a bit, so I appreciate your wise words. Grazie, my friend. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Sherry — So many parallels…but this one screamed out at me: “Why does everything come to us so late?” One day my older sister and I were sitting with my mother in a tiny little restaurant in Manchester, Vermont, enjoying a weekend get-away from Boston, when my mother blurted out her horrific backstory. She was just on the edge of dementia at that point, and maybe something inside told her to get it out then because soon she wouldn’t be able to. To say that our jaws dropped is an understatement. So many behaviors, moods, action came into focus in that instant. Why could she not have told us earlier? Shame?

    You never need to feel alone, Sherry. I (obviously) didn’t have the mother-daughter relationship my older sister did – oy, so close to yours – so I didn’t experience what you did, but my mom and I had our own love-stretched relationship. I wish now that I could replay certain scenes, certain years, but I can’t. The lesson for me is not to leave the songs or sadness inside of me with those still around me.

  3. Sherry, I’m applauding your brevity in letting it out. This release will help you. I was captivated as I too think my mother was greatly depressed. She immigrated from her home, came here and had me wright away at the age of 21…and cried often. As children we do not understand nor is it on us to help. We do anything to make them feel better and als win their approval. We all needed our mothers and we learn from this way to late. As a mother I applied the lessons of what I didn’t want to be nor have for my children…and my story was more devastating than hers…but I did my best to give to them. Abuse, neglect and divorce are not the right atmosphere For anyone and we learn that everyone has a story. My mother is not emotionally unavailable to me and has thrown her miseries onto me….In a way that she slams it down and runs away…leaving me hurt…still to this day. She is quite positive in her own views now and celebrates my 3 younger sisters continuously. I am an outsider in a way as I saw so much in the beginning…
    This is what you just made me think about and thought I’d share… there’s always a story and I choose to see the positive, even through the negative beginning that set the tone for our relationship.
    Thank you for sharing and listening here too. You are not alone and we have love to still give as daughters. We do our best. You are doing amazing and I know the hard pill to swallow will dissolve.
    Bless you and sending hugs. P

    • I am returning those hugs, Paula. My guess is that you’re an excellent and intuitive mother. I never wanted children, yet I never dug deep to unearth the reason for this. It’s one of those things that perhaps I don’t want to confront. I’m definitely a “mom” to our three cats and a wonderful aunt to my sister’s kids, and that’s enough for me.

      As always, I appreciate your reading and sharing your insights. Thank you.

  4. Sherry, you did not take on a life journey just to bear your m other’s burdens. She may have been unhappy but it was her choice not to get the help she needed. It was never up to you. That may sound harsh but what is utterly destructive and devastating is you trying to carry your mother’s dysfunction for her. She was so blessed to have daughters who cared so much about her but it was her life to live and not yours. You must let go of the regret, the shame and the blame and learn how to live your life to the fullest. You came here to be the best version of yourself, not the best version of her. Let go of everything but you and work on being the most loving self you can be. Love yourself so much that you become full and then allow that overflowing love to fall on all those around you. In this way, you honor not only yourself but also your mother. Sending you much love and joy.

    • “Live my life to the fullest.” I’m still working on that, as it is an elusive proposition for me. But I retain the hope that someday soon, I’ll realize what that means.

      You’re right in that I can’t let my mother’s dysfunction add to the baggage I already carry. That will not serve me well in my quest for the above-mentioned goal. And I deeply appreciate your honesty in pointing that out to me.

      Thank very much, Marcia. Your words will stay with me. And I’m sending you the same.

  5. Oh, Sherry, I so appreciate the reflections you’ve shared here about your mother-about yourself. Each of us is so very complicated, I believe. There’s so much we don’t know when we are little about the women who birthed us into the world. Likely there will be things we just never know or were never meant to know. I feel the compassion growing fully inside of your heart for your mom in just asking all those questions, and wondering, and even having regrets.

    Thank you so much for all you’ve offered as it has me deeply reflecting on the extremely frosty/complicated relationship I had with my own mother. I believe at the end of the day-or our lives even-people are enigmas-even those who birthed us, housed us, fed us, loved us as best they could. We are such complicated beings-multifaceted and multidimensional-unable to shove us into any kind of box, closet, or drawer. The people who raised us and life experiences shape us, but we hold the key for the meaning, the inspiration, the healing, and even the transformation we might choose to create.

    • Laura, you are a very wise woman. I truly feel that you “get” me, and that’s not an easy thing to do as yes, we are all so complicated. We have so much to work through and work out. That’s a job in an of itself: Figuring out who we are and how we came to be.

      I really appreciate your digging deep and getting to the heart of my words. It means so much to me, so thank you, dear.