I found myself trying to explain my mother to a new friend today.
My mother was toxic. To so many of us. But how to capture that in words.
I remember a few (two?) nights when the whole family was up into the wee hours with threats with a knife and arguments and upset. I remember the last night I spent at home, when she was crying in the bathroom and my Dad told me she threatened him with a gun. I remember Dad coming to visit me at college with bruises that she gave him.
I remember wanting to kill myself when I was a young teen. Thinking I was crazy because things happened in my family that apparently only I saw or thought was wrong. I remember her being angry when I asked for a bra, because some other girls teased me and told me I needed one. I remember I don’t think I ever had one that fit.
So many other things, I shouldn’t start with this. I shouldn’t try to catalog them all, like a litany of complaints. Or should I try to write it down, so that I have a coherent picture for myself of what it was, both good and bad?
On the good side, I remember that she’d take us to all sorts of different parks in the area; they had names, usually with an animal. The Lion Park, the Turtle Park. I remember her taking us swimming every day in the summer, often meeting my cousins.
I spent years wanting to save my mother. When she died, I spent months grieving that I never would. I’ve spent many more years trying to understand where she was coming from, and trying to be a better person than she was. Trying to see the good things. Trying to make peace with the rest.
I am left with more questions than answers. Including about myself. I am 45 now, and I will never have children. So I don’t know whether I would have been a good mother, or whether all the negative things I saw modeled would come out of me under stress. I’ve seen them come out, sometimes; I’ve felt them want to come out in others. Moments of stopping myself and realizing that thought is a completely wrong thing to think and a worse thing to do.
Does everyone feel like this about their childhood, or is this a legacy for those of us who grew up in permanent insecurity? It makes you who you are, either by default, or by explicit choice to do something different. When you can see and understand what was happening. Because you don’t always see or understand; it sometimes takes years of mistakes before you get it.
That little niggling fear, toward the back of my brain. Am I really better? Really healthier? Really more wholesome for the other people in my life? I think so; I hope so. Or have I just been lucky to avoid the stresses that she succumbed to?
And this, Mom, is your legacy. I don’t think this is what you would have chosen, had you realized you had a choice. I hope it is not. For your sake. For mine.
I find your insight, self-reflection, and transparency —- and your ability to put it all into words so well —- amazing. I have read this article twice, which is something I rarely do. That is high praise from me! Good for you to be able to put things into perspective. Life happens and it is not always good. We still have to live through it and deal with it, good or bad. How we choose to do that makes us who we are. It IS a choice. Sounds like you are doing very well.
I wish there was a way for you to have a chance to have a conversation with MY mom about mothers…her mother wasn’t as abusive as your mom sounds, but she was very controlling and probably emotionally abusive as well. She died when I was three years old, so I just have two small memories of her, and the rest that I know of her I’ve learned through stories.
I think there are two reasons for hope, and I have a thought on what it’s like to try and explain a difficult relationship to someone. Explanation first. I think the explanation is deserving of a moment of pause, a deep breath in and out to reflect the complexity and pain and uncertainty of the relationship. It also deserves an introduction of, “It’s complicated.” My junior high religion teacher had a good friend who died of AIDS who would introduce himself as, “My name is Jonathan, but I’m much more than that.”
Reasons for hope: the things you have done to work on your relationship with your mom and how that affects your relating with others come out in how you relate to ALL others, not just hypothetical nonexistent children. Recognizing the source of those tendencies is a big deal, and I’ll bet that the many, many students and others whose lives you’ve positively influenced would say that your treatment of them and respect are a far cry from the toxic dynamics you’ve described for your relationship with your mother.
The second reason for hope: I can only say that I really and truly believe that my mom did an amazing job of turning around and raising her own children in a healthy, loving way. It’s a gift that all children deserve, and I feel incredibly lucky for it. The most important part, though, is that it says, YES. It IS possible to take those difficult and scarring experiences and shift towards good.
That said – I never knew it at the time, but during my adolescence my mother *really* struggled in dealing with her relationship with/feelings about her own mother. It almost tore apart her marriage, and it took a lot of time and energy and good positive community to work through it.