Mother Days: ‘Calculated Emotional Abuse’

I took the above phrase from a post on FAR (published 5/6/22) after it triggered memories of mother abuse. A classic Handmaid’s Tale with a twist. Like Sedna I was a daughter who was thrown into the sea, her fingers cut off one by one (but not by my father). Abandoned and left to die, Daughter sank to the bottom of the sea. In the Inuit story the abused daughter survives, transforming into Mistress and Mother of the Animals. As a woman I have followed in Sedna’s footsteps in that I became a dedicated naturalist with a fierce love for all non-human creatures (and plants), but I have yet to transform my unfortunate family history. 

With Mother’s Day approaching, I am forced against my will to think about my calculating, deceitful mother who had little use for women in general, and spent her life criticizing and eventually deleting her only daughter permanently from her life. Trashed.

My first crib memory is one of raw terror – a bewildered baby crying out for a mother that never came. Comfort, compassion, love, were withheld. Now at 77 I ask myself: what was wrong with this woman?

 I was stripped of all autonomy as a child and as an adolescent. Adhering to my mother’s impossible standards was something I was never able to achieve, and eventually I gave up my flawed self in despair. Depression and a terrible emptiness characterized my life as a child and adolescent. I learned to smile to survive. I also learned to lie about pain.

Why can’t you be like – fill in the blank – she’d say to a mute adolescent who was unable to stand up for herself. After a few drinks this mother routinely turned on her daughter for absolutely no reason while the rest of the family cringed but said nothing. The words ‘calculating and cruel’ fit this dead woman’s behavior like a glove. No wonder I left home at nineteen to marry an alcoholic (just like my mother) to escape her wrath.

Judgement was King. The one quality I learned at my mother’s knee was how to judge myself unmercifully. I was inherently flawed and unworthy.

My mother was oh so clever, casting me as the outsider as an adult. I was ‘the eccentric’, the one with too much feeling, the one who lived in the sticks. This woman always took the other person’s side, even if that person had abused me.

After my mother lost my brother to suicide my children became her pet project.  

My sons are presently adults in their 50’s but the damage was done during the years my sons were children, adolescents, and young men in their twenties. Like most parents, my children had issues with their mother that my mother used to help alienate them from me, apparently twisting their minds permanently. She began this takeover when they were small children. Later as young adults she seduced them with money she never earned, leaving her daughter to face old age in poverty. My father would turn over in his grave if he knew. The minds of my children may have been co –opted to begin with but today I hold them accountable for abandonment and betrayal too. 

 I am not suggesting that I am innocent here. I became a mother before I became a person, and from the beginning had a difficult time especially with my oldest son whose screaming tantrums and raging anger terrified me. When Chris was 20 months old and I returned from the hospital with his little brother he screamed “Mama I hate you”. It wasn’t the first time. I believed him. What had I done? Insecure attachment disorder? I’ll never know. My point is that as a 20 year old mother I was literally at sea. I knew nothing about mothering never having been mothered myself.

 Unfortunately, my mother’s lifetime of abuse lives on waiting for a crisis like the one I had last winter to manifest as male and female Destroyer. Both. On new year’s eve I broke my foot shoveling ice and damaged it further by not being able to get help when I desperately needed it. Frightened out of my wits, my fears escalated to an unbearable pitch. I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t get help, I was getting too old; I had to sell the house.

 I made the decision to sell based on childhood helplessness. I did not understand what I was doing until it was too late.

My mother had come to life again as destroyer of self, as she always does when I am most vulnerable.

 Fortunately, circumstances changed and I was able to reverse the decision for a price. I started sleeping again. I opened to the unknown coming to terms with the truth that winters are too hard and I must find another place to live for at least three months each year. 

Another life perspective has shifted; I acknowledge that although it may be possible to stay in this little cabin and on land I love for a while longer, that I must also begin to prepare for a permanent leave – taking. With this in mind (after the reversal), and finding the help I needed quite effortlessly, I cleared my house of virtually everything I did not need (and I am not a collector of stuff). Even the garage has been cleaned out. When the last piece of extra furniture, book, family picture, dish went out the door I experienced a profound sense of relief. I felt physically lighter. It took a couple of days to understand that I had not only let go of furniture etc. but I had released myself from past trauma, family and otherwise, or had been released from it on some inexplicable level – maybe both.

When the time does come to sell the house I will be prepared and ready to go. And I have a realtor who is also a friend I trust.

 Yesterday, after having a conversation with my doctor regarding my recent crisis I didn’t resist when he brought up the value of seeing a therapist because of the severity of my mother’s abuse, coupled with other childhood, adolescent, and adult traumas had all come together to unhinge me during this last crisis. 

 What drove my crazed fear was that infant’s terror/child/adolescent fear of abandonment – I had no place to go – and no family to help me – and that fright paralyzed me on a level I have never experienced before. I have survived profound losses in my life, and assumed I would be able to deal with this loss too, but I was wrong. Leaving a beloved home without having any place to go catapulted me into Sedna’s realm as lost daughter; I was stuck at the bottom of the sea. I am not certain that any conventional therapy can help, but I am willing to try a few sessions of MDR to see. 

Last week I had a dream that I wanted to marry a dolphin, a dream that delighted me. I have always loved dolphins and spent a lot of time around these mammals when I was young and again at mid- life when I was doing research in the Amazon. As one of Sedna’s daughters, wanting to marry a dolphin seems hopeful because dolphins move back and forth between two worlds. They live in the sea but breathe sweet air,  most surfacing frequently to do so. 50 million years ago dolphins were originally land animals that chose to enter the sea. One major difference between dolphins and humans today is that dolphins must also choose to breathe to stay alive; they do not breathe reflexively. 

  Is it possible that marrying a dolphin might be Sedna’s gift to me?