Several years ago I was sitting in a psychologist’s office when my personal narrative was unexpectedly uprooted, violently rearranged, and permanently altered as if hit by a tornado. As soon as I heard the words, “What she did was selfless and in fact an act of love,” a powerful mixture of anger and indignation began to swell within my being. Within seconds, inner wounds that were dormant and long forgotten began to resurface and cause my psyche distress. All of this must have shown through the expression on my face as the question, “Are you okay?” summoned me from a dark pensiveness.
I was not okay.
I finally managed to reply, “Wow, I never looked at it that way. Like really, not.”
I was in this office on a weekly basis to face (and hopefully heal) a complex assortment of emotional issues.
My sense of inadequacy as a parent puzzled my family and close friends. By no means did anyone think of me as the perfect mother, but I was greatly better than I gave myself credit for. So why was I uncomfortable whenever someone complimented my mothering? Why did I have to feel sheepish for being a better mother than my own mother? The truth was, I already knew the answers to these questions.
An unmotherly woman with a troublesome level of narcissistic selfism brought me into the world. How was it even possible that I was a decent mother in the first place? And didn’t I display some of my mother’s undesirable traits in difficult moments?
On the other hand, if my mothering was criticized, even constructively—I reacted with destructive offensiveness. This put a strain on my relationships. An over-the-top fear of failing my children filled me with anxiety. Any kind of critical feedback, however well intentioned, would trigger intense stress, and was unwelcome.
Motherhood was a huge enough identity shift for me. To have it laden with psychic land mines was exhausting and had to be addressed. I owed it to both myself, and my family, to get help.
I had long envied the insouciance of most of the girls I’d known growing up. What they took for granted throughout their lives, I viewed as a luxury. They enjoyed the comfort of having mentally stable and loving mothers to help guide them through girlhood, adolescence, and womanhood. I saw myself as an incomplete daughter and as such, was filled with shame. I particularly envied the girls who were told they were beautiful. Whether they were or they weren’t, aside from being subjective, was irrelevant to me. At least they didn’t have to cope with the knowledge that their mothers didn’t find their appearance up to par. It devastated me to disappoint my mother for having knock-knees, big feet, and an all too-ethnic appearance.
My father’s Armenian heritage was a stark contrast to my mother’s fair skin, grey-blue eyes and strawberry blond hair. I was an unsavoury reminder of all she ultimately wanted to flee from—including her marriage to my father.
After enduring her physical and verbal abuse for years, I was around ten years old when my mother walked away from the responsibilities of motherhood altogether. Not that she was ever around in a consistent way prior to her permanent disappearance from my day-to-day life. Nevertheless, this final abandonment took me by surprise and I was overwhelmed with sadness and had zero tools in which to process her absence.
I was like a character featured in an after school television special. I would need to draw on my creativity and inner resources to work through the unique challenges I was soon to face.
There I was, a little girl with an overzealous desire to people-please, a severe self-confidence deficit, and a proclivity for magical thinking. I cleaved to the fantasy that if I were more loveable, pretty, or smart everything would change for the better. In this halcyon day dream my mother would not only return—but come back as the best mother any girl could dream of.
I experience shades of this thinking even to this day.
With one sentence (and a boatload of wisdom behind it) my psychologist obliged me to rethink my narrative.
“What she did was selfless and in fact an act of love…”
How I resented her right then and there for essentially coloring my mother in such a positive light. Where was the accountability? Where was my Good Will Hunting/Robin Williams “It’s not your fault…” break-through mantra?
Suddenly my therapists un-manicured feet and signature ugly sandals were no longer endearing. I nearly blurted out, “Unless you groom yourself properly and wear prettier sandals, it’s all just pseudo psychology as far as I’m concerned!”
Luckily, my expression didn’t betray my mean-spirited thoughts and this woman who devoted her life to healing society one person at a time continued…
“Cynthia, your mother spared you more harm by leaving you. She loved you enough to walk away. From everything you have shared about your mother and your relationship with her, I am convinced it was an act of selflessness and love. No one is a complete villain.”
In The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling—one of the most meaningful books I have ever read, James Hillman writes:
“The more I believe my nature comes from my parents, the less open I am to the ruling influences around me. The less the surrounding world is felt to be intimately important to my story.”
Over the course of the many months I spent sitting in this office, I had never shown any sign of feeling sorry for myself. I did not see myself as a victim, especially considering more than thirty years had gone by. I possessed a remarkable resilience and dauntless spirit in the face of many of life’s hurdles. I fiercely believed James Hillman’s words, “It all has a hidden purpose and belongs to your growth.” I knew deep within my soul that I was not to be pitied. Gratitude came naturally to me.
So much magic had made its way into my life that I felt an embarrassment of blessings. My extraordinary relationship with my own daughter—the love of my life, was my happiest and proudest achievement.
Throughout the decades I had enlarged my family tree to include individuals that were related to me, not by blood, but by the architecture of their souls. I knew that the demise or the growth of my soul was not only affected by those connected to me through genetics. But I was tired of feeling unworthy of good happenings. I was tired of downplaying my achievements however grand or ordinary in scope. And I knew a good part of this had to do with my experience as a child and adolescent—most poignantly shaped by my complicated relationship with my mother.
And because I knew that nothing corners you more powerfully than clarity, I also knew that I had more work to do. I came to accept that if understanding my narrative differently obliged me to feel retroactive guilt for judging my mother too harshly considering her own challenges, so be it. If understanding my story differently brought out compassion for my troubled mother, then that would be a good thing too. And what was the point of examining my life if not to allow more love and empathy into it? I had to take action in my clarity.
I was grateful for not just that one intense hour with the lady with the ugly sandals, but all the sessions. And I would never forget the day she said, “If you are just a little better than your parents- you are a success of sorts.” This time I did blurt out, “You’re kidding me! That’s way too easy!”
With her characteristic all-knowing expression, she smiled; “Not as easy as you think.” The more I thought about it, the more I understood.
Had life not shown me that I was able to tap into the flow of possibilities and break certain cycles through prodigious perseverance? Transformative forces were available to me if I opened my eyes and heart to new ways of looking at my story. Most importantly, my story was connected to everyone’s story.
To transmit the full complexity of our lives is the biggest challenge when we tell our stories. But it is worth the effort because we get to experience a greater understanding of, not just ourselves, but each other. Our interconnectedness is strengthened through emotional resonance. When we were so positive we were alone, others were feeling just like us.
Wise Women Canada, by Liz Wiener and Lisa Brookman, is a lifestyle blog that aspires to bring the community together by sharing the stories that make us human.