Along with all the downsides, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up with a self-absorbed mother. (My father was, too, but that’s another story.)
If you’ve ever seen a Tennessee Williams play, you’d recognize my mother right away. Whether it’s Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat, or Amanda Wingfield, my mother was a mashup of them all. Like all these female characters, my mother was a product of her generation, a time when a woman had a fat chance of getting the life she wanted.
But she didn’t go down without a fight.
She rebelled, most of the time quietly and sometimes loudly and publicly, against her lot in life. How she executed her example wasn’t great, but the gift for me was in her message: “It’s not okay, there’s not much I can do about it, and don’t expect me to pretend I’m happy about it.”
Compared to the women at every age and station of life around me, my mother was not particularly enamored with or intimidated by men, and only under duress was she subservient to them. She also had just enough antisocial tendencies (my father, too, but that’s another story) that she didn’t feel compelled to adhere to the prevailing social norms and conventions.
Believe it or not, there was a time in our fashion history when it wasn’t acceptable for women to wear anything but a dress to school, work, church, or basically anywhere out in public. Enter the first pantsuits, a clever workaround for the pants prohibition, in the form of a very short mini-dress atop a pair of pants. My mother showed up at a nice restaurant wearing a pantsuit, and when the maître d’ wouldn’t let her in, she wordlessly hiked up her dress, slipped her pants off, tucked them under her arm, and sashayed right on in.
I’m not trying to downplay the disadvantages of a mother who was often drunk and angry at the world in general and at those closest to her in particular. It took a long time and a lot of work to undo some pretty serious damage.
Psychologists say that as little kids, we always think whatever is happening to us is because of us. During that egocentric stage of development, we believe everything is about us. So if mom or dad is neglectful or abusive, it must be because of us. We must have done something to cause it or deserve it. During one of the particularly painful periods, a well-meaning adult pulled me aside and gently said, “Your mother is very self-centered.” But I still felt somehow responsible.
Even when she was stone-cold sober, she could say things that were so cutting it would take your breath. When my baby brother and his wife announced they were expecting her first grandchild, my mother offered them a coat-hanger as a “joke.”
No joke. So when I finally, at age 37, became the only other sibling in the family to have a child, I knew enough from therapy not to announce my pregnancy in person to my mother. Instead, I mailed her a nice letter, and to her credit, she sent a lovely reply. She didn’t come to visit after my son was born, but she did send a big box of thoughtful, sweet gifts for him.
I also recognize that, for whatever reason, it may not always be possible to find a way to recover from what life throws at us. I’m just grateful that I managed to create a mental “container” big enough to fully appreciate everything about my mother, without whitewashing one bit of her dark side.
In high school, I overheard my best friend (who was, of course, a lot like my mother) casually say to someone, “Jan’s smart and can’t help it.” Even though very few girls from my high school graduating class aspired to a college degree, I was fortunate enough to get myself a scholarship, so that made it very hard for my parents to drag their feet.
The following year, I was standing next to my mother at a family reunion when she casually remarked to a relative, “Well, you know what happens when you let girls go to college. It makes them… selfish.” Thank goodness, I was selfish enough to go and keep on going.
My mother taught me more about how to be selfish than college ever did. While her words didn’t encourage me, her actions overwhelmingly did. And ultimately, they won out.
Whether she realized it or not, her insensitivity permitted me to incorporate at least a “homeopathic” amount of it myself. So it never occurred to me to hold back from outperforming my boyfriends when I got better grades, or when I got the lead in the school play, and my boyfriend didn’t.
Or when at times, I was the one making more money. Or the one who decided to start a business.
Given my background, I don’t know how this would have been possible without my mother’s highly dysfunctional but ultimately good enough mother example. It allowed me to incorporate just enough self-absorption myself to create a different life from the one she had, one she may have wished for herself if given the chance.
One of my bosses (who was, of course, a lot like my mother), once burst out in utter frustration at me, “You have this ‘thing’ that you are who you are!” Puzzled, I stared blankly back at her, thinking, “Do you have any idea how hard I’ve had to work to become who I am?”
Around that time, I found myself in a quandary in the Hallmark card section as Mother’s Day approached. “There’s not one Mother’s Day card with a message anywhere close to something I can legitimately send,” I lamented to my therapist. “I’m not okay with sending nothing at all, but I can’t send some toxically phony card, either. What do I do?”
That’s when my able therapist introduced me to a concept I now think of as the good enough daughter. “Find a pretty card with a blank inside, Jan. Write something appropriate that you can honestly say.” Relieved, I found a pretty card with a blank inside. I don’t remember what I wrote then, but I know what I would say now.
I guess most kids can’t help but love their parents, no matter what, and I’m glad it’s that way.
My mother had a mean streak a mile wide, but I still loved her. And even after death, I still do.