breaking the cycle

Once I read that breaking the cycle of abuse takes three generations. I don't know how they arrived at that number, but the idea that changing family dynamics is a gradual task that more than one generation must shoulder makes sense to me. Each person can probably only improve upon her upbringing but so much. And if the goal of completely breaking the cycle is to produce an intact, healthy family, that suggests a healthy extended family, and clearly a first-generation cycle-breaker cannot offer his or her children healthy grandparent relationships. It will take time.

Sometimes I wonder - which generation am I? How effective can I be? My mother's father was a pathological narcissist, and I know that she wanted to be a better parent than he was. She succeeded, but not by much; while she avoided some of the specific harmful behaviors that he committed, she kept the same controlling mindset, the same scornful view of children and their needs. Without a change in philosophy, how could she truly break the cycle?

When I started my parenting journey, I was still fairly enmeshed in my family. I accepted my mother's childrearing beliefs and most of her practices. I thought that my beef with her was limited to my adolescence and the occasional irritation in the present. Philosophies like Unconditional Parenting and gentle discipline seemed ridiculous to me, irresponsible, "lax". My son and some chance meetings with more open-minded people taught me differently.  With time, exposure to people who parented differently from my parents, and lots of reading, I came to have a different understanding of who and what children are, and how adults can relate to them.

Is that enough? I can tell you, I struggle with being a compassionate parent. My first instinct is often to feel angry and to criticize.  Author Naomi Aldort would call those "old scripts" - the way you've been conditioned to react, even though it's not consistent with who you want to be. With time, that's changing. I'm a much kinder, more thoughtful person today than I was ten years ago. But young children don't wait for you to heal yourself. They're here, soaking things up as they happen. I was not as kind a parent to my first child as I have been to my third child - and even with the third, I have trouble staying engaged and not sending them the "mommy's too busy doing her own thing, don't bug me" message. Did I change too late? Have I changed enough?

Will my kids' first reaction to their children be less irritated than my own? Will they have imprinted different reactions and behaviors than I did in my childhood? Will they have better emotional tools at their disposal? Are their children going to be the third generation, the one that grows up with parents who can access empathy easily?


I'm pissed, and I'm not sleeping. 

My mother, my childhood, my extended family has been on my mind every day this month. I'm sure it's one part holiday-family-mindfuck, one part normal ACONness, and a bunch of other parts of other things all tossed in for good measure. 

Even while I feel happiness for making the choice to end contact with my mother and father, even while I revel in how good life is without the two of them and their shame parade, there has also been a bitterness brewing inside me. Something I learned tonight put a torch to the whole bitter pyre, and now I'm awake and seething about it.

The lovely message at the top of this post is the FUCK YOU that I never mailed to my mother. It festered in my head for many months, and finally I grabbed a sharpie and some paper and wrote them out. First they were simple line letters, then they became block letters, and then they grew curlicues. A fancy fuck you. Fuck you very nicely! Fuck you very much, y'all don't come back now, y'hear?

It made me smile, and I took the paper and stuck it in a journal. I later glued it in. When I'm feeling especially ticked off, I think of those embellished, bold, black letters and raise a middle finger to my FOO.  Tonight, in my ire, I scanned it and added a frame. It's a Formal Fuck You. I'm fantasizing about mailing it, or creating yard signs, or putting up a billboard, or hiring a skywriter. Yeah, a skywriter.

Tonight I'm feeling MAD. 

MAD that my mother won't leave my family alone.
MAD that my oldest brother said cruel things to me six months ago, things that were totally planted in his head by my fucking mother. MAD that he hasn't spoken to me since, even the one time we ended up in the same restaurant together. MAD about the way my mother played her children against each other, so that they have evil pictures in their heads of each other.
MAD that my mother cries her crocodile tears to whomever will listen, and MAD that they actually believe her. 
MAD about the times my sister-in-law has told me how sad she feels for my mom and my dad, who really do love me and miss me. MAD about how weakminded she must be to fall for this shit.
MAD that none of my siblings seem to remember the times when they were the black sheep.
MAD that in a huge extended family, I don't feel like I can trust anybody except maybe my sister. 
MAD that the habits I learned from my mother as a child make it so fucking difficult to be a patient, loving parent. MAD that I have to work so hard to do something that should come naturally.
MAD that she has the audacity to come onto my property. A little MAD that I didn't know she was there at the time, because I totally would have called the cops on her ass.
MAD about all the time and energy this emotional crap takes - time that could and should be spent on other things.
MAD that my lasting legacy from her is anxiety and depression, for which I take medication. MAD that the medication feels necessary for me to be a kind and engaged wife and mother.
MAD that she didn't deal with her own family shit, and instead handed it down to her kids.
MAD that I'm alone, the only one of her five kids who GETS IT, while the rest still do their adoring mommy-we-love-you-so-much routine.
MAD that this is SO UNFAIR.

And tonight, I'm MAD for one more reason. I'm MAD that she had the audacity to send my in-laws a Christmas card containing a woe-is-me letter. MAD that she's crying her sob story, "apparently I'm forbidden from seeing my grandchildren", to these people who ARE NOT HER PEOPLE. MAD that she is such an inappropriate bitch. MAD that she treats my children like her possessions. MAD that she would tell my in-laws to give my children a hug and kiss from her and tell them that she loves them. MAD MAD MAD.

And MAD that what I really want to do, send her a scathing letter letting her know that I'm fully aware of her manipulative bullshit and that I WILL NOT TOLERATE IT, is exactly the kind of thing I should not do. Do not feed the trolls. DO NOT ENGAGE.

So tonight, because I'm so full of MAD, and unable to vent my spleen all over the person who most deserves it, I'm spewing it here, instead:

BACK OFF, BITCH. My children do not belong to you. *I* do not belong to you. We are not objects, we are not playthings at your disposal. If your grandchildren meant ANYTHING to you as people, as human beings in their own right, you would know that anybody who harms me has NO PLACE in their lives. And if they meant anything to you, you would be working your ass off, night and day, to try to figure out where you went wrong in our relationship and FIX IT. You would not be courting the sympathies of people who are much more important in my life and my children's lives than they are in yours.

My kids are amazing people. I'm an amazing person. And YOU SUCK for not knowing it.

Stay off my lawn, stay away from my family, and STAY OUT OF MY LIFE.

And because maybe you didn't hear me the first time:


on motherhood

During my grand file clean-out, I found a document containing quotations about motherhood. I wonder if my own preoccupation with all things related to children and motherhood is related to the failure of my mother to parent compassionately?  (I'm sure it is.)

Some choice quotations:

To show a child what once delighted you, to find the child's delight added to your own - is happiness.
- JB Priestley

Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.
- Pope Paul VI

The art of living is to function in society without doing violence to one's own needs or to the needs of others. The art of mothering is to teach the art of living to children.
- Elaine Heffner

free as a bird

I've been cleaning up my files in anticipation of switching over to a new computer. Today's project included transferring data from one old external hard drive to a new, bigger one. In the process, I dug around in the old files, deleting stuff that I no longer want/need and rediscovering plenty of great old stuff.

One of the things I found was a copy of my initial STOP THIS SHIT letter that I sent to my mother. When I had initially stood up to her regarding my plans for my youngest son's birth and then took a month off from contact with her, I had imagined that her anger would be short-lived and that we would eventally go back to business as usual. In the past, when one of her children had defied her, she would punish us via devaluing and/or discarding us, but that eventually she would get bored of that, we would pass from being in the doghouse to being ignored, and eventually back to normality. In my family, there's generally one child who is the black sheep, one who is the golden child, and three who are ignored, wishing they could be the golden child, but happy that they're not the black sheep. I anticipated a short time in the black sheep role, ended by the arrival of the new baby, and then either going back to a brief golden-child stint or to the flying-under-the-radar position.

Except that's not what happened. Instead, she acted as if my newborn son didn't exist. She acted puzzled by my attempts to include her in his infancy. She ignored me when I attended a birthday dinner for her, and at the end of the dinner, she handed me a letter. I dreaded reading it for the whole hour-long drive home, then couldn't touch it. My husband volunteered to look over it. After he did, he opted to read it to me in her voice. The result was that I still felt hurt by her, but that I was able to laugh as he did his comic impression of her as an imperious, melodramatic Queen of Hearts. 

It was five pages long and full of accusations and lists of my character flaws. It was not the work of a woman who honestly wanted to heal the rift between myself and herself. It was the work of a domineering parent who was issuing a condemnation and order to her wayward child: "you are a worthless turd, and if you ever want to get back into my good graces, you will get back in line where you belong." 

I think my reaction was supposed to be "I'm sorry, Mommy! I love you so much! I'll never do that bad thing again!" Cue the crying and hugging. I had had that fight-and-makeup before. I wasn't doing it again. My initial reaction was to write FUCK YOU in big letters on a piece of 8.5" x 11" computer paper. Just that. Black marker. And mail it. No return address. 

I decided against that response, but it took me almost two months to come up with something. When I did, I had to draft it on the computer, because I simply couldn't get words to flow onto paper with a pen. After typing it, I realized that I didn't like sending things to her in my own handwriting. First, it seemed like too much of me on the paper. Second, she had often boasted of her perfect Palmer Method handwriting, and scorned my own (perfectly legible, perfectly serviceable, perfectly me) writing style. I decided to print the letter and mail it. She didn't deserve a handwritten response.

This is what I sent:
Mom –
I was not surprised to receive this letter from you, since I was aware that you have been feeling hurt and left out.  While you mention a recent estrangement, I would suggest instead that the recent state of our relationship is simply a more honest reflection of a dyad that has been emotionally unbalanced for years.  Your letter reflects a misperception of events and an eagerness to assign character faults and blame to others.  I am uncertain what you hope to accomplish by sending such a letter.  
I am no longer willing to tolerate the disrespect and abuse with which you treat your children.  I am neither the direct cause of your emotional distress, nor am I responsible for resolving it.  In fact, I believe that it would be unhealthy for me to assume that responsibility.  Enclosed is your letter; I am keeping a copy for myself but thought that you might find it useful in the future to re-read what you expressed to me.  You once suggested therapy to me; I encourage you to take your own advice, and would suggest that discussing the thoughts expressed in your letter would be an excellent starting point.
- Claire
I think it's the last time I called her "Mom". She later called my letter "nasty" and berated me for "speaking for your siblings." She cried to my aunts and my siblings, who tried to tell me that I needed to "just sit down and talk it out" or begged me to "bury the hatchet." The thing is, I had discovered my dignity, and I wasn't ever going back. I was free, and there was nothing the flying monkeys could do about it. 

all is calm, all is bright

I hope that you and your loved ones had a very Merry Christmas, free from drama and family strife. I'm happy to see that Jonsi and Mulderfan did, and I'm also happy to say that mine was the most drama-free yet. Was it completely free from the taint of my narcissistic mother? No. But as far as her intrusions and my reactions go, it was mild. 

The last Christmas we spent with my family of origin was five years ago, when my oldest son was turning four.  The following year was when all manner of hell broke loose. I confronted my in-laws about their long-term passive-aggressive treatment of me and of their son. Later that same year, I stood up to my mother, who was attempting to impose her choices upon me during my pregnancy and the birth of my third son. When I stood up to her, it was completely different from any other confrontation we had ever had. When I was much younger, she would do or say something unfair or cruel, and I would argue. Later, I learned (upon the advice of a therapist) not to take her bait. Instead, I ignored it. I avoided touchy subjects, changed the topic, or just didn't respond to her when she was trying to pick a fight. That was progress of a sort, but ultimately, it only served to allow me to detach from her while allowing her to think everything was fine and dandy, with her in the dominant position and me as her loyal serf. The result was that she was completely taken aback when I didn't back down to her demands regarding my birth plans. I was calm, let her know that I was aware that she didn't approve of my choices and that I accepted her disapproval and needed her to accept that I was still making these choices. She attacked me for not giving in to her demands - for "denying" her "requests." "I do NOT accept it," she snarled. "Yes, I know," I said. Lengthy pause. "Well, would you like to talk about anything else?" I asked? "No." she growled. "Ok, then I think this conversation is over. Goodbye." I said, and hung up. And then shook for two hours. It was the very first time that I had stood up to her in this kind of calm, rational, mature way. I was so, so proud. I followed it up with giving myself a full month of no contact with her. That month was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and not just because it ended with the fantastic birth of my wonderful youngest son. I had never in my life had a time when I knew that I would not see her or talk to her. I loved knowing that she wasn't going to pop up and be a bitch to me. 

In the months that followed, I allowed her many opportunities to show love and acceptance. She chose instead to sulk, to lash out, to accuse, to abuse. Each time she did so, I remembered how lovely that month without contact had been, and allowed myself a little more time. Eventually this grew into longer and longer breaks from her. Each time I joined in a family gathering, she was colder and more disconnected from me and from my children. This was not a mother/grandmother who missed her daughter/grandsons and was hungering for connection. This was a jilted woman, a deposed dictator, a sulking brat. I was able to realize that I never really enjoyed family gatherings, and that she and my father hadn't ever tried to really get to know my kids. She reared her ugly controlling head a couple more times, and I was done. I finally made my non-contact official last April, with a brief email requesting that she not contact me in any way

She, of course, has not respected my request. You all know narcissists, so I'm sure you saw that one coming. The optimistic side of me always hopes that things will change, while the practical pessimist in me knows that her intrusions are inevitable. Even when she hasn't actually jabbed her finger into the actual day of a birthday or holiday, there's always a tension, a certainty that she's lurking on the periphery. Often she sends a card that arrives just before my birthday, or leaves packages at the door just after an event.

Last week, I mentioned to my husband that I was wondering what form her intrusion would take this year. Would she send a package? A scathing letter or email? Would my siblings be recruited to drop off her "gifts"?  Would she try to see my children at my in-laws' house, like she did last year? He said that he was sure she'd leave us alone after the sneak-gifts and the Christmas cheese. I told him that I was pretty sure those weren't Christmas gifts, and that I was expecting something to happen. My concern was that I couldn't predict exactly what and when. It could be anything from a small annoyance to a grand gesture. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I was right. 

On Christmas morning, after opening presents and enjoying a lazy morning with the boys, we set out for my in-laws' house. They live in town and we had decided to brunch there and do the birthday celebrations at our house for dinner. My husband (he needs a name for this blog, doesn't he?) opened the door and said something quick and low to me about getting rid of something ASAP. I glanced toward the entrance, and there, between the storm door and the front door, were three shiny gift bags, all lined up in a row. Each bore the name of one of my sons in big block letters on stark white cards. I imagine this was supposed to be a GOTCHA!!! moment in which my kids opened the door to go outside and found the gifts waiting for them, and that I wouldn't be able to swipe them away fast enough to avoid the moment in which they recognized their own names on the cards. Fortunately, hubby did catch them, the kids weren't at the door, and he swooped them up and deposited them upstairs. We headed out and had a lovely brunch and gift exchange at my in-laws' house. When we got home, my husband went through the "gifts," recycled the packaging, and deposited the items in his closet, to be donated later. The rest of the day was without intrusion (including from my siblings, none of whom wished us a Merry Christmas - I contacted the one I care most about at the end of the day). Mostly drama-free.

I say "mostly" because as the child of a narcissist, I have a hard time ignoring these intrusions. So while we dealt swiftly and quietly to defuse the bombs Nmother left at the front door, I was still aware of them. It still bugged me a little. I still had that feeling in my chest of confrontation and panic, the trapped-little-girl sensation. 

Here's the "all is calm" part, though: it didn't wreck my day. I had the feeling, but was able to put it aside. She cannot hurt me. She does not control me. And her sneak-attack? Laughable. 

Here's her gift to me this Christmas:

  • Her "I'm still here and you can't make me go away" doorstep leavings are a lovely reminder that I'm not imagining her disrespect for my boundaries. This isn't the action of a person who truly wants a loving relationship with me. This is the taunting of an immature, obnoxious person. 
  • Her "I don't know anything about you" gifts for my children serve to reinforce what I already knew: that she has never even tried to think about who they are as people, or what their ages are and what they might enjoy. They were the kind of gifts that we used to have in a "present box" in the attic when I was a kid - a bunch of generic, inexpensive, impersonal items that you could grab if you had a last-minute birthday party situation. 
  • The contrast of her impersonal gifts to my in-laws' very thoughtful ones, the brunch that considered my children's tastes, the planning of the day that took my kids' needs and my preferences into consideration, all reassured me once again that my kids have grandparents who love them, and that they aren't missing anything by not seeing my parents.
  • The intrusion also showed me that I don't have a huge reaction to her any more. Yes, ok, I still feel a little icky in my chest. But I was ok. I had a fun day. It didn't dominate my thoughts. I didn't need to vent to my husband. I just acknowledged it and went on. 
  • Her leavings also allowed me to see once again how completely on my side my husband is. He took charge of disposing of the gifts. He didn't want me to have to even see them. I was OK with seeing them but appreciated his understanding of the emotional impact she can have on me.
In short, I learned that I can handle her intrusions, and that they mean nothing to my family. To quote Shakespeare, her actions are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". I'm sure there will always be a next time for her, and it doesn't matter. She has no power over me. 

I'm really out. I'm an orphan, and I'm ok with it. My life is good - really good - without her. And she's just a pathetic crazy woman ding-dong ditching somebody on Christmas. 

2012 can come and get me. I'm ready! 

Merry Christmas, y'all!

christmas present

Assorted thoughts about the impending holiday:


I'm finding this Christmas season lonely. The first couple of Christmasses that I decided not to spend time with my parents, I felt liberated. I loved not making the trip, not having to endure the visit, not feeling frustrated with all the things I wished for that didn't happen, not dealing with overtired kids who weren't acommodated at all, not having the post-visit recap/rehash with my husband as I sought validation for the things that bothered me about my mother. This year that freedom is something to which I've become accustomed, and in the absence of the newness of freeing myself from spending time with people I don't really love and who don't really love me, I'm feeling the void that's left. Friends are sharing images of extended family together. Nearly everyone I know is traveling. Friends here at home are wrapped up in their own holiday preparations. We're spending time with my in-laws, but it's not enough for me this year. I miss belonging to a tribe not of my own making, but of my birth. It was never what I wanted it to be, but for a long time I believed that it was, and today I'm missing the blind faith of the enmeshed.


Last week brought a minor victory. While decorating the tree, I came to a little box that contains a blown glass ornament given to me by my mother to commemorate a vacation we took together. Last year, I felt bitter when I found the ornament, and I ended up hanging it on the back of the Christmas tree. This year I realized I didn't need to hide it. The trip was fun. My mother was herself, of course, but I was in her favor at the time and felt special to be included on the trip. The city itself was brilliant, and I felt adventurous and energized. When I picked up the ornament, I had a moment of remembering the good stuff, then hung the ornament in a place that's not extremely prominent, but not hidden, either. Then I moved on to thinking about other ornaments.


I've been listening to the local "lite" radio station a lot lately while working in our basement. This is partly because I don't have other options in the basement, and partly because they play Christmas music at this time of year and even though most of it is really schmaltzy stuff, I'm still a sucker for it. "Lite" stations are often a tad on the excessively-cheesy, mom-and-apple-pie side of things to begin with, but they really amp it up at this time of year. Sometimes while I listen, I get really annoyed by the blind devotion our culture often has to a certain sense of family. While I understand that for many people, there really is "no place like home for the holidays," it bugs me that this is held up as the ideal, the standard. People who don't go home are to be pitied. Dysfunctional families are celebrated (seriously, if I hear Delilah laugh about the wonderfulness of family dysfunction one more time, I'm going to scream...or send a sympathy card to her 12 kids). I wish there were more diversity in the way people conceive of holidays. Not everybody goes over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. Some of us spend those days with friends. Some of those like to be alone with just our nuclear family. Some of us think family dysfunction is anything but laughable. Some of us think that the best gift you can give to yourself is freedom from this ridiculous idealization of blood kin.


This is the first year that I'm not aware at all of what my parents and siblings are doing for Christmas. Not a single detail. It's weird.


the ghosts of christmas past

Every holiday at my parents' house takes for-ev-er. My siblings and I would try to make plans so that we could work around all of our kids' naptimes and bedtimes. We considered the likelihood of kids falling asleep in the car on the way there and/or the way back. We thought about their happy and grumpy times of day. We figured out what time of day worked best for all of us and advocated for having family gatherings during that time. In short, we did our best as parents to set ourselves and our kids up for the smoothest, best-mood holiday gathering possible, and we did our best as siblings to accomodate each other. And really, it would have been fine, if it had been up to us. Problem is, my mom wants to host everything. And she is completely incapable of serving a meal less than two hours after the planned time. Inevitably, we ended up with hungry, tired, cranky kids and way-too-late bedtimes. And, of course, my mother commenting on the kids' bad behavior, which wasn't bad behavior at all, but hungry, tired, cranky behavior. I remember her thinking very poorly of older relatives who acted the way she does and who had no sympathy for the families with young kids. And now here she is, choosing to sneer at our parenting rather than choosing to help us plan a gathering that is actually fun for the people involved. 

The last several times I spent Christmas with my extended family, the gift exchange was hard. Since my brothers have gotten married, my mother, despite badmouthing the women behind their backs, gives them beautiful presents. The strange thing is that the presents don't suit the recipients...and they do suit me. They are, in fact, pretty much exactly the sorts of things somebody who knows me and loves me might give to me at Christmas. I ached when one SIL unwrapped a pair of beautiful, beautiful dresses from a label I had coveted in my early teens. The symbolism of giving a dress like that to me would have been wonderful. Instead, they were given to SIL, who doesn't wear dresses, and even if she did, she wouldn't wear these dresses. They were my style, not hers. She also received jewelry that was so totally *me*.  The same SIL once received gift certificates for pampering, and she hates that kind of spa service. I love it. Another SIL received home decor items that looked like they would fit perfectly in my home, not hers. Both SILs received mother-in-law/daugher-in-law weekends in gorgeous Bed & Breakfast inns with tours of museums. I have never once had a mother/daughter weekend. Not once. (At some point I let her know that it would be meaningful to me, and she begrudgingly promised one to me, then later asked me to plan it myself and insisted that I choose a specific weekend even though I was in my third trimester, hugely pregnant and uncomfortable, and not really disposed to travel at that time. The weekend never happened.) Meanwhile, my husband and I would receive strange, useless gifts, the kinds of things you give to somebody whom you don't know at all but feel obligated to buy for.  Gifts for my kids are generally completely out of sync with their age and interests, and more often than not, they break immediately, at which point she might mention replacing them, but never does.

Then there is the matter of my son's birthday. Kiddo had the good fortune to be born on Christmas Day. This means that on the 25th we have not one, but two occasions to celebrate. We have found ways that work for us, generally switching over to "birthday mode" in the second half of the day. Dinner is his choice rather than the turkey dinner I grew up with. We have birthday cake for dessert rather than other Christmassy desserts. Thanksgiving is when we have turkey and pumpkin pie; Christmas is when we have his birthday dinner...except when we go to my parents' house. Because apparently my parents and siblings are more attached to their traditional Christmas meal than to their grandson/nephew. Even though growing up, the birthday kid always got to choose dinner, when it interferes with the turkey, we can't have that! And can we all share cake? No! I would bring a cake, but they would still prepare the usual pies. Nobody except my husband and I would share cake with my son. My siblings and parents didn't even sit down at the table while singing their unenthusiastic birthday song; they were too busy trying to get their pie. The whole day would be CHRISTMAS!!!!! and no thought about the birthday kid. This is why so many people think Christmas birthdays suck. They don't have to suck if everybody else gets over themselves and gives some attention to the birthday boy. (I'm not asking for a parade, just geez, actually sit down and sing happy birthday and watch him blow out his candles and share some cake together. Be his tribe for a second, will ya?) This whole dinnertime dismissal of the birthday would also be hours later than planned, as indicated in the first holiday memory above. The whole thing felt awful. It felt like my son's birthday was an inconvenience to everybody, like oh, geez, yeah, we hafta squeeze in the birthday song somewhere here, ugh. I don't expect anybody to love my son like I do, but I do expect people to be gracious hosts, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I do expect that a child celebrating his birthday should get to pick the meal, eat it before his bedtime, and have everybody make him the center of attention for just fifteen minutes. I tried discussing my concerns with my siblings and parents, and they acted like I wanted excessive attention. They said they would *try* to compromise. It didn't happen. He was four. After that, I decided that if honoring his birth is such an inconvenience to them, we wouldn't subject them to it. We haven't been back for Christmas since.

Our first Christmas completely on our own was WONDERFUL. No agenda but ours. Nowhere to rush to, no dinner too late for the kids, and the birthday boy would be celebrated and appreciated just as he deserves.  My in-laws usually come to see us, or we might visit them on the other side of town. They make plans with us, asking about what works best for the kids, and they honor those plans. They are genuinely excited about my son's birthday. We enjoy each other's company. Isn't that how Christmas is meant to be? 

sacrificial cake

An update on the perishable gift (which is not actually cake): I ended up leaving it on a neighbor's doorstep. I'm not close enough to her to feel yucky about my mom's gift in her house, but I like her enough to want her to have it. I was going to knock and tell her that I'd like her to have it, that for personal reasons, I cannot keep it, but she wasn't home. It was cold outside, cold enough not to worry about it spoiling, so I left it. I have no idea what happened to it, but I hope she assumed it was Christmas elves, and that she and her significant other have been enjoying it.

So, consistent with personal values, out of my house, not in a dear one's house. Perfecto!

event planning with a narcissist

Today Jonsi is sharing her thoughts on my post, The Demons of Doubt and Disappointment. I find her perspective, as the daughter-in-law of a narcissistic woman, very validating. Her husband is so fortunate to have a spouse who understands his struggle and supports him! 

One of the links in her post, to an entry about her daughter's first birthday, dredged up some old stuff for me. I identified strongly with this: 
The problem is that they are always late, they always have excuses (and only some of them are valid), and they don't allow that their plans might be disrupted and they might need EXTRA time to deal with the disruptions.
It was always the same story when we went to their house for dinner as well, which is not at all conducive to the schedule of a napping infant. There was only one occasion where they hosted dinner earlier, for our sake, and they complained about how difficult it was to get dinner on the table so early, as though we were just such a big inconvenience to them. 
Ah, yes, the perpetual refusal of the narcissist to live by anybody's agenda or clock but her own. This reminded me of a couple of holiday gatherings in the past:

One Christmas morning when I was hosting the family gathering, we had planned to have a mid-morning brunch, then exchange gifts. My mother showed up two hours late. She lives one hour away. That means she left her house an hour after she should have been at my house! While things sometimes happen to derail one's plans, she already had a history of doing this sort of thing. And while a normal person would call and apologize and ask everybody to start without them, she  a) didn't even give us a phone call, b) didn't apologize for being late and holding up the meal, and c) was annoyed that we had started preparing the meal without her. She didn't seem to have any sense of the inconvenience that she had caused. She didn't seem to realize or care that my young son needed to eat and that the original timeline - to which we had all agreed - had worked well for his happy-awake times and would have avoided his grumpy or needing-nap times. She flat-out didn't care about the plans we had made as a group. What suited her was to show up late, and now that she was here, the party could begin! 

Another year, we were planning a family Christmas get-together at her house. We were all spending Christmas Day with our in-law families and then our family of origin would get together a few days later. This coincided with one of my sisters-in-laws' birthdays. During a phone conversation about our plans, my mother told me that we would also be celebrating my SIL's birthday with cake and presents. A short time after that, I was talking to my brother (SIL's husband) on the phone, and her birthday came up. He was surprised to hear about the birthday plan, because my mother hadn't told  him or SIL about it at all. SIL hates surprise birthday parties. HATES them. This is one of the things my SIL has in common with my mom, so I had assumed that my mom could relate to the hatred of surprises, and that the party was common knowledge. I later got into huge trouble with my mother for telling my brother about the SUPER SECRET PARTY PLANS. I pointed out that I hadn't known that they were secret, and that my mother knows that SIL hates surprise parties, so why would I think I wasn't supposed to mention it? It just came up! My mother's response? She treated me like I'm this completely unreliable, untrustworthy person. She informed me that my brother and I (and the rest of our siblings) shouldn't discuss Christmas plans together. We should only discuss them with her and stop "stirring each other up." So, um, adult siblings who often see each other or talk on the phone should completely avoid discussion of a date in their near future when they will see each other. We shouldn't even say "hey, what time are you getting there?" We should check with her. Ok...that's reasonable. Except that it's not. It's completely crazy.

I guess the moral here is that if you want to plan an event with a narcissist, 
  • do not speak at all to any other person in the whole world except the narcissist
  • make sure that the details of the event suit the tastes and attention needs of the narcissist, rather than those of the guest of honor
  • plan everything around the naptime and mealtimes of the narcissist, so that she won't get overtired and cranky
As for me? I don't plan to attend such an event, ever again.

'round and around and around and around

The fickle finger of fate has been flicking my anxiety disorder all week. It's part Christmas preparations, part home repair projects, part financial concerns, part sick/injured kid, part business development. But the thing that I think is putting it over the edge from just life-stress-that-I-can-handle to stress-that-makes-my-brain-go-whirly is my mother. Or more specifically, the gift she sent.

All I want is to be left alone. But like a kid in the back seat of a car whose sibling has declared a particular line uncrossable, she cannot resist the temptation to put a finger over the line. Just. One. Finger. And just as kids can't stand that kind of willful defiance of a boundary line ("MOM! He's looking at me!), I can't stand that she's continuing to contact me. It interrupts my calm and it pisses me off. 

While I had been decreasing contact with her for years - first without realizing I was doing it, then later more purposefully, No Contact "officially" began last spring, when I wrote this to her and my father in an email message: 

"I am writing to ask you to stop contacting my family, including myself, [my husband, and my children]. Please do not attempt to contact us in any way, whether by phone, in person, via postal mail, or by email or other internet services."

I knew that she probably would not stop, but I felt the need to lay down a specific boundary, so that if she continued to contact us, I would know that it was in direct opposition to what I had requested. While I wish that she would just LEAVE ME ALONE, every time she sends something, it's a reminder that she has never respected my boundaries and still does not respect them. It's a confirmation: nope, you did not imagine this, she really doesn't give a damn what you want. 

Since I sent that email, she has shown up on my doorstep once, sent multiple postcards to my children, sent birthday cards to my children and to me, sent email multiple times to my husband, stalked my personal blog, sent a holiday card, left birthday presents for my children at the door, invited us (via last-minute email to my husband) to Thanksgiving dinner, and sent a bag of gifts for my children with relatives, who sneaked the bag into my car

So far, birthday cards and postcards get recycled. Gifts for kids are spirited away before they can see them and the items are donated. One son has some awareness of this, and seems both curious about the gifts and indignant that my mother disrespects my wishes. I hate that he knows about it, but it's hard to keep a pre-teen in the dark when stuff just shows up at your house. I can't intercept everything.

Anyway, I'm used to this, even though I dislike it. As each birthday or holiday approaches, I wonder what form her contact will take. I sigh inwardly and prepare to whisk gifts into the attic and into donation bags. 

I wasn't ready for the gift that came last week, though. 

This time, it came by mail, in a small box. I have been receiving parcels recently in preparation for Christmas, so I assumed it was one of the items I ordered, and picked it up, and recognized the return address as the source of one of my mother's go-to gifts. It's edible, and it's something my entire family really loves. It's also perishable, so I couldn't stuff it in the attic and think about it later. I had to either preserve it or throw it away, right then. 

I put it in the fridge, still in the cardboard box. I needed to figure out what to do. 

This is the first time I've received something from her that I actually want to keep. The thing is, I also don't want to keep it. I don't want to accept a gift from her, on principle. I don't want to eat food that I know came from her. I don't want to be reminded of her while I try to enjoy it. I also don't want my son to know that I kept this item (he asked my husband what the box was, and my husband answered honestly instead of dodging the question) even though I get rid of toys and clothing sent to him. I feel like my sanity requires that I get rid of it. My sense of ethics demands that I not throw it in the garbage. My sense of consistency demands that I treat it like any other item sent by her. Get rid of it. 

My husband is lobbying for taking it to the in-laws, to share with them, so that it's out of my house but he and my son can still enjoy it. This makes me uncomfortable. It can't be easily donated because I would have to find a person who can take it off my hands and put it straight in their refrigerator. I don't want to give it to friends or a neighbor. I want it out of my social circles. (Is that crazy?) I'm frustrated that I can't give it to Good Will. 

I partly want to go downstairs right now, grab it, and take it out to the trash can. But I know what it costs, and that it was made by hand by hard-working people, and I know that it could be enjoyed by somebody, and I can't stand to waste food like that. 

And so I go in circles. I can't decide what to do, and so it haunts me every day, woven in and out of the background chatter of my other daily concerns. It's pretty bad for ye olde anxiety disorder. 

I can imagine that someday I won't care, and will be able to either eat it without a second thought or pitch it / re-home it right away.  That day has not yet come. 

What would you do? 

the demons of doubt and disappointment

circular file
At this point, my mother's refusal to respect my request for no contact with me, my husband, or my children is more of an irritating mosquito buzzing in my ear than the crazy-making depression sparker that it would have been before, but it still pisses me off when she crosses the boundaries I have defined. This time gifts were sneaked into my car after a visit with some other relatives. She had apparently given a bag of items to them, knowing that they would see me. They didn't tell me what they were putting in the car. I knew this might happen, but I'm disappointed that it did.

I'm disappointed that my relatives allowed themselves to be used as mules, even though I know it was probably easier for them to just take the stuff than to stand up to my mother.

I'm disappointed that the relatives probably don't think I have a good reason to have divorced myself from my parents, and probably feel sorry for those poor people, robbed of their rightful relationship with their grandchildren.

I'm disappointed that I didn't step up and say "whoa, what are you putting in my car? Nope, won't accept it." Not confronting it is probably the kindest route as far as my relatives are concerned - why make them uncomfortable? - but still, I feel like not standing up for myself is "losing" somehow.

I'm disappointed that my mother disregards my request. Not surprised, but still disappointed.

I'm disappointed that once again, I have to find a way to deal with these unwanted gifts. I'm disappointed that once again, I've been put in the position of either giving my kids gifts that I said I don't want them to receive, letting the kids be aware of the gifts but disposing of them, or preventing the kids from ever knowing that the gifts arrived.

The disappointment kicks off the demons of self-doubt. Am I being a jerk? Should I try to preserve/rebuild a relationship between my parents and my children? Is it horrible that I try not to let the kids know when cards and gifts arrive? Is it deceitful of me? Is it wrong not to give a child a gift that was sent for him?  But I told the giver not to send them! I don't want to see clothing she sent on my children's bodies or in the laundry, or toys she gave them scattered across my floor!

Every time this happens, I feel like writing a letter or email message telling her to CEASE AND DESIST. I said NO and I meant NO. I feel like telling her, "anything you send will be recycled, thrown out, or donated - the children will not see them. Your money is being wasted." I suspect, though, that the gifts aren't really for the kids - the toys are poor quality, the clothing is deep-discounted, and nothing is wrapped nicely. This last bunch was put into random paper shopping bags with sharpie marker inscriptions. She doesn't want to actually give nice gifts, presented nicely, to my children. She wants to get a dig in at me. She wants to put me on the spot. I suspect that she knows that the kids don't receive the gifts - the "we love you and we miss you" notes are for me to read and the gifts are being given so that a) she has the toddler-ish pleasure of defying me and b) so that she can look like a good grandma to the rest of the world. So I don't write a message to her, because I feel like then she would be succeeding in getting me to engage with her. And the first rule of dealing with my mom is DO NOT ENGAGE. It won't change anything; it'll just give her the satisfaction of getting a rise out of me.

If she/they really loved their grandchildren, they'd respect their mother's wishes. If she actually missed them, she'd work hard to figure out what to do in order to reestablish a relationship with me, so that she can see them. She wouldn't be trying to work around me by sending token gifts.

I wondered what the wording of my no-contact email message to them was, so I searched for it in my Sent folder tonight, expecting to hate what I saw, but it was actually a great email. It was clear, it was well-thought-out, it didn't attack, it made polite requests, it showed sympathy for what they're feeling. Why do I doubt myself for preventing my kids from receiving gifts sent by people who cannot engage with me in a respectful manner consistent with how I want to be treated? It's ridiculous.

This blog post is all over the map. Ugh.

Tonight I got home with the kids, dodged a question from the eldest about what was in the bags (he rightly assumed that it was gifts), and took the stuff straight up to my bedroom. While the kids played, I took time away from them to go through the bags quickly, so that everything could be taken care of before they found it. I threw away the packaging immediately, recycled the maudlin birthday card for the youngest, and grabbed an AmVets bag for the gifts. Took it up to the attic. Done. But I'm frustrated that she continues to put me in this spot, and I'm tired of feeling like an asshole.


i heard the news today, oh boy

Over the weekend, on my way home from working with a client, I got a text from my husband: "News for you when you get home!"

I wondered what the news might be, and the FIRST thing that popped into my head as something meriting an exclamation point was that my mother had died. 

How sick and twisted is that? 

I knew, of course, that this was probably not the news (and it wasn't). I knew that it was unlikely that she had died, and unlikely that he would text me if she had, and unlikely that he would end such a text with such exuberant punctuation. But still, it was the FIRST thing I thought of (the second was that he wanted to tell me that we're pregnant, but, um, it's usually the woman who finds out first, and we're very done having babies anyway). Clearly it's something that I think would be exciting, happy news. 

I've thought about her death before; not in a causing-it kind of way but a hoping-it's-sooner-rather-than-later way, and a boy-will-I-feel-relieved kind of way. I anticipate that when it happens, I will feel a lot of very good emotions. I'm not sure I'll have many sad feelings, if any. Who knows - only time will tell. I will probably need to go be by myself to experience this odd joy, since it's not exactly the kind of thing you trumpet in public. I will also probably need to have some sort of private, personal ceremony to mark the occasion. I'm not sure whether or not I'll attend her funeral. 

Driving home, I wondered if it's really all that sick for somebody like me to hope for and possibly celebrate the passing away of her parent. I mean, if somebody feels happy about another person's disappearance from the earth, doesn't it seem more likely that the dead person was horribly toxic in the living person's life, rather than that the living person is some kind of horrible, messed-up, cold-hearted jerk? Why shouldn't I feel glad and relieved when it happens? Hasn't that always been the reaction of the oppressed to the toppling of a tyrant? 

Even though I've come a long way from feeling dominated in my everyday life by my mother, she still has some hold on  me. I may treat my anxiety and depression, examine my parenting and attempt to be ever-mindful of being a compassionate mother, work on identifying my insecurities and figuring out how to turn them around, but taking control of my own life doesn't mean that I'm completely free of her. She is still present in the awkwardness between my siblings and myself, the old resentments and the present grudges. She is still a risk in some small way, because she is unpredictable, has ambushed me in the past, and could spring at me again, next week or ten years from now. Whenever she dies, I will know that it's done. There will only be old garbage, nothing new, no lurking threat. 

Being done will be good news, indeed.

our winter shadow

A tin of magnetic words sits on top of our fridge, covered in dust. Yesterday, I pulled a handful of words out and selected one at a time, usually randomly, and placed them in whatever order seemed right. When the poem felt done, I stopped. This is what resulted. The meaning is vague, but it resonates with me, somehow. I can see my own power and my mother's power in it, expressed in different ways. Maybe it is about the essence of motherhood? 


I was just reading part of a website from a former "quiverfull" woman/mother, and this line jumped out at me:

A relationship in which one party must make all the concessions has nothing to do with love and everything to do with power and control.

This is true not only in marriage, but in all relationships. Husband-wife, parent-child, friend-to-friend, coworker-to-coworker, boss-coworker, teacher-student, and so forth. I'm glad that this woman is "not quivering" any more, in the large-family sense or in the shaking-in-fear sense.


the confrontation

A while back, when the shit was hitting the fan because I was no longer willing to play the crying, wheedling, please-mommy-I'll-be-good-and-do-whatever-you-ask daughter, my mother wrote me a long letter telling me everything that's wrong with me, and I wrote a short letter back. My letter could be summed up as saying "I won't allow you to treat me this way. You may not bully me."  Using the B word struck a nerve. Nobody wants to be called a bully, least of all the bully herself.

My letter came to mind a few nights ago when I attended a parents' night at my children's school. The topic was bullying, approached not from the zero-tolerance, bullies-are-bad-people standpoint that I'm accustomed to hearing from schools, but rather from a very thoughtful, developmental-research-based angle. We discussed a definition of bullying put forward by Dr. Dan Olweus, a Norwegian professor of psychology who has been studying bullying for almost 40 years. He describes bullying thusly:
"A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."
This definition includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
Negative actions are defined as actions through which someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort upon another person. This may include physical abuse as well as verbal abuse like namecalling, threatening, taunting, teasing, spreading rumors, or also "indirect bullying" actions such as making faces or excluding someone from a group. In bullying situations, there is generally a power imbalance, in which the bully has greater power (social status, age, size, intelligence, etc) than the target.

This resonates with how I view bullying when it applies to my children (as instigators or as targets), but what was even more striking to me was that it was exactly what I have believed for many years about my mother and her treatment of me. Discomfort, both emotional and physical, was intentionally inflicted upon me and my siblings repeatedly. I heard her talk on many occasions about exactly why she did what she did, and it was all about manipulating people and intentionally making them squirm so that she could obtain/maintain the upper hand. While she also did this in her professional life, this MO was especially applied of her children, who were, of course, smaller, younger, and weaker than herself, and dependent upon her.

My mother's entire parenting philosophy centered on power. When she recalled problems with us in the past it was always framed as a power struggle, and the only acceptable outcome was for her to win. She made fun of parenting advice that focused on consensus-building or parents showing friendly compassion for children; her favorite parenting author was James Dobson, who wrote:
...Mom or Dad should have some means of making their youngster want to cooperate...I will suggest one: it is a muscle lying snugly against the base of the neck...when firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying "This hurts: avoid recurrence at all costs." The pain is only temporary; it can cause no damage. But it is an amazingly effective and practical recourse for parents when their youngster ignores a direct command to move.
That sounds like intent to cause discomfort to me. I suffered the neck pinch on multiple occasions, usually in public. I imagine it looked like a mother lovingly putting her arm around her child's shoulders. In addition to having to immediately comply with whatever I was expected to do, there was also the expectation that I not let other people know that I was being hurt.

My mother was a person who could read the passage above and think "yes, this is what I will do to my children, this is a good way to parent." How does this happen? Bullies are people. Why do they bully? Because of a fundamental insecurity that stems from receiving inadequate nurturing and/or inadequate limits. They bully to get attention, to get power, to elicit fear, to gain connection.

I would say that my mother is one of the bullies who is the way she is because of inadequate nurture. She didn't want to be like her father. She knew that he was an abuser because his mother both withheld appropriate nurture and did not set important limits. She knew that he visited the same neglect on her (although not the permissiveness). She didn't want to repeat his mistakes with her children, yet she never realized (and still apparently hasn't) that the key to being a good and loving parent was not merely to avoid doing the specific things that he did, but to examine her own neglected childhood and care for herself so that she would not turn to bullying her children in order to get the attention and power she needed but didn't get as a child.

In the schools, enlightened administrators know that in order for bullying to stop, somebody must help the kids who are doing the bullying. Those kids have a need that must be filled, by adults or by themselves. For enlightened parents to stop the cycle of abuse, we have to dig down and find that injured, neglected place inside and find ways to nurture ourselves. If we don't, we are doomed to repeat the errors of our parents and commit negative actions against our own children in our own struggle to find connection.

just NO

Well, following the last post I decided to just click on "no" and leave it at that. Nothing I could write in the RSVP message box would feel right. Nothing would prevent the party organizers from being bitchy about my not coming. Nothing I do or say will change what they think of me. And really, it doesn't matter what they think of me - by which I mean, I know this intellectually, but have a hard, hard time believing it through and through.

There were lots of polite but not quite honest things I could have said on that invitation response.

"we're so sorry we won't be able to join you" (we're not sorry; we are able, we just don't want to)
"we have other plans" (half-lie - my only plan is to not be anywhere near these people)
"give our regards to the birthday girl!" (I don't actually regard her in either a positive or negative light)
"sounds like fun, wish we could be there!" (it doesn't, I don't)

Any of these "regrets" kind of responses would have been a lie, because I don't actually feel regret.  Thing is, nothing genuine could be said, either, because this is how it would look:

"are you fucking kidding me?"
"I don't actually care about you people, so I'm not coming"
"It's ridiculous that you expect me to spend half a day driving, several hours of my life standing around making idle, uncomfortable chitchat with people who think they know me but really don't and whom I don't particularly care about, then get my kids to bed late in a hotel room because I'm not in your good graces enough for you to offer me a room or a couch to sleep on, then have to drive half a day back home again, thereby losing a perfectly good weekend."
"oh, hell no"
"I would rather swallow shards of broken glass"
"Interesting that I'm only considered a part of this messed-up family when you want to throw a big party so you look like a loving, close-knit clan."
"I will not be a part of this charade"

Yeah...none of those should really be entered into a comment box. It's good to type them out here, though. Perhaps, now that I've sent my just-plain-NO response, I can shake this bitter, ugly feeling and move on.

ye olde birthday FOG

I'm stewing in yuckiness. A family member is having a big birthday, one of the ones divisible by 10, which, in a base-10 society, means it's somehow more important than one divisible by 5 or by 4 or by 8. (Tangent: shouldn't prime-number birthdays be more important? Seriously, let's start a trend.)

So, because this person is related to me, and because her new age is large and divisible by 10, there's going to be birthday hoopla. Of course, there has been hoopla about this person's birthdays in the past, including one year when she was non-divisible by 10 and I was pressured to attend her birthday celebration instead of a memorial service for a friend who had died unexpectedly. Under all the "funerals are for the living" and "that person is dead, this one is alive" and "family is important" and "she might not be alive much longer" guilt tripping, I caved, I made a trip that I didn't enjoy to be with people whom I don't like to celebrate the birth of a person to whom I don't feel close, and didn't attend services for this dear friend whom I hadn't seen in years. I didn't get to hug her mom or her sister. I didn't get to mourn with friends. I allowed myself to be controlled by fear of the future, family obligation, and guilt.

To be clear: that was my choice. I didn't have to make it. It was the wrong choice and I still regret it, years later. I know I made the choice because I was, without being aware of it, playing into and along with the family dynamic of Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG).

Today, after several years of becoming aware of and struggling against the family FOG, I'm staring at the invitation to the latest celebration of her agedness. The invitation that comes from a relative who is not my friend, who has exerted pressure on me in the past to "bury the hatchet" with my mother, instead of saying "hey, I'm related to your mom, and I totally understand what a bitch she is, I'm sorry she treats you like shit."  The invitation heralding the honoring of a person who, honestly, isn't very important to me and doesn't play an active, meaningful role in my life. The invitation to a party several states away, that will require travel time and hotel accommodations on my dime. The time spent in the car would outweigh the time spent at the party by approximately 4:1. I'm not sure I would want to drive an hour for this party, much less half a day, especially considering that the party itself will not be fun for me and probably won't be much fun for my kids, either.

For an invitation, it sure doesn't feel inviting. It feels more like a summons.

On a petty note: the person sending the invitation, who is related to me, who is FAMILY, which is supposedly so important, did not acknowledge my birthday and hasn't in years. Just sayin'.

The obvious answer is not to go, and I know we won't go, yet I still haven't given my response. It feels rude to turn it down. Everybody else who has been summoned is going, like the good little conditioned, devoted-to-family children they are. Of course, they may actually enjoy themselves, because the extended family involved has invested time in making these people feel wanted. Me, notsomuch. And of course that just plays into my sense of shame  - if I were a better person, these people would like me, right? Ugh. But rather than saying "nope, not coming" to these people, I angst over my response. I can't just click no (yes, I can, but I feel badly about doing it). I have to have a reason (no, I don't, but it feels socially inappropriate to say no without a "proper" excuse). I have to be polite and pretty when I decline the invitation. I have to "send my regrets" even though I don't actually have regrets.

Why is it so hard for me to just say NO to people I don't like, without feeling like I owe these people some sort of conciliatory message? Is it a sign of being a good person to want to be polite to people who aren't polite to you, or is it a character flaw?

And why, when I recognize the FOG and have chosen not to participate in it, does it still control me on some level?

i am so free from you

I'm up late, reading blog entries from people like Upsi and Kiki and Mulderfan, and this is what my soul sings:

"I am so free from you
I am so free from you
I am so free from you."

It's hardly poetry, but it's what resonates through me.

I remember being a preteen and teenager, and wanting more than anything to be free. Not free in the sense of being able to come and go as I please, or to live outside my parents home, as I imagine many teenagers feel, but free in the sense of free to be myself. Free from tyrrany. Free from censorship. Free from being told what a bad person I am.

I don't have to be near you.
I don't have to be at your beck and call.
I don't have to attend you on the days you deem important for no reason other than my biological relationship to you.
I don't have to pretend that we're "one big happy family".

Family estrangement is considered such a sad thing in our society, but nobody considers how absolutely wonderful it can be from the point of view of the person escaping an oppressive, soul-sucking relationship.  It's the kind of wonderful that makes you want to spin in a full skirt in the middle of a breezy meadow.

Divorcing my mother is the best thing I have ever done, bar none.

As for my father? I'm sorry he chose to tether himself to such a woman. He had potential, perhaps. It was wasted on her. He made his choice, and I made mine.

My choice is to be ME, and free.


needle ice

Sometimes, while watching a movie or reading a book, the situations strike too close to home, and I can feel my body tensing, my throat stiffening, a sense of cold dread coming over me. The child inside me cowers, helpless, as I recognize and sympathize with the voice of a writer who experienced the same childhood invalidation and oppression that I experienced. The mother-daughter scenes in Disney's Tangled (between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel) did this to me - I think I spent half the movie holding my breath and while I think it was an excellent movie, I can't say that I really enjoyed it. Many scenes in Jonathan Franzen's book The Corrections held the same sense of recognition and dread for me. Again, marvelous work of fiction, but I don't think I'll be reading any more Franzen.

I'm currently reading The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in the UK), the first book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I expected anti-Catholic / anti-religious sentiment; I did not expect a scene from my childhood, and it took me by surprise:
"Lyra, if you behave in this course and vulgar way, we shall have a confrontation, which I will win. Take off that bag this instant. Control that unpleasant frown. Never slam a door again in my hearing or out of it. Now, the first guests will be arriving in a few minutes, and they are going to find you perfectly behaved, sweet, charming, innocent, attentive, delightful in every way. I particularly wish for that, Lyra, do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mrs. Coulter."
"Then kiss me."
She bent a little and offered her cheek. Lyra had to stand on tiptoe to kiss it...she drew away and laid the shoulder bag on her dressing table before following Mrs. Coulter back to the drawing room.
"What do you think about the flowers, dear?" said Mrs. Coulter as sweetly as if nothing had happened. "I suppose one can't go wrong with roses, but you can have too much of a good thing..Have the caterers brought enough ice? Be a dear and go and ask. Warm drinks are horrid..."
Lyra found it was quite easy to pretend to be lighthearted and charming, though she was conscious every second of Pantalaimon's disgust, and of his hatred for the golden monkey...she felt like a universal pet, and the second she voiced that thought to herself, Pantalaimon stretched his goldfinch wings and chirruped loudly.
Pantalaimon is Lyra's daemon, which is a kind of familiar. I'm not yet entirely sure what the daemons are, but so far they seem to be a reflection of the person's subconscious - like their inner, more wise, more honest voice. The monkey is Mrs. Coulter's daemon. I can remember having that sense of going along with my mother's tyranny with relative ease - or at least what must have looked like ease to those on the outside - while still having a part of myself that recognized how wrong the situation was. My mother, likewise, had a smooth, aren't-the-roses-nice exterior that she showed to others, while I knew that the authentic, imperious golden monkey version of her was there. I cannot think how many times she said - explicitly or implicitly - "we shall have a confrontation, which I will win." There was no room for my personhood. I hated her even while loving her, and the combination of the two made an icy lump inside of me.

What's funny is that she accused me of being cold-hearted or hard-hearted on many occasions. Those occasions were always times in which I was showing myself to be engaged, perspicacious, and above all, my own person.

I've been thawing for years now, and yet she thinks that I'm the coldest I have ever been.

While reading this book, I'm whispering, Run, Lyra! Trust your instincts! 


Next time the monkeys are on my back, I know what song I'll sing to myself:

The video looks like it was incredibly fun to film and appeals to the actress in me, but it's the lyrics that really matter:

You, with your switching sides and your wildfire lies and your humiliation
You have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don't already see them
I walk with my head down trying to block you out cause I'll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again
I bet you got pushed around
Somebody made you cold
But the cycle ends right now cause you can't lead me down that road

...Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean

normality & unfulfilled promises

I don't know what a "good mother" does.

I imagine that in some families, the parents have had their own emotional needs met in childhood and are healthy enough to parent in a confident way, taking some middle road between coddling their children and abusing them. This shouldn't be confused with parenting "perfectly" - there are no perfect people, therefore there are no perfect parents. But I assume that some people are emotionally intact enough to parent competently, treating their children with sensitivity, offering guidance, providing limits, nurturing them in a way that is emotionally responsive and fosters independence.

What does that look like?

Yesterday my oldest son reminded me of a promise I had made to him to download an audiobook. I got testy with him, telling him that he needed to remind me at some time other than bedtime, and that perhaps he should write a note to me and post it somewhere where I would see it.

Later I realized what an ass I had been. The "write me a note" advice is dismissive and, moreover, pulled straight from my mother's playbook. How is it his responsibility to remind me of a promise? I'm the one that made the promise, I'm the one who has neglected to fulfil the promise, and why? Because I'm "too busy"?  I downloaded the file immediately, updated my iPod before I could get "busy" again and forget.

I wish I knew how frequently a "normal" parent fails to come through on a promise. When is it simply human, and when is it a sign of detachment, neglect, carelessness?

This morning I apologized to my son for not coming through on my promise, and for nagging him to remind me. It's not his job to hound me to do something I said I would do; it's my job. I'm the adult, I'm the one who made a commitment, and I'm the one who must see it through.

One of the things I wish for him is that he considers it "normal" for a parent to come through on a promise more often than not, without putting the burden of the promise on the child's shoulders.

happy days are here again

A friend posted this image on her Facebook page, and my gut reaction was OH HELL YEAH. This was a mojo-less summer. I normally pride myself on being an adventurous mom, with fun things up her sleeve. Not structured arts-and-crafts-project kinds of things, but the kinds of things that just flow more naturally: living and breathing nature and art, summers spent playing in mud or swimming in the river or picking orchard fruits or taking little road trips to interesting local-ish places or getting out the art supplies and just exploring them all over a messy porch.  Bringing friends together, living the summer as a big raucous tribe, having spontaneous backyard dinners with each other because hey, we've spent the whole day together and now it's dinnertime and why part ways now and what can we throw together to eat? It's a season of togetherness, of wholesomeness, of living juicy, wild, and free.

This summer never got rolling for me. Maybe it was my kids' ages. Maybe it was the oppressive heat. Maybe it was the summer starting off with my parents ignoring my "please don't contact us in any way" request by prowling around the outside of my house and yelling up at my windows, frightening the neighbors and confusing my kids. Whatever the cause, I was in a do-nothing funk and most of the adventures and friend gatherings never materialized. We spent too much time in PJs (some time is fun, too much is depressive) and watched too many hours of Netflix. Our garden, dilligently planted in the spring, grew weedy and neglected; okra was choked out, herbs wilted, tomatoes fell to the ground.  Paints and pens languished on shelves. The kids bickered, I wallowed, the kids whined, I growled and worried about becoming just like my mother. 

So thank goodness for September. Thank goodness for the return of our school year routine, which makes it so much easier for me to feel internally organized. Thank goodness for more frequent sightings of friends, making it easier to plan outings or have spontaneous adventures. Thank goodness for cooler weather washing the sluggishness off of my skin. And so long to a miserable, boring, isolated summer. 

With that, I am off the computer to tackle the tilting piles of unsorted papers and to plan my autumn projects. 

What will fall bring to you?

sleeping beauty trips me with a frown

One day when I was probably three or four years old, I told my mom, "I want to be a real princess and live in a castle and wear beautiful dresses all the time."  At least, this is what my mother told me I said; I have no memory of it, although I do remember thinking as a child (heck, as an adult) that castles and gowns and fairy godmothers were all so utterly, wonderfully romantic.

For me the wish to be a princess was all about the fantastic unreality of it. In my imagination, princesshood meant beauty - not my own physical beauty, but being surrounded by beautiful things. Beautiful brocades, beautiful embroidered tapestries, beautiful architecture, beautiful landscapes filled with beautiful babbling brooks and beautiful meadows and forests.  Years later when I first encountered Keats and read "a thing of beauty is a joy forever," my soul thrilled to the same truth I had found on my own in childhood.  That love of beauty made every shrub in our yard into a palace and every plain sheet into a ball gown.

For my mom, however, my wish was anything but romantic. For her, it was a criticism of what she and my father could provide. Our house must be too meager, our clothing too plain. My wish was selfish, ungrateful, pretentious. It was an insult to her, a rejection of our commoners' existence. For many years my four-year-old fantasy was held up as proof of how self-centered and dissatisfied I was, right from the start.

For the thirty some-odd years in between, I felt misunderstood and scorned, yet also sympathetic with my mother, who struggled along with my father to make ends meet and must have received my daydreams of jewels and royal balls with a desperate sadness, knowing she could never make my dreams come true. But in the past few years, as my children have grown through early childhood, I have come to realize how every child romanticizes the world and has splendid, romantic wishes.  Why didn't my mother understand that I was just being a kid, exercising my imagination?  Why did she, instead, take my daydreams so personally?

Last week, I was playing a room escape game with my eldest son. The game was created using photos of an enormous mansion, and at one point, my son voiced a wish to live in a castle like that one. I'll admit, for a moment I felt defensive. Was he unhappy with our home? Does he feel deprived? But then I remembered my princessy wishes, and knew that it's ok for him to entertain fantasies of living in a home large enough to fit twenty of ours inside. It doesn't make him ungrateful or materialistic. It doesn't mean anything about me or him or our real life.

So I joined him in his wishing, comparing notes on our dream homes.  Realizing that I was able to get over myself and understand how normal his wish is made me feel sad for the four-year-old girl whose mother could not join her in pretending, choosing instead to form a permanent judgment of the girl's character. I also felt sad for the mother, who must have had a horrible deprivation inside herself in order to take such a universal childhood wish so personally.

Let us all remember the joy of creating imaginary castles, and join our children in roaming through those marble halls.

the loyalties you no longer recognize

Sometimes you read something and it's like somebody reached inside your brain, plucked your thoughts out, and wrote them down for you. It's a validating, affirming experience, especially if you're in a lonely place. That's how I feel about this post from Amy Eden's blog, Guess What Normal Is, in which she reminds her readers:
How will you know (a) that your family-of-origin is still dysfunctional (because when you begin to grow and heal, you’ll sometimes forget…after all you’re trained to forget), and (b) how will you know that you're really being a champion of your personal perspective, truth, and needs? 
The answer is this:  when your family starts to get agitated, mad, throw emotional darts, stop talking to you, ask if you’re depressed or having some kind of early menopause or cancer of the smart, loyal part of your brain – that’s how you’ll know.  You’re finally knowing what you want, seeing things as they are, not blaming yourself, not excusing their behavior, and starting to move past surviving and into thriving when the boundaries you’re setting—and the loyalties you’re no longer recognizing—invoke emotional itchiness in those around you; they’ll reach for whatever blackmail techniques they reach for when they feel threatened.  It’s the abandonment that we fear—which I fear, the withdrawal of my family from me just when I’m actually, finally living and behaving from the center of who I really am. 
Speaking out is the ultimate sin in a dysfunctional family. It's considered disloyalty, breaking of confidences, airing dirty laundry. If you really must talk about your (stupid little) (probably imaginary) problems, you should really only do it in private with your bestest, bestest friend. Never say it out loud in public, because goodness, what would people think?

Abuse thrives on shame and silence. Abusers know it's in their best interest to put on their Sunday Best in public and to act sweet in groups (We love each other soooo much! We're so close!) so that nobody suspects that in private, they're tearing apart the people they supposedly love. And if one of those torn-apart people dares to speak in public, they will deny everything. Who, us? But we're so sweet and cuddly! Everybody has their disagreements, but we loooooove each other! If that person continues to speak up, those still enmeshed in the dysfunction will act as one loyal unit to shame, blame, and otherwise try to cram the errant family member back into their rightful place.

Speaking up is a lonely, lonely, lonely place to be in.  Most people would prefer to believe that you're crazy or a histrionic, attention-whoring bitch, rather than consider that maybe what you say is true.

But speaking up is absolutely worth it. Claiming your autonomy, refusing to be treated poorly, telling the truth is absolutely worth it. When I speak the truth, I inevitably hear from people who recognize themselves in that truth, who feel silenced by their own dysfunctional families, who are grateful that somebody is talking about it out loud. And yes, it has to be spoken out loud, because the cost of membership in a dysfunctional family is voicelessness. We cannot police a person who has regained her voice and tell her when and where and how she may share her thoughts; to do so invalidates her and reinforces the shackles of the dysfunctional family.

I've been called an emotional vampire, self-centered, narcissistic, high and mighty. I've been labeled in absentia as suffering from borderline personality disorder (does my HMO have to pay if I wasn't present at the time of diagnosis?). All for what? For saying that it's not ok to treat me like crap, and that I won't remain in a relationship with people who do so. And for sharing those thoughts out loud.  Who are the people who treat me like their enemy? My brothers, my parents. The people who, if they were truly loyal to me, should recognize my troubles and be open to discussion and change are instead the least supportive people I know, preferring to call names and deny family history rather than work together to form healthier, more fulfilling relationships.  Apparently we only love each other sooooooo much when we all play by the pre-determined, soul-draining rules.

If you're feeling sucked backed into a family vortex, know this: you don't have to be loyal to people who were never, could never be, and will never be loyal to you. You owe them no allegiance.

To whom do you owe allegiance? Yourself. Give yourself your utmost loyalty. If you don't, who will?