When the Unmothered Child becomes the Mother to Mother
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés introduced the term “Unmothered” in Women Who Run with the Wolves. It does not merely refer to those who lost their mothers in early childhood (or even later in life), but the children who were either neglected or actively damaged by their mothers.
When I was growing up, I had moments where my mum acted like a mum and when I could count on her to be worried for my physical wellbeing. When I was a teen, I even had friends who thought my mum was cool–liberal enough, not oppressive, and always hospitable and ready with the drinks and snacks. My emotional well-being was a much less important thing, and I discovered this young. My every public move and word uttered had to reflect positively on her–I needed to be better behaved than the other kids, and never contradict her, and once we were at home, nothing I did was ever right or good enough. She constantly set standards that were unattainable for my age or level of maturity. She felt justified in lying and manipulating me from a young age with false promises (“You’ll be allowed a pet if you do the chores”); she was changeable and self-contradictory, shared age-inappropriate and plain-old inappropriate information with me, and truckloads of fearmongering (“Men only want one thing from you” and “What will people think?” were favorite refrains).
Keeping up appearances, her appearance, her reputation, was paramount. She had been a good-looker since her youth, had married up, and now had a life that was materially abundant, a complete flip from (as she loved conveying) the deprivation and difficulties of her childhood. I knew two sides of her: One was the mother that she was while we were out in public, the other was Not-Mom, who greeted my requests for comfort with tales of her childhood and of how she had not had much comfort or support as a child/teenager growing up. Really, it has become obvious to me that she had been abused by authority figures both at home and at school, but this was seen as the “normal” way to teach kids at the time. My mother was also the eldest of four daughters, and when she spoke of how her younger sisters got life easier than her when they were growing up, this palpable feeling of envy and condescension came through that I didn’t understand.
In effect, whenever I needed comfort as a child and went to my mother, it was to receive horror stories from her childhood so that I would be “comforted” that what I was going through was not as bad. As a bonus, I might hear that I really deserved the same that she had gotten, and I should be thankful. So I learned to minimise my pain. In fact, I JUST recognised this: That I’ve always done this because it was learned as the “correct” response since childhood: that my pain is always less than other people’s pain, so I am never entitled to whine or acknowledge it.
I internalised things like this, the little things. The little toxic pinpricks of pain that got under my skin and became part of me. Interestingly, the big, obviously-wrong things were easier to spot and block. When I was in school, I remember reading/watching something that pronounced that ALL mothers loved their children and wanted better things for their children than they themselves had had.
I wanted it to be true. I wanted it confirmed.
I went to my mother with the information.
“No, that’s nonsense,” she said.
Well, then. There it was. My mother. My mother was fucked up. I was angry, but for a child, I remember hiding my anger quite successfully in this instance. I didn’t even think to ask if my mother if she loved me. We were Asian. You never ask, you never talk about love. It was the other thing I wanted to confirm: “You don’t want my childhood to be better or easier than yours?”
I asked again to be sure. She confirmed it again, impatiently, and the conversation was over. And the memory of this stayed, silently inside for nearly 3 decades, until I shared for the first time with my healing mentor 2 weeks ago. A few days after that, I shared it with my father, and I could tell it took his breath away.
“Thank God you knew that was fucked up,” he said.
Yeah, but I hadn’t known this for all the other stuff.
There was so much other stuff.
The unhealed stuff of our forebears and ancestors will come down to us. This isn’t just spiritual woo-speak. Science has only just got caught up to this wisdom by confirming that traumas are passed down in our genes. The implication of this, for someone who felt ostracised and lacking for not being “respectful” to her elders and authority figures since childhood is profound.
As a child, I had no emotional attachment to behaviors I saw from the adults as stupid. I have no idea why I knew certain things as a kid, but I remember this natural, deep rejection I had since I was four or five years old, of the Confucian truism that the elders could not be contradicted or challenged and were owed our unquestioning loyalty and obedience. I mean, I had seen them being self-centered, fearful, illogical, and petty. I could see through adults and their hypocrisy, their two-faced pretenses, their cruelty and egotism. Sometimes I called these out because I was angry at them. Sometimes I called these out because they were just confusing to a child.
Often I was admonished by the adults and the self-justifications were trotted out.
I alarmed my mother with my observations on adults, while my father was proud of me, and added more cynical fuel to the fire. I honestly lacked positive (female) role models and faith in human nature. I learned to distrust everyone, and that independent pursuits that depended on the support of others were always doomed to difficulty and failure (ie. “Don’t be an artist–you’ll starve”). And I struggled with jealousy. I knew compliments only as things that my mother gave generously to other people and other children when she wanted me to be more like them.
I learned two coping strategies from this: (1) To copy other people. To try to be the people she complimented, whether for their looks, their interests, or their deference to adults. (2) To put down other people if I couldn’t beat them. This was a habit both my parents kind of supported. I mean, it was easier than trying to build up my self-esteem and self-worth. I suspect that they thought I already had it, if they even thought about it at all. I was smart, right? It’s not like I was crippled with self-doubt, perfectionism and insecurity. Every time I saw someone “beating” me in a subject or skill, it’s not like I would spin into a panic and do everything I could to disparage them, right? Right?
Oh, I wish.
Even into my late 20s and 30s, watching my peers achieve success and recognition, the physical reactions I would have to seeing them complimented/celebrated were visceral. And ugly. I’m not 100% free of this, but I’m getting better. And I think I must be doing something right when my daughter has learned to admire and pay sincere compliments to others very readily. She doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in her. She knows of her own good qualities and worth.
I’m fucking relieved.
So many stories I could tell, but let’s zoom in on this one:
I was still married when I found an online forum for people, some using pseudonyms, some not, talking about their dysfunctional families. What a strange forum for me to feel drawn to.
These people had stories more awful than mine. I cried reading them. I didn’t know what comfort to offer. When I finally posted, it was to say that I was there to Witness. I typed that word with a capital “W”. It seemed appropriate.
Some time later, I would post of my own emotional confusion being around someone who was displaying narcissistic behavior (and where I was the scapegoat). That behavior didn’t make sense to me.
I was also now a formal Buddhist, having taken refuge in a ceremony. I was learning about ego, and trying to be kind.
I didn’t yet know how to be kind to myself.
We spin forward again, to the present.
My mother has been deteriorating with Alzheimer’s for around 10 years now. You can’t cure the disease, you can only slow it down.
But I don’t see the point.
I don’t see the point because she kept denying it and hiding from it from the beginning. Oh, it was just her getting old (even when she knew many older friends/relatives whose memories were not deteriorating). Brain teasers, daycare, medication, learning classes? No, she wanted nothing. All these doctors were exaggerating. We were making too much of a fuss. No, she wasn’t throwing a tantrum, no; she wasn’t making mistakes; no, she wasn’t slipping, we were!
Everything was our fault. Our delusion, our exaggerations, our misbehavior, our mistakes, our lies. Nothing has changed. She still believes this. She says this much, every day. None of this is her, everything is our fault.
When you get Alzheimer’s and narcissistic behavior together, it’s a damned, fucking mess.
March 2016. I’m dreaming, and watching a strange movie in this dream.
It shows anthropomorphic animals, like in an animated movie, migrating in small families to an island. It’s like paradise. All the various species get along, there aren’t too many of them, it isn’t crowded, and anyway, they can’t go back where they came from; they were exiled.
But things change on the island. More animals arrive. New leaders emerge. The diversity of animal life on the island was getting too scary, too diverse, they say. So the leaders decree: Everyone must be standardised. We need to start looking, acting, and being the same. This will make everyone acceptable and safe.
The rabbits must lose their ears. The foxes and monkeys their tails. The anteaters their spines. And so on.
I am aghast. The movies shows a family of rabbits–mother, father, two children–being strapped down to tables, fully awake and un-anaesthetised as a device is lowered from above to sever their soft, long ears from their bodies.
In the dream, I scramble for the remote and hit the PAUSE button. This cannot be a children’s movie. This cannot.
My six-year-old daughter sits to the left of me. She is horrified, and I explain to her that this story came from the past, a time when people were stupid and knew no better. A time they were afraid of anything different. That fear and cruelty were no longer right, and I will not let her watch the rest of this horrific movie.
“You’re making too much of a fuss,” says my mother in the dream, sitting on my right.
This is exactly the response I expect of my mother. A part of my dream self thinks it futile to try to explain this to her, whether I’m in a dream or not. But I give it a go anyway.
“You know what this reminds me of?” I say. “This is exactly what it was like when you forced me to get haircuts when I was little. I never got to choose my own hair. I cried so hard in the hairdresser’s chair and you never cared. I never could beg or cry hard enough to convince you. Never got to grow my hair out until I was a teenager.” (It would probably have been too embarrassing for her to force me then. I think adults dismiss childhood traumas too easily, and mostly for ego and self-defence. Well, in this dream, I remembered the pain.)
“I am now teaching [my daughter] free will and body autonomy,” my dream self pronounces, grandiosely perhaps, but firmly nonetheless. “I’m breaking the cycle. It stops here with me.”
“Heh.” My mother dismisses me, folding her arms and looking away, as she always does when she thinks I’m being uppity.
The dream ends.
Later, in real life, my friend said that the island sounded like Singapore. I have to agree.
I realise something else now, too. All my mother’s childhood pictures are of her with short hair. I think she only got to grow it out when she got older.
I’m not perfect, but I’m stronger now.
I know what it’s like to be broken and put back together. I’m also not interested in being a martyr. Not interested in being a victim or hero, the dutiful child who gave of herself until there was nothing left. As if I have no right to determine my own life.
I also know what dysfunction is, now. I know what responsibility is. I know what self-care and emotional health should look like, what boundaries are, what futility is.
I don’t want to “save” anyone who does not want saving. I do not want to help anyone who refuses help.
But I will do my damndest for those I love who still want to live and have joy, and who still carry their own hope and light to others, instead of fear, submission, and misery. I want our health and happiness. I want us to have life left in us after caring for my mother; I want us to be free of fear, worry and anger, or at least to deal with these things in a more healthful fashion than my mother learned in her life, when she could still learn.
I will still carry out my “daughterly” duty, but I wouldn’t give my life to it. There’s so much else to live for.
So much else to live for.
Maybe, at the bottom of it all, it’s that I need to recognise that my mother never saw this, and doesn’t. I don’t take it personally. I think she never really knew what love is. And I’m trying to learn.
Perhaps this is the biggest difference between us.