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
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.
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?
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.
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?
I remember that my mom spent a lot of emotional energy and time on her relationship with my grandfather. Lots of stress, anger, dissecting her childhood and how he interacted with her in the present. When he came to visit, she would feel ill for a week before his visit and for at least a week afterward. She even developed an ulcer that would flare during that week before/after his visits and eventually she started taking medicine before an during visits to ward off the ulcer. Can you imagine?
In the past couple of years, I realized that she has a similar physical affect on me. No ulcer yet (knock on wood) but I feel consumed with anxiety and depression when I know I have to interact with her, the actual interaction is very uncomfortable, and I spend at least a week afterward with the same intense anxiety, depression, and consuming, obsessive thoughts. It takes a long time to feel back to normal again. So really, one interaction with my mom might affect me for a month! I had been worrying about whether it was wrong or unfair to my children to "take away" their grandmother and grandfather from them, but I wasn't thinking about the impact on them of my being so affected by her. Is it more fair for kids to see their grandmother but have a mother who is emotionally unavailable to them because she's so wrapped up in her own baggage? Does the stress on me affect them? It undoubtedly does, and I know that the stress my mother felt (which was very real, and I feel sympathy for her) had a negative impact on her marriage and children. In our case, my mom is not a great grandparent to my kids - she has unrealistic expectations of how they should interact with her, and seems to value them more as possessions than as individuals. Are my kids really losing much? I don't think so. And in removing ourselves from contact with my mother, my kids benefit, because I am a healthier, more engaged parent when my life is not punctuated by interactions with her.
Did I benefit from knowing my grandfather? I have some happy memories, but was not close to him, and as I got older and understood who he was better, I disliked him and disliked spending time with him but still felt obligated to him. Knowing him helps me to understand my mother, but I would never expect my children to know my grandmother just so they can understand me. Would I give up the happy memories with my grandfather in exchange for a mother who was more tuned-in to her emotional health and able to establish boundaries between herself and her abusive parent? Absolutely.
I also realized at some point that I never enjoyed being near her or talking to her, not even a little, and that my relationship with my father was very shallow and not significantly important to me. And my kids seemed to like them but not really know them or be excited about them.
My point is that I think listening to your body is important. How do you feel, and what affect, if any, does that have on your relationships with your kids and with your husband? How does it impact your work? I have also found it helpful to think about what exactly we gain through each of us having a relationship with my parents, and what we lose. If we don't interact with them, again, what are the gains and losses? For me, part of what we "lost" was the idea of a certain kind of grandkid-grandparent relationship, which wouldn't have been a reality, anyway. Honestly, sometimes it seems like the biggest part of becoming healthy is figuring out which unrealistic hopes I had, and building more realistic expectations!
In my case, the affect on my sanity is sufficient enough and my parents are weak enough grandparents that it's in my kids' best interest for none of us to see them or interact with them in other ways. This might change in the future, but all I can do now is what is right for us in the present. You are the only person who knows what your emotional needs are and what your kids need, and who your mom is, and you will make the choice that is right for you. It doesn't have to look like anybody else's choice.
All you can do is what is right for you and your kids and husband right now. Listen to your body and your intuition! I trust you and you can trust you, too.
When is your mom's visit? I'll be thinking about you.
It's not enough to know that the only person you can change is yourself, because even when you stop trying to change other people, you don't stop hoping for them to change on their own. An epiphany, a life crisis, a spontaneous conversion. You may not be able to force the transformation, but perhaps you can wish it into existence, or leave clues leading to it, or nudge the process along.
One day, if you're fortunate, you may have an epiphany of your own: that the change is not coming, or at least is so infinitely unlikely that you would be better off going forward with the assumption that the dreamed-of shift will never come, rather than standing still, sheltering the flickering light of your delusional hope.
This is not to say that all hope is delusional, only that the best place to invest it is in yourself, as the agent of change in your own life.
Your hope lies in understanding your past, accepting the present, and believing in your ability to build a new future.
You are the adult child of a narcissist. So am I.