I never felt safe in my parents' home. As a child, I would instead seek shelter outside during stormy weather. I thought of this as Lilly woke crying from her nap the other day when it started thundering, and she said it was skummelt (scary). Later on as I was making dinner, I asked her how she liked our vacation in Norway from where we just returned, having stayed with my parents who still live there. Again she replied; skummelt.
Though Lilly's appetite (and mine!) has returned after we got back home, we're both processing our stay with my parents. She whimpers more in her sleep at night and though she now will go down for a nap again, she wakes as soon as I try to leave her, crying despondently if I tell her that if she won't take a nap, she'll have to stay in bed for some quiet time, something she was fine with before our trip to Norway.
And I struggle with my own rehashing of things that were said; my mother's venom.
A recent longitudinal study found that children of depressed women were less likely to show behavioral problems later on in life when they were under someone else's care for at least half a day each week. Children who spent less than four hours each week in formal child care -- e.g. with a nanny, another family member, institutional day care -- were at a significantly increased risk for behavioral problems, relative to children of non-depressed mothers.
I have friends who will never be able to quite wrap their minds around how it was growing up in my parents' house. "Was it really that bad?" "But couldn't you just ...?" "And how come you turned out okay then?"
Firstly, I'm not sure I came out quite that okay. It's taken two rounds of therapy and just when I feel like I have things somewhat sorted out and under control, my head gets riddled up in crazy making thoughts and I'm paralyzed by fear that my mother's blood will turn me too into a lunatic.
I think the weekends and vacations at my grandmother's house provided me with some much needed refuge and escape from my mother; the knowledge that there was someone sound and supportive, comforting and safe out there for me. And later on, the homes of friends where I'd hang out after school, day in and out. I was never in formal child care before school, but there was a supervised playground my mother would sometimes leave me at; maybe without that too I would have developed more issues than the ones with which I've had to deal.
I thought I'd finally left my role as the human punching bag behind me, but now I find myself again in the position of having thought: maybe she can change. Maybe she can be better. Perhaps I remember things as worse than they were. Couldn't this also be about me? And surely as a grandma to such a precious little girl as Lilly, she will set aside her verbal abuse and manipulative egotism.
But no. And so not only did I fail myself; I failed my daughter. I failed to provide her with the shelter she deserves and that I owe her.
Friends have asked me how come my mother turned out the way she did. Her insecurities and anxieties, bouts of depression and unpredictable anger outbursts. Her helplessness. Approaching eighty, her nickname remains "baby."
I don't know the answer. Her mother was an amazing grandma to me and the best possible mom, according to my mother. I never met my grandfather who died before I was born and not much was ever said to me about him. I have the impression he was a devoted spouse to my grandmother but a bit lazy. I have the sense he was not the most prolific or successful in terms of work. My grandmother, born in 1901, was among the first women to wear trousers and among a few married middle class women in her time to also work outside the house, in her case at the telegraph.
My mother's siblings also seem to carry their share of some unknown-to-me load. My mother's older brother -- perhaps not the most intelligent though a good-humored man -- did not do very well for himself and thus shamed the family name with his low social status. And my mother's younger sister, who always took great pride in her sharp mind and professional accomplishments, attempted suicide in her youth. Devoted to her own children, she always mocked both my mother, and me and my sister. My own sister, who grew up with the verbal abuse of my aunt as well as her own parents, struggles with depression, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, anorexia and bulimia.
I learned early on how to please my parents to avoid the treatment my sister received by excelling academically and catering my look and behavior to appease my mother's mood swings. But my strategy was not water proof. I too "failed" my mother in numerous ways, and so I also became the target of her anger and shaming. My nose was wrong. My walk looked bad. My limbs failed to grow long and lanky. I caused her dismay by dropping out of pre-med and enrolling in the study of history and philosophy. By failing to stick with the "right" guy. By not marrying (until much later). By choosing the "wrong" career (as a professor). By leaving a "good" job (as a professor). When as a teenager I was sexually assaulted by my father's colleague, I was accused of bringing it on myself. When I finally wrote a letter to said colleague, my parents blamed me for ending their good relationship with him. In essence, all my actions have in fact been planned to upset them.
And now, apparently, my choices as well as those of my daughter are all directed against her. If Lilly won't eat the candy she gives her, Lilly's being ungrateful. If she eats it, she's reproached for not eating "proper" food instead. She causes her dismay by not rising at the right hour, and by going down at the wrong time. She's a burden if she approaches her to get her attention.
I know I can't protect Lilly from what gets passed on through my genes. But it makes my stomach turn to think about what might have been brought down on her through me. And I'm saddened when I feel like I can't shelter her from all hurtful experiences. Though I won't stop trying my damndest.
Originally published at quizzical mama.
Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D., is a renegade academic, writer, speaker, public educator and founder of the new online resource center LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY devoted to holistic human sexuality information for the whole family. Her blog quizzical mama is an educated and personal approach to the politics and philosophies of parenting, often addressing controversial issues, and often reflecting on different cultural values and practices in the US and her native Norway. She also writes about sexual politics and new porn by women (and some men) at new porn by women.
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