Bad Mother by Kaylie Jones

smoky haze


During the fall of my daughter’s sophomore year at the most difficult and impossibly demanding public high school in New York City, Sandra, our cleaning lady, came rushing into my room wearing a pained look while I was sitting at my computer working.

“Señora, lo siento, por favor …” She gestured for me to follow her.

We walked the length of the railroad flat, through the long narrow kitchen and the living room, to my daughter’s room. On my daughter’s desk lay an old wooden cigar box that had cut-outs of giraffes collaged on it, bought at a street fair to hold her pencils when she was in first grade; the box was open and inside were a weed grinder, some rolling papers, a baggie of weed, and a small glass pipe. Sandra stood to the side, twisting a rag in her hands, fretting in silence, letting me take this in. I was thinking, Oh, thank God, it’s only weed. At least she wasn’t smoking cigarettes, which had almost killed me 20 years ago and been harder to quit than alcohol.

“Oh, OK,” I said to Sandra. “Gracias. Por favor, no se preocupe.”

“De verdad, señora. Lo siento. Lo siento mucho.”

“No, really, todo esta bien.”

When my girl got home from school later that day I decided to confront her. “You should be more careful about leaving your weed lying around,” I said. “Sandra was upset.” OK, maybe confront is too strong a word.

Sandra was upset?” she said in a bewildered tone that still felt like a scalpel slicing into my heart.

We were having trouble communicating since her father moved out. Nine-hundred dollars a week worth of trouble communicating, between group therapy, family counseling, and her private therapy, I was maxing out my credit cards, waiting for our health insurance to refund me my 50 percent after the deductible for this desperate, out-of-network extravagance. I didn’t care, I would’ve sold everything I owned to help my girl get over her anger at having an insane man for a father. Of course, I hadn’t known he was insane at the time. I had my own issues to resolve and his hadn’t seemed so bad by comparison, and he didn’t drink because it interfered with his meds, and that was fine by me. Now our entire world was crumbling around us and it was my fault.

“Listen,” I said to my daughter, “I don’t care if you smoke weed, just don’t ever start smoking cigarettes. But …” I took a deep, parental breath. “…you need to be careful. Pot is still illegal in New York state.”

“I don’t smoke that much,” she said lightly.

“I’m sure you don’t, but still.”

“Didn’t you used to smoke weed?”

I had always felt that honesty was the best policy, so I said, “Yes, I did. But I never had a problem with it the way I did with alcohol.”

“OK,” she said.

The next evening, a Friday, she seemed a little anxious, as she was going to meet a boy she liked who lived down the street. She knocked on my door. Night had fallen, and as usual, I was sitting at my computer, working. I had five jobs editing manuscripts at any one time, and I was performing a miracle of a juggling act, if I did think so myself.

“Mom,” she said in her sweet, loving-daughter voice, “do you know how to roll a joint?”

“I haven’t rolled a joint in over 20 years,” I replied and watched hope collapse on her face. “I guess I can try,” I added quickly.

I got The Writer’s Chronicle magazine for my flat, sleek surface, and she handed me the papers, and the ground-up weed, and watched in amazement as I carefully rolled a tight, slim joint, packing the weed to the sides in the fold of paper, not in the center, as countless pothead boyfriends had shown me in my dissipated youth, as if I’d been rolling joints every day for the past two decade years. It must be like riding a bicycle, I thought.

“Damn, Mom, that’s a great freaking joint.”

“It is, if I do say so myself,” I said, quite proud of my effort. After a moment, I asked, “Where are you going to smoke this?”

“In the park, probably,” she said lightly. “Spencer’s parents are home.”

“Why don’t you ask him to come over here? It’s safer than the park. Plus, it’s cold out.”

“Ew, Mom. Not with you here!”

“Well, I could go out. I could go to a meeting.”

“Nah, that’s OK. We like to sit in the park.”

“Remember what I told you, about if you ever get in trouble with the cops? You say, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ So they know you come from a military family. So they know you respect them. My dad taught me that and it never failed to work.”

“Of course, Mom. But nothing’s going to happen.”

That’s what they all think. Nothing’s going to happen. Until it does. Until your friend’s son dies of a heroin overdose at 16 and no one even knew he was suffering.

*  *  *

This last Thanksgiving, my daughter flew home from Texas for the long weekend because she was worried about me. I’d just had spinal fusion surgery in October and wasn’t doing very well on my own. When she unlocked the front door, just for a split second she stood uncertainly in the open doorway, and I suddenly understood what my mother must have felt all those years ago when I came home from college after months away and we stood six feet apart in her kitchen in Sagaponack, Long Island, and my mother stared at me with a frozen expression, as if she could not remember who I was. She turned away, went and poured a scotch and soda, and busied herself lighting a cigarette. I never understood why my mother shut me out, until my daughter stood before me, having just crossed the threshold, and I realized that all those years ago my mother was furious at me because she no longer recognized me as an extension of herself. And she couldn’t handle it.

My girl, I thought as she rushed forward to kiss me, her beautiful face open and smiling, is not the little girl I brought up, fought for, for whom I worked and worked and worked, sitting much too long in front of my computer so that I would have enough money to buy her everything she wanted. She is now an entirely different human being, with a year and a half of experiences that I do not share with her. She is not, and never has been, an extension of myself. And that is a good thing. It means I did my job.

My mother was never able to understand this. And she pushed me away in distress, because she did not know who I was, or who I was becoming. This, I learned in therapy, is called a narcissistic personality disorder.

*  *  *

Over that Thanksgiving break, home from my Friday night meeting, when I opened the outside door to my building, the hallway and stairway reeked of pot. The smell only grew as I climbed the stairs, until I arrived at our landing and it was abundantly clear that the perpetrators of this weed-a-thon were inside my apartment. The hallway was foggy with smoke and I started worrying about a fire alarm going off. When I opened the door, a fresh cloud that smelled strongly of hops billowed out into the hallway. The Chinese neighbors must have been horrified. They had one daughter, a child prodigy who played “The Four Seasons” on the violin day and night and was a student at the elite private girls’ school down the street. I used to worry about what they thought of us, until one night in the spring of my daughter’s senior year in high school, plain clothes detectives stormed the building, yelling, “GET BACK IN YOUR APARTMENTS. CLOSE THE DOORS!” and took the husband away in handcuffs as my daughter and I took turns watching through the keyhole. After that, the Chinese family kept a low profile.

I wished the father the very best, for whatever it was that he had done he had surely done it to pay for his daughter’s elite $60,000 dollar-a-year education. With the screaming and shouting and breaking of dishes and glasses that went on in our apartment during my daughter’s senior year, as much as it was unfair of me to think only of us and our fragile reputations, I was relieved to know that the couple with the perfect child weren’t so perfect after all.

I walked into our living room, fanning the air with my hand.

“Hey, Mommy!”

As soon as my girl went away to college she started talking to me again. Now I received texts from her three or four times a day and – incredibly – she even picked up the phone when I called. And, most incredible of all – she’d started calling me Mommy again.

She and her glassy-eyed friends smiled up at me pleasantly and I smiled back and then walked the length of the apartment to my bedroom at the other end. I closed my door and stuffed a towel into the wide crack at the bottom, wondering if I had made the right choice in being so permissive.

I was back at my desk, trying to work while the walls shuddered with the bass from her little portable Bose speaker. I was finding it hard to focus and so I decided to run through my gratitude list, rather than my regrets. She was doing very well in her excellent college in faraway Texas, straight As in classes like microeconomics and calculus. How the hell did that happen? I’d stopped being able to help her with her math homework in fourth grade.

She knocked lightly then entered my room, kicking the towel out of the way, and threw herself down across my bed. “I love you, Mommy,” she said. “Thank you for allowing our home to be a safe place for me and my friends. It’s really cool that we can hang out here. No one has a mom as great as you.”

I turned in my ergonomic swivel chair to gaze at her. She did not appear glassy-eyed at all. At least, not compared to her friends who were lying around the living room.

“Hey, can you roll us a couple of joints, please? We’re going out.”

I gave this some thought as my heart sank, just a bit. This happened every time she went out at night, but I tried not to let my worries show.

“Please, Mom? They’re too high to roll and I’m not very good at it.”

God, how I hated to disappoint her. I felt like a terrible parent. But I was so thankful that she talked to me. She told me about the boys she liked and didn’t like, and which ones she thought had potential. She was a great deal more exacting in her choices than I’d ever been and I considered this a major victory. But, most importantly, she confided in me, in a way she said her friends did not – or could not – confide in their parents.

Just a few weeks earlier, I’d gotten a call from her at two o’clock in the morning. Terrified, I sat bolt upright in bed and started hyperventilating, wondering how fast I could get to the airport and catch a flight to Austin. But nothing was wrong; she was calling to ask me if, for some reason she suddenly realized she was gay and wanted to marry a woman, would I come to their wedding?

“Of course!” I said. “What a strange question.”

“Good. I knew you’d say that. My roommate’s mom told her she would never go to a gay wedding, especially her own daughter’s. She also said she’d disown her.”

Now, I picked up the latest Writer’s Chronicle magazine that had been lying on my desk and laid it on the bed between us. Out of her hoodie’s pockets she pulled the grinder and the papers and the weed and set them on the magazine’s glossy surface, as if she was so certain I would say yes that she never considered the alternative.

I said, “I’m not sure it’s such a great idea for you all to go out when you’re stoned.” I treaded lightly here. I wasn’t judging.

“I’m not stoned,” she said evenly. “I don’t like to smoke weed anymore. It makes me feel like the universe is too big and I’m too small. I don’t like feeling out of control, you know what I mean?”

“I sure do,” I said.

“It’s just nice to have a couple of joints, especially for the people who don’t drink. And it’s funny, being able to say, ‘My mom rolled these for me.’”

“Where are you going?” I asked, trying to make my voice light.

“To this bar on the West Side that’s lenient with IDs.”

“Why don’t you just stay here? I can go out. I can still make the midnight meeting.”

“No, it’s fine. We want to go out. Remember Spencer from high school? He’s home from Princeton.”

Princeton? This was a good sign. I held my tongue from asking what he was majoring in. A nice Jewish doctor named Spencer Goldstein would be just fine by me.

“Spencer’s going to meet us there.”

“Wonderful!” I said.

“Mommy, if we want to come back here later …” her voice trailed off.

“Don’t worry, I’ll stay in my room.”

The joints tightly rolled, she slipped them into her pocket. “OKs, so I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll text you when I’m heading home.” She threw her arms around me and kissed me. “You’re the best mom ever.”

“Just … be careful.”

But what was the point of these words? They’d never made any difference in the history of parenting. “Take an Uber or a cab home.”

“Of course,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.


kaylie jjones Kaylie Jones’ latest novel is The Anger Meridian (2015). She has published one memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me (2009). Her novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries was made into a Merchant-Ivory Film in 1998. She is the editor of Long Island Noir (2012). Kaylie’s work appears in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, Salon, and others. Kaylie teaches at the SUNY Stony Brook MFA Program in Writing and the Wilkes University MFA program. She co-chairs the yearly $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her latest endeavor is her imprint, Kaylie Jones Books.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Juan José Richards Echever
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  • Susan W. Goldstein

    That hit close to home, just not as you might imagine. I inhaled your story like a tightly rolled joint.

    • Kaylie Jones

      Hahah! Thank you. This one was like walking a tightrope.

  • Lauren J Sharkey

    Kaylie, thank you so much for sharing this story with us. There are so many moving and powerful things to love about this piece, but what I love most is the tenderness between you and your daughter. I also love that you call her “my girl” instead of her name, or “my daughter” – I wish I had that closeness with my mother. One of the best things about this piece is how you never stop being her champion, just as you’ve never stopped being mine. Your daughter is a lucky girl and you are anything but a bad mother.

    • Kaylie Jones

      Lauren, thank you so very much. Your kindness is amazing, and your work ethic impeccable. Thank you for reading!

  • I absolutely love this piece. Beautifully written.

    • Kaylie Jones

      Thank you so much. This was a tough one for me.

  • Wow!

    • Kaylie Jones

      Thank you. I was unable to reply because my email has changed and I couldn’t confirm the address! I appreciate your taking the time to read.