The Mother That Never Was

Mama Cat

I don’t write about my mother often.  Of all my dysfunctional childhood relationships, my experience with my mother is the most painful.  I believe that small children have a disproportionate need for the feminine nurturing energy.  When it’s not available, I think the pain runs deeper.  I am not suggesting that fathers are not needed.  They are desperately needed.  And their interactions with their children are critical to shaping that child’s future belief systems and relationships.  But for me, the lack of nurturing maternal energy seemed to leave a deeper mark.

I think that some of my angst comes from my core belief that women should be protecting women.  If we can’t count on each other, if we can’t come together to fight this battle against gender oppression, do we have a hope of moving society toward equality for all genders?  Can we ask our male allies to do the work against gender oppression that we are not willing to do?

But for my mother, this oppression was a way of life.  It was all she ever knew.  She never had the innocent childhood we expect our children to live.  She never had the opportunity to grow up.  She was not supported when she spoke up about her abuse.  She was not able to escape her abuser.  She lived the same childhood that I did.  She formed her own ways of coping.  Her coping mechanisms were coming from her child’s mind because she never had a chance to develop adult coping mechanisms.  Some of her brain development was stunted at a young age because of trauma.

This is what happens to trauma victims.  It doesn’t mean there is not development.  Trauma survivors can be incredibly smart.  But certain areas of the brain become stunted and separate, so there is no balance between logic and emotion.  And some parts of the brain may become stuck in fight or flight mode, which leads to bad decisions.

To be fair, she was trying to protect me, but her methods of protection would be considered ridiculous by most.  She had two strategies.  First, she taught me that I should do whatever men ask.  Of course, this included sex with men when I was a small child.  She didn’t want me to be raped as a small child.  She taught me this because she wanted to keep me alive.  She was sure that fighting back would mean death.  And honestly, she may have been right.  My father had made it clear on many occasions that he was not above killing us if we did not comply.

Her other approach may seem less severe, but had a major impact on my life, and like many bad decisions, it was born of money.  She was constantly battling with her lack of financial security.  She considered the lack of money as life-threatening as guns and knives.  And her lack of money was used against us many times by my abusers.  She truly felt that she could not be financially stable without a man, any man, in our lives.  So she found any man … and allowed that man to do whatever he wanted.

She made an effort to ensure I was financially self-sufficient, so that I would not be reliant on a man as long as I lived.  She discouraged anything I wanted to do with my life if she thought it would not be lucrative.  She was vehemently opposed to anything that was artistic and creative.  She was convinced that would lead to abject poverty.  To her credit, it sometimes does, but almost any career can lead to abject poverty.  She wanted me to go in to business.  She made it clear that she would not be happy with any other decision.

As a result, I completely lost myself.  This was partly because of the trauma, but the impact of my mother’s strong opinions on my decision-making was also dramatic.  I didn’t want to work in the business world, but that was the life she chose for me.  And it did work.  I was financially independent for many years.  Ironically, that independence was a significant driver in my decision to break from my family.  But I have spent the past six years trying to find out what I really want to do with my life.

I know it may sound as though I am making excuses for my mother.  I am not.  I spent many years processing a very angry and desperately sad emotional response to my mother’s abusive behavior.  Only recently have I come to understand the drivers for her behavior.  An understanding is not forgiveness.  An understanding does not excuse the behavior.  It is simply the ability to look at behavior from an objective perspective.  An understanding can relate the behavior to the experiences that helped form the person.  What she did is not right.  She was wrong.  And in her current state of denial, she still is.

But an understanding of why it happens might just keep it from happening in the future … to some child … somewhere.

And that is why I will work so hard to understand it.

And that is why I will write it down.

And my understanding will lead to awareness because some people are brave enough to read it.

And awareness will stop this.

It is the only thing that ever will.

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30 thoughts on “The Mother That Never Was

  1. Thanks for your insights into your relationship with your mother…I’m only just starting to understand my own relationship with mine…I think you’re right when you say that an objective understanding is crucial to all this. It’s such a shame to see my Mum and my sister drawn into my Dad’s web of deceit…how many women do this?
    I agree that we who are in these life situations have to understand all these motivations and the grip that power and control can still have. It is time for more feminine healing energy to spread on the earth, from both the women and the men who are healing and who can see the truth for what it is, no matter how painful.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience and knowledge, so helpful.

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    • Thank you Rachel. You are right about the healing energy. We can help make that happen with our own healing and our discussions about it. Unfortunately, there are some, like my mother, who are unlikely to heal in their lifetime … and that is hard.

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      • Yes, I find it hard to accept that too. I’m learning slowly that my Mum may not heal, it’s so hard though. You have been through a lot with your Mum, so much, yet have had the courage to heal. I’m so sorry for what you have gone through. You’re amazing to go beyond yourself and air these issues for others and society. That gives me and many others I’m sure, lots of hope.

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  2. wow. I can relate to so much of this. I have so much anger and hurt towards my mom for her lack of protection and nurturing, but when I look at her life I know she was doing the best she could. She survived by putting on a smile and pretending things weren’t happening at home. Ignoring it allowed her to function out f the home. But that ignoring also set me up for some horrific situation that she was unable or unwilling to even acknowledge. Understanding her allows me to have some compassion. And I agree, they are not excuses. But understanding. Trying ti make sense of things that really should never make sense. But if we don’t understand what went wrong, how can we ever make it right? Thank you from the bottom of my heart for posting this. big hugs to you.

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  3. Again I can relate on some levels here. I know this was hard for you and I’m so glad that you were able to blog it. You’re making such a difference. I hope that you’re doing okay since you’ve written it, and it’s gone up xo

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    • Hey there Zoe. The writing is so healing (as you know). When I can finally put this stuff in to words, I get so much emotional release from it. I notice I am defending against a writing when I am over-engineering an article. I was definitely doing that here. I’m glad I put it out there.

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  4. Elisabeth, this was such a good post. I’m working on one about my mom, too, having just posted about my dad. It’s so hard to put these words to paper, and you do it beautifully. This morning I posted on the Not Freshly Pressed Award and nominated you. Your blog inspired me to post numerous times about the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow account and was the real push I needed toward advocacy, so I thank you.

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  5. Hello Elisabeth,

    I understand where you are coming from. I can see that you just didn’t demonise your mom and blame it all on her, but you analysed what was behind her actions.

    If I know one thing, that will be the fact that your kids are gifted to have you. As you would make a great Mom.

    Regards,
    BP

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  6. I cannot find words to describe this article,just to say that you are very brave and strong concerning the incompetence of your parents.I have always believe some people should NEVER have children because they themselves are so dysfunctional.Thank you for speaking out.

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  7. I so agree with you that understanding helps. Like you said, it doesn’t excuse stupidity or worse, decisions that result in horrific consequences…but it does help us to have that perspective that invites compassion for their suffering while still acknowledging the harm they caused or allowed to happen to us.

    I am so sorry for your abuse and I’m sorry for hers. It is ending that horrible perpetual cycle that I know is my part in this fight. To bring truth and healing and end the cycles. But first the light must come on and expose the darkness. I pray that some day your mom will come to understand this and choose light. I am SO grateful you understand it and are now a force to end this for others.

    God bless you in your journey and for sharing what resides in all our broken and mended survivor hearts. Your voice is ours and I am grateful.

    Julie

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  8. The way your mother raised you was just so very, very wrong. I’m so sorry.

    When the men in our young lives are so abusive, it’s hard to know what to make of our mothers who allowed it, participated in it, and made it all possible.

    I’ve found it easier to make peace with my mother’s part in things. She was so clearly impaired and so very ill. I don’t know how to judge her from a moral standpoint. My father, on the other hand, was sadistic and calculated. I’m sure he married her because she was sick and because he knew she would allow him to abuse their children. That is what sociopaths do: look for vulnerable individuals who will allow them to exploit and abuse them.

    The people I’m really angry at are the ones who should have helped us, who didn’t have a mental illness and were capable of making informed decisions. I am angry at my mother’s psychiatrist for incorrectly treating her (and probably misdiagnosing her). I am angry at the judge who sent me back to their household. I am angry at the law enforcement officers who did not shut down the hotels where I was trafficked. I am angry at immigration officials for not intercepting or helping the women and girls being brought to the US for trafficking purposes that worked alongside me. I am angry at the public for not considering the “flowering” of pornography that would occur when the decency laws were loosened.

    It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to destroy a child. My trauma was not the work of just one person, or even of just two people. It was a collective process of neglect, denial, and incompetence in addition to out-and-out harm. My community failed me.

    Everyone failed you.

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  9. Wonderful piece: (1) Brave (2) Honest (3) Helpful in its honesty and blunt discussion (4) Writing style is clear and approachable. These are all very difficult spots for me too. Objective understanding does help stop forward cycles; but there are no excuses for unacceptable behavior. “The Road Less Traveled” posits that love = honesty, most importantly with self; dishonesty = destruction (“sin” is another word that some use here).

    Another difficult aspect of all of this is that patterns are literally imprinted upon our nervous systems, any time we experience anything … and repeated, long-standing experiences of course make those imprints deeper. So certain things “feel” familiar — literally. Comfort going back into the old territory; nervous system says OK here we are in Familiar Land.

    You’re using your cognitive abilities — clearly you have a very powerful Pre-Frontal Cortex — to override the nervous system ingrained patterning. So, you can use this tool to stay on the side of safety, but it’s still an override, as opposed to replacement, which means it can’t make all the emotional turmoil go away.

    I started to write “looking forward to your next piece” but then thought how can I say that when Elisabeth is having to write about this subject matter? But I think you know what I mean — that I am eager to learn more from you.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment Cynthia. I agree that there is a pattern we are used to. Some folks in the trauma field call it: “what fires together, wires together”. And my pre-frontal cortex is definitely powerful. That being said, I also think there is a way to realign the nervous system and calm it down while working with the belief systems. It is why I am so pushy about doing body work while doing the therapeutic (head) work. I think that doing both simultaneously can start to shift the nervous system also. Of course, this takes time and repetition – a lot of it.

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  10. I just left a comment, but wanted to comment on a different aspect of this. YES, YES, YES, I completely understand, relate to, and agree with your assessment of having personal angst generated by the clash between your social justice value system — which includes a belief that women should support other women — and the fact that you had a terrible, horrible, abusive mother. Yes, mammals, including humans, need feminine nurturing energy. Part of that nurturing is PROTECTION. And bingo! Yes! Your mother’s denial was wrong. Simply wrong. I have parents of origin who practice so much denial it would make any sensible person’s head blow off their bodies. But denial — which is self-centered ultimately, is wrong. We have to say that. We don’t people off the hook. “Oh she was just in denial, so it’s OK that she [insert specific abuse]. I know you’re saying this too, just chiming in.

    So back to the conflict — I can relate to what you are saying about angst – there is a belief system that make you want to promote gender equality justice, and then BOOM! That neural pathway literally runs right into another narrative — that a WOMAN did these horrible things to you. It literally hurts in the brain, a literal collision, and creates angst.

    This is connected to one thing I think about a lot — being called a “Mother” should be a privilege that comes with good parenting. You are not a “mother” if you shoot a kid out of your loins and then live in the same household with that child. You’re a “mother” if you take care of children (whether you shot them out of your body or not, and I say that also as an adoptive parent) … who also provides nurturing, safety, and support.

    We have all these glowy, beautiful, loving notions associated with “Mother” — which further complicates things; any time we say or think the word “mother,” all the happy warm blowy emotions want to surface. Sometimes it’s helpful to think about “the person whose body I grew in,” “the person whose house I lived in when I was little,” “the person who would fly at me in rage out of nowhere.” Thinking with these descriptors instead of using the word “mother” makes it easier for me to work objectively around all this.

    Thank you for this post!!

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    • It is interesting that you mentioned the name of “mother”. I usually refer to my parents (in my inner chatter) using their first names instead of the labels of mother and father. I think this helps me to make this distinction. They were not a mother and father. They were abusers, pimps, torturers and a million other labels, but not a mother and father.

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