Mother’s Day is upon us, and I’d be lying if I said I loved it.
It’s a double-edged sword — on one sharp edge, my estranged biological mother dances to the tune of her inflicted chaos. I haven’t seen her since 2004. I couldn’t even tell you her phone number. My mom is complicated, plagued with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
The above isn’t an indictment of bipolar disorder or me passing judgment on those who live with it every day. But the last time I heard, my mom never sought treatment, turning a blind eye to the destruction she unleashed upon herself and her children. So many people tried in vain to help my mother.
Now, 18 years later, I’m reassembling the broken pieces of me, learning to cope with the abuse she doled out with an iron fist.
On another equally sharp edge, my Granny (my paternal grandmother) swoops to my rescue, filling the void left in my mother’s wake. She’s the bravest, kindest, strongest woman I know, who loved me unconditionally and unadulteratedly, with every ounce of her being. We lost her to cancer in 2018, and I miss her every day.
So, what am I getting at here? Brevity’s not my forte, but allow me to explain. Season 2 of Netflix’s Russian Doll delves deep into intergenerational trauma as Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) travels in time to heal her family’s wounds in the hopes that it remedies her own.
Let me hop in my time machine and prevent my maternal grandfather from dying, thereby repairing my mother’s relationship with her mom, which mends the battered fence between my mother and me. How wonderful would it be if it was that simple? Oh, if only.
While my mother is still alive, I know what it’s like to have someone else fill that role. Let’s examine how Russian Doll deftly explores motherhood, mental health and maternal trauma.
“Trauma is a topographical map written on the child, and it takes a lifetime to read.” –Ruth Brenner
Nadia meets her mother, Nora (Chloë Sevigny), in 1982 while the latter is pregnant with Nadia. Additionally, she runs into a younger version of Ruth Brenner (Annie Murphy), Nora’s best friend and Nadia’s adopted mother.
If you’ll recall, we learned in Season 1 of the sci-fi series that Nora died before her 36th birthday, suffering from mental health issues. The show implies Nora committed suicide after losing custody of Nadia. After that, Ruth took Nadia in and raised her.
By traveling to the ’80s, Nadia reconnects with Nora in ways she never did before, getting to the root of her mother’s trauma and gaining a deeper understanding of her family. Admittedly, I’m envious of Nadia in that regard.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that we inherit so much of our trauma. Russian Doll conveys this beautifully, addressing that while we wish to change the past and rewrite our intergenerational history, we cannot change what’s in stone. Nadia learns this difficult lesson at the end of her Season 2 journey. It’s a wake-up call for us all.
So, what do we do with our trauma? Work through it and heal. Face it head-on without circumventing it. We reconcile with it to break the cycle of familial infliction.
“The universe finally found something worse than death. Being my mother.” –Nadia Vulvokov
In Russian Doll, when Nadia first arrives in 1982, she leaves a heated voicemail for Nora. Her anger burns brightly. There’s a lot of fiery fury surging beneath my surface. As many of you know, anger is one of the five stages of grief. Every day, I grapple with the grief associated with losing my Granny and the grief of never having the relationship I wanted with my biological mother.
Over the years, I’ve created several fictional arguments between myself and my mom. My therapist suggested I write letters to my mother, crafting what I’d say to her if given the opportunity. I think I primarily reside in the anger stage — I’m furious she essentially abandoned me, left me to care for her dementia-riddled mother when I was a teen and kept me from my sisters for six years. Those are six years I’ll never get back.
I’m angry at myself for never standing up to her abuse, but my trauma response isn’t to fight or flight. I freeze.
Whenever she would scream at me or corner me and pin my arms back, I’d find an object to stare at and attempt to drown out the noise. I spent several years trying to make excuses for her. She’s sick and can’t help it, right?
But so many folks struggle with mental illness without falling into abusive patterns. Countless people with bipolar disorder recognize what they have and work hard to heal. At some point, after being confronted with your demons, you either submit to them or purposely seek help to overcome them.
It’s abundantly clear Nora loved Nadia with all of her heart, even when she acted irrationally and succumbed to frustration.
Nadia learned to be her own mother this season, and it’s something I’m currently learning. Self-love and parenting your inner child are necessary hurdles worth overcoming on the road of life.
“If you could choose your mother all over, would you choose me again?” –Nora Vulvokov
In the season finale of Russian Doll, Nadia finds her mother sitting in a subway car. She returns baby Nadia to Nora for the latter to parent. Nadia hoped to raise herself and save herself from the pain of her mother’s illness and subsequent death.
But Nora floors Nadia with one question: “If you could choose your mother all over, would you choose me again?” Nadia reveals she didn’t “choose” Nora the first time. “That’s just how the story goes.”
I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a different mother. To find that magical subway train like on Russian Doll that whisks me back in time so that I can choose all over again. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize I wouldn’t change a note if I could.
Without the abuse and estrangement of my mom, I wouldn’t have formed an eternal bond with my Granny. I imagine Nadia feels the same way, as Ruth fills that maternal role for her.
We can’t change our blood, but we can choose who parents us. I’m not talking about biological parents, but those who support us and guide us through life.
“We always think that closure is something we can find out there in the world as if we can find it in another person, or a confession, or an apology. See, in the end, nothing can absolve us but ourselves.” –Ruth Brenner
I’ve spent almost two decades pining for closure with my mom and dissected what that would look like to me in therapy. I’m still not sure I have a concrete answer for that. I suppose giving her a piece of my mind and telling her to kick rocks would do the trick, but perhaps that’s the seemingly perpetual anger talking.
While Nadia meticulously unravels the enigma that is Nora on Russian Doll, Ruth puts on her psychologist pants, advising Nadia to seek closure within herself, not other people. It’s utterly sound advice. The only way to move forward from someone ensnaring us in their pain is to free ourselves. Lick our wounds, and leave the forest behind.
“Immortality is the great delusion of youth.” –Ruth Brenner
When Nadia returns to the present, she learns Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley) died while in the hospital. She encounters Maxine (Greta Lee) and Lizzy (Rebecca Henderson) as they’re en route to Ruth’s wake. A flood of regrets washes over Nadia. She blames herself for not being there when Ruth left this plane.
I was on the other side of the country when I learned my Granny only had a few days left to live. Thankfully, she clung to life for me, and I hopped on an airplane from Los Angeles to Ohio to spend two more days with her. She would occasionally wake, reach for my hand and whisper “I love you” repeatedly before falling asleep.
Cancer is an ugly disease. It takes people away.
I remember the hospice nurse handing us a book about what to expect when your loved one is dying — the physical signs for which to look. I read it front to back, ever the prepared and studious student. But nothing prepares you for death.
My heart hurts for Nadia and those who can’t be present when their loved ones pass. However, in the season finale of Russian Doll, Nadia attends Ruth’s wake, relishing the celebration of her adopted mom’s life. She knows Ruth loved her, and even as she died, she held onto that love. Nadia never questions this. There’s something comforting in that, and it facilitates the grieving process immensely.
So, what’s the moral of the story? We can’t choose our biological mothers, but we can choose those who love us. We can heal our trauma and give ourselves the love our moms couldn’t provide. Maternal figures can be fathers (mine is spectacular; that’s a story for another think piece), grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, older siblings and nonbiological guardians. They come in all shapes and sizes.
You can love your mom despite her destructiveness yet understand you need to build an insurmountable barbed-wire fence to keep her away. Two seemingly opposing truths can coexist; that’s the beauty of nuance.
And don’t forget to practice self-love. That’s an important one.
To those struggling to get through Mother’s Day, I see you. You are loved. To my Granny, I love you bunches and miss you bunches. I see you in the birds flying by my window, in the violets scattered across my lawn, when I brew a pot of coffee and when I close my eyes and sing.
You always liked to hear me sing.
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