I’m guessing that most mother-daughter relationships are complicated unless the whole family is smoking something funny. This is just my version based on my mom and me. It was complicated. She was complicated…
I was adopted as a newborn a few years after she and my dad had two baby boys about 1 1/2 – 2 years apart, who had each died from hyaline membrane disease before they were 2 weeks old. My dad had to do all of the funeral planning as moms were kept in the hospital for quite a while after C-sections, and then ‘grounded’ at home while they recovered. She never saw the babies at all. She would have been no older than 25 years old when the second baby died. That does something to a mom. Regardless of age- but that adds a component to how someone sees life in general. Looking back, I think it was a huge factor in our relationship. It was broken before it got started. I firmly believe she wanted me, and sought out the adoption with a near life-or-death urgency.
But then she got me, and was terrified I’d either be taken back, or something would happen. She couldn’t really form the sort of mother-child attachment that a young child needs. For decades I never knew if she even liked me. I know she loved me in the only ways she knew how- but none of that included anything that showed me that love in a way a little kid needs. She wasn’t a cuddly, reassuring mom. She was hurting, and needed comforting that she could never express ‘enough’ to get her own needs met. She had nothing to give. Nobody was warm and fuzzy back in the early 60s from what I can figure out. Dad loved her, and they were together for almost 46 years…but he was young too- and nobody figures on two babies dying. Nobody has a guidebook for how to get through that. They did the best they could.
She ended up going to college to become a teacher, starting with night school when I was three years old. I’d end up being sent to my playroom so she could study. Now that doesn’t seem like any big deal. At the time, I thought she wanted me out of the way on a much deeper level. Later on, I’d hear how her students loved her, and thought she was a wonderful teacher. Some still look back at their second grade year, and call her their favorite teacher ever. I didn’t get it. She wasn’t a demonstrative sort, but evidently she communicated something as a teacher . She told her students about me all the time...I found that out at her visitation after she died.
I remember feeling more like a guinea pig while she was in school as she read books to me that she intended to read to her class. She’d try out various testing methods on me, and even took me to one of her child psychology classes to be the ‘test subject’ for her professor. The experiment was supposed to show how a kid will keep doing what they need in order to get a reward (in this case, M & Ms). I didn’t want to be rude, so I avoided the ‘magic number’ that would send an M & M down a little chute, and make a light go on. I was six. And worried about being rude. I got the whole box of M & Ms anyway…maybe for being a fluke.
Manners, and the importance of the feelings of others were driven into me from a very young age. Some of that is fine, but in other ways, I felt like it was my job to ‘make’ mom happy. Her emotional state was my responsibility. That is wrong. NO kid should ever have that saddled on them. I was also taught never to ask anybody for anything, and as a four year old, I remember dissolving into tears at a neighbor’s home when I’d asked for a piece of paper and a pencil to play tic-tac-toe with the kid who lived there…I felt I’d been horribly rude.
At four and a half years old, I got in trouble because I’d cried when the kindergarten bus came (regular school bus), and I was so cold I hurt. The bus driver took me back, screaming, to my door, and asked mom to get me some warmer hats or mittens or whatever. I’d been dressed well- it was just that cold. It’s not that she hadn’t considered the weather; the weather was just beyond the standard winter gear that year. And I was a little four and a half year old kid, out in front of the apartment (out of sight of my mom) waiting for the bus. Back then, nobody thought about that being odd. She got mad at me for making a scene. But I don’t think she was a ‘bad’ mom…she was just unable to move past the deaths of those babies, and needed me to be OK at all times. She couldn’t put herself in my position, and understand anything from my point of view- yet she was a very successful teacher. I felt lost in the various ‘jobs’ she had…it seemed that ‘mother’ wasn’t at the top of the list. At least from my perspective. But I know she did care deeply about me. She did love me. That became very clear as I got older, and saw her from an adult perspective.
Mom couldn’t stand anything that didn’t ‘look’ good. That was definitely an issue with my weight. She primed me for my later eating disorders (those weren’t her ‘fault’, but the seeds had been planted that how I looked was much more important than health or self-worth). I was always being told how overweight I was, and as I look back, I don’t see a fat kid (and I’m super-critical of my appearance now). In this photo, I’m not fat by a long shot- yet that’s when the restrictions started.
She had to have me look like my world was completely intact- and it wasn’t. I needed her. I needed a mom who let me be me, within set boundaries. Our shopping trips were legendary for all of the wrong reasons; they were battles. I was to be dressed like a perfect little doll. I wanted jeans and shorts. She wanted Marshall Fields & Co. I wanted K-mart (back before K-mart upgraded in the 80s). She wanted something that could be pulled from a catalog layout. I wanted something that looked good in mud. I wasn’t a frilly kid by a long shot. I didn’t fit the image she wanted. I was happy with frogs- not tea sets (though I did take my dolls into climbing trees!). Our wills collided constantly. I felt like my individuality was being crushed (and it was); she just wanted things to look good.
Now, I believe that she was trying to mask her own pain from deep, unresolved (and understandable) grief. I understand a bit better what it may have been like for her- so the years of being mad are over. I can’t imagine losing two babies, and not having ‘real’ support to grieve (it just wasn’t something that was adequately addressed in the late 50s/early 60s). Now, I just try to make sense of what I need to get from other sources (my faith in God has helped- and that was the single most important thing she and my dad gave me- being brought up in a solid church). There were also adults at church that helped my sense of being an OK kid when I played with their kids.
Mom later developed breast cancer, then pre-cancerous tumors in the other breast, metastatic lung and brain cancers. She went through the wringer. The radiation from the brain cancer resulted in dementia that stole her last 10-12 years in a progressive manner. She didn’t die from cancer when she eventually left this earth 17 years after her last cancer diagnosis (brain tumor). My dad was amazing with her. She was something else, and I’ll blog about her dementia at some other time; this is about her and me. She didn’t complain during her various physical problems. I never heard her whine about the chemo or radiation, or surgeries. She just did what she had to do. But she never said what SHE needed. She was incapable of communicating on that level- whether from me, or TO anyone else. ‘Needs’ weren’t addressed, or really even allowed. What was supplied was supposed to be ‘right’ and ‘enough’. NO questions.
I miss the mom I knew before the dementia, even though it was a rickety relationship. We did love each other. I couldn’t express MY feelings towards her very well either. I paid a lot of money for therapy to figure out a bunch of things about myself, and in return, figured out things about important relationships. I learned that everyone does the best they can (unless they are psychopaths). They give what they have gotten, and a lot of that was determined by the way things were done at the time, and the ability of important people in their lives to supply those needs. It’s passed down. All of those folks did the best they could, too.
In the end, we all have to figure it out for ourselves, and fill in the blanks. We become responsible for what we need, or needed. At some point, it’s no longer about what mom didn’t do, but what I need to do for myself. For me, that involves looking to God as the only true constant in my life. Yes, I need relationships with other people, but no human can supply what He can. I also need to forgive humans for what felt ‘wrong’…and look at what they have endured.
My life isn’t always about me.