posted by Amy on May 13

Two years ago I posted this on Facebook:

I don’t have any pictures of just me and my mom, partly because I was her second child, and partly because she was the family photographer.

My mother was beautiful, intelligent, creative, funny, talented, and driven. Unfortunately, she was born a generation or more too early to get effective help for her troubled and volatile mind, nor did people talk much in those days about gentler, more loving and peaceful ways to raise children. She often wrestled with overwhelming rage, and took it out on her kids, especially me and my older brother. The realization that alcoholism is a disorder that affects the whole family and needs to be addressed as a system of interlocking behaviors also came too late to help her–and us–and especially my dad. In those days, people kept addiction and mental illness secret, and dealt with it as best they could in isolation.

On the other hand, my mother also went to extraordinary lengths to help us kids with our activities and projects–Den Mother, Room Mother, typist, facilitator, creator of unique and fantastic Halloween costumes. She loved celebrations and road trips. I get my love of museums and festivals from her. She had all kinds of practical knowledge, much of which she passed on to me, along with a can-do attitude. She told me I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, and encouraged me to get an education. Everyone loved her spontaneity and sense of adventure, and I inherited some measure of that same gutsy, proto-feminist spirit.

As I look back I realize that there have always been wise, strong, loving women in my life who reinforced the places in my psyche that needed shoring up and who showed me there were alternatives to the way things were at home. Parents aren’t the source of our Love, just one expression of it. I have been blessed with grandmothers, aunts, teachers, Girl Scout leaders, and friends of all ages who have provided the positive regard, wisdom, and loving kindness that I needed.

Even small, infrequent doses of sanity and encouragement can make a huge difference in how a child’s life unfolds. To repeat what a wise Facebook friend put in her post just now, “Happy Mother’s Day to all women who love, protect, teach, or care for children big or small.” Blessings and love to all mothers, with all their faults and frailties, and to all the “other-mothers.”

All of that was true, and it still is, but it isn’t the whole truth. I made it sound easy, maybe even automatic. I downplayed the negatives in that Facebook post because I wanted to offer encouragement and hope to others, and consolation to people who had complicated (or bad) relationships with their own mothers.

The rest of the story is that my childhood environment was highly detrimental to my mental and physical health. I experienced what is now being called “complex developmental trauma.” Its effects can be muted, but not completely overcome. My mother was quite narcissistic, and she was abusive. All the “good mom” stuff she did was for public consumption. It was helpful, and it was a good model for me when I became a mother. It was especially good to have the guts to tackle some big project at the last minute and pull it off. That’s a valuable life skill for almost everyone. But behind closed doors she was a monster. You don’t need to know the details.

All her life my sister put our mother’s face on me. She feared and loathed me. She also loved me, or wanted to love me. The burden of being a screen for her projections of the mean mom inside her head could be unbearably heavy to bear. I learned not to take it personally, and to calibrate my expectations of her to (mostly) avoid being hurt. But I may never get over my sadness that we couldn’t enjoy being together and were never friends.

There’s a very good chance the trauma I experienced caused epigenetic changes that I unwittingly passed on to my children in their DNA. Past traumas haunt our family like ghosts. It also influenced my choices of marriage partners, and my ability to parent. I honestly believe I have healed to a great extent, and I think my children had a happier childhood than I did and are healthier than I was. But the scars will never go away. We can work around them, but they’ll always be there.

Nevertheless, I stand behind the motivation for the Facebook post. People can change. People can learn better ways of being with one another. One major reason I am as functional as I am is the “other mothers” I talked about in the Facebook post. You can be an “enlightened witness” for an abused child. You can be a beacon of sanity, love, joy, and beauty, whether the child is related to you or not, and whether you get much of a chance to be with the child or not. Just let your light–the light of  God/dess, who is Love, shine forth. Be a model of good self-care. Be a  model of faith, hope, compassion, and love every chance you get.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

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