Sunday, May 09, 2010

Not A Post About Mother's Day

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.


Ink said...


One of the things I love so much about your blog is your honesty. I think you're brave and wise and admirable.

Courtney said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. You are so brave in your honesty, and a lot of what you say hits home for me.

I agree that the concept of unconditional love is treacherous and leaves quite a bit of pain in its wake. I also think that somewhere in the concept of unconditional love is the unfortunate idea of love without boundaries. Loving someone does not have to mean that you excuse the ways they have hurt you or allow them to hurt you further. Setting boundaries with people who hurt you is one of the ways in which you love yourself.

Another thing your post made me think of is the relationship a former roommate of mine had with her mother and sisters. She felt constantly hurt by them and disappointed in them. Then one day, she realized that she was holding them to the standards that she held the people she chose for friends, and it was a standard they would never, ever be able to live up to. She decided that while her mother and sisters were people she would never choose for friends if they were not related, that she could love them for who they were and stop expecting them to be someone they were not. Like you, she started shaping her visits with them to minimize the opportunity for them to hurt her and to include activities that encouraged peaceful relationships.

profacero said...

Great post! I'm having a guilt crisis over not being able to put up with somebody and this helps.

Re games, how will I feel when they die, I play those. They actually help in some ways except that they also reveal that a reason I don't want my parents to die is that I am still waiting for them to become parents in some ways. This, in turn, reveals that I've got to become my own parent, in those ways, as it is said, despite not having gotten the training wheels from where I was supposed to.

Two different friends point out something I didn't realize: when parents die you don't actually feel abandoned (even if you miss them), you feel their power pass to you.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Z, that may depend on the parents, and on the child. I've mostly felt freed by my mother's death, but sometimes I feel cheated, too. And I really don't want any of what looked like power to her. Clio, it's a long, hard process, with a lot of back and forth and sideways and roundabout, because feelings don't make sense and neither do people. I think the big thing is to try: to try at all, in the first place; and then to try to do better by yourself and the people you choose to take into your life than your parents were able to do. Solidarity.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

And another thing (sorry to hog your comments): if you feel fear, show yourself love by respecting that and taking care of the fearful part. That might or might not mean that you have a stronger part that can interact with them more.

The Steel Magnolia said...

Powerful and scary stuff. You are so brave. And you remind me that being a mother is serious stuff. Maybe the harder we try to get it right, the more our children will be able to survive the ways we get it wrong.

profacero said...

Steel, I think getting enough stuff right is good. There's some classic stuff my parents got wrong and people have often asked me, if they did that how can you not be more fundamentally screwed up? I've been told it is "denial" to think they also got a lot of stuff right, perhaps even more fundamental stuff, but I think it's true and I think that explains why I'm not more fundamentally screwed up!

dykewife said...

oddly enough, i treasure the times when, as an adult, my mom and me were able to connect as adults. i got to know her as a person rather than the person i called mom. it enabled me to see her as a person and not the monster i recall. it's an odd dichotomy that helped me heal the child inside.

i realized that mom was trapped in so many ways and i was just one more piece of that trap.

i still carry resentments for what she did to me, but that's the little child in me. the adult realizes that her options for getting help were extremely limited if they existed at all.

i'm now content to have been the one to stop the generations of abuse. it's ok.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Wow! Thanks everyone! Do you all realize that I get the most comments on my most angsty posts? Clearly they strike a common chord.

Ink: Thank you! And I love your posts about Eldest and Youngest. I think, "there's a mommy letting her babies become themselves!"

Courtney: The boundaries issue is a big one in there, too! Especially when part of the condition of the love was to have no boundaries.

I like your friend's story. My parents are not evil people, and they are not people whom I would be friends with on my own, but I might think that they were pretty good acquaintances. That may be where it must stand, at least for now.

Profecero: Oh, good! I'm not the only one on the death game. You are right, in some ways I too am waiting for them to become the parents that I wanted -- as if that would magically change the whole past like in some timetravel fantasy -- as if that would even happen. So, yeah, we have to kind of create ourselves from what we have right now.

On parents dying and their power passing to us. I hadn't thought of it in that way, but when I read what you wrote, I thought of my dad's reaction when both his father and my mother's father died within a year of each other. Some of it was specific to my dad, and his sense of responsibility, and his fascination with that Greatest Generation -- still, I saw him realize that "holy shit! Now I'm the oldest generation. What does that mean?"

Dame Eleanor Hull: Yeah, all you can do is try. That's a good idea on the fearful part, too. I'm starting to learn -- at this late date! -- that I can handle more than I thought, and that there are stronger parts of me than can take over from the fearful parts, even when I don't want to have to address any of it in the first place (if that makes sense).

The Steel Magnolia: Parenthood has got to be the scariest thing on the face of the earth! So much can go wrong and you have to hope that enough goes right so that the kids can be less messed up if nothing else.

If I could get my parents to do anything specific again, I'd tell them to just let me be me -- not try to make me into mini versions of them in every little detail. And not to be so violent. Or not to get married in the first place and to go travel the world and figure themselves out so that they wouldn't try to make me into mini versions of themselves because they felt that they could no longer be themselves because of my existence.

Dykewife: I have a couple of moments like that, too, where you are just women of different generations. Years ago, being around women older than myself, who could be honest about the doubts that they had about their choices in life -- honest in ways that my mother never could be with me -- helped me gain some sympathy and insight into what she went through. Like your mother -- and I like the way you put it -- mine was in a trap and I was part of that trap.

Now that I think about it, she probably felt that, and then felt guilty about that, and then tried to deny the guilt, and then got mad at me because she didn't know where else to put it. I

It's a very weird process to have to separate yourself out of your own childhood in order to understand why your mother was so angry, or frustrated, or dismissive, or whatever it was that cut you to your core.

Some of what I've been trying to do is exactly what you are describing: reconcile the experience of being collateral damage within the limited options of her life and having sympathy for the limited options of her life. Too far to one side or the other and you end up angry or guilty.

Thank you all for your comments! They do help quite a bit in figuring stuff out. Maybe if our moms' generation had blogs, my mom might have been able to figure stuff out.

profacero said...

"try to make me into mini versions of themselves because they felt that they could no longer be themselves because of my existence"

OMG -- THAT was what my parents were trying to do, exactly, so that is why I have all these issues about my right to exist and why I always felt I was battling them over space and air and being, and that was why they wouldn't recognize who I was. They were really, really trying to be the parents they would have wanted for who they were -- they said this explicitly. I always realized that they confused me with themselves. I never until now realized so well how it all fit together.

RPS77 said...

I've been thinking about what to say for the last couple of days, and I still don't have a good detailed response. All I can say is that you are very good at describing internal conflicts and self-doubts. My own conflicts and doubts have completely different sources than yours, but the effects are so similar in some ways that reading some of your posts is almost haunting (in a good way).

profacero said...

"...when 'love' seems to be the only quality deemed necessary to be a good teacher."

This is *precisely* the problem. When "love" is the only necessary quality, and when students under 20 in required courses are the ones who get to judge whether you have enough and/or the right kind of "love," and when you have tenure decisions riding on that kind of judgment, such that *everything you ever learned* becomes truly meaningless in practice, it is a problem.


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