My Mother’s Daughter….
“Shit! I look like my mother today!”
This was the thought that ran through my mind on my way to work this morning when I double checked the vanity mirror above my visor to make sure I had remembered to apply mascara to both eyes….and yeah, I have to double check that because I’ve been known to only apply it to one eye….and then spend an entire day wondering why co-workers and strangers are looking at me like something isn’t quite right….which then causes me to obsessively wipe my nose in case I have a cliff-hanger….only to find out too late in the day to matter….that I look like the guy from Clock Work Orange and it’s fucking creepy.
Now, back to my original point….“Shit, I look like my mother today.”
It’s not that looking like my mother from an aesthetic perspective would be so bad….though I haven’t seen her in nearly ten years at this point and I’m not entirely sure what the time has done….my mother, as I remember her, was pretty.
Yet, from the time I was very young I hated the comparison. “You look just like your mom!” People would often exclaim and with as much disdain as I could insert into my tone I would insist that I did not….that I was, in fact, nothing like her. Looking like her meant she was a part of me, which is of course true, she’s my mother, she gave birth to me, we share DNA, she is technically a part of me….but I wanted no part of her….because what if the similarities ran deeper than our looks?
What if it meant I was sick too?
I always knew….in whatever capacity I was capable of understanding as I grew up….that there was something wrong with my mother. I knew normal moms didn’t hug you and kiss you one minute and then turn on you the next with explosive and violent rage. They didn’t call you a bitch, a slut, a whore. They didn’t call you a mistake, say they hated you, or wish you dead.
Normal mom’s didn’t lay into you with belts or boards or fists, or whatever household item was within reach at the time. They didn’t kick you, or spit in your face or grab you by the hair and throw you to the ground while you did everything you could to shield yourself from as much of what was coming as was possible.
Normal moms didn’t get in your face….and with spittle shooting from their mouths like some kind of foaming, rabid animal…. goad you to fight back….to “go ahead and hit back!”….while simulatenously smacking you across the face and the side of your head.
I knew it wasn’t normal that on my walk home from school most days….when I reached the top of my street and saw her car in the driveway….that my bladder gave out because I was terrified by who I might find when I walked through the door. The mom who could be funny, peppy and quirky….or the rampaging one.
I knew it wasn’t normal that my mother couldn’t sustain relationships with anyone….not friends, family members, therapists, neighbors, members of the clergy, etc., for any extended period of time….because you can’t hide crazy forever. Her relationships were always doomed to end dramatically and destructively and some of them again and again and again and my siblings and I always paid some measure of the consequence.
Often times, after reaching whatever abusive crescendo she’d been building up to during the course of a rampage, my mother would look at my siblings and me….and then around at the aftermath of the tornado that was her….and sob.
“I’m so sorry!” She would wail. “I don’t know why I do this. I need help, I know I need help. I’m going to get help for this. It will never happen again!” she would lament as she tried to pull my siblings and I from whatever ball we’d curled into….imploring us to forgive her and daring us not to.
Inevitably, her apologies would turn to blame….her own abusive childhood, the demise of my parents marriage, my dad, her current husband or boyfriend and then my siblings and me. She was working so hard, after all….she was doing the best she could….we weren’t making it easy for her….if we would only do this….if we would only do that….her behavior was totally preventable if someone else would just….
It didn’t take long in my life to conclude that she was full of shit. I came to understand and eventually accept that my mother would never get the help she promised she would….that she would never take ownership for the havoc she wreaked….and my life….for as long as it was linked it to hers….would be a never ending loop of the same reel.
I also learned to bob and weave and anticipate her moves. When she was in the midst of one of her tantrums, she would generally start off by hurling nasty insults in my direction….occasionally, this was coupled with some type of physical abuse as well, but when she was really on a streak, it almost always began with a verbal attack.
“You’re a fucking whore, a slut!” She would scream. “I can’t believe I’ve raised such a selfish, self-centered little bitch!” And that was just the warm up.
When I was very young, like 10, those words, some of which I didn’t even know the meaning of, were generally enough to bring me to tears. I would cry and beg her to stop and then find myself apologizing for being a developmentally normal, human, child….but overtime, I learned that was exactly what she was after. She wanted to break me….it gave her some kind of twisted satisfaction to do it….to tear me down, reduce me to hysterics and force me to concede that she was right….this was happening because something was wrong with me.
When I figured that out, I became determined to withhold the high for as long as I could. I would stand in front of her, unflinching, unemotional and vacant eyed while she ranted and screamed and pushed the boundaries of just how awful she could be until the boundaries were no longer visible to either of us. I refused to take in anything she had to say. She was wrong and cruel and horrible and I would give her no power over me.
To occupy my mind in those moments, I would stare at a picture, or a ticking clock….I would focus on trying to make body parts move, like my ears and specific muscles in my legs and my arms. I would drown out her screeching until it became nothing but noise and then I would wait for it.
“You’re just going to stand there!?” She would shriek. “You’re so fucking cool and tough, aren’t you?! You don’t care about any of this, huh!? You better be listening to me you little bitch and if I so much as see you roll an eye, you will rue the fucking day, you (C-U-Next Tuesday)!”
Only she didn’t say C-U-Next Tuesday and to this day, just the thought of actually saying the word, makes me want to vomit, so this was the best I could do.
And then….BAM! She would sail in with a backhand, or a partially closed fist to the side of my head that would sometimes knock me down and sometimes just add a helpful ringing to my ears that made it even easier to drown her out and still I would not cry….and then it would be over.
Whatever release she was after would come….but not from my tears or begging….and in a small, strange, dysfunctional way, I would feel like I had won something.
Over the years, I figured out more and more ways to cope and ride out the time….I worked hard to fly under the radar as much as possible….I didn’t strive to be amazing, only mediocre. As long as I wasn’t great or lousy at anything, it was easier to go unnoticed.
As a teenager, I quit investing in relationships with friends and it didn’t matter anyway, because the job of caring for my two youngest half-siblings fell to me full time and my freedoms to be a typical teen were virtually nonexistent. I withdrew from everything and absorbed myself in books and movies and television shows. I lived vicariously through the characters created by John Hughes and Aaron Spelling and Francine Pascal and Ann B. Martin and Judy Blume, while the experiences I was supposed to be having passed me by.
And then, I escaped….temporarily anyway. I graduated from high school and left for college out of state. I had exactly enough money at the time for one semester of college after taking out thousands in loans and I had no idea how to fund the rest of it, but I didn’t care.
Just a few days before I was due to depart for school, my mother and I were sitting on our front porch and she was laying into me about something. I’d had enough. I shot something back at her and as she rose menacingly to meet my gaze, she spat through clenched teeth, “Keep it up you little bitch and you won’t be going anywhere.”
I stared straight back, refusing to divert my gaze or focus elsewhere and said, “I’m 18. I’ve paid for this semester with my own money and I’m leaving. There is nothing you can do about it.”
Before she could hide it, I saw it….she was afraid. The power had shifted and she knew it. The old tactics she’d relied on my whole life wouldn’t work anymore and I knew it too.
I would love to say that was the end of it. That I went off to college, that the same old loop on the same old reel quit playing, but it didn’t. It changed a bit, she had to find new ways to maintain control and she did and I didn’t really fully escape until I was in my late 20’s. I had held on for the sake of my brother’s only, my feelings and any responsibility or obligation I felt I owed her because….as so many people liked to remind me….she was my mother….had long since left me and when I cut ties, I went cold turkey.
There was no gentle weaning, or slow withdrawal. I cut her out without warning and without any specific provocation. Internally, it had been building for years. The anxiety and unease I felt almost all the time was getting the best of me and I found myself at a crossroads. I could either continue down the road I’d been traveling, knowing full well it led to a life without peace, a life that would hurt me and break me….or I could make it stop.
It meant losing my youngest half-brothers, who were in their early teens at the time and with whom my mother would not allow a relationship that didn’t include her. It was the most painful part of my decision and continues to be. I had been their full time caregiver and protector for years and I knew what I was leaving them with. Unfortunately, our relationship has never recovered and I’m not sure it can. We chose to use what happened to us in very different ways and I think it will be a long time still before any of us can find our way back to one another.
In the years since I walked away, I’ve had some therapy and I’ve shared some things with old friends and new friends and family members who had hovered on the outskirts of what was happening, but never intervened. I’ve struggled with communication and trust. I’ve irrevocably damaged some friendships and relationships, but I’ve come a long way too. I refuse to believe I’m broken. Scarred and a little shaken, sure, but I’ve worked really hard NOT to be the person my mother raised me to be.
I am a true introvert though….I love and need alone time because there are days when the average, normal pressures of every day life and relationship dynamics become too much for me and I feel like everything is spinning widely out of control. I’m fortunate to be married to the kind of guy who is understanding, supportive and loving and allows me the space I need to work through those moments.
My biggest struggle and worry though has always been whether or I not I had the tools to be a mom myself. For years I went back and forth between wanting a family to not wanting a family….to believing that I could control the type of mother I would be, to believing I was destined to fail. I only knew that I didn’t want to bring a child into the world only to repeat the same cycles of abuse I had known. I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself to mentally and emotionally handle the pressures of parenting.
When my husband and I decided to have our son though, I was more excited than I could possibly ever explain. I wanted him more than anything and from the moment the pink lines in the pregnancy test window confirmed I was pregnant, I loved him with everything I had to give.
My son is three and a half now and the best thing that has ever happened to me, but as a mother, I’m terribly insecure. I worry constantly if I’m truly doing the best I can or if I’m somehow screwing him up.
“Do you know I love you super big? I always ask him. “That I think you are the most amazing, beautiful, smart, funny, sweet wonderful little boy in the whole world? Do you know that?”
He will smile and say, “Yes, I know” and I’m fairly certain if he knew how to roll his eyes, he would.
But, I’m not perfect. There are days my patience runs thin….when I raise my voice a little louder than I intended….when I’m too strict, or too stressed and strapped for time to be as present as he deserves me to be.
My husband says I’ve set unrealistic expectations for myself, that I expect to be perfect and it’s not possible. Deep down, I know he’s right. I do more right than wrong and my confident, funny, carefree, happy-go-lucky, little boy is proof of that.
Yet still, when I occasionally look in the mirror….like I did this morning and see a reflection that resembles my mother….I can’t help but feel terrified. Then I think about what that would really mean….if I were like her….I would be the type of person who could casually crush my son’s tiny spirit over and over and the thought alone is so revolting and awful, I can barely finish the thought….and it’s in that moment I know for sure….I’m not my mother’s daughter.