Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mothers Who Can't Love

Only weeks ago, maybe between my mom's lapse into coma and her last breath, not sure, I found a book in my mailbox:  
Mothers Who Can't Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters, by Susan Forward, PhD
I tossed it into the Get To This One Day pile. Found it yesterday, buzzed right through. Thank you Harper Collins.   
I'm talking to FD about someone we both know, and he asks, "Why is he this way." I suggest a particular parent-child dynamic, only confuse him more.

"How do you know this?"

"Because this is what we do in my profession, look backward to parents, how they treated now grown/adult children as children. We look for clues. In your profession history helps, but the lab results and the vitals tell more. For us, history is everything.

It didn't hurt, I confessed, that the subject of scrutiny, at someone else's visitation, talked about his father. From this it isn't hard to extrapolate, suggest broad strokes about personality and behavior.

"Oh," he says.

Keep in mind that there are all kinds of genetics that play into personality and behavior. Yet, it is this relationship cause-effect, or psycho-dynamic diagnostic that explained why it took so long for me to write a eulogy for my mother.  Her attributes meant nothing unless I could tell over the why. To me it was the what made her this way that mattered.  In the months of her illness I obsessed about her childhood and how what she experienced in those formative years affected her as a woman, as a mother.

It didn't help that she demanded to hear the eulogy before she died.  She really wanted to edit it.  She edited a few drafts, but it was the sixth that came to stage. We assume she loved the whole show.

One day you'll hear those stories, how my mother loved to love people, to show a smile, how everyone loved her, couldn't help it. Oh, just one. One of my sons went fishing with my father and his friends and one took him aside.  "Let me tell you something young man. Your grandfather is one in ten-thousand. But your grandmother?  One in a million."

But this is a therapy blog so let's move on, talk about the antitheses.

Dr. Forward does a magnificent job describing mothers who can't love, certainly can't show love, those who make adult children cringe even when they know, perfectly well, that they are no longer children, should not be stressing, reaching to cope, spending so much psychological energy and time on a mother.  She suggests ways to set boundaries on moms who enmesh, control, criticize, and otherwise weasel their way into our brains.

Face it.  It is all about the boundaries.  It is all about, "You, mama, have more to lose than I have. You have already made my life ridiculously unbearable. The party is over."

Dr. Forward suggests letter writing and non-defensive communication, above all else. And sometimes, time off from the relationship altogether.  I don't think I ever labeled retorts to critical mothers as non-defensive communication, but surely, this what it is, it is the way to go. Never give mothers like this more fuel, more of an edge.  When we defend it is as if there is something to defend, and with mothers who can't love, guess what, no one needs to defend against their negativity. Their bad.

A short list of simple non-defensive responses to criticism, accusations, complaints demeaning comments, and negative untruths. Parentheses mine:
Really? (add a raised eyebrow)
I see. (sage nod, try not to smile)
I understand.
I'm sure you see it that way.
Practice these in the mirror or with others. If you want to go on the offense, restrain yourself, although I've suggested staging grand behavioral hysteria, falling on the floor, holding your belly and laughing until tears come out of your eyes.  Some of us have to emphasize the absurd, and it works. Dr. Forward would surely concur.

She uses lists-- You make lists.  (a) The lies the mom tells, (b) The truth that really is.
(a) "You are selfish."
(b) "Actually, I'm not."
There is also an adult daughter's Bill of Rights. An abridged version:
You have the right to not take responsibility for anyone else's problems or bad behavior.
You have the right to get angry. (Susan Forward is particularly good with anger)
You have the right to say NO.
You have the right to protest unfair treatment or criticism
And Dr. F suggests Position Statements.  I love this.  When a parent crosses a line, makes you feel uncomfortable, reinforce the boundary with a clear, direct, redefinition of her power and what will no longer describe your response.
I am no longer willing to...
I am willing to...
It is no longer acceptable for you to. . .
I issued a position statement to my father, professionally bullied him many years ago.  I was in my thirties, he must have been mid-sixties. Now I have mixed feelings about it, years later, although I still tell the story. When his grandsons, my twins were about four or five, one of them, when frustrated, would shoot out tears. Annoyed by this my father mocked him at the kitchen table. "Cry," he teased.  "Babies cry."

I looked at him, glared, and asked, "Are tears BAD, Dad?  Because in my profession, we don't think so.  If you make him feel badly for crying, if you continue doing this, then we won't be visiting. So please don't."

That was a Position Statement.  He apologized and never did it again.

I miss my father, and wish, instead of bullying him, I would have simply, sincerely asked, "Did your father mock you when you cried?  When?  How did you feel?"  We do remember things like that, you know, those snap shot memories of trauma.

That would have been productive, too.



Leora said...

I remember, years ago, a few women saying because of their relationships with their mothers, Mother's Day was always a difficult day for them.

I can't imagine writing a eulogy with either of my parents (neither of whom are alive). I need to say something very short at an occasion (seudah shlisheet) of their yahrzeits (death anniversaries). I keep rehearsing in my head, and I'm not sure what will actually come out next week.

Lorri M. said...

Eulogies are often written to help the ones left behind. In my mother's case, it helped my brother...although my mother did not want anything done other than being put to rest. My brother insisted on a small gathering and opportunity for others to speak.

I did not find it helpful, and was daunted by the knowledge she did not want this type of scene.

Mound Builder said...

I felt compelled to eulogize my father, though had not expected that I would want to do that. I feel reasonably certain my father would not have required it. I felt the need because he spent so much of his life being the solid, grounded support for others yet he'd had some very difficult things to overcome, from a young age, and no one much knew about those things. I wanted to tell his story, wanted him to get the credit he deserved for living an honorable life and for caring for us, his family.

About the non-defensive communication... I can't help thinking that it is perfectly okay to say those things to other people in positions of authority who are controlling or enmeshing, etc. not just a non-loving mother. I've thought for a number of years now that certain kind of people, like the mother who can't love, do take advantage of anything one says and don't mind even taking advantage of reasonable efforts to defend against negativity. Sometimes we need to defend ourselves. Defending one's self (defensiveness) is not necessarily a bad thing, I think.

Essie said...

I didn't have the nerve to stand up to my mother's criticisms and lies about me until it affected my own toddler daughter. When I learned that she was saying foul things about me to my child, I told her that if it continued, she would not be able to see her granddaughter. My father backed me up for the first time. No further problems, at least with my daughter.

Anonymous said...

I'm relieved I will never have to eulogize my own narcissistic mother. Although she still walks this earth, she is dead to me. Boundary setting ended in drama and eventually a much-needed six year break. I regret ever allowing her back into my life and am happy to be free of her toxic antics. Sometimes it is best to discontinue relationships with people, even if they are your own parents.

Syd said...

I am fortunate to have had good parents that I loved. They made mistakes but were only doing what they knew how to do. I understand so much more now.

Anna said...

Syd, we do, don't we? Understand more, particularly as we age.
However, understanding the "then" is much different than accepting it now.
I bet you know that, just articulating it because there's power it saying it out loud.

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