I read an article written by a woman who talked about her relationship with her mother. She shared that the relationship was shaky for a time. She felt rejected by her mother for a good part of her life until she finally found a way to break through the barriers that divided them. Their relationship wasn’t terrible or abusive – she just felt she didn’t measure up to her amazing, beautiful, special mom. But once they connected, she was able to be proud of her. The mother passed away a couple of years ago and was now desperately missed. She summed up by noting, every time she received a compliment about her prematurely gray hair (which was just like her mother’s), she would thank the person and tell them, “I got it from my mother.” That statement became a symbol to her of all the positive things her mother contributed to her life and how they were still connected.
The article caused me to contemplate the things my own mother had contributed to my life. To examine the ways we are yet connected. To think about the things I “got” from my mother.
The first thing that came to mind? She was a mess and she was depressed, as am I. But for very different reasons. We are alike, but not alike. Connected, but not connected. Similar, but not.
Let me illustrate. The end result was the same (depression), but for very different underlying reasons.
My mother believed she should be loved and she got very angry when she wasn’t or didn’t get treated the way she thought she should be treated. She projected blame outward, striking out at others.
I, on the other hand, do not believe I am worthy of being loved. I am so unsure of my personhood, I don’t believe I’m worth time, trouble, or consideration because I have too many issues. Unlike her, I project blame inward. My anger is aimed at myself.
So while her depression was likely largely due to what she saw as grave mistreatment by others and from not receiving what she felt she was owed in life, mine is more of an outgrowth of self-hatred. We were both depressed, but for very different reasons. Alike, but not alike.
There are some strong physical similarities and characteristics we do share. My eyebrows are just like hers were. As are my thick ankles. Then there’s the propensity to gain weight by just looking at food. Our poor posture. These things would mark me as her daughter.
But I realized, unlike the author of the article I read, the things that have most shaped my life are comprised more of what I didn’t get from her. And those marks are not as readily visible.
One of the things I didn’t get was love and acceptance. Instead, I received rejection. Along with physical and emotional abuse. Over time, continually being told I was a major disappointment beat me down. I was supposed to fulfill her and I failed. I wasn’t pretty enough, cute, fun, or popular enough. I didn’t fix her life or make her look good. I didn’t perform the way I was expected to perform. She undermined my value day after day, year after year. In some ways, this was more toxic than the physical blows. Never measuring up, her rejection, anger, and physical outbursts, along with the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father, all became part of the experiences that caused me to disbelieve I was a person. I learned from my parents, from my mother, I was an object to be used. I existed solely to provide what others required of me.
She taught me well. I still struggle to believe I’m a real person who has any value.
Another thing I didn’t get from my mother was a sense of safety or security. I was terribly afraid, never knowing when the bottom would fall out of my world. When I would be hit. When she would turn into a screaming maniac. When the violent fights would erupt. What kind of craziness I would encounter. What would set her off. I had nightmares about the world coming to an end, about horribly destructive tornadoes, massive disasters, fires. I walked on eggshells and tried to be invisible. And while the intensity of the terror has dulled, her influence caused me to be a fearful, risk-adverse person.
I also didn’t receive nurture, protection, or support. I was used, abused, left to fend for myself and to figure out a very complex and crazy-making environment. I learned quickly that I wasn’t supposed to ask for or expect anything from the adults in my life. I wasn’t supposed to need or be any trouble whatsoever. The less disruption I caused the better. So nurture and protection weren’t at all available. I attempted only to survive.
I am still trying to find ways to survive without creating ripples or requiring anything from others.
As a child, I was always told I had “better be sick enough” to deserve expensive and inconvenient intervention and care. I still have difficulty determining when I have crossed the line to “sick enough.” For example, when I had pneumonia, I waited until I was so ill before I finally sought a doctor’s care, I needed to be hospitalized. And because I often didn’t get essential care as a child, I now think it’s wrong for me to even consider wanting, needing, or seeking it. I think I’m supposed to tough it out. Do without. Find a way to keep going, no matter what. Without help.
Without bothering my mother.
Ultimately, what my mother gave me by not providing what I needed was a very confusing and conflicted view of life, love, myself, and others. So as Mother’s Day approaches, even though she has been dead for many years, I can’t help but think of her with great sadness and pain. Not because she isn’t physically here with me now. I’m actually thankful that phase of my life is over. But rather, I feel sadness because she is still with me in so many ways. I don’t have her gray hair, but her handiwork is evident and painfully visible, manifest in the immeasurable damage within me that she left behind.