I watched the above Moth project story the other day about a mother who was obsessed about giving her children a very happy childhood. This became her obsession as a solution to her own off-kilter upbringing where her parents were so concerned over her, and her siblings, safety that they lost sight of the art of living.
Today as I thought more about this story, this woman's madness began to feel familiar. In her I could see pieces of my own mother who fought so hard not to give my sister and I the childhood that she had endured.
My mother was raised in a big family and most of the fun times were only fun in retrospect. Both her parents were abusive but the driving force behind it all was her mother.
Throughout my childhood I heard story after story of the abuse my mother or her siblings had survived at the hands of their parents. Whenever my mother and her siblings would get together they would relive and retell these stories like so war weary veterans.
I heard some of these stories so often that I almost thought they were my own.
In light of the physical abuse my mother had suffered, she was determined never to raise a hand to her own children, never to be her mother. That was her greatest fear.
So she took what she thought was the opposite approach to parenting. She was against corporal punishment of any kind. As long as she did not cross the line of physicality she thought she was safe. What my mother never seemed to realize is that one did not have to raise a hand to hurt a child.
My childhood seemed focused in the corner; hours standing there as punishment. Hours sitting at the table over cold meals which would be reheated until it was finally bedtime. Hours of my mother's faced pinched in anger and hatred all directed at me.
When I was twelve she finally broke through the barrier and hit me. She only did it once. I am sure she spent a lot of time thinking about that moment afterwards; and not about how I felt, but about how she felt to have crossed that line. It made her angrier at me. I had pushed her across that unforgivable line that made her no better, in her own eyes, than her mother.
Things had never been good but from that point on they got worse. She forced me to go to a therapist and when the therapist told her that he did not think there was anything wrong with me and that perhaps I should go to group therapy with people who had problems with their parents she called him a quack.
She was determined to have me declared mentally ill so that the onus was not on her; so our relationship could be my fault not hers. When that did not happen she left. But not before she told me she was leaving because she could not stand to live with me. I was 14 years old.
With my mother living away and only visiting a week here and there every five or six months, my teenage years got better. I loved my school, I had good friends, I was mostly enjoying life.
Then when I was seventeen my mother decided to come out of her self-imposed Northern exile and return to the city. She and my then nineteen year old sister took off like a tornado; clubbing almost every night, double dating and bringing strange men home. I went on being the only sane person in the house.
It didn't last.
In February of my Grade 12 year, my mother told me I had two weeks to find a job and move out. I can't say I looked for work. I was traumatized. I went to social services, went to my friends and my mother stood in my way. She refused to let social services get involved in my case; she said I had a parent and she would make the decisions and told my friends parents, who were willing to take me in until school finished, the same thing-- but not as politely.
She called my school and started making trouble for me, telling my teachers and the school guidance counsellor that she thought I was suicidal. Homicidal was more likely. And on and on it went.
In the first week of March I came home from a school cross-country ski trip to find my mother and sister waiting for me. They were taking me to the airport that evening and sending back to my father in Nova Scotia. I didn't want to go but I had no choice—my mother had cleared out my bank account to buy the ticket and hidden all my shoes so I would not run away in the still winter-ish Edmonton night.
My mother was desperate not to be the crazy that her mother had been. But she was a different crazy which was just as bad for me. Getting away from my mother was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
This year I attended my grandmother—my mother's mother—funeral.
My grandmother was not an easy woman. But I always maintained a relationship with her over the years because all the bad was laced with some good –even great—times. I have fantastic memories of my grandmother. Unfortunately I can not say the same for my own mother. If I think really hard I can't come up with one good memory. I am sure there must have been some good times but they are heavily outweighed by the bad.
These days my mother sends me occasional cards and sometimes calls to talk on Skype. She sees her grandkids electronically and has even met them in person a few times. This is the kind of contact I can survive—impersonal, distant, indifferent.
I won't tell my kids bad things about my mother, I won't forbid them to talk to her, I won't keep telling them how I am trying not to be my mother. Because I am not.
Sometimes in this mothering journey I get a little guilty about not being the mom who gets down on the floor to play. I can't help it—I am just not into Barbies anymore. I may feel a little guilty about working and shutting the kids out of my office—but you have to work to keep the fridge full and the heat on and the kids know that.
I have never tried to not be my mother. I was never like her and that was always part of the problem between us.
When I watched this story about the mother obsessively trying to make her kids every moment fun, the antithesis of her own childhood, I felt pretty good because I know I have done that without even trying--the antithesis part of the equation at least.