By closely examining the negative and positive memories of my relationship with my mother, I have been able to find some peace.
What she did is not important. Now. All that matters now is that I got over it. This is the purpose of this essay. I want to provide you with a blueprint of how I did it, in case you want to do it too.
the first thing I did was put some distance between us. If she was n’t going to stop trying to feed my father-in-law birthday cake from her fork, if she was n’t going to stop asking my husband if he wanted to see the gray version of pubic hair, then I was n’t going to keep making excuses for her behavior from her. I was going to stop inviting her to family events, and I did. I seriously considered, too, cutting her there the way off.
But in the end, it was compassion that compelled me to put up screen doors instead of walls.
But in the end, it was compassion that compelled me to put up screen doors instead of walls. With what I called screen doors, at least she could still see me on social media, though she couldn’t message me or comment on my posts. I blocked her phone number and her email address so that she couldn’t reach me by phone or online. And my husband and I asked my in-laws to please not respond to any correspondence she might send them.
It’s like the old saying goes: If you feed the stray cat, he will keep coming back.
the second thing I did was Reparent myself. I learned about this concept of reparenting from my therapist. It entails doing for yourself what you always wanted (and needed) your mother to do for you. I’d always wanted help on my science projects. (She was always too busy with some woman’s husband.) So, I went to Toys R Us and bought a science kit, and my husband and I had a blast building rockets.
I also gave myself ballet and tap dance lessons, riding lessons and a couple of Barbies. I didn’t need to buy the canopy bed and princess phone because by the time I got around to doing that I was already feeling much better. It’s like how you feel better after a really good cry — you felt better after a really good buy.
Reparenting stops the emotional collapses you have when you see a child in possession of something you always wanted. And it stops you from telling what I call Broken Record Stories: I never had this. I never had that. The other kids’ moms would give them this or that. It makes you un-annoying, bearable to be around.
the third thing I did research to understand que in heaven’s name had been wrong with that woman. It’s called narcissistic personality disorder. The common traits are: She lacks empathy for you; she competes with you; she treats you well in public and treats you awful in private; she presents as the victim; she takes advantage of others; she neglects you; she doesn’t respect your boundaries.
Learning that there was something seriously wrong with her, I finally understood that there had been nothing wrong with me. I wasn’t some awful kid. And you know what they say about that: The mark of maturity is when somebody hurts you and you try to understand their situation instead of trying to hurt them back.
You have to feel to heal. Theanger. The humiliation. The shame. Thefear.
the fourth step was the impossible. I had to write a Trauma List. Every open-hand slap across the face, verbal attack, humiliating comment — I had to write it all down. (Emphasis on every and there.) I started my list in second grade, when I got that letter from my teacher, Ms. Simmons, saying she’d call Child Protective Services if my mother didn’t wash my hair and change my clothes. And I listed everything I could remember until the last time I saw her, at that birthday party when she was being inappropriate.
Now that I had everything listed out, I used the Feelings List my therapist gave me to go through and feel every emotion. You have to feel to heal. Theanger. The humiliation. The shame. Thefear. (No wonder I had anxiety now; I’d spent every day of my life afraid. I don’t know why I didn’t make this connection before.)
They say a wound can’t heal if you keep touching it. But nor can it heal if you never touch it. You have to face the wound, tweeze out the shard embedded deep in the flesh, feel the pain, cry the tears, don’t look away at the pus, don’t stop when you smell the putrid smell. You have to keep at it when those close to you come with pinched nose and disgust in their eyes, asking “What the F is that smell?” You have to save the wound, dress it, take some Tylenol and go to bed. Expect many moments of collapsing in bed when you are working with your Trauma List.
A Good Times List
the fifth thing I did to heal the Mother Wound was write out the good times we had, the positive things she did. She paid for my education. For every prom and homecoming dance I was invited to, she made sure I had a dress, purse and shoes. When bullies got after me, she told me that they were just jealous that I was gorgeous. She bought me a keyboard when I began writing songs. She bought me construction paper when I started making crafts. She thought it was cute that I was all Punky Brewster — my fingernails each polished a different color, my ponytail with punk-rock glitter. My roller skating everywhere I went, those neon yellow laces.
This Good Times List gave me something important — a smile whenever I looked back. See, it’s impossible to not recall memories, because there will always be a smell, a sight, a song, a “Punky Brewster” marathon on “TV Land” to take you back. So, if you’re going to remember, and, again, you always will, it’s better to remember something good.
She’d been given up for adoption by her own mother. Ella she’d had four kids by the time she was 25. Ella She lived paycheck to paycheck her entire adult life and is still living paycheck to paycheck at 60-something.
It used to be when I thought of her, I’d think something bad — the time I won second place in a poetry writing contest, and got my poem printed in the school newspaper. I brought it home to show her, and she just worshipped the poem that won first place. It was written by Angelique. It was called “Birds.” My mother ooh’d and coo’d.
But now I recall a good memory when I think of her — all the copies she bought of my first book, how she bought copies for all her friends as well. How pretty she looked at my book release party. How pretty, and how proud. You know what they say about remembering: Sad memories are bad.
the sixth thing I did a third writing exercise. Here, I wrote out my mother’s story. She’d been given up for adoption by her own mother de ella. She’d had four kids by the time she was 25. She lived paycheck to paycheck her entire adult life and is still living paycheck to paycheck at 60-something. (Imagine that — never a rest from worry.) She’d always only ever been a side chick, though what she’d only ever wanted was good love.
And she never got to live her dream of becoming Arthur Ashe. When she’d gone to get the required physical to compete in the big tournament, Doc had said, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re pregnant, young lady.” She’d tried to get an abortion, but she was already five months along and the doctor had refused. And you know what they say about having an abortion: many women who get them don’t regret it.
I then wrote my mother the proverbial Letter I’d Never Send, thanking her. I realized I had probably never in my childhood told her thanks to her. All the songs and poems I’d written, all the arts and crafts I’d made from her, not a single one of them had been for her from her. And you know what they say about children: That we’re ungrateful little s****.
the seventh step I took was the most difficult: I read “Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.” I saw right there in black and white all the ways in which I was just like her. emphasis on there. emphasis on just. I wanted to die.
The Final Step: The Sugar Ceremony
Instead, I called up my therapist and told her I was interested in coming back to therapy. I’d wanted to be all done with the Mother Stuff, but recovery is like an onion in that there are layers. You pull off layer after layer after layer until there is only that little onion sliver at the core. And that little silver never goes away. You just keep it in your jewelry box. It’s like they say, “We are turtles, not birds. We take our childhood home with us everywhere we go. We can’t fly away from it.”
The final step was the Sugar Ceremony: I got a packet of Splenda, ten packets of white sugar, and about thirty packets of brown raw sugar. I empty the Splenda onto a plate. This “sugar” is the conditional “love” my mother gave me when I was a kid.
The white sugar is the love I give myself with therapy, reparenting, days off when I need them, and honest assessments on the ways in which I have narcissistic tendencies.
Finally, the brown sugar is the real, raw love I get from my Higher Power, my husband, my dog, and all the people on my Healthy/Whole Friends/Family List. I put the sugars in my pot of hot tea, stir, and take a sip. And I cannot taste the Splenda at all!
The Mother Problem of yesterday is solved by all the healing work I’ve done today. All the goodness, care, good friends and family, and joy in my life. Now.