Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust I:
The Ambivalent Mother
Joan Cusack Handler Ph. D.
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
Nothing’s more important than my four kids, my mother always claimed. My life is my kids. And she believed it. As did my father. That she was the center of our family was certain, but I was never convinced we were her center–her happiness, that her love was as pure and complete as she insisted (and I suspect wanted it to be). So much of who she was refuted that. Her dissatisfaction and self-centeredness were out there in blazing color– as were her withholding and anger; her face covered with cold cream each time we tried to kiss her, stands out as a beacon of her ambivalence–or the sweaters she knit in the wrong size or color. She’d make a point of asking what we’d like then just disregard it. If I asked for big, I got small; if I wanted white, I got red–discarding what I had to say, on the one hand, turning herself inside out to listen on the other; angry one day, happy the next; this morning, a cutting remark, this afternoon, singing our praise. We learned early on that we had no control over her moods or our own rewards or punishment. She was entirely unpredictable.
As I got older, she’d tell me she hated her living room and wanted to rearrange it and needed my help, so I’d spend the day with her redesigning until she swore she loved it. We’d sit back and admire what we’d done, she vociferous in her praise of my ideas and helpfulness, I satisfied, delighted really, to have been able to do something for her that pleased her. But the next day when I returned from school, she’d have moved everything back to its own corner–each piece in its original place hugging this or that wall as if the preceding day had been a mirage or dream. When I’d ask what prompted her to change everything back, she’d say that the changes just didn’t work– you couldn’t do anything with that room (other than what she’d already done!).
And the important part of it all was her insistence, first, when we originally talked, that she really did want help this time, and this wouldn’t be another case of us spinning our decorating wheels only to have her revert to the same bland construction, and later, subsequent to our completing the job, that she loved the new arrangement– no, this time she really did–she wouldn’t change it back for all the world. I finally refused to help; she finally stopped asking. The living room stands monumental all these years–each piece in its respective home along the periphery of the room, an additional table or chair made room for by shifting each piece ever so slightly left or right of its original home.
So living with Mom meant lots of seduction followed by let down, never really knowing how important or unimportant you were. For example, while the above was going on, she was also schlepping to Macy’s or Bloomingdales to buy me whatever dress or outfit I’d dreamed of, and what I’d conceived of but no other designer had, she bought elegant fabrics to make herself. And make my clothes, she did, constantly modifying patterns to satisfy me. For my college Christmas Dance, she moved the sewing machine into the living room and was sewing until my date arrived. I’d decided that I wanted a shawl to top off the black velvet and white peau de soie strapless. Undaunted, she measured out the leftover fabric; she was used to my additions, so she always bought extra. I don’t remember a time that she made a dress or outfit for me that I didn’t redesign. And she always did so good-naturedly and without pause.
The same was true with food; she baked the favorite cakes and meals of each of us– special creamed fish for Catherine on Friday nights when the rest of us ate broiled or fried, pancakes or banana eggnogs for Sonny’s breakfast while the rest of us ate eggs or Wheatena, meatloaf with mashed potatoes for Jerry, and warm chocolate chip cakes for me when I came from school. From time to time, when I was in college and left at irregular hours, we took turns making each other breakfast. I loved those mornings. She seemed to as well. That way we can both feel like queens, she’d say. Yet on any alternate day, we’d be greeted by her darker sister who’d serve us cereal with sour milk. We complained, of course (though not too fiercely for fear of inciting her), but she insisted it was fine and made us eat it (me and Jerry, that is; the older two just waited for her to leave the kitchen then dumped it down behind the frig. Jerry and I just sat gagging or holding our breath while we swallowed the putrid mess. It felt like hours).
Then there were the silences: for me, the most lethal. My mother used silence as speech; she said great mouthfuls with it. Silence contained her biggest feelings, anger mostly, and disappointment. She’d simply refuse to speak. No matter what we did to try to cajole her into explaining what our crime had been–and it was that mysterious–she’d become frozen and stiff seemingly without provocation and no manner of plea or apology would bring her back. Days would pass with one or all of us totally alone. Like balloons let go on a day of little wind, we’d float through the house disconnected, directionless–each avoiding the bad one for fear of similar treatment–until Mom decided she was no longer angry or that he/she had been punished sufficiently and were appropriately contrite. This usually took several hours, often days. In my case, that usually meant she called me over to her and Give me a kiss, she’d command. Right here, pointing to her cheek.
Regrettably, there are few resolutions for the child raised by the ambivalent mother. He/she has no choice but to obey; the consequence of refusal brings too great a terror of retaliation. Robbed of a positive sense of self and the belief that he/she has any control over his/her life– love, rewards, or punishment –this child is emotionally underdeveloped and often damaged. Reality is distorted and fickle—changing from one day to the next depending on the whim of the mother. The mood in the home is stifling, threatening. In the best of circumstances, the child has another parent or loved one (aunt, uncle, grandparent) he/she can turn to for help or if he/she is too inhibited to speak, one who recognizes the vise the child is caught in and can step in to offer reassurance. More than anything the child needs protection; hand in hand with protection goes the need for consistent reality testing: affirmation that the mother’s behavior is abusive and that the child doesn’t deserve this—no child does. Ideally, he/she (and the parents!) is taken to psychotherapy to decipher the faulty, conflicting messages and introduce an alternate way of viewing him/herself and the world. That is often not possible. In cases such as mine, my father was no match for my mother. Talking to him would’ve reaped no rewards other than his insistence that he loved us and was sure Mom did too. There were no grandparents or close relatives. Nuns didn’t encourage us to speak about what troubled us. The answer probably would have been to pray (as would’ve been my father’s) or to take my mother’s part. People didn’t speak much in the 50s, least of all children. And we had no rights. The old adage, children should be seen but not heard, is an apt description.
Fortunately, the climate today is very different. Exposure to the media shows a child that help is available, that it’s possible for a parent to be wrong, mean, even cruel. Speech is encouraged in school, even in church and synagogue. For me, freedom began with my involvement (albeit very gradual) with the outside world –which coincided with my entry into high school. There I started to separate myself from my mother, confiding less, depending less, asking for less. I also met new friends and compassionate nuns who offered a new lens through which to view myself. As I continued to grow into adulthood, I entered therapy and began to recognize the immense power my mother had over me –the first step toward repairing the damage. And yes, repair is possible. It takes hard work but it can be done.
This Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will continue to chronicle that growth including my relationships with my father, siblings, friends, men, two marriages (one failed, one tested but ultimately successful), and motherhood to a place where most days I can actually say that I forgive my mother. She too was a victim. So many of us were/are.