Years ago I ran into an old high school girlfriend. As we reminisced, she remembered what a mouse I was back in those days. I agreed with her, I was. But now I wonder why I was such a painfully shy child, withering into a socially inept teen (exacerbated by the constant moving of a military family), and why I remain socially awkward to this day, never truly comfortable around other people – even though I desperately want to be sociable.
Some say we are a combination of nature and nurture, so I guess I was born this way to some extent, but now I think perhaps I was more influenced by the lack of nurture on my mother’s part.
Years ago, I was intrigued in a psychology class by a film which included an experiment done with baby monkeys. If I remember correctly, half were placed in cages with metal surrogate ‘mothers,’ and half had towel-covered surrogates. The ones with metal mothers became distressed, anxious and nervous, while the ones with towel mothers were somewhat placated. I had a metal mother.
I don’t remember being hugged or comforted by my mother as a child. In fact, she would pinch up her face and turn her head away whenever we tried to give her a kiss and hug goodnight, never reciprocating. And she never told us that she loved us. I think it might explain why we all sucked our thumbs well into grade school – the youngest (who, nonetheless, grew up to become highly successful) through high school. However, she made sure we were fed, had clean clothes and the house was tidy – much like a disinterested housekeeper. In some respect, it was like having Mr. Spock from Star Trek for a mother, whom she felt we should all emulate.
Motherhood was definitely not my mother’s forte, she admitted she didn’t like children – aside from her own, of course. She would spend the majority of her waking hours buried in one book or another to escape, I imagine, not only the boredom of a housewife – especially for one who couldn’t drive – but also to escape the hell she had propagated (there were four of us); she wouldn’t even sit down to any meals with us, preferring to eat alone with a good book. Not that she didn’t make any attempt to interact with us – there were happy moments, I just can’t remember anything specific. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough. Or perhaps, instances of punishments outnumbered them. I guess she loved her children in her own way.
Once we became adults she could relate better with us; it probably didn’t hurt that she was able to escape her ‘prison‘ by going back to school and getting a job after my father retired from the military and entered civilian life. Besides, she needed me to drive her to and from work and night classes (even though I was married, working, and living away from home).
As an only child who’s mother had died when she was a baby, my mother was the apple of her father’s eye and treated like a princess, even playing hostess to her highly respectable father’s many highly respectable guests from a young age (my impression was her stepmother was a mouse). Mother would tell us how intelligent she was, so smart as a child that when the teacher was absent, she taught the class (my mother is from another country)! She was tops in math. She was the best in debate class. And logical. And popular. She was so good at everything. And she was always right. And so on. I was not any of these things. In her eyes, I was a weak and emotional child. Insecure as I was, I developed quite an inferiority complex, I could never measure up to her standards.
But I guess I subconsciously still tried to gain her approval by being the responsible daughter. As the eldest child, I was dependable. Unlike my siblings, when we were punished and told to stay in our rooms, I didn’t sneak out to play; when sent to the store, I returned with all the change. I was the daughter who would scour libraries for books for her to read – she was very particular about the type of stories. Within my immature mind, it didn’t seem quite fair that it all went unnoticed, when my sibling were getting away with murder (not that I was a goody two-shoes, I got into plenty of trouble – and as the eldest, I was automatically supposed to know better).
We were never treated as if we were special; nothing in our lives was a big deal. So at age 55, I have never had a birthday party (merely cake with candles and presents to mark the occasion), didn’t participate in high school or college graduation ceremonies, no weddings, baby or bridal showers, nor any other life-defining celebrations. It should come as no surprise then that as an adult, it would embarrass me should anyone even hint at putting themselves to any trouble of showing me the tiniest bit of thoughtfulness; yet I craved it, while at the same time panicked at the thought.
Another thing I can remember from my childhood, was of my mother telling me it was all in my head whenever I had a stomachache or other ‘imaginary’ pain (whereas, her many headaches were real). Even when I had a couple of severe and prolonged asthma attacks as a teenager, my parents were indifferent, showing no concern, although once my dad did give me one puff of his inhaler during a two-day asthma attack when I thought I was surely going to die from asphyxiation (the inhaler’s effects only lasted half an hour); I think he did it only because we were all stuck together in a motel room and my parents were forced to witness my distress. It took a lot to control the overwhelming panic I was feeling at the time. But I guess we had been brought up not to make a fuss or be a burden – something that is still ingrained in me to this day (so much so, that in my early 20s I signed up to have my body donated to the local medical school’s cadaver program when I die – no funeral, no fuss).
I think my mother’s attitude is also the reason why I’ve always avoided doctors as much as possible – I didn’t want someone else condescendingly telling me it’s all in my head (which doctors are famous for doing to women, and I appreciate Dr. Oz apologizing for those jerks). Or now at my age, to also be labeled ‘D&D’ by the doctors – Divorced and Desperate – the acronym doctors write on the charts of middle-aged women who frequent their offices and viewed as desperate for male attention (see pg. 158, Readers Digest May 2012). But considering I’ve survived this far without medical intervention for the past twenty-five years since giving birth to my last child (except for asthma meds), maybe I am imagining all my pains.
So, like the baby monkeys in the experiment, I wasn’t nurtured. I wonder now if that was the reason I occasionally had bad dreams as a child about being abandoned and forgotten. In my nightmares I became lost and alone, and I always failed to find my way back home. But I remember that I never cried out or ran to be comforted by my parents because I never expected to be – nor did I want to face the wrath of waking them.
While my son was growing up, I’d frequently have bad dreams where he was no longer by my side and I desperately tried to get home where I knew he had to be, but I never made it. There were times I would awaken suddenly with a sob in my throat – they were worse than my childhood nightmares. Those dreams were spurred by my husband’s threats to take my son away if and when we divorced.
Like my mother, my husband also never comforted me, he wasn’t someone I could lean on or confide in. He had chosen me, like his first wife, for my mousy qualities and low self-esteem. I was young and malleable, or so he thought; what he wasn’t expecting was that, unlike his first wife, he couldn’t make me cry. I guess I can thank my mother for that. Whereas, I know my mother didn’t intentionally mean to make me feel worthless, my husband did, in spades; I wasn’t good enough for him, and it seemed nothing I did was good enough.
He never just held me or hugged me to make me feel safe, secure and loved, but only when he was ready for sex. Blessedly, my children provided me with the unconditional love, affection and comfort that my husband would not. He and my mother, on the other hand got along very well – he even taught her how to drive, when no one else had succeeded – not even Sears Driving School.
Aside from her many accomplishments as a child, my mother had more to brag about through my adulthood. After getting only her associates degree in accounting (with a 4.0 GPA, of course), she was invaluable wherever she worked; she was more knowledgeable than the company CPA – everyone in the office came to her for answers. And when the roads were too hazardous for her to drive to work, they would come and pick her up.
It didn’t end there; she also took full credit for my son’s high intelligence – directly inherited from her; funny how she had absolutely no role in the brain development of her remaining six ‘dumb‘ grandchildren. Of course, my nurturing and teaching him things beyond his age level was inconsequential. I was quick to point out to her that my father might equally be responsible, he wasn’t stupid – after all, he had built several computers, making the intricate motherboards from scratch. Later on, I didn’t bother to tell her that I was in the National Honor Society, graduating from college with a 3.8 GPA (not the perfect 4.0) – I’m sure she would find some way to tear it down (and rightly so, they weren’t grades made in difficult subjects like geometry, chemistry or physics) or only give me feeble praise; it was her youngest daughter who was perfect, who made her proud.
I began resenting my mother and her criticisms. I remember a time in my 30s, when I was a volunteer at my kids’ school. I was asked if I could be an occasional substitute teacher as well (lower levels only). I accepted. Then I made a grave error: I mentioned it to my mother. She burst out laughing. “You? A teacher?!?” She couldn’t stop laughing, or so it seemed. Her laughter caught me by surprise, and it really hurt. I, of course, corrected her: only a substitute teacher, basically just a babysitter. She still thought it was funny. Then she criticized me for wasting my time as a volunteer (thank goodness I didn’t mention other volunteer work).
Once, when she criticized my lack of all the manners, grace and refinement that she had, I said, “I guess you should have sent me to charm school,” which made her laugh. What I really wanted to say was, “Well, why didn’t you teach me, wasn’t that your job as a mother?”
Finally (in my 40s), after another wounding criticism from my mother, I had had enough and I blurted out to her, “At least I’m a better mother than you were.” She merely stuck her tongue out at me (that was a first!). It was the only area in which I was more successful than she, and considering my childhood, to me it was the most important. At least she didn’t throw my other failings back in my face in retaliation.
I can’t help but be flabbergasted that my mother expected so much from me, after having offered little or no encouragement to me as a child; aspirations and ambitions were never instilled – at least, not in her three oldest offspring. Curiouser still, was that, at times, she would actually express real concern for me as an adult – usually followed by offers of financial assistance (which I always paid back, another area my younger siblings were negligent), most of which I refused. So through her criticisms, I guess she still loved me – in her own way.
It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I realized how much I needed displays of love and affection, not only as a child but also as an adult. So I worked hard to be different from my mother, but it didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t easy – it wasn’t natural for me, but I kept at it until it was. Saying ‘I love you’ to them was the most difficult, it felt like a foreign language. But I was determined my kids weren’t going to grow up like I did. I constantly hugged my kids and told them I loved them. In fact, when my daughter was a teenager (you know, those difficult years), I would give her her weekly allowance inside of a greeting card telling her how much I loved her and how worthy she was (printed out from a customizable software greetings card program), when my son hit adolescence I did the same for him.
I was there in the middle of the night for the bad dreams and illnesses – including doing everything I could to manage my son’s numerous and severe asthma attacks. I comforted my children when they had bad days at school. I played with them; unlike my mother, I truly enjoyed spending time with my children. And I encouraged them, and supported them in their ambitions. I also criticized at times, it was difficult to excise everything my mother had taught me. I wasn’t perfect (far from it!), I made mistakes, but I was so much better a mother than she ever was – even if I wasn’t as smart.
And my kids had real parties with friends invited. They were just simple affairs at home, but they were fun, social events with balloons, games and treats. Not like my childhood. I remember the excitement I felt after being invited to a number of birthday parties in the 1st grade (my first year of school), and I wanted my own party. Mother told me to wait until we had a bigger place to accommodate a party (in military family housing, our home was the same size as the homes of all the parties I went to – but at the time I didn’t know about her aversion to children). It was never mentioned again, none of us had parties. And as I grew older and more withdrawn, I learned to never expect anything.
Growing up, I thought I was part of a normal middle-class American family. As an adult, exposure to real families that celebrated and mothers that expressed affection showed me differently.
Before, I had always believed my father was solely to blame for my low self-esteem, but now I think my mother also had a part in it. Of course, I could be wrong. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive. Or an ungrateful daughter – after all, who doesn’t have some issues with their mother? As my son sometimes teases me with his twisted version of an old adage: “If it’s not one thing it’s your mother.” I also realize now that my mother must have been dealing with her own issues during my childhood.
I’m counting my blessings, I’m lucky to be a mouse – at least I’m not the sibling on death row.