To-day I will remember my mother. Her life was challenging, complicated by overwhelming circumstances beyond her control. She was a good person, very clever and determined, a hard worker…victim, martyr, and heroine all at the same time. I think of her often, and I miss her!
My husband and I both grew up in families that held firm to one unvarying rule: “You mustn’t upset Mother”. In my family, because of circumstances involving health problems, my brother’s disability, my father and grandfather’s alcoholism, and grinding financial problems, there were also two corollaries: a) any more than she is already, and b) any more than necessary.
The need or the issue didn’t really matter. Ideas of fairness did not come into account. There was no logic involved. Mother’s health and emotional state were fragile, to be protected at all costs. My father and grandfather were rarely home and were either aloof or verbally abusive when they were. There were no treatment regimes for my brother’s autism, compulsive behaviours, and hyperactivity. The extended family was no help at all… my father had enlisted in the Air Force, married outside his family’s religion, and started his own business…all against his family’s wishes. He had indeed upset his mother… the unforgivable sin.
As the eldest child, I grew up with a special awareness of responsibilities, and of guilt for not being able to meet them successfully. Much of the daily care of my brother, housework and meal preparation fell to me, as well as babysitting or working at a part-time job I hated in order to add cash for the grocery budget or to pay the utility bills. I did what was expected of me and kept my own feelings and opinions to myself.
But, inevitably, Mother would get upset. Frustrated and exhausted, she would go to lie down and I would hear her crying through the closed bedroom door. After a long period of time, she would calm down and I would be given requests for tea and messages to convey to the offending party… “go ask your father if…”, “tell your sister to…” This could go on for days. Eventually I learned to deduce what Mother wanted and to attempt to deliver it right down to the smallest detail.
Mother would delegate tasks, assuming that everything would be done exactly as she wished. If it was not, if you omitted something or used your own judgement, she would be very angry… expressed of course as a profound disappointment that you had “let her down”. She took personal credit for any and all successes, and blamed the failures on others. There was a facade of calm and competent functioning, but turmoil and hysteria underneath. She coerced and manipulated, and when she could not succeed at that, she fell ill and had to be coddled and nursed back to activity.
She did all the planning for the wedding which I paid for, and tried to influence many aspects of my life, my marriage, and my career. She wanted to organize my wardrobe, to choose my hairstyles, to influence every purchase for my home and every occasion on which I attempted to entertain. Needless to say, she had very strong opinions about how I should raise my family. Even as I resisted, I knew how much she needed to live vicariously through my success. I accepted the emotional manipulation and called it family loyalty, affection, and duty. Eventually I found myself completely running both households, and I cared for my parents through their final illnesses. Anything less would have meant “upsetting mother”.
She was overwhelmed by untreated depression and uncontrolled diabetes, as well as financial insecurity, and responsibility for a disabled child at a time when there was no educational or community assistance. She worked hard for the parish and was a founding member of the local association for the mentally retarded… back in the days before that word and the concept behind it had been deemed politically incorrect. Before there was any lobby at the school board, she worked behind the scenes for the establishment of a school dedicated to children with special needs, and then helped found a Boy Scout troop for the boys who attended. By that time my brother was fourteen. At sixteen all mandated educational service stopped, and he was once again at home… all day… with mother.
I was a long time coming to an understanding of this dysfunctional family, enthralled by the emotional demands of Mother, who wouldn’t… or couldn’t… cope alone. Manipulation and control disguised as love are difficult to recognize and impossible to thwart. The stakes are too high and the situation too messy.
I loved my mother, and I know she loved me. She often told me that my birth was the happiest day of her life. Her death was certainly my saddest. She was a good person, very clever and determined, a hard worker…victim, martyr, and hero. I think of her often, and I miss her!
But all the fuss about celebrating “Mother’s Day” leaves me with very mixed feelings. To speak of an unhappy childhood on Mother’s Day, to criticize the unrealistic expectations emotionally attached to the relationship, to even hint that maybe we are being manipulated by the vendors of cards, flowers and sentimental kitsch… this feels shameful.
Like Christmas or Easter or Valentines Day, it is a mandatory social convention that one cannot ignore, and should not criticize, regardless of one’s life experiences. But I have mixed feelings about the Hallmark inspired sentimentality. Even a “good” mother can create an unhappy childhood.
I am confident I am not alone!