Part I – Estranged families
It is Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday 6 March. I’m looking forward to celebrating it with my own children, but am aware of the desire to ignore and minimise it as much as possible, when it comes to my own mother. We have never celebrated it in a major way – and for years I sent a card but nothing else. As with so much when it comes to my relationship with my mother, I was worried about expectations and the possibility of ‘give an inch, take a mile’. Should she, did she, expect a present? And if I gave her one, one year, would she expect one the next? And if she did, was that a problem?
The problem is that my desire to give, is absent. Over the last few years I have started sending her flowers on Mother’s Day, but more because I think she expects it and I know that she will be pleased. However, I can’t honestly say that what motivates me is either a desire to please, or taking pleasure in her pleasure. What I am consciously aware of is some sort of desire to ‘bargain’; the hope that by sending her flowers, she is more likely to respond positively on other occasions, or less likely to ‘have a go at me’ about lack of contact. I know that this sounds cold and unfeeling; but it comes from years of having distanced myself emotionally and having firmly put my ‘parent issues’ in a box from where they can inflict the lowest levels of guilt, pain, regret or remorse.
Through therapy, I have become more used to lifting the lid of that box. I am happy (or at least prepared) to examine my past and my relationship with my parents, and to use it to try and understand the ways in which I see the world and react within relationships. However, as regards any potential change in the way I interact with my parents – the door is still firmly closed on that possibility, and I have made it clear to my therapist that I don’t regard that as an option. I know that therapy is transformative, and that it is therefore theoretically possible that my feelings on this will change. That I will change to such an extent that at least a partial restoration of my relationship with my parents will become possible and that I will be strong enough to try to achieve it. But at the moment, that seems like pie in the sky; not just an impossible dream, but an impossible nightmare.
Just before Christmas I came across this wonderful article by psychologist and writer Dr Terri Apter, on the pain of family estrangement. It was written particularly with the Christmas holidays in mind, but it is beautifully moving and relevant for anyone struggling these issues, at any time, including the potentially triggering time of Mother’s Day. The article was very powerful for me because it seemed to completely describe and validate my situation – how I felt about my relationship with my parents, and how that had come about. For a long time I had told myself that things can’t have been that bad; if they were, how could I still have been seemingly close to my parents when I was at school? Why did I talk to them about my own relationships when I was at university; why did I attempt to build a ‘typical’ mother-daughter relationship by going out for coffee, or going shopping? Surely, if things had been that bad growing up, I would have jettisoned the relationship years before I actually did (in my mid-twenties)? Maybe my parents were right to blame me for what they perceived as a very sudden change in my behaviour when I met my husband, which seemed to them to come completely out of the blue.
But this article helped me to realise that when it came to adults who ended up estranged from their families, my own response was far from unusual. To quote: “….most estrangements were instigated not by a disapproving parent but by a son or daughter, and not in the heat of irritable adolescence, but between the ages of 24 and 35. From my own research I hypothesize that estrangement is instigated only after years of attempts to achieve approval and comfort, and that the adult child felt that a deep estrangement lay at the heart of the relationship, that any apparent harmony or affection was based on showing a false self to the parent. While family estrangement is sometimes temporary, an adult child who instigates estrangement is likely to believe that a functional relationship with a parent – a relationship that does not involve pain and humiliation, or bring with it a sense of betrayal – will never be possible.”
The highlighting is my own, and it is there because these are passages that particularly struck me and resonated completely with my experience. For the last few years I haven’t even been able to show a ‘false self’ to my parents. In the past, I used to portray a self that was always positive and happy; now, I portray the most minimal self possible. I am afraid to show any positive as well as negative emotion, for fear that it will be somehow be sucked up and absorbed, or that I will be ‘over-run’ in some way by an ‘other-ness’ that isn’t me. I cannot bear to be known or seen, and that includes those things that might make my mother happy, as well as the things that might make her upset, disappointed or angry.
But for me, the most poignant line in the article, is this:
“When a daughter or son made the difficult decision to sever the relationship, it was usually because they felt that maintaining it was too emotionally costly, that they had to distort their very soul into shapes that did not feel right to them in order to please or pacify a parent.” –
That feels like the most perfect description of what I experienced growing up, and I am so grateful to the author for capturing it and expressing it in this way.
Although I try and avoid meeting up with my parents on or close to Mother’s Day, last year I happened to see them a few days before, and on the same day as one of my therapy sessions. I remember going into a shop before my session and buying some flowers for my mother, and suddenly being overwhelmed by immense sadness and pain. I was buying flowers for someone I didn’t feel like giving them to, with whom I didn’t have a meaningful relationship; and yet I desperately wanted to buy flowers for my therapist, who I knew would not be able to accept them. I spoke to my therapist about it immediately afterwards; I couldn’t really help it, as I was in tears the minute I walked through the door. She was wonderfully kind and acknowledged the desire to buy flowers (and the underlying one, of wanting to be her daughter); and without sounding in any way clichéd, made it clear that it really was the thought that counted, and she understood how much I had wanted to do that for her. That meant a very, very great deal.
This year the flowers for my mother will be going by courier. But I’m very much aware that though I have spent hours on a small home-made gift for my ‘therapy-mother’, very few minutes of thought or attention have been spent on the card and the flowers for my actual mother. I recognise this as sad – even if I can’t feel it as sad; but if you believe, as the article mentions, that a functional relationship is impossible, it would be torture, I think, to allow that sadness a foothold. I know this is not particularly therapeutically sound or healthy – and that eventually, I will have to grieve the lack of this relationship, rather than simply consigning it to the scrapheap. But until I do, I simply cannot afford, emotionally, to carry around any feelings about it – either of sadness or of guilt – and particularly not on days like Mother’s Day.
There is only so long we can distort our souls into shapes that don’t feel right – and the longer we continue to do that, the more distorted our own view of ourselves becomes, and the more distorted our view of our place in the world. In that context, the emotional cost of family estrangement may be high; but it may be preferable to the cost of never really finding out the shape our souls really want to take, or being able to experience ourselves in the context of meaningful relationships with others who see us and value us for who we truly are.
Part II – Difficult mothers
I wrote Part I of this post a few days ago and since then, Terri Apter has published another very helpful article along similar lines, but specifically about difficult mothers and the triggering time of Mother’s Day. One paragraph in particular, struck me (highlighting my own):
“About 20% of mother/child relationships, however, are so unresponsive, inflexible, controlling or volatile that a child must adhere to her or his mother’s own self-absorbed terms, or be cast out. The child feels attached, but at the same time disconnected. The dilemma, ‘either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me on my own terms, or suffer disapproval, ridicule, or rejection’, leaves her child with an impossible choice: ‘Do I look out for myself, or do I cut myself into the shape she needs me to be?’ “
As described above, I recognise these feelings in relation to my own mother. But it speaks to the power of psychotherapy that when I read this the first thoughts that came into my mind were of my therapy relationship. After an intensely difficult session on Friday, I sent my therapist two emails, and when she replied, this was part of what of what she said: “Painful as it is, the past experiences may have to be recreated so that both of us can experience them and begin to understand them better”.
I can’t bear that that is happening, but it is. I feel attached, but disconnected. The boundaries of therapy, the process of change, her own decisions on how to respond to me – all trigger the sense that I can have a relationship only on her own terms, and that I must shape myself into something that will not frustrate her or the therapeutic process. Part of me knows that her decisions and the therapeutic boundaries are not about changing or controlling or rejecting me – but I’m inside that recreation so deeply at the moment, that nothing my ‘rational brain’ tells me right now, is getting through.
But two things give me hope. Firstly, that the outcome in therapy, can be different. I have been telling my therapist that I feel dangerously close to cutting myself off emotionally from her, as I have done from my mother. But as she keeps telling me, she is not my mother – and I can do things differently this time, and learn that at least in relation to her, my fear of being irreparably hurt, is unfounded. And secondly, should I be able to bear contemplating it, there is the possibility (captured at the end of Terri Apter’s article) of developing a greater sense of generosity and empathy towards my own mother. According to Dr Apter, this process ‘shores up one’s own soul’; so that, even if I cannot bear the thought of making myself vulnerable enough to do it for my mother, maybe I can do it for myself – for the soul that is trying to heal, and to bend itself back into its rightful shape.