Monday, March 30, 2009

Like Mother, Like Daughter

I have spent my life trying to avoid being like my mother. I know that somewhere in the world there are good mothers whose children do not have nervous breakdowns at the thought that they might have to spend time with their mothers. I know not all mothers are as abusive as mine was. But I have done an informal survey of my adult friends, and though they preface their comments with this--"I love my mother, but..." What they end up saying is "I'd rather not have her visit me--she cleans my house as if I can do nothing right. I know she means well, but she makes me feel like a failure at everything I do."

My mother was many things. She was foul mouthed and confrontational. But of course she kept her abuse of me a secret from her friends. To her friends she claimed to love me, but was baffled at what a mess I'd made of my life. To my mother's friends I was a fuck-up and her cross to bear. To her friends she was a fabulous creature. She was beautiful and fierce. She was a pioneering feminist. She was unafraid of power and willing to stand and face the powerful and in a full throated blast call the powerful out as the frauds she believed them to be. She started the Utah Chapter of the National Organization for Women. She started the Utah Chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus. She won awards for her contributions on behalf of women. She was fearless and shocking in her confrontations with Utah politicians running for state or national office. She was a fierce advocate and champion for the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution. What she could not see was that I was a woman too.

Though I was proud of her stature, and supported her causes, I kept my distance. She was on the board of directors of the ACLU. I was always a supporter of the ACLU, but avoided the board meetings, and tried to keep out of her way, which made me seem like a woman without a strong commitment to social justice and civil rights. Some of her friends tried to befriend me, but from past experience, I knew that my mother would see that as competition and betrayal, so I kept my distance.

It's easy to admire a parent with such stature, but hard to love one who claimed to have never had a maternal feeling and believed the concept of maternal instinct to be one more oppressive way men kept women down. I knew too well the way a child feels to hear her mother claim to feel no maternal feeling. It is devastating. It makes you feel profoundly unlovable, for if your own mother never loved you the way a mother loves her child, you feel responsible and internalize her assessment that you are not a child worth loving.

My mother always had me call her Maggy. To her the word mother was a diminishment, an insult. So she was always Maggy to me. And with my close friends, especially the friends I grew up with, she was a cold and dismissive bitch or she was competitive with them as well as me.

You would think my history with a mother I thought of as a political powerhouse and a bitch I'd do almost anything to avoid, would make me a sweet and gentle woman, uninterested in the political. But it hasn't. There are moments I fear I've been possessed by her malignant spirit. I am not gentle, nor sweet. I am not soft, I'm fierce. I do not treat the few men in my life well, though I'm glad I know a man or two who still speak to me, but I don't think I really deserve their attention.

I looked forward to L's visit and worked hard enough the week before to make every muscle and joint sore from the exertion. It was important to me to feed him a nice meal. He is a man who had a friendship with Maggy independent of his relationship with me. I think I still hold that against him a little. But one on one, I'm truly not much gentler or kinder or nicer than Maggy. My mother was competitive. Well so am I. My only saving grace was that I did not have children.


MRMacrum said...

We can't help taking on some of the baggage our parents left us I guess. What is important is recognizing it and losing as much of the bad baggage as possible. I think you need to give yourself credit for what you have been able to avoid instead of dweeling too much on the similarities.

I think if L was a classic Philosopht Prof, he does not have a high opinion of Rand. But I wonder what Maggy thought of her.

Utah Savage said...

I don't think Maggy ever read Rand. She did not believe the rich were better than you and I. She was a champion of the underdog, so long as the underdog was not her child. She came late in her life to feminism, but when she became a feminist, she became a star.

themom said...

I agree with MRMacrum. I recognize the damage my mother did and made my mind up long ago - I would never be her. Every once in a while, I feel her coming out - and I have to "walk away." I remember at her funeral, people asking me "how could you have been so mean to your mother?" I was never mean - I left home and THAT was the sin of a lifetime. Because I chose NOT to be her servant and lap dog - I was the mean cruel child. So hello - here I am the mean one.

La Belette Rouge said...

I think one of my big frustrations with my mother is that all she claims to have done is always fictionalized and exaggerated and that is why I am a bit obsessed with having real things to be proud of and my minimizing my accomplishments.

Lady F said...

My mother has been hinting that she wants to move back to Savannah - all the way on the other side of the country - and I think she's trying to make me feel guilty for not visiting her when she only lives a few hundred miles from here. Honestly, I'd be really relieved if she moved. She lives from crisis to crisis and it exhausts me just to listen to her.

And speaking of exhausting, I put up that post for you. Talk to you later.

sunshine said...

When I was younger, I really resented the way my Mum treated me. (I was born late in life to them. They had 3 teenagers, my Dad was an alcholic and her Mother lived with them .. a disapproving woman that was physically handicapped and needed my Mother to do everything for her.) As a result of all of that, I got VERY little attention and was treated as more of a pain that anything else.
Deep Breath....
After I had been a Mum for sometime myself I was able to look back and see the truth of it all, but it still hurts. I'm not saying that being a Mother made me wiser, I'm sure that I would have seen it eventually.
I think that it's made me a better Mum. My kids have no doubt that I love them and will always be here for them.. no matter how badly the "F" up. My Mum would have ditched me at the first sign of trouble.
Hmmmm... how did this comment become "All about Laura"??? Sorry!!!

Beach Bum said...

I feel I have somehow been lucky enough to come to grips with the baggage my mother, and father for that matter, left me. That's not say I'm not weighed down by it, its just I have become use to it. I know its not healthy but I can't help but wonder at times how my life would have been different if I hadn't been held hostage to my mother's demons.

Freida Bee, MD said...

Utah- This is very touching to me on multiple levels.

Firstly, I loathed my mother for many years.

Ultimately, we went through a year or so of not speaking- intentionally.

We came back to it cordially, but more distanced, until we had a blow up of sorts.

We yelled and then we talked into the wee hours of the night.

We have just been getting closer and closer ever since.

My mother has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and divorced my step father and I have realized that I had mentally sided with my birth father who was abusive, because it was the safer stance to have in my family of origin.

I mourn the mother I never had, but love the friend- aloof though she is that I have now. My mother has obsessive compulsive pretty badly, is suicidal at times, but is a wonderful role model.

I can only wonder how my own children will see me. Not all that favorably for good reasons, I know. I'm better than I used to be, but I can't take it back.

Such is the way taking risks goes.

(This is only a message to myself- of course.)

I love you, Utah. Take care of yourself.

Utah Savage said...

Freida, I never gave up trying to please my mother. I always mediated the fights she started. I was always in the middle, trying to explain my love's objections to her behavior, while begging him to try to ignore her insults and intrusion into our lives. She always won those battles. And the love and I parted. Now he and I are like grown siblings who love, but barely like one another. And now that she's dead I find myself behaving way too much like my savage bitch mother every day.

Utah Savage said...

And the most horrifying part of it all is that I see her in the mirrors I pass trying not to look. It terrifies me to see her face in the mirror looking back at me as I glance away.