In Praise of a Failed Mother
It’s difficult to describe my mother’s character. She could be good or bad, both or neither. Every state was equally true of her. Like the illnesses that bedeviled her, the shifting highs, lows, and inbetweens were tempestuous and unpredictable. Only recently have I realized there was a constant beneath the storm, so firm that I took it for granted, one that made all the difference: I never doubted that she loved me.
I’ve been rereading some psychology and came across a passage about attachment theory. Attachment describes what might be called “a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Forming at least one healthy attachment to a caregiver is thought to be critical to a child’s development. The caregiver doesn’t have to be to a parent, just a consistently available and caring person in the child’s life. If attachment goes well, the theory goes, it provides a secure base from which the child can reach out and explore life. If it goes poorly—if the child is somehow unreceptive or receives conditional, abusive, or inadequate attention—it increases the risk of a variety of later miseries including depression, personality disorders, and suicide.
Some children adapt to difficult circumstances in creative but personality-distorting ways. The child of an exacting, demanding caregiver might struggle for achievement in order to win approval. The child of an emotionally unavailable caregiver might stifle emotions and focus on neutral topics to curry favor. Obviously these schemes can have very negative consequences. An ego constructed without an inherent sense of self-worth is a hollow tube that may crumple when tested. Victims may be unaware of the problem and mystified why their self-esteem and relationships with others are so unstable. This fragility may also be heritable, by genetic predisposition and by afflicted parents teaching the truths they suppose they have learned.
There are lots of maybes here. A good or bad childhood doesn’t predestine the outcome. Most of us can think of families with great kids except one who rebels and turns out different (sometimes more interesting). While there is nothing one can do to guarantee the perfect child, there are many ways to ruin one. Hit them, abandon them, manipulate them, unlove them, and the risk of a bad outcome multiplies. The pivot thus often seems to be the relationship with the caregiver.
What if the caregiver is abusive but loving? It is possible. Loving people do strange things for strange reasons. Regardless of intention, after a while a hurt is simply a hurt and attachment is shattered. The child may be left feeling unloved, unwanted, or unworthy. Nevertheless, unconditional love is a powerful antidote. It is the light that reveals better things. It can find its way through the smallest cracks into the childhood darkness.
My mother’s failings as a caregiver were many. There were minor insecurities like her being a terrible cook—my childhood involved a lot of canned soup and boil-in-a-bag corn niblets—or her chronic inability to pay the bills on time—I got used to picking up a dead telephone. The much more serious lapses ranged from the ordinary awful, like those fights where all the things you’ve never supposed to say get said, to the more exotic. Once in an altered state she mistook me for a violent ex-boyfriend and attacked me like I was the devil. I understood immediately that it was an accidental hurt—the last thing she wanted to do was hurt me—but that didn’t comfort me as I fled the house in my pajamas. No, I felt rejected and unprotected. Detached and discarded. It sucked. Nor did it help that she spent several days in psych lockup afterwards. Every misadventure raised the prospect of my being taken away from her to live with my kindly Stepford relatives.
What was important, however, was not the list of grievances but how I interpreted things. A single good example says more than any number of stories.
One afternoon during the summer after fifth grade (I called it the Summer of Hell), my mother was driving me home when she abruptly pulled over at a bar and said she was going to get a drink. This was bizarre behavior, even by her standards. We didn’t yet know, but this was an example of an epileptic fugue that could come on without warning, a departure where she could go for a stroll or have a conversation without letting on anything was wrong until it became apparent she wasn’t making sense. It might seem like she was a bit drunk, but she was simply gone. She would remember nothing when it was over.
She didn’t come back, although I waited in the car for several hours. I was on one of the many fast four-lane roads in Los Angeles that swirl with the sticky brown dust that coats the city. There were many people around, but in my world there were none. No one seemed to notice the eleven year-old stranded in his mother’s car. I was too shy to ask after her in the womb-like bar with blacked-out windows. (I’m still intimidated by those “adults only” signs.) I ventured out of the car and bought a toy gun that fired spinning plastic disks. That helped pass the time until the street got dark and uncomfortable. I debated whether to leave. I had the keys, so if I left she’d be stranded herself. I finally decided to try getting home on the bus. I don’t think I’d ever ridden a bus by myself. Consulting with several nice drivers on which lines went where and how to use a transfer, I made it home. She wasn’t there, so I watched TV, probably ate some soup, and went to bed.
The next morning she appeared, flustered and upset. She apologized profusely and gave a convoluted explanation that she ended up sleeping on a nice man’s couch somewhere and came home as soon as she woke up. She asked if I was all right about thirty times. My attitude was, of course I was all right. (I didn’t spin out in my mind what had really happened. I wasn’t yet aware there are all too many men willing to “help” an inebriated woman. To be mentally ill is to be vulnerable, and her tale of sexual abuse is a long one.) She didn’t want to go back to the mental hospital, and I didn’t want her to either, so we told no one what had happened.
With many such incidents, a lot of children would have grown up feeling very insecure and vulnerable. I’ve long wondered why I didn’t. I’m clear now that her unconditional love was key. Our bond was powerful and mutual. Despite our fights, despite her illness, we were a team against the world. I knew she was always available to me. Her forgiveness was if anything too readily given. She even allowed a sort of amnesty for confession when I’d done something dodgy (“Promise you won’t get mad?”). I knew far too much about her life, but I understood what was about me and what wasn’t. And when we laughed together, we laughed.
The unconditional aspect of her concern for me was critical. Although of necessity and predilection I became extremely independent, I knew I was not alone. I always had at least one stalwart. By the time she died I was almost an adult and the foundation had set.
In reading about attachment, I realized that I have no idea what it would be like to be denied it. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. She always made me feel like a blessing in her life, never a mistake, and there was no price of admission. Her love was unconditional even when I was not being particularly praiseworthy. I knew it was there even when she was not being particularly praiseworthy either.
I don’t think the bad things that happened are all right. I’ve never dismissed them. They still sting. I am mindful of them. I accept that I can’t change the past. It’s done. To pine after a better childhood is a preoccupation with the impossible. Our lives are lived in the present. The future is where the possibilities lie. I’ve met any number of self-congratulatory people who assume I fantasize about being more like them, but I realize appearances can be deceiving. Over their shoulders, I too often see childhoods of emotional sterility, of benign brutality. No one should go through what I did, but also no one should be denied the unconditional love I enjoyed.
I know my mother worried a lot about whether she had permanently harmed me. I doubt she recognized her successes even though she was delighted to see mine, much owing to her. My mother didn’t read a book on child development. What she got right, she did by just being herself, through love and self-sacrifice. She did so in defiance of a life of suffering that would have broken most of us. It was a tragedy that I was her child, and it was a blessing.
So here is my posthumous Mother’s Day card:
I don’t remember my childhood with resentment. I do not want to rewrite it any more than I would relive it. I wish instead that you were in the present and the future of my life, and of the lives of your grandchildren—whom, thanks to you, I love very much.