May 1, 2018

the mother load

Bringing people together.
It's gone far past adage and become an assumed universal truth:  You become your mother as time goes by.

This thought used to make my stomach turn.

I resemble her at times.  Eyes.  Cheek structure.  I write and sing like her.  I have her anxiety.  But I parent in a vastly different way, participate in society, and haven't given up yet banging on my prison bars, trying to escape the ways mental illness confines me.

I insist on functioning in spite of, and because of, these things.  I rebel.

The more we rebel, the more we can see our mothers.

Very little of this process involves taking on your mother's features.  What unfolds is a shift into incorporating a companion point of view, the gentle arrival of the tolerance of ambivalence toward her.  I see this happen in the strangest moments, suddenly appearing in the midst of another train of thought, like a this-just-in news bulletin.

I was formula-fed.  I wasn't picked up when I cried.  Many of the mental torments I'm struggling with now have their roots in this.  But I get that my mother was following the advice of her generation and era.  Science advocated measuring everything.  She has told me this is why she did not breastfeed; there was a vague fear among mothers of the time that the baby wouldn't get enough milk, because how could you tell?  She and her cohort had no awareness of attachment theory ....

We had a form of Renaissance when I was eight and nine and ten years old, in the form of playing card and board games together at the kitchen table, everything from Rummikub to Scrabble to poker.  When my mental illness set in at age eleven, a wall went up and she became, once again, the silent figure sitting in the kitchen, staring out the window, barely speaking.

It occurs to me that I was a safe age to relate to when we played the games, neither young and needy nor adolescent and angry.  When I came to hate her, far beyond the normal degree of adolescent hatred of parents, when I shut her out, she was too afraid to persist in trying to relate to me.  Rebellion at that age is about more than independence; it tests the parent to ensure nothing can be broken or shattered.  But I didn't rebel back then; that came much later; I just became independent, and I hated.  And she snapped in two like a brittle twig at the first sign ....

My parents never attended a parent-teacher conference or participated in my school activities short of providing transportation to and from school.  I excelled and achieved and brought home the highest grades earned at the schools.  Friends received money for every A they earned.  I was told it was fair, sufficient, acceptable.  My father was off the hook because he worked long hours, and there was no need for my mother to interfere.  I was not able to view this in light of her anxiety disorder, or the fact that the lack of parental involvement was the norm of the day, or at least the norm for her, as she never had that given to her.  Her mother remarried during my mother's childhood and I have gathered tiny clues that together form a picture of a girl mostly ignored in the wake of the sweeping new romance, left to finish rearing herself ....

When our son was two years old, we wanted to attend a concert in a distant town, and the route would take us right through my hometown, where my mother still lived.  I called her and asked, for the first time, if she would be willing to babysit.  I remembered her babysitting often for my older sister's children, the walker in the living room and the spit-up episodes.  She watched a band member's baby years before that, and I remember bringing the baby a piece of paper and crayon with very easy math problems (1+1, 1+2) in recognition of the level of math he might be able to handle.  Somewhere, there is a picture of a pre-teen me holding my niece.

My mother said an unequivocal "no" to babysitting my son.  There was no explanation, other than, "I'm just not comfortable doing that."  I assumed it was because we weren't close and I didn't deserve it.  I assumed it was because she just didn't like children (something I still believe).

The shift-thoughts came and it occurred to me that she might have felt she was slowing down, aging, and could not keep up with a toddler, especially a boy, given her probable view that boys are more energetic.  She might have said no because she could not, instead of would not ....


The questions are as universal as the assimilation.

How do you separate the wounds and lasting damage from the infusion of understanding and empathy, and pull forgiveness out of all that pain?

Does the chord resolve or remain dissonant, ambivalent?

Does becoming her pour out its own grace, or is the grace rolled-up-sleeves work each of us has to undertake?

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