I want to take a step back today and talk about something that is both very personal and very important to me.
First, I want to address those of you who are happily celebrating Mother’s Day today with your families.
I’m sure that encompasses a great many people. Many of you have loving, supportive homes. Never perfect, of course, but ones that are filled with happy memories and affection. For you, I am glad—truly and truthfully. I hope you share your joy in whatever way you are comfortable and appreciate the gift you have been given.
However, some of you may have friends or acquaintances or even family who are not celebrating today. You may know someone who has not so much as even sent a card to their mother, or called her. I am sure that, for many of you, this seems unthinkable and inconceivable. In a way, I’m glad for that—if you cannot comprehend why that might be, then you have not had to live it.
But please: today, do not shame anyone for not reaching out to their family.
For some of us, Mother’s Day is a lance in our back. Not only are we buried under a barrage of images of loving mothers and happy families in the media, but we invariably have to brace for every casual acquaintance we’ve ever met and their brother to suddenly pop out of the woodwork just to ask,
“Why aren’t you talking to your mother? It’s Mother’s Day, didn’t you know? She gave birth to you. You owe her that much.”
I have responded (for the most part) to these questions with the flat-out truth. If a person feels the need to pry into my personal life, I feel they have opened themselves up to the uncomfortable answer.
(The following contains descriptions of real-life abuse. If you are an abuse survivor do not want to read it but would like the note of support and positivity I have at the end, I’ll put another bolded section so you can scroll straight to it.)
I was raised by a single, mentally ill and abusive mother. She has, in fact, some combination of Cluster B Personality Disorders and a possibility of other undiagnosed problems. My childhood was characterized by near-constant verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.
From the age of 5, my mother expected me to alternately parent her and be ultimately and unwaveringly subservient. The “rules” for behavior were strict but also ever-changing. What was “good behavior” one day was “insubordination” or “not showing I cared” the next.
I was supposed to act as her surrogate husband; before I could read a calendar, I was expected to remember Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, her birthday, and any other number of “special days” she had decided upon. Before I had any money of my own or access to make any, it was an unspoken rule that I had to to buy her gifts on these days. Not make. Buy.
I was informed of the household’s income and bills and was expected to keep them in mind. Namely, this was important if I had the gall to ask for anything; I was forced to decide if whatever I wanted was “worth” depriving her of something she wanted, as I was expected to know we only had the funds for one or the other. This varied from something so simple and petty as wanting fresh berries for my lunch versus her morning coffee, to having to decide if I could go on the school trip that she had signed me up for at the beginning of the year versus the new vacation she wanted to take.
I was expected to comfort her about her weight, about her job, about how physically attractive and lovable she was.
And please, let me reiterate that this was all expected of me since before I was in kindergarten.
If I “failed” any of these “duties” to her summation, she would often lock herself in her room, screaming and crying and threatening suicide. I remember many hours spent at her door, begging her not to kill herself because I loved her.
Alternately, I was expected to simply “know” when I was supposed to be the “child” in our relationship. I was expected to be wholly unquestioning and submissive. This was often when she was in one of her rages, where “disobedience” was any inflection in my tone she did not approve of.
Punishment for such infractions was swift, and often out of the blue. She had an expression that I always called her “bulldog face,” the one she put on when I knew I was really in trouble. She’d jut out her lower jaw and curl her lips down so you could only see her bottom teeth.
And then she’d beat me.
I remember, more than once, crying because I did not bruise easily so I could never prove she hit me. I always thought if I did, if I had some show, then maybe someone would see it and help me.
When I grew into a teenager, I fought back a few times. Once, she grabbed me by my hair, forced me to my knees, and started to drag me out of the bathroom. I reached up and tried to claw her hands off me, and I managed to scrape the skin. I didn’t even draw blood, just made a white line.
She flung herself away from me, screaming that I had attacked her and she was calling the cops on me.
That was a tactic she used on me often. When something did not go her way—if I fought back, or did not back down—she would flip a switch and change her tune. Then, I was a monster who was attacking her. I had started it. I was vicious and unstable.
During the years between 12 and 17, she would threaten me regularly that she was going to send me to a mental hospital. That I was deranged and sick and needed to be locked up.
To this day, I don’t know if it was an act or she legitimately believed what she said in those moments. Either way, she was so convincing, I spent much of my youth thinking she must be right. I was terrified that I was so mentally damaged that I couldn’t even properly recall a train of events that happened five minutes ago.
At 15, I finally begged her to send me to that hospital she was always threatening me with. I remember being in the living room, and handing her the phone. I wanted to be fixed. I wanted to be helped.
She didn’t make the call. I think, at least somewhere in her consciousness, she knew I wasn’t as sick as she said I was. I think she was afraid to have her abuse exposed. She’d spent so long keeping me isolated, letting me get outside help would shatter that control.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I knew this phenomenon actually had a name, and was a type of abuse: gaslighting, named after a movie I pointedly wasn’t allowed to watch.
I wonder why.
When it was time for me to escape and go to college, I was all ready to start a new life and get help. I had been in the top percentile of my high school graduating class, with a 3.8 GPA and solid test scores. I got into the private university of my choice without even breaking a sweat.
… only for my mother to tell me I was not allowed to go, as she couldn’t afford it and she refused to cosign on loans. I had no other relatives who would sign, either, so my dreams of college vanished in a puff of smoke. And this was after I had been told I could not have a job or a car during high school because I needed to get into college. School work was my job, and as long as I got good grades, she’d make it work.
Less than a year later, she spent a combined $60,000 on two Friesian horses. More than what my first two years would have cost me in school. (Don’t believe me they go for this much? Take a look at some of the current listings right now. I’m also pretty sure she was swindled on top of it.)
In recent years, she has flat-out told me that, if it came between those horses and me, she’d pick the horses.
Throughout my life, she’s hit on and tried to steal my boyfriends. She succeeded at stealing my inheritance from my grandparents.
And yet, for years, I did try and please her. She was really the only family I had, and the media insisted that there was no love greater than a mother’s love. I wanted a relationship. I wanted a mother.
But I had to face a hard truth: my mother is a toxic and abusive individual. Any contact with her is opening myself up for harassment and violence, often emotional but not exclusively.
Twenty-seven years ago, my mother chose to have a child. I was planned. She wanted a baby, and she willingly signed herself up for parenthood.
But I did not choose my mother. In this, I had no acceptance of responsibility. I did not agree to any familial bond.
I was born. That is my only sin.
So, to that question I hate to be asked on every Mother’s Day, this is the answer:
No. After twenty six years of abuse, I do not believe I owe my mother anything. If there was any contract of motherly bond, she voided it by never fulfilling her end.
But here’s the rub. Outside of my home, my mother was a respected member of society. She is a high-level manager in a male-dominated field. She is considered a pioneer and an inspiration. For most of my life, she devoted her time to battered women’s shelters.
Those who were close to me knew the ugly truth… but many who were not had no idea. On the outside, our family seemed to be a victory. A shining example of a single mother’s triumph to raise her child and excel in the business world.
I point this out for one very important reason: you cannot know someone else’s situation.
If someone you know is not contacting their mother today, it is incredibly possible that you cannot even imagine the scope of their reasoning.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a close friend of the family. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known their mother for years. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen them cry, or have bruises, or go to therapy.
You cannot presume to know what their home life was like. They may have a very good reason for not contacting their mother or their family, and they may not want to talk about it with you. Survivors of abuse all express themselves differently, and even if that wasn’t the case, many of us have been taught to fear the repercussions of exposing that abuse.
That is why I’m sharing my story today. Not only to break the veil of silence, but so someone else doesn’t have to explain themselves before they are ready. I want to offer context to those of you who have thankfully never had to even imagine the situation I grew up in.
With that said, today, do not shame anyone. Do not harass them. If you want to help someone who you think may be having trouble with their mother or family, perhaps offer to talk, no strings attached. See if they need a shoulder, or someone to listen.
But please, please: don’t presume. For many of us, this day is hard enough as it is.
With all that out of the way, I want to talk to all of you who are not talking to your mothers today, for any number of reasons.
I want to tell you this:
You are not broken.
You are not a bad person.
I understand, I do. I can’t know your situation, but I’ve lived my own. Everything in the media right now is telling you how important mothers are. How sacred and loving and perfect. How much they’ve sacrificed, and how much you should appreciate it.
That’s all very well and good, and yeah. For some people, that’s true.
But it’s not universal.
Some mothers are selfish. Some mothers are abusive. Some mothers are toxic.
At the end of the day, mothers are people, and they can be just as wonderful or wretched as anyone else.
You are not obligated to be around anyone who is abusive or toxic.
Let me repeat that: you are not obligated to be around anyone who is abusive or toxic, no matter who they are.
At some point, your mother made a decision to have a child. She decided that she would bring you to term, and keep you. (Or, if you were raised by someone else, they took on your raising as their responsibility.) By doing so, she agreed to be a parent to you.
Never once did you agree to be a child to your mother. It was simply the lot you were given.
I’m glad she gave birth to you. It means you get to be with us here, now. That’s a lovely and beautiful thing. It means you have many years ahead of you to be your own person, to live your life, to touch others.
But I don’t thank her for that. I’m glad she did it. But the rest? The rest has all been you.
Your decisions. Your fortitude. Who you are as a person.
You don’t need to appreciate her for your existence. She isn’t obligated to your gratitude.
For whatever has lead you to where you are now, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you can’t be celebrating this day happily with someone who raised you with love and compassion.
But it’s not your fault.
If any of you need someone to talk to today, or any day, please feel free to contact me at BindingHex at gmail dot com.
It gets better. Just give it time.
But for today: I’m sorry. Please know you at least have company.
Resources for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
- The Invisible Scar is blog largely focused on helping adult survivors of emotional abuse and adult children of narcissists (ACONs). It also includes added resources for ACONs.
- I highly recommend Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward.
- If today has impacted you strongly and you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you live in the US, or visit Befrienders Worldwide outside of the US.
- In Australia, there is the Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) organization that offers a professional support line at 1-300-657-380 that operates 9-5 Mon-Sun EST.