Today is Mother's Day. I just figured that out.
I'm not sure what to think of Mother's Day, probably because I am not one nor care to be one. Mostly, I'm not sure what to think of Mother's Day because the concept seems so divorced from reality. I know that it started as a day to protest war by politicizing motherhood, but the commodification and sentimentalization of Mother's Day since World War I seems to have done more harm than good to everyone -- mothers, perhaps, the most of all. Who wants to live in the shadow of that monster of an angel, the Perfect Mother?
I think, oddly, of Betty Draper on Mad Men. Not so much her as the reactions to her that I read on such blogs as What Alan's Watching and Tom and Lorenzo. I don't personally like the character; yet, at the same time, I also find her and the reactions to her fascinating. While the writers have her make decisions that fit her character -- she, for instance, did not leave Don in the first season after she found out that he was spying on her psychotherapy, instead using that knowledge to manipulate him -- most people who comment on the show project their own experiences as a mother or as a child onto her. People who respond to her with sympathy identify with her as a trapped woman who hasn't bought into the romanticism of motherhood. People who loathe her respond to her as children who were raised by an unhappy mother.
I fall into the latter category.
I think also of a post that I wrote a few months back (which I'm looking for in order to link). I had made mention of unconditional love in the post and a couple of commenters, one who identified herself as a mother, objected to that. When the spoke up, I had to agree. I wrote from the voice of a hurt child. They chimed in with the voice of adults.
Of course unconditional love is impossible. It is, in fact, one of those ephemeral tools used to pummel women into submission with feelings of inadequacy (Professor Zero has a quote that sums up that process in terms of power and powerlessness). Who on earth can love someone unconditionally? Love is, to some degree, a bargain. You love someone as long as they are lovable, and someone love you as long as you are lovable. The condition is in the definition of "lovable."
At what point does a person become unlovable? When they kill a thousand people? When they torture animals? When they beat you? When they make you hate yourself? When they become self-destructive? When they are simply unpleasant? When they don't make all As? When they have no interest in joining the marching band? When they don't clean up their room? Everyone has their limits.
Somewhere along the line I picked up the message that I was inherently unlovable, and it started there with silly things like those last four items -- and the beating one. It started with a parent screaming (in frustration I now can see), "I hate you I hate you I hate you!" That was the reason that I wrote -- and still write -- with the voice of a child wanting unconditional love. Really, what that child wanted was fewer specific conditions on being loved.
What the adult wants -- what I want right now -- is not to feel so confused about what I feel for my parents. I have a sick little exercise in which I imagine them as dead, then explore what I feel. I do that hoping that, in this imagined grief, I can sort out the lovable things about them from the unlovable things. I do that so that I can appreciate and love them without reservation now, not after they are gone. I hope that the exercise does some good before it becomes reality.
There is something horribly perverse in that, isn't there? Who does that?
I actually haven't seen them since their visit in the fall. That visit went pretty well, and I felt somewhat peaceful afterward. I worry that, if I visit them, that peace will be destroyed. Sadly, that's why I don't visit my grandmother ever. She was a mean, controlling, abusive, old battle ax. (I'm actually like her in a lot of ways, which is another story for another time.) Some time ago I made my peace with her. If I see her again, that peace will be gone.
That's horribly perverse, too, isn't it?
There is a connection to be made here, isn't there? Abuse is inherited, and only really insightful people who pay attention can slow down or stop that inheritance. My mother was neither, beyond knowing that she did not want to be like her own mother. My mother had a hard time not abusing her children because she had no idea how a non-abusive mother behaved.
I'm not sure exactly where my father fits into that narrative, but he had a remote father and some patriarchal ideas about gender and marriage that my mother failed to meet. Of course, they were both kids when they got married, so they had no means of articulating any of their frustration. The result was that a violent and angry energy engulfed their marriage and their family.
I'm trying to figure all of this out before they die, when it is too late. I've figured out that I feel a profound sense of alienation in regard to my family. I feel almost no connection to my brothers because of that alienation, although I do feel connection through that alienation toward my parents. I just feel some invisible wall between us.
When we get together at Christmas, we play roles, or check out mentally even when physically present. Connection? Intimacy? I don't even know what that would look like because this alienation and disconnection were always there in one way or another.
I worry about this now, in middle age, because that sort of alienation and disconnection has infected every other human interaction in my life and I see it affecting my teaching, too -- although I haven't yet written about that because I can't yet fully articulate it.
Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh, yeah: unconditional love and Mother's Day and such. I think.
As I've been saying, the voice that I use when I write about this subject is that of the hurt child. That voice has served its purpose. It has allowed me to accept the fact that it was and is hurt, that bad things and disrespectful things were done to me, and that I adopted a lot of bad ideas and have behaved badly according to them. In doing so, I feel less and less that I am betraying my parents by accepting this fact, which has alleviated some guilt.
Of course, while I don't feel that I'm betraying them, they do. My dad still insists that I am betraying them simply by being in analysis. My mom, who was always so hostile toward therapy, thinks that anything that keeps me from sinking into a depressive funk is good, and then she doesn't think about it. If she did, then she might feel that I'm betraying her; but she chooses not to think about it. I love her for that.
That's what I am trying to get to: love. How do I love them? I mean, they have done things that put them on both sides of MY line between lovable and unlovable. I can see them both, and I think that I may actually, on occasion, forgive them for the unlovable stuff because I can see that I can fix it all myself and because I see it less as them being bad and more as them feeling helpless and unlovable themselves. I can also see the lovable stuff beyond the mere fact that they kept me alive and gave me a lot of privilege.
So, how do I love them? Seriously, what does that look like? How does that behave? What does that even feel like? I think I feel it, but it is remote. When I try to get close to it, I feel danger, very much like when I think about visiting. Part of me feels drawn there, but most of me feels an instinctual fear.
I suppose figuring that out is the next step.