Cissy Houston on Mothering Through Addiction.

Did any of you catch last night’s special presentation of Oprah’s Next Chapter with songstress and mother Cissy Houston? If so, you know it was at turns revelatory, admirable, and deeply tragic — much like the life and career of the woman Oprah and Ms. Houston came together to discuss: Cissy’s daughter, the incomparable Whitney Houston.

Though there’s much that I could say about the interview itself, throughout which Ms. Cissy is candid, calm, and (mostly) gracious, though it’s clear that her pain is deep and the strain of her grief hasn’t eased in the near-year since Whitney’s death, there’s one quote that really stood out for me, as the mother of a young daughter.

When asked about her relationship with her daughter, which experienced some strain as Whitney battled addiction, Ms. Cissy mused, “You want to be the most important thing in their lives–but mostly you’re not.”  It was a simple statement, a comment on what it’s like to feel helpless as a parent to an adult child.

Though Ms. Cissy remained married to Whitney’s father until 1993, when Whitney was 30 years old, for the 19 years that follow, during which Whitney’s addiction spiraled, Ms. Cissy struggled with mothering alone.

By her own account, it was difficult. The aforementioned quote suggests feelings of powerlessness — or at least a diminished sense of power. Mothers will always hope they have the ability to call their wayward children home when the porch light comes on. But sometimes, the porch remains empty, the fear and worry mounts, and it’s hard to trust that you’ve done the right things for the child you’ve raised.

In her last interview with Oprah, Whitney herself spoke of her mother’s persistence in getting her to commit to rehab. Ms. Cissy got a formal injunction and two sheriff’s deputies as escorts. She said she wanted her daughter back and that she hadn’t raised her to behave this way. Finally, Whitney relented and entered rehab, getting clean for what would likely be the last time in her life:

“She was so angry at me, cursing me and up and down,” she writes. “Eventually, after a good long while, Nippy did stop being angry at me. She realized that I did what I did to protect her, and she later told people that I had saved her life.”

Toward the end of Ms. Cissy’s discussion with Oprah, Oprah cited a quote from Ms. Cissy’s new memoir, Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped:

“In my darkest moments, I wonder whether Nippy loved me,” she writes. “She always told me she did. But you know, she didn’t call me much. She didn’t come see me as much as I hoped she would.”

My own mother, with whom I watched the program last night, identified with that statement. “You do feel that sometimes, as a mother,” she thought aloud.

As an only child, I was only a little taken aback. I’ve told my mother I love her — and I thought I’d done a good job of showing that love through action. But I also could relate to Ms. Cissy’s statement, because as a daughter, in my own darkest moments, I’ve wondered the same of my mom.

It speaks to how fraught and complex adult mother-daughter relationships are that there could ever be such uncertainties among mothers who are far from estranged from their children and who do, in fact, consider themselves fairly close to them.

It’s unfortunate that Whitney passed without being able to reassure her mom of her love and that Ms. Cissy had to leave her own reassurances in memoir form, cementing them for every reader but the one for whom they’d mean the most.

Can any single mothers of adult or near-grown daughters speak to this experience? Can you relate to Ms. Cissy’s comments on motherhood? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.

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