In yesterday’s post, I touched on how we humans make things harder on ourselves. This is true in general, and even more so with family dysfunction. What we grew up with was the norm, and if it was unrelenting, then it can be hard to break free. In my family, women were subjugated to men (rather, my mother prostrated herself in front of my father. But, weirdly, she also argued with him incessantly about him staying out until all hours of the night. She told me not to tell him certain things, but she also stood up to him when he wanted to spank my brother. She also pushed to get my brother an Apple computer at a time when it was prohibitively expensive because my brother was techno-minded).
My mother has always been an odd mixture of rampantly sexist in general and believing herself to be above those rules. I guess that’s not odd, actually. Many people have a ‘not for me’ exception to their rules. “Oh, this is how things should be–except for me.”
It’s partly because people have plenty of context for their own behavior/ideas/views, but they don’t for other people’s. So something that they could justify for themselves, they would not do so for other people. In other words, it’s ok for me but not for thee.
My mother has dedicated her life to propping up my father’s ego. It’s really sad when you think about it from afar. I also think it has emotionally crippled him rather than helping him. Never allowing him to tolerate a moment of discomfort did not help him grow. Was he able to grow? I don’t know. Doubtful. But we’ll never know because my mother wrapped him in gossamer silk and never let him out.
It’s not entirely her fault. He was (and is) a difficult man. A full-fledged narcissist who did not think about anything other than himself. He had affairs from the time I was very young, and he and my mother fought about it endlessly.
Here’s the bottom line with that. My mother knew. She knew he was stepping out on her, and she accepted it. Yes, she fought with him about it, but she did not leave him. She did not enact any consequences for his bad behavior, so he learned that if he just waited it out, he would win in the end.
I can’t help thinking that her life would have been so much better if she had left him before my brother and I were even born, but that was never going to happen. My mother’s chidhood made it so she would never leave my father. Not just the sexist Taiwanese culture, but the fact that her mother was so domineering and withoholding of love.
It’s funny to me, though (in a darkly ironic way), that my mother repeated my grandmother’s toxicity. My mother has said that she had a troubled relationship with her mother. She has said that she did not feel loved by her mother. She declared that the sister closest to her in age (eight children in total) was her mother’s favorite and that she, my mother, could do nothing to change that.
The story that keeps coming back to me is how when my mother was little, her pastor’s wife took a shine to her. The pastor and his wife did not have children. They wanted to adopt my mother, and my mother actually thought about it. She wanted to do it, but she thought it would hurt her parents. Honestly, in retrospect, I think she was more afraid it WOULDN’T hurt her parents than that it would.
When I told my then-therapist about this, she actually looked discombobulated, which was extremely unusual. She said that children rarely considered leaving their families–even abused children. For my mother to give serious thought to it meant that it was really bad.
To me, it’s sad that my mother felt so alienated from her mother, thought her mother didn’t love her, and struggled to feel accepted by her mother. It’s even sadder taht she recognized that, wanted to have a daughter so she colud have a better relationship with her daughter than she had with her mother, and then repeated the same dynamics. I mean, it happens all the time. That’s why we talk about the cycle of abuse, especially when it comes to families. The cycle gets repeated over and over again, sometimes for countless generations.
I’ll be brutally honest with you. This is one of the top five reasons I didn’t have kids. I knew that I would have continued the cycle if I had children, and I did not want to do that. My grandmother was stern and unforgiving. She was rigid and pushed the patriarchy to the limit. My mother was not stern, but she was just as unforgiving. She was rigid and upheld the patriarchy as well.
I would have been just as bad, albeit in a diffeernt way. I would have resented every minute my kids took from me as I fiercely guard every moment. I have said many times that if I had kids, I would snap and scream at them to leave me the fuck alone, then disappear for three days. On the regular. For which, I would pay their therapists thousands of dollars to repair the damage.
No one ever believes me when I say that, but it’s the truth. I know myself and my limits. I know my strengths, and I know my weaknesses. Besides the fact that I don’t want children and never have, I knew I would be a terrible parent, but no one is willing to hear that.
In addition, I did not want to have my parents anywhere near a hypothetical child of mine. I knew that they would be just as rigid and autocratic with any child I had, and more to the point, I knew that I would not have the strength to stand up to them. Both of my parents are very strong-willed in their own way. They both have definitive ideas about how things should be. They have complained to me every time they’ve spent time with their grandchildren. Which is one time once a year. When it’s longer, such as when my brother took his family to Taiwan for ten days or went on a cruise with them for the same amount of time, they had even more to complain about. I did not want them to do the same to my hypothetical children, but I knew they would.
Here’s the secret. Nothing is ever good enough for my parents. My brother was the shining example of what you could want in a child. He made really good money as a realtor. He was married and had three children. He was a God-fearing, church-going man. Yet, that wasn’t good enough. None of that mattered when anything they perceived as wrong (my mother more than my father) happened. Then, the disapproval came out.
I learned in my thirties that there was nothing I could do to get my parents’ approval. As a bisexual, fat, areligious person who did not want to get married or have kids, yeah, I didn’t stand a chance. But even beyond that, seeing my brother do all the right things and still get shit from my parents showed me that what they purported to want (which, again, was mostly my mother. My father didn’t give a shit about my brother or me) was not enough.
It’s because what my mother was searching for was some amorphous idealization of the perfect family–something that didn’t exist. She wanted the Norman Rockwell painting, and she got Hieronymous Bosch (in her eyes) instead.
I can’t emphasize enough that my brother was abotu as close to ideal as you could get–and it wasn’t enough. Then, when he had the audacity to make a change that has greatly improved his happiness, but shattered that image of the perfect family, my mom lost her mind.
She’s 80. She’s not going to change. I just have to accept that.