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‘Should I Meet With My Mom?’

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Hello, Polly,

I am a 20-year-old college sophomore. My mother and I have not been on speaking terms for years. I have refused all contact since she showed up uninvited to my high-school graduation. I thought she was the best mom ever once and loved her very much. She was a single parent. She and Daddy divorced when I was 4 and my sister was 2. When I was 9, everything fell apart.

The rule was that if I left the house, I had to ask my mom first or leave a note. Makes sense, right? Parents want to know where their kids are, especially in this age of a pervert everywhere you look. Before accepting an invitation to go to the neighbors’ house to watch a movie, I left the required note. It got swept up in my sister’s papers and thrown away. Mom thought I was missing, was in a panic, and spanked me when I got home. I found my note not five minutes later and cleared my name. Mom was so sorry, crying and apologizing. But what good was that? This was not the crime of the century. The 9-year-old solved it in five minutes because the 31-year-old wouldn’t try. No investigative work. No due diligence. I guess it would have been gross parental negligence to just take my word and believe me? I mean it was not like there was DNA evidence of my guilt and the odds of me being innocent were a quadrillion to one. But right or wrong, she just had to do something right then. If I had forgotten about the note, I would have just admitted it and taken whatever I had coming. I would have trusted my mom’s judgment. I was not a liar. But to think I was guilty, she had to think I was both a liar and a loser. She said she never thought that, but what else could she have thought?

I had something close to a breakdown. I got all depressed, quit all of my activities, and ended up in counseling. My mom was crying all the time. My grandmother hated me for not essentially taking one for the team. I wanted to live with my dad. Both parents resisted, but eventually agreed. We moved out of state. Nothing pleased Daddy. He nitpicked everything I did. I wrote him a Father’s Day poem. He edited and corrected it. Mom used to coach me in basketball. Daddy would not let me play because he said I was mediocre at best and it was a waste of time.

My mom remarried. She had twin boys at 34, another girl at 37, and adopted an abandoned and abused little girl last year. I am their oldest sibling, but they barely know me. My next-youngest sister blames herself because she threw my note away. I never blamed her. I only blamed Mom. I graduated at the top of my class and got all kinds of scholarships. School is paid for. I am going to be a doctor. But I have not had a happy day since the early afternoon of that day 11 years ago. How could my mom get it so right with my brothers and sisters, but get it so wrong with me?

Should I meet with my mother now?

Still Angry

Dear Still Angry,

I want to be honest with you. At first glance, you sound like someone who is extremely confused about reality. How could your mother’s inability to look for a lost note matter this much? How could your mother’s panicked punishment, followed by apologies and tears, have caused you to cut her out of your life? And you still believe that her punishment meant that she saw you as a liar and a loser, and that’s what makes you so mad, even now?

But upon closer examination, the reasons for your anger become clearer, even if they’re still not clear to you.

Let’s start with this: Your mother didn’t freak out and spank you because she thought you were a liar and a loser. Your mother trusted you and viewed you as an incredibly responsible kid. This should be obvious to you because you were, in fact, exceptionally responsible, particularly for a 9-year-old. I’ll bet you always left a note when you left the house and she wasn’t there. That’s why, when she came home and found no note, she was shocked. And because she’s an incredibly anxious person, she immediately came up with an elaborate story for why there was no note explaining where you were. By the time you got home, your mother was 100 percent certain that you were being raped and murdered by a pervert. She wasn’t just angry. She was out of her mind with worry and rage and self-hatred (for letting this happen at all). So she spanked you.

The spanking wouldn’t have sent you into a downward spiral if it weren’t enormously out of character for her. I’ll bet she had never spanked you before. In fact, I’ll bet you rarely got punished. And even though she apologized profusely once the note was found, it was too late. You weren’t just furious that she had spanked you without justification, you were furious that she would exert any authority over you at all.

Why? Because you were the parent by then, and she was the child. She put too much responsibility on your back because she couldn’t handle it all. This isn’t unusual behavior for a single mother. Many single mothers are a little anxious, a little paranoid, a little prone to storytelling under stress (since there is no other adult there to keep their stories in check), and a little more self-blaming and therefore temperamental, too, when things go wrong. Not all single mothers are like this, but single mothers who grew up in dysfunctional families often are. I was raised by a single mother starting at age 9, and particularly for the first five years after she got divorced, she was a little paranoid. She used to accuse me of stealing her silky underwear when she couldn’t find it, and she’d never say, “Oh, Jesus, that was stupid, I’m sorry,” once it turned up again. This would make me insanely mad, in part because instead of slowing down and looking for information, she’d just blindly blame me. But it also made me mad because she never wanted to revisit that moment of rage when I became her target for no reason. Sound familiar? It’s not that the rage itself is so hard to understand. It’s that she never wanted to discuss it once it was over, even when it was obvious that she was in the wrong. I think a similar dynamic was in play when your mother spanked you. I’m guessing she didn’t want to discuss it beyond saying she was sorry.

Like you, I also had a lot of freedom. My curfew in high school was 2 a.m., if you can imagine that. Everything was fine as long as I showed up at two or called if I was going to be late. One night I got home at exactly 2:10 a.m. and my mom screamed at me and grounded me for two months. No one I knew had a 2 a.m. curfew, but no one I knew had ever been grounded for two months, either, even for much bigger offenses. That felt like FOREVER to me, with only a few months left in high school. But my mom was furious, because the second the clock struck 2:01, she was instantly certain that I was dead. And because she was furious, she had to immediately decide on a punishment and stick to it, no matter what I said or did from that point forward.

This is the parenting system of a woman who managed her anxieties about single parenting by either overcontrolling or avoiding completely. Avoidance kicks in with any part of the parenting picture that threatened to make my mother feel out of control. That’s another way of saying it’s the parenting system of a guilty, self-blaming control freak who grew up with an alcoholic parent and married an oppressive patriarch, had kids way too young, and then found herself somewhat afraid to show up and be present as her kids became independent human beings with their own ideas and beliefs and needs. (Now it’s time for a shoutout to my mother, who was also an amazing, wise, loving mother, and who is generous enough to tolerate me using her as a case study repeatedly.)

Your mother had you when she was 22 years old. She was still a child, and she married a nitpicking, controlling, selfish man and had two kids, then had to raise those two kids alone at a very young age. Like me, you looked after yourself and your sister a lot, probably because your mother worked full time, like mine did. You also say that you participated in a bunch of activities. You were the perfect responsible, overachieving child. I would guess that your mom talked to you like you were an adult, and rarely punished you. You thought she was the best mother ever! She wasn’t a nag and a bitch like your friends’ parents. But what did your 7-year-old sister do when you left to see a movie? You say your note got swept up with her papers. So she was there, and you could still leave whenever you wanted, as long as you left a note? Why was your 7-year-old sister left at home alone?

So your mom spanks you and you become depressed. You’re depressed because everything under the surface has finally revealed itself: You are not free. You are not responsible. You are a child and can be punished. But then what happens? Your mother apologizes. As you fall into a depression, quit your activities, and enter counseling, what is your mother doing? “Crying all the time.” Why? Because she is a child who can’t handle a crisis. I know that you don’t know this yet, but by quitting everything and falling apart, you were trying to become a child again. You said, “Oh, if you can spank me, if you really are in charge, then I can be a child and you can be a parent for once. Come save me, I need you!” This is what a lot of teenagers are doing, when they push their parents away. They’re saying, “Help me, I’m still a kid inside! I feel overwhelmed and I need you!” You hit that teenage phase early, because you were asked to take on too much responsibility too early. Was your mother a parent then, when you needed her to be one? Did she hear the call and rise to the challenge? Nope. She cried all the time. She couldn’t show up for you. She couldn’t be an adult. She could sense what you wanted, but she couldn’t give it to you. She was afraid of you — afraid of your raw emotion, afraid of your anger.

And I’ll bet that if you look back at the times when you were crying or angry as a little kid, you’ll see a bunch of instances where your mother either backed away or hid or told you that you were being overdramatic. That’s how you MAKE an overdramatic kid, by the way. You tell her that her emotions are too much. You tell her that you will never show up for her, as long as she’s crying or angry. This means that every time she feels a tiny bit upset, she starts to panic, because she knows that her tears will RUIN EVERYTHING. Her tears will isolate her and she’ll be all alone with her sadness. Her mother, who seemed like her best friend a second ago, will disappear.

So after you got depressed and quit your activities and your mother cried all the time but didn’t try to help you or soothe you or talk you through the whole lost-note thing, what did you do? You decided that you were the adult in the picture. And as long as you were the adult, you could do whatever the hell you wanted, including going to live with your father. This was a way of getting back at your mother for disappearing into her own tears instead of helping you. It was also a way of throwing down the gauntlet: Either be a parent to me, or I’m out of here. And what did your mother do? She pushed back, weakly, for a while, and then eventually she agreed to let you leave. This is where she failed you the most. She let you go live with a man she knew very well was unforgiving, controlling, nitpicky, cold, and unfair. She let you move to another state. Why? Because she was that avoidant. She was that oppressed by you needing her. She was that guilty and ashamed of herself. She could’ve said no! You were still too young to legally choose to live with your father! But your mother was so committed to not having to show up for you, emotionally, that she let you leave.

So many parents fail their teenagers this way. They can’t handle the drama of showing up for (and sometimes having really difficult, upsetting conversations with) a headstrong individual who has her own ideas and beliefs and emotions, so they just step away. Facing a real person with real emotions kicks up the trauma they grew up with. The wild, unpredictable emotions, the blame, the insults, the arguments: It all creates a wall of shame and guilt and fear and anxiety and self-hatred for the parent.

I’m still angry at your mother for crying all the time instead of meeting you where you were and working through your anger and depression with you and letting you know that she was there for you, no matter what. That was so unfair. You felt so alone, and no one was there for you. And then she let you go live with a man she knew was a total fucking nightmare, and she turned around and fell in love and had more kids instead of fighting for the kid she already had. That would make me furious.

But I can also tell you this: Your mom is a broken person who’s maybe overachieving just to make it through the day without breaking again. She was definitely raised in a dysfunctional house. She is afraid of emotions — her own, and others’. I’m not telling you to forgive her. But I am telling you that what she did, she did out of love and anxiety and fear. She was completely controlled by her emotions. She let you become an adult too quickly, then she was panicked, then she was depressed, and then she just avoided the whole mess by letting you go. That’s how afraid of you and afraid of emotions she was. I’m sure she has a lot of regrets.

So why did you believe that she thought you were a liar and a loser when she couldn’t find the note? Because she did, at times, treat you like you were a liar and a loser, because that’s what people who know that THEY THEMSELVES are liars and losers do. Your mother knew she was a spineless baby all along. She loved that you stepped up and became an adult, so she could leave you on your own without worrying about you. When she didn’t find a note, she immediately decided you were dead, and she blamed herself for your death. This is the black-and-white thinking of someone who grew up in a dysfunctional home. You could be left alone because you were practically an adult already, at age 9, but when you didn’t write a note, YOU WERE DEAD BECAUSE SHE WAS A LOSER WHO LEFT HER DAUGHTER ALONE. You were dead because she was afraid to be a parent, afraid to show up, afraid of the world.

And now, I’ll bet, she has a husband who takes care of her. And she feels stronger because she has small children at home who need her. And she just adopted another baby. Small people who need her are her thing. I’ll bet she has pets, too. She finds it comforting to shower affection on tiny voiceless beings and smallish people and also authoritarian figures who are the boss and take all responsibility for everything. Medium-size people who need her are a little less comfortable and lovable to her. Big people who call her on her shit and ask her to show up like she should’ve a long time ago? They are her personal nightmare. This is why she shows up at your high-school graduation without permission. She won’t do the hard work of asking you for permission, which would naturally include showing up and talking to you and letting you speak your mind, and might also include explaining why YOU matter so much to her. Instead, she will allow your grandmother to tell a story about how you’re crazy and she should just get over it — which is, not coincidentally, the story your grandmother told you about your mother. Your grandmother told you that your mother was crazy and you should just get over it, for everyone’s sake. YOUR GRANDMOTHER AND YOUR MOTHER BOTH WANTED YOU TO BE THE ADULT, THE PARENT! They begged you for that, and you (rightly) said NO.

She won’t return to the issue of the lost note, and I’ll bet she makes you feel crazy when you try to bring it up. What sucks is, you do sound a little crazy when you bring it up, because you’re still confused about what the lost note means. But it’s good that you keep bringing it up, too, because that note holds the key to your story!

The lost note marks the moment when you realized you were the parent — even your grandmother wanted you in that role — but your mother still somehow reserved the right to treat you like a child. She was inconsistent, as most children are. She was temperamental. She was merely panicked and confused when she spanked you, but she DID treat you like a liar and a loser, underneath the surface. She treated you like a liar and a loser whenever you needed unconditional love from her. You wanted her to love you the way she did when you were a baby. But she was incapable of loving a smart, opinionated kid that way. And she could never acknowledge that. So instead, YOU were made to feel like the crazy one.

So now I have to tell you something that’s heartbreaking: You will never get the unconditional love you want from your mother. You can’t have that kind of love from her, because she’s not an adult and she stopped being a parent to you when you were very young. You can’t get that kind of love from her because she’s afraid of love. She is hiding from you, in a house built of stories about how you’re a liar and a loser and crazy so she doesn’t have to be any of those things. She is hiding from you, in a house built of stories that protect her from the shame and guilt and fear that would come from facing you, and facing herself.

This is where families who carry around shame and guilt and fear always land: In a place where everyone has a story about everyone else, but no one knows how to just show up and be patient and accept each other and give their love, in spite of everything.

I don’t want you to carry on that legacy. I want you to see a therapist and sift through this, slowly. You have to let go of the fantasy of finally having the mother you wanted. If you decide to regain contact with your mother, you have to do it on brand-new terrain. I’m not convinced that she’s capable of meeting you where you are, or accepting your (increasingly clear) understanding of the events of the past, or hearing your anger at how you were treated. If she were capable of that, I think she would’ve shown up and allowed some space for your anger by now. Even if your interpretation sounded wrong to her (it sounded wrong to me, remember), she still could’ve shown up and heard it, all of it, if she weren’t so incredibly afraid of you and afraid of anyone telling the truth about what a scared, avoidant baby she’s been all these years. She’s had her reasons. Let’s not put all of the blame for this legacy of shame and guilt and fear and rage on her shoulders. But let’s be realistic. If you rebuild a relationship with your mother, you will have to do it very slowly and cautiously, and you may have to lower your expectations a little to do it. I know that sucks, but if you don’t accept that, you’ll go through a lot of pain, looking for things that she can never give you. My feeling is that it’s better to be realistic from this point forward.

But I also think that this process of accepting less than you really want from her might be good for you. This will teach you how to show up for someone the way your mother couldn’t. You are still the decider. You can still say, “Fuck this, I need some space,” and back away until you feel safe again. It’s going to be very taxing, this process. But I think the more you can detach and try it on for size, the more you’ll see that this will give you a chance to change your own stories, so that they make more room for the poisonous state of your mother’s family and the deep shame that guides the actions of your relatives, all of whom appear to be living in fear, trying to control the uncontrollable, trying to avoid really showing up. And you will understand yourself, at last.

You’re unhappy because you had to become an independent agent at age 9, and you’ve never learned to relax and love yourself as you are. You’ve always suspected that there must be something wrong with you. You’ve always believed that both your mother and your father rejected you the second you learned to speak your own mind. Listen to me now, even if you don’t believe another thing I’ve written here: There is nothing wrong with you. You accurately perceived that your mother was helpless, and it made you furious. You accurately perceived that she was not strong enough to show up and stand up for you and fight for you. She hid and crumpled instead. Even though I’m asking you to adjust your story about the lost note, to take into account your mother’s anxiety and fear and panic, I want you to see that you understood EXACTLY what was going on emotionally in that moment, and your rage and depression made perfect sense, and matched the collapsed, fearful, poisonous state of your home life.

So get a therapist and be brave. Face this. Face the truth. But here’s another piece of the truth: Your mother didn’t get it right with your sister either, or your sister would never blame herself for misplacing your note. This is not her fault, but she’s telling a story that it is, because that’s what the fearful, ashamed kids of abused, anxious control freaks do. Trust me, your mother isn’t “getting it right” with your younger siblings or with her new abandoned, abused daughter (sound familiar?), either. Those kids could use a sister who can see the world clearly, who will continue to show them unconditional love even when they get older and start to feel resentment at how confused and avoidant their mother is. They’ll need someone who can understand the madness of their childhoods. I also think your mother could use a gentle push toward therapy, so she doesn’t keep reproducing the shame and fear that is her legacy.

I know that’s a lot to ask of you. And your involvement in their lives is entirely your choice. Only you can decide what’s right for you. But have you noticed how strong you are? Have you noticed how much patience and generosity and insight you have for others? That’s also a strange side effect of your dysfunctional upbringing. You are so angry and so confused at some level, but you’re also exceptionally brave and independent. You’re a leader. But you still have to learn to treat yourself with compassion. Once you forgive yourself and trust yourself and feel true compassion for yourself instead of beating yourself up the way your father did and your mother (secretly!) did (underneath her cheerful façade of avoidance), you’ll be calm enough and strong enough to give yourself the unconditional love that no one else around you could give you (or themselves). Once you’re clear on what really happened, you’ll see how broken everyone was, and you’ll see how absurd the stories they told you about yourself were. It will feel good to finally see how bad their choices were, and how wrong it was, that you had to play the role of black sheep/scapegoat just to keep all of those shame-filled humans blameless. It will feel good to see the truth clearly, at last. And then you can take the first step toward your new, happy life.

Oh, yeah, it is a happy life! Believe it. You’ve been through the fire already. If you face this, head on, and let yourself feel it, and let the vulnerability and fear and sadness of it all wash over you, you will emerge into a whole new life. The hard part is already behind you. You’ve crawled for long enough. From this point forward, you get to soar.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Should I Meet With My Mom?’