The title of this blog was taken from a ‘sub-section’ of the book, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. I thought it really fit the topic I wanted to tackle next.
In therapy, one of the things we discussed, sometimes more so than was comfortable, was how I felt about my mother. At the time I’d begun therapy I was terribly frightened and somewhat paranoid that I would become my mother. Any talk about how I felt about her somehow translated into whether I felt that way about myself… tough stuff to work through, indeed.
During those therapy sessions and group therapy I was put in a position of talking about my mother’s childhood (what I knew of it), her feelings (the ones she was willing to share), the way she ‘parented’ and my observations of her relationships with other people. I was asked over and over how it made me feel, talking about her, talking about being her daughter, repeating or stopping the cycle, etc.
I realized, during this time, that my feelings for and about her had been all over the place.
As a child I thought all mothers were the way she was, acted like her, talked like her and having my friends tell me they wished their mothers were like mine really solidified for me the idea that her behaviors were normal, so there was no anger or sadness attributed to her, she was my mother, this was the way it was supposed to be.
As a teenager, when I began to become more self-aware, began to pursue some ‘independence’ from my mother I became angry. She would not allow independence, not like my peers experienced. I began to feel as if she had stolen my childhood from me, made me ‘grow up’ too quickly, forcing too much responsibility on me, expecting too much. I also realized for the first time that she played a significant role in the dissolution of my family of origin. She was as much to blame, if not more so, than my father, for why our family was broken by divorce. It was during this time, when I started to see her for who she was, rather than who she told me she was, the face she showed the world.
Directly after leaving home I began to recognize the grief that I was feeling for the relationship I never had and would never be able to have with her. I felt a void, one that I hadn’t fully acknowledged previously, but now understood had existed for most of my teen years. She didn’t attend my wedding (her choice), wasn’t part of my life when my husband and I found out we were unable to have children, wasn’t there when we decided to adopt, would never be a grandmother to my child. I mourned not having a supportive mother to guide me through so many things, not having a mother I could trust with my child.
As I started to honestly look at the dynamics of my family of origin, to talk about my relationship with my mother (in therapy) I realized I was at a point where I felt sorry for her.
She had been the youngest daughter in her family. She’d been a bit of a tomboy, while her older sister had been her polar opposite, very feminine and girly, and as a result of this, they were treated very different by their peers and their parents. Her sister had been closer to her mother and she closer to her father. She had only ever talked about having had two boyfriends before getting married. The first was a truck driver whom she wouldn’t talk about other than to say he had broken her heart, the second was my father (but I would learn later in life that she had been the ‘other woman’ that brought about the divorce of his first marriage). Her first pregnancy was fraught with problems (there are several stories about it, one of which seems to be more accepted than the others, by extended family members) and her first born, a son, died three days after he was born. At the age of 34 she had a partial hysterectomy (though she told everyone it was a complete procedure. She also told numerous versions of why she needed to have the surgery so I am unclear on the facts) and was taking ‘Valium’ or a similar medication throughout most of my teen years.
She had unwittingly created the same competitive dynamic between her own daughters and had become so bitter and resentful toward everyone around her that she was virtually alone.
After talking to my father at length about my childhood and recalling things I had experienced with her, I began to wonder if she were bi-polar, as she seemed to have wild mood swings that would lead her to paranoid and manic episodes. My father had related to me how they would be laughing and having a good time, he’d go out into the backyard to burn the paper and come back and she’d be in a rage about something he didn’t even know was an issue. I recalled that I could have breakfast with her (during the Summer when I was working on a farm detasseling corn), be laughing, planning what we would do together that evening, etc., leave and go to work, have no further contact with her until I got home from work and she would be standing on the deck, her face red, her hands on her hips or her arms crossed, screaming at me before I even reached the yard about something I had no idea had happened or hadn’t been done during the day.
Now, as a 47 year old wife and mother, looking back and doing some personal and emotional work as to why I react the way I do to certain situations, why I have the needs I do, etc., I was recently asked if I was angry… I think I was being asked if I was angry about the way my mother’s sickness had impacted my life. I can honestly say ‘No.’ I have, particularly over the past 20 years, cycled through just about every emotion possible when it comes to my mother.
What I’m feeling now, as I’m doing this difficult work, is a sense of understanding… yes there is some disappointment, frustration, mostly because she might have gotten help, things might have been so very different had she been able to acknowledge her own faults and mistakes, sought out help, identified the wounds and scars she carried. I feel sympathy for her, as I can’t imagine being so bitter and hateful for such a long time. She has lived the life of the ‘under-achiever’, self-sabotaging, engaging in destructive behaviors that have isolated her and kept her from being happy and successful. Her own behaviors have prevented her from knowing her Grandson, from being included in family events, etc.
When I’m asked about her, I typically respond that I’m ‘indifferent’ about her because truly, I don’t know who she really is. I know the stories, the facade, the persona she shared with the world, I know the hateful and bitter woman that was jealous of her own daughter, that abused her children and most of the people in her life. Somewhere in there, there has to be a middle ground, the shades of gray between the stark extremes, that is her real self. Since I don’t know who she really is, I can be nothing more than ‘indifferent’ about her.
What I recognize as important for me now is how I deal with the reality of being me, having had the childhood and parenting I did. Identifying who I am, who I want to be, what I have control over and what I do not, letting go of that which has been unhealthy and pursuing a healthy path forward is what drives me through this exploration.
I’m actually ‘comforted’, if one can wrap their head around that, by gaining this further understanding of the influences that have driven my decision making in life, the choices I’ve made, the behaviors I exhibit and identify as acceptable. I can clearly see where I’ve made mistakes in my own adult life, how I have hurt others, how some of this childhood baggage has affected my son and the way he reacts to things that happen in our lives. I take comfort in identifying these things because truly ‘seeing’ them means that I know what I need to work on, to be aware of, to make changes to.
So… they say recovery is a process… acceptance is a process… grieving is a process. I’ve experienced so many emotions when it comes to my mother, my childhood, the sense of abandonment I’ve felt… I feel that I’m experiencing all the steps to healing.
The author uses the following analogy:
“I liken our lives to a tree. Each of us, like a tree, has roots (our upbringing); long, sturdy trunks (our development); and branches that flower and grow in our adult lives. Your trunk or development phase bears the scars, which don’t really go away, they are part of who we are. But recovery work helps us to treat any gashes, to fill them in, supply balm and seal them gently, and takes away the old and recurring pain, changing the original trauma, allowing you to grow around it and up and away from it. Please keep in mind, so that you do not become discouraged and misled. Really, it is a relief to know that you don’t have to totally remove those scars. The things that happened to us are important to acknowledge; they play into who we are today. Yet they do not define who we are today, and by working in recovery, you refuse to allow your past to tell you who you are. You accept and face your past as part of you, and you move on. “