There are skeletons in my family closet. The kind that haunt you late at night when you can’t sleep. Emotionally, I have had walls up for as long as I can remember. People have always told me, you either know me well or you do not know me at all. I do not have traditional acquaintances per se, and I am certain this has deep roots in trust and abandonment issues that I have harbored my entire life. My mother, you see, is a master narcissist.
I always figured that I must have been an exceptionally bad kid. Wasn’t it normal—whatever that means—to be in constant trouble? Of course not. Hindsight is 20/20. However, it has taken me a lifetime of questioning and self-doubt to figure this out.
Any time my mother was upset, there was “a shift” of blame that took place; it always fell on us, her children. We were told she couldn’t go to college because she had us. She said the only reason she even had me was for my sister, and that I screwed that up because not even my sister liked me since I was so mean to people. Her migraines were our fault. Her stress was our fault. Her lack of money…well, you get the picture.
Even when my older sister would get in trouble, it would somehow come back to being my fault. My mother was also jealous of my relationship with my stepdad. She made frequent comments regarding how often we texted and about our shared love of football and sports in general. She also mocked me any time I defended him, always using a snide voice to say, “Oh, of course ‘Little Stevie’ just can’t do anything wrong in your eyes!”
Growing up, love in my home was conditional. There were, and still are, strings attached to everything. “I love you” was only really used in place of an apology. You will never get an apology from my mother, but if she knows she’s really crossed a line you might get an “I love you.”
To the outside world, my mother is a successful business owner and wife. She drives nice cars, owns multiple houses, goes to country clubs, and wants everyone to see her as perfect. She brags about her children and grandchildren, even flat out fabricates stories to make everyone believe she is the most wonderful mother, grandmother, friend, and wife. Some of these fabrications have been told for so long that I think she actually believes them.
Behind closed doors, though, it is quite different. As kids, we walked on eggshells. We never knew what we were going to get when we walked through the door. There was so much yelling. I still cringe when someone raises his or her voice; it makes me physically sick.
As I have gotten older, I have come to understand that my mother is the embodiment of “emotionally unavailable.” We knew we could not go to her for any type of support or affection and certainly not for empathy. Whatever we were dealing with, her life was always much worse—she’d dealt with much more, and no one was there to hold her hand so we’d better get over it! My mother would mock us if we cried. I remember feeling badly for my sister because she was a crier, and our mother would prey on it.
When I was younger, I never dreamed of getting married and having children. I had spent my life being told by my mother that we were going to drive her to suicide or that she was going to be taken away by “the men in little white suits.” She forgot my birthday almost every year and told us Mother’s Day was made so she didn’t have to be around us.
Also, for as long as I can remember, anything my stepdad did was wrong. I just couldn’t fathom this idea that I was supposed to grow up and want to get married and have children. At 18, however, I found out I was pregnant. Surprise! Scared, lost, and completely overwhelmed, I went to my mother. True to form, all she did was cry, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” She tried to convince me to move away and have the baby somewhere else so people wouldn’t know. Never once did she ask if I was okay or how she could help. It was all about her.
Somehow, I decided I was meant to have that baby. I am still not sure how I came to that decision, but I knew it was the right choice. My mother planned my baby shower—or I should say she planned her baby shower. It was at the country club, with multi-course meals and loads of people, many of whom were her friends. Beforehand, I kept saying, “I am broke. I need diapers, money, formula, the basics.” My mother wouldn’t, couldn’t, hear any of it. Instead, I ended up with lots of lavish things that I had nowhere to put and not even a crib in which to put my baby.
You can imagine when you become a single mother alone at 19 years old with no real role model for what a mother should be, it is beyond scary. Once my daughter was born, it was clear to me that I could do all the things you were supposed to do—provide food, diapers, clothes, the basics. But how do you love? How do you teach empathy when you’ve never experienced it? Can you be a parent and not yell, cuss, throw things, and belittle your children? I honestly wasn’t sure, and I was terrified. All I knew was that I didn’t want my home to be like that. I didn’t want to create an environment in which my child couldn’t speak to me or was afraid to open the front door because of how I might react that day. I wanted my child to go to bed every night and wake up every day knowing she was loved for exactly who she was.
I worked relentlessly to “soften” as a human for my daughter’s sake; I refused to repeat my childhood. My evolvement has continued, and I have since married and had another child. If I am making this process sound easy, I assure you it hasn’t been. I am a work in progress. I still battle my mother’s nagging comments in my head on an almost-daily basis.
As I delve into my childhood and face those skeletons of my narcissistic mother, I realize that this weight I have carried for so long is the equivalent of an onion—hard, heavy, many thick layers of memories and emotional scars, and stinging as I attempt to pull the mass apart. Still, it is becoming easier as I go. Sometimes I have to take a minute, walk away from it, regroup, and then go back at it. As I pull back the layers of my pain for examination, eventually I must let go. They are not me, and they do not define me. My family remains my inspiration and my greatest joy. I am determined to stay the course, and I will break the cycle for my children, my husband, and myself.
Oddly, much of my ability to truly face and feel all of these issues came from a very surprising place. It wasn’t until my stepdad started behaving much like my mother due to the mindset of “I have to live with her” that I was able to let go. From years of feeling overlooked, I tend to fiercely protect anyone about whom I care, and I have become used to being the scapegoat most of my life in my family dynamic. For this reason, it was very natural for me to want to protect the only person that ever really raised me—until he stopped associating and communicating with my children. He was no longer “allowed” to have a relationship with them or he would have to face the wrath of his wife. That was enough for me. That is when I threw in the towel. My children will not be treated the way I was. I suppose, sadly, it is just more evidence of exactly how conditional love still is in my family.
My siblings, nieces, nephews, and father have not yet begun to clean out their emotional closets. Maybe one day they will have the strength to deal with their skeletons so strategically placed by my mother. Until then, with each issue I address, I get rid of one more skeleton, consciously unravel and let go of one more tie binding me to them. It is liberating and terrifying at the same time. I have always valued quality over quantity in my life; I suppose that has been very helpful throughout this process. It allows friends to fill roles that should be filled by family.
I can’t change my mother, and I can’t change my family’s inability to support my children. In some ways it is no different than when I was a scared 19-year-old single mother, and yet in other ways everything is different. My life is now filled with love. My happiness, success, and self-worth do not fluctuate. I am me. I am not perfect. I am a work in progress, and I will continue to grow and flourish as I move on from my past.