My Mother Emotionally Abused Me: How I'm Raising My Daughter Differently

 

mother and daughter on beach retroI was born during the hedonistic 1960s, when the word "abuse" had a very different connotation.

Guitar heroes were dying of heroin overdoses, and hippie rock stars routinely threw themselves into altered states. Meanwhile, the notion of abuse had exclusive connections to drugs -- and very little to do with what was going on behind closed doors in the form of emotional, verbal or physical domestic violence.

It was a different time, and it would take me years to realize it, but abuse was exactly what was going down in my own family.

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I had a standard middle class upbringing: Nice neighborhood, stay-at-home mom, professional dad, kid brother. I was a fairly talented child, and I was pretty much obsessed with creating art. I never stopped drawing, and both my parents were extremely proud of me. I drew every single day and can clearly remember walking into their bedroom each night to show them my pictures.

While my dad always appreciated my talent, my mother was almost obscene about it – her pride in me came with a lot of, “Well, of course you’re talented, you’re my daughter! How could you not be?”

While she was always my number one fan, her adoration always felt too over the top. “Genius” and “prodigy” were terms she applied on a daily basis. Flattering, yes, but sincere -- or even true? I don’t know. All I know is that I started getting so used to my mother’s amped-up praise that when she didn’t give it to me -- it stung.

When the Abuse Started

By the time I was a young teenager, I had grown into an even better artist, but my talent wasn’t the only thing that had grown. Hitting puberty took me from a goofy flat-chested kid to a seriously shapely young woman -- seemingly overnight.

That seemed to piss my mother off in ways I couldn't fathom. Her compliments still came fast and furious, but they tended to be presented as set-ups for a fall: If she praised me, I needed to prepare myself for an insult – because one was coming.

Around age 14, things got worse: I began to receive male attention. At that age, I didn’t really conceive of things like jealousy. I certainly couldn’t grasp the concept of my own mother being envious of me. Yet, the insults began to escalate.

For every kind word spoken, she’d counter with verbal attacks on my body. I was “ugly” and “fat” and “disgusting," as well as a new term she'd picked out for me: “Insane.”

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She decided I was pitiable and unfit to live, that everything I did was “sick in the head” and “pathetic.” But more than anything, I was “fat.” To my mother -- a very slender and beautiful woman -- the worst thing she could call anyone was “fat,” an insult she lobbed at me every day of my young life.

When it came to my looks, there was no reassurance, only an endless need to instill shame –- which, for some reason, I never felt. I knew my mother wanted me to hate myself; she wouldn’t be happy until I despised my body and thought of myself as revolting, and when I didn’t, she stamped me as crazy. I couldn’t win.

Around then, she started cheating on my dad -- a lot. My brother and I were supposed to keep her dirty little secrets, so we did. She even incorporated me into her schemes, sending me to her boyfriend’s houses to hand-deliver her notes to them -- scathing verses of acid emotions. The men were no good, I was no good, her husband was no good, and we all endured this malicious behavior simply because we didn't know any better.

I knew my parents were on the outs; I knew my mother was feeling neurotic about aging – she was freaking out over so many personal issues, yet no one really knew what was going on in her head. All we knew is that she was abusive, and the more she loved you, the worse it was.

My Dawning Awareness: When I Finally Drew the Line

Later on, in my twenties, my mother would scream in public places, calling me a whore for wearing tight pants or a plunging neckline. She’d humiliate me in front of boyfriends, always pointing out a pimple or a flaw. She began to throw hysteric fits at my art shows, redirection people’s attention from my work back to her. She simply couldn't stand me getting positive attention.

And – I took it. Every single word, every single year. Until one day, when she went too far: I had just given birth to a baby girl, and she called my husband behind my back to try to convince him that I should be committed. Of course, that plot backfired. My husband told me, and we both had a moment of reckoning: She was toxic, and I could no longer have her in my life.

So, for a few years, I ignored her. And you know what? It helped. I realized she wasn't about to change, that she needed to see that she wasn’t granted some special privilege that allowed her to hurt the people she loved. After 45 years of being abused, I knew that any further mistreatment by my mother would be a choice on my part, and I chose to kiss it goodbye.

Then, one year into shutting her out, I called her and asked her if she might want to apologize for all the years of meanness.

“You fat, stupid piece of shit," she spat back. "I have nothing to apologize for. Poor you, so sick. So very, very sick.”

How I’m Doing Mothering Differently

As a mother of a daughter – now a flourishing and lovely teenager, I have choices to make every day concerning her wellbeing. I am naturally a non-abusive person; abuse doesn’t make sense to me. After studying up on my mother’s textbook narcissism, I came to understand the idea of boundaries.

My mother thought of me as her own self -- she could pour her own self-hatred over me like hot lava because she didn't think of me as a separate person at all. In contrast, I see my daughter as her own person, and have since the moment she was born. She was not me; she was her own, and that meant her life was hers to live -- her way.

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It was never an effort; it was easy. I freely compliment my daughter, but I certainly don’t make her pay for those compliments – ever. And with the knowledge that we now have about how sensitive teen girls can be, I am all the more careful about anything I say in regard to her physical appearance.

I can see now that my mother was a sick, depressed woman who never got treatment because, at the time, mental illness was a hush-hush thing associated with rundown asylums in horror movies. The only thing that ever really led her to a calmer disposition was age.

When she and I finally did speak again, we had both learned many lessons. She, that life is too short to be constantly aggressive, and I, that life is too short to not be on good terms with one's mother. I loved her so much when I was a child, and I felt so betrayed by her insults, her nagging and her deliberate meanness.

Today she is even-keeled and devoted to my daughter. I’m not sure if she unconsciously wanted to right the wrongs she never really owned up to as a parent, or if being a grandma was just too irresistible. And while my beautiful 16-year old loves her Nana very much, she is presently way too into her boyfriend for me to wonder if she sees vestiges of our dynamic at all.

Alas, my mother had mellowed over the years. And while I still see the combative warrior she was, I'm heartened to know that that alter ego has faded to a far softer sentinel who wants a peaceful, happy old age, spent with family members who love her, and always have.

 

 Image: Dubova/shutterstock

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