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A Different Kind of Unrequited Love: Recalling a Distant Mother

Author Deborah Burns thinks she loved more than she was loved in the pivotal relationship of her life. But here’s the silver lining she’s discovered.

I admit that I was completely obsessed with the love of my life. The relationship was enormous and consuming—a fixation, really. Its dynamics ruled my days.

I could think of little else. My beloved was the first person I thought of when I awoke, and the last on my mind at night. But how could it not be so? My better half was incredibly seductive, the person everyone wanted to be with and to have just for themselves.

It was all as heady and potent as romantic love, yet it was not romantic at all.

It was really a young daughter’s love for her elusive, glamorous, larger-than-life mother. I grew up under the shadow of my mother’s other-worldly beauty, and she remains vivid for me 25 years after her death.

When she was alive, I was always in chasing mode, in longing pursuit of something fleeting. It was the most powerful love I had ever known, a love that I pined for but could never fully possess.

Read More: A Mother Faces the Harsh Reality of a Broken Relationship Between Her Daughters

Untangling the Emotions

Now, in my own midlife, it was time to finally grab hold of what I had always felt was just beyond my grasp. I knew I needed to more deeply understand her and our relationship, and, in turn, myself. And there was a new urgency—midlife also had carried career chaos along with it.

The magazine world I had been flying high in was going to crash. Publishing had looked its digital future in the eye and didn’t know what to say next. I knew, just like so many women my age do, that I was going to have to reinvent my life.

What began as a love letter to my mother was really about me.

But I was stuck. Some answer to my future remained hidden from me in my past’s dusty corners. So, in my mid-50s, I decided that in order to move forward, I would seriously have to look back. How? Simple, I thought—I would sit down and write a book about my mother.

The writing of it was more emotionally torturous than I ever imagined. What began as a love letter to her was really about me. And once I realized it was my story, I unexpectedly came face-to-face with a perception buried deep within my soul—that our feelings for one another might really have been one-sided. An unrequited love.

Not Like Any of the Other Mothers

The worry tucked away for so many years—that I wasn’t fully loved—had been fueled by my mother’s outside-the-lines unconventionality. Not only didn’t I look like her, but she certainly didn’t look like other mothers. Her total abandonment of domesticity and day-to-day mothering went completely against the grain of the conservative 1950s I was born into. Mothers were supposed to show their love through nurturing hands-on care, through concern about food and sweaters, galoshes, and homework, weren’t they?

My goddess of a mother designed a life that suited her needs, coming and going as she pleased.

Not in my childhood home. There, my goddess of a mother designed a life that suited her needs. Our time together was on Saturday afternoons—beyond that, she worked and then came and went as she pleased, not beholden to anyone but herself. It was an admirable independence a generation ago that would probably be applauded by women today. But it left the lingering effect of not feeling like her priority—of not feeling enough—in its wake.

Slowly, the memoir I was writing began to take shape as I continued to unravel the myth of my goddess mother and the forces that shaped her. I’d stare at the words that poured from me—were the things that I had held as gospel for so long actually true at all? Over time, I realized how—in her own way—she really had loved me more than the traditional maternal yardstick allowed me to see and feel then.

Read More: How to Be a Good Grandparent When They Can’t Seem to Stand You

Mining for the Truth

Did You Have an Emotinally Unavailable Mother? Here's the Silver Lining | NextTribe

Image: evgenyatamanenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Ultimately the process of writing the memoir did liberate and transform me. It was the excavation, I think, like an archeologist chipping away at the layers to reveal something surprising underneath it all. And the book also transformed the life I wanted to live; the newly freed me just couldn’t go back to do what I did before. Today I want a creative life, one much more aligned to my heart. I know whatever I manifest next must be purposeful and must bridge conversations between generations of women.

So much from my past has now been reframed for a better future—a true midlife pivot, nice and neat. But not entirely. Because feet to fire, I still do believe that I loved my mother just a little bit more than she did me.

The Upside of Unrequited Love

Any unbalanced love relationship has obvious downsides best left to experts. But just as I realized how her unconventionality had freed me to be whoever I wanted to be, I also recognized the strange power of unrequited love.

Imbalance keeps us on our toes. It lights a fire.

Imbalance keeps us on our toes. It lights a fire. The one who loves more becomes a motivated, hopeful seeker, a passionate person open to enchantment and possibility. We hone more and more traits to admire as we pursue our elusive love—we become more imaginative and entertaining, more intuitive, nurturing, resourceful, and clever, all in an attempt to attract the prize. That conditioning and all those skills actually set the tone for success in almost any area of life.

No love can ever be perfectly mutual or symmetrical. But if I had a choice, I’d surely lean toward being the one who loves with full-heart abandon.


Deborah Burns is a global media executive turned author of Saturday’s Child, a memoir about growing up with her unconventional mother that was published in April 2019. Hailed as a must-read for every daughter who’s ever wondered where her mother ends and she begins and by Kirkus Reviews as “Devilishly sharp … a masterful balance of psychological excavation and sumptuous description,” this PopSugar Top Ten 2019 debut is available now on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.

By Deborah Burns


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