So I fired my mother. Well, sort of.
Things most definitely ‘weren’t working out’, which is a euphemism for a type of tense, angry exhaustion that had taken hold. Things couldn’t go on like this. I know there are two sides to every story, and I think that is/was part of our problem – an unwillingness or inability to cede the others’ point. I found myself in this destructive vortex, that no circuit-breaker, no ‘difficult patient’ trick, no patient-active listening could disrupt.
I tried to be positive. Let’s talk about what we would like from the other person, rather than focus on what we don’t like.
I asked that she shared with me some of her experience and reflections as a mother – particularly when we were young children.
My mum doesn’t really do reflective, narrative type sharing. Mum doesn’t tell stories about herself, and I know I was asking something huge from her. But this is important. If we are going to have an adult relationship, I want to know something of her beyond my subjective experience.
But also for her. How do you go through life without ever saying: I feel/felt. I remember when. I am, I was, I want to be.
But that is me.
She couldn’t think of one positive thing she’d want from me. I encouraged her to think about it. But even then her anger and defensiveness were intruding on the brief window of calm we’d almost shared. You always do this! You never do that! YOU! YOU! YOU!
How do we go on like this? There’s no winner. Even if I told her she’s right. I’m too critical. My expectations are unrealistic. I’m digging up the past. My memories are faulty. What I feel isn’t real. Even if I told her she was right about everything all along – I AM a failure, a bad daughter, neurotic, arrogant and conceited – the outcome would be the same. This relationship falls apart.
So I asked her to leave. And here I am in Melbourne, on my own – feeling something between guilt and relief, but mostly relief.
I’ve been reading a parenting book, “The Whole Brain Child”, with the hope I can prevent my child becoming like me. Because even while my mum and I are different, we’re also very similar.
My husband says we share the same ‘attack-dog’ argumentative style. I ruthlessly go in for the kill. The aim is to win by destroying the other person – there is no compromise, there is no happy ending.
Unfortunately, I know this to be true. And it’s a technique I reserve especially for the one’s I love.
I also make a habit of repressing the worst of my inner turmoil, until it spontaneously erupts out of my every pore and orifice in a mad out-pouring of anxiety, anger and frustration.
Happy times! And I see my mum (and dad) and I worry I’m looking at my own reflection.
So, I am reading this book and feel like more than anything – I am learning to parent myself. It’s brought a new awareness of the way I integrate (or don’t) my experience, and where my reactions come from. Breaking things down simply makes things seem more manageable, less terrifying. And possibly, I can even entertain the thought that I am a valuable person, that I even might be a good enough mother.
And the book makes sense. I don’t like its folksy kind of conversational tone, but it’s grounded in knowledge I share about the brain and its functions, and also some of what I understand about language and memory. I feel like I’m learning something I need to know.
The big break through has been the view its given me about the stories we tell about our live and how we make sense of our experiences. Do we integrate good and bad experiences and put them in perspective – or do we leave them covertly exercise their influence without every putting a name to it?
I was thinking about my extended family. For middle class families who’ve all enjoyed housing stability, professional incomes and access to good education, I feel we have more than our fair share of dysfunction. Amongst us, we have diagnosed personality disorders (and likely others undiagnosed); we have mental illness requiring hospitalisation, including bi-polar with psychosis; we have alcoholism. More than 50% who drive of us have lost their license at some time for drink-driving. We have eating disorders. Two people have been arrested, neither charged.
And these are the things that we can objectively measure.
This is not the legacy I want my son to inherit.
So where does this come from?
Well, I was thinking about my childhood. And overall, I think it was pretty happy. We were country kids with room to roam freely. Go yabbying. Build huts. Get dirty.
But then there was my grandmother.
I remember from a young age how terrifying she was.
I remember her hitting my mother.
I remember her spitting in her face.
I remember the fear I felt when left alone with her.
I remember her telling us how evil the three of us were. And it was all our mother’s fault.
I remember being locked in a cupboard.
I remember being locked in a bedroom.
I remember my older brother trying to protect us, defend us.
I remember my grandmother slapping him across the face.
The dining table we had in “the good room” was the family dinner table my dad grew up around. Before he had it re-conditioned, there was deep linear grooves scarring its surface. Dad told us that was the metal ruler grandma has used to police their homework time.
I remember the venom and anger that would come out of her mouth, and the power she wielded over her children.
My grandmother would hit and humiliate my mother, and my father would do nothing. She’d grab us to escape, and he would do nothing. He’d apologise to her, and coax us to give her kisses and say sorry.
I don’t remember what we were saying sorry for.
From this distance, I can’t imagine what a young child would have thought about all this. To see their mother hurt, while their father apologised to the woman who was doing the harm.
He always strived to please his mother. In everything. And often at our expense. This seems incredible to me now. I can’t imagine putting my son in harms way. I can’t imagine standing by a man whose priority isn’t first with the safety and well-being of his family.
I don’t know how experiences like this made me feel over those years. What did I feel when my parents would send me to stay with her alone? Why would they leave us in her care? I don’t know…
But thinking about my grandmother kind of helps things make sense. All of her children spent their adult lives trying to please her, win their approval – and it seems to me, often at the expense of their own children.
We all became little show ponies to trot out in front of our grandmother to show off our achievements. She would foster competition between families – us against our cousins. Families vying for some award of superiority. But we were also kids, and would always disappoint her unrealistic expectations. So we were evil. We were rotten. We were spoilt. We were sinful.
And these are the seeds of our malcontent. We didn’t talk about this stuff. If we did – surely any competent adult would’ve reached the conclusion that this shouldn’t be happening. So things carried on, and what we hadn’t put a name to or tried to make sense of – has come to shape part of who we all are.
Somehow, armed with that knowledge lifts some burden from my shoulders. It’s okay, I’m okay. This doesn’t need to happen again.