Friday, June 17, 2011

thunder: bad moms don't always turn into good grandmas

I never felt safe in my parents' home. As a child, I would instead seek shelter outside during stormy weather.

I thought of this as Lilly woke crying from her nap the other day when it started thundering, and she said it was skummelt (scary). Later on as I was making dinner, I asked her how she liked our vacation in Norway from where we just returned, having stayed with my parents who still live there. Again she replied; skummelt.

Though Lilly's appetite (and mine!) has returned after we got back home, we're both processing our stay with my parents. She whimpers more in her sleep at night and though she now will go down for a nap again, she wakes as soon as I try to leave her, crying despondently if I tell her that if she won't take a nap, she'll have to stay in bed for some quiet time, something she was fine with before our trip to Norway.

And I struggle with my own rehashing of things that were said; my mother's venom.

A recent longitudinal study found that children of depressed women were less likely to show behavioral problems later on in life when they were under someone else's care for at least half a day each week. Children who spent less than four hours each week in formal child care--e.g. with a nanny, another family member, institutional day care--were at a significantly increased risk for behavioral problems, relative to children of nondepressed mothers.

I have friends who will never be able to quite wrap their minds around how it was growing up in my parents' house. "Was it really that bad?" "But couldn't you just ...?" "And how come you turned out okay then?"

Firstly, I'm not sure I came out quite that okay. -- It's taken two rounds of therapy and just when I feel like I have things somewhat sorted out and under control, my head gets riddled up in crazy making thoughts and I'm paralyzed by fear that my mother's blood will turn me too into a lunatic.

I think the weekends and vacations at my grandmother's house provided me with some much needed refuge and escape from my mother; the knowledge that there was someone sound and supportive, comforting and safe out there for me. And later on, the homes of friends where I'd hang out after school, day in and out. I was never in formal child care before school, but there was a supervised playground my mother would sometimes leave me at; maybe without that too I would have developed more issues than the ones with which I've had to deal.

I thought I'd finally left my role as the human punching ball behind me, but now I find myself again in the position of having thought: maybe, she can change. Maybe she can be better. Perhaps I remember things as worse than they were. Couldn't this also be about me. And surely as a grandma to such a precious little girl as Lilly, she will set aside her verbal abuse and manipulative egotism.

But no. And so not only did I fail myself; I failed my daughter. I failed to provide her with the shelter she deserves and that I owe her.

In my parents' home
Friends have asked me how come my mother turned out the way she did. Her insecurities and anxieties, bouts of depression and unpredictable anger outbursts. Her helplessness. Approaching eighty, her nickname remains "baby."

I don't know the answer. Her mother was an amazing grandma to me and the best possible mom, according to my mother. I never met my grandfather who died before I was born and not much was ever said to me about him. I have the impression he was a devoted spouse to my grandmother but a bit lazy. I have the sense he was not the most prolific or successful in terms of work. My grandmother, born in 1901, was among the first women to wear trousers and among a few married middle class women in her time to also work outside the house, in her case at the telegraph.

My mother's siblings also seem to carry their share of some unknown-to-me load. My mother's older brother--perhaps not the most intelligent though a good-humored man--did not do very well for himself and thus shamed the family name with his low social status. And my mother's younger sister, who always took great pride in her sharp mind and professional accomplishments, attempted suicide in her youth. Devoted to her own children, she always mocked both my mother, and me and my sister. My own sister, who grew up with the verbal abuse of my aunt as well as her own parents, struggles with depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, anorexia and bulimia.

I learned early on how to please my parents to avoid the treatment my sister received by excelling academically and catering my look and behavior to appease my mother's mood swings. But my strategy was not water proof. -- I too "failed" my mother in numerous ways, and so I also became the target of her anger and shaming. My nose was wrong. My walk looked bad. My limbs failed to grow long and lanky. I caused her dismay by dropping out of pre-med and enrolling in the study of history and philosophy. By failing to stick with the "right" guy. By not marrying (until much later). By choosing the "wrong" career (as a professor). By leaving a "good" job (as a professor). When as a teenager I was sexually assaulted by my father's colleague, I was accused of bringing it on myself. When I finally wrote a letter to said colleague, my parents blamed me for ending their good relationship with him. In essence, all my actions have in fact been planned to upset them.

And now, apparently, my choices as well as those of my daughter are all directed against her. If Lilly won't eat the candy she gives her, Lilly's being ungrateful. If she eats it, she's reproached for not eating "proper" food instead. She causes her dismay by not rising at the right hour, and by going down at the wrong time. She's a burden if she approaches her to get her attention.

I know I can't protect Lilly from what gets passed on through my genes. But it makes my stomach turn to think about what might have been brought down on her through me. And I'm saddened when I feel like I can't shelter her from all hurtful experiences. Though I won't stop trying my damndest.


  1. Thank you, Nancy!

  2. This is a really powerful essay, Anne. I empathize with you and with Lilly. I too have a difficult parent, one who makes everyone's lives more complicated and painful - his own, but also his children's and his grandchildren's. Like you, I'm a loss to know what to do about it. It sucks.

  3. Dette var forferdelig trist lesing. Jeg gråter her jeg sitter, jeg blir helt kvalm. Den historein om han vennen til pappaen din er forferdelig, og dine foreldres reaksjoner i den forbindelse sier i grunnen alt.... Kan vi skype om det en dag, kanskje. Hvis du vil, altså. Jeg vil gjerne være der for deg og snakke med deg om det. For noen slemme mennesker du har vært omgitt med. :( Og for et hell at du har funnet en så bra mann å leve livet med. For all del ikke tenk at du bringer noe dårlig videre til Lilly.Jeg ser ingenting av din mor i deg!!! 
    Stor klem fra Hege

  4. Thank you, Christopher! Yes; it does. Suck. I feel for me the best to do is to maintain as much distance as possible (I'm grateful for the Atlantic ocean) but it's not always an option. And I'm grateful for my own little family and a community of good friends. - I appreciate your personal sharing.

  5. Takk, Hege! Du vet jeg setter sånn pris på det. Stor klem tilbake!

  6. I had a student who'd had a thoroughly abusive mother. In adulthood since the student's 3 siblings refused to have anything to do with the mother, my student ended up tending to her in her old age (as in getting her settled in a nursing home, selling her house, etc.). My student made what I thought was a brilliant decision. She decided her mother was worth one day a year. And that was that. She felt she had a certain obligation to the woman, but not that much of one all things considered. And whatever she did for the woman had to fit in her one day a year. I really respected her line in the sand.

    For whatever gets passed on through the genes, you have to give yourself plenty of credit for passing on the ability to survive all that crap. In teaching and raising Lilly you are giving her something way more powerful than a vague chance of inheriting some predisposition. You are conveying to her the ability to move on after sexual abuse, how to escape it if possible, and providing her a home where she is welcome and encouraged to express "taboo" experiences like that and get help and support from her parents. Millions of little girls are not as lucky as Lilly, knowing their family will love and protect them no matter what someone does to them sexually (criminally). And how to recognize mental illness (an invaluable lesson) for what it is, how to talk about it openly, how to protect yourself from its wrath and ravages as much as possible. And how to just acknowledge that it's there. 

    Lilly's a lucky girl. If you'd had her at the age of 16 she wouldn't be able to benefit from your rounds of therapy and decision to put the Atlantic between you and your mom. Now she has the wise, mature you to protect her and shelter her as best you can. Which is all anyone can do. The best you can. More power to you, Anne. 

  7. Wow, thank you so much for your empowering words! I will return to them whenever I feel down about all of this and unsure of myself. Thank you. Truly.

  8. oh Anne, I now understand your reaction when I asked how the trip went. I guess I also assumed your mother certainly must not be that bad anymore. And although you feel bad about exposing Lilly to that environment, you have also shown her that you will protect her and be with her in scary situations. We as mothers, of course, will always try to prevent our innocent ones from these negative situations, but as they grow up they will eventually discover them. You are teaching her a valuable lesson that must be learned at some point: how to deal with it when it happens.

  9. Thank you, Daisy! And sorry for diverting you to the post when you asked earlier today; it's just hard to talk about. You're right about the importance of the lesson -- I just hate it that that has to be a lesson, you know?!

  10. I so relate to this post.

    My early childhood was enriched by my grandparents, their friends, our neighbors, my aunts and uncles.  I was a sweet little girl and they doted on me.  It is, I think, what saved me, how I learned about love.  Because home was different.  Home was fear and danger and powerful, berating, undoing words.  Neglect as well, related to my mother's depression.  Neglect which caused me to have an accident at four that cost me my right eye.

    I never write publicly about it, it would cause more trouble than I feel prepared to deal with.  I feel relatively safe no one this pertains to will access this comment, otherwise I would not say anything.

    It is a challenge to find a balance between maintaining a family relationship and keeping your children safe.  Mine are grown now and I think they would agree I did an ok job, given the power my mother still had over me.  When I couldn't shield them completely, we talked about it.  While I adored my grandmother, early on they came to despise theirs, creating their own protective bubble.

    At 77 my mother continues her narcissistic, manipulative swathe through life.  I have almost completely distanced myself from her and that keeps me saner.  I would encourage you to do whatever it takes to protect yourself, within your own comfort level.  I will keep you in my thoughts and send many good wishes your way. 

  11. Thank you so much for your words of comfort, Marie! I am still struggling to shake the effect of being around my mother again. And talking about it keeps bringing out the ghosts again. But the experience of writing about this and learning the stories of others who can relate is turning out to be amazingly therapeutic for me. And I need that. I am sorry to hear you have had similar experiences with your mother. And I am sorry to hear about your eye. But I am glad to hear you had love as a child too. That you had that both as a gift and as a model too.

    My mother is now 76 and I believe you're right that distancing me as completely as possibly from her is what will keep me saner too. Thank you for your good wishes and for keeping me in your thoughts. You have no idea how much that means to me.


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