Sunday, December 15, 2013

First Christmas after mother's death

This will be the first Christmas I spend without my mother alive. I wonder if others have experienced anything like this with their parents: while I remember good times with my mother, she was abusive to me even into my adulthood, making me relieved when she died. My mother could be loving, funny, generous and creative, and I was very close to her when I was growing up. But when she felt threatened or out of control, she screamed and slammed things and it always felt like the world was ending. 

I miss the nice mother she could be, but that person wasn't around much by the end of her life, and she died last June in a tangle of emotions and relationships. In her last years, I could find nothing of the warm person I remembered from decades prior. Last summer my mother physically died, but the person I felt comfortable with disappeared well before that.

Even to the outside world my mother wasn't an easy person to get along with. In fact, she wasn't even in the 50th percentile of easy-to-get-along-with. I'd put her in the bottom ten. In a good mood she was great to be around, but in a bad mood she was horrible. There are many people who have trouble regulating their moods and responses (it's a main symptom of borderline personality disorder which I believe my mother had), but they can get better with the proper treatment. Unfortunately, my mother never accepted that she needed such help.

It was hard enough to have a mother whose moods were unpredictable, but she also leaned hard on me to help her cope with her life. She expected me to ease the strain of her challenging marriage, uncomfortable relationships with others and day-to-day stressors. As the oldest, I ended up cast in the role of her therapist, best friend, massage therapist and other half of her brain. Our minds and emotions were so closely linked that she'd expect me to give her the word she was looking for and I usually could. I was like another limb for her, and it was decades before I understood how damaging this relationship was to me.

To be so closely tied to a woman who was unpredictable, angry and whose love was extremely conditional, terrorized me. From a young age, I learned to walk with a very light step, as if on eggshells, at all times. My radar was always up for her mood. If Mother was okay, I was okay, but if Mother wasn't okay, alarms went off in my head and I strained to do whatever it took to make things better. Often my efforts weren't nearly good enough and her tirades convinced me that I was stupid, had no common sense and never did anything right.

When I got older I struggled to establish a healthier relationship with her, but wasn't able to. She required me to be the one she could tell all her problems to and required me to accept any amount of emotional abuse. In my 20s I had to pull away from that dynamic, asking her to tell me nothing else about my father that would make me hate him. She never understood why I needed that.

With age her fears deepened, her temper grew shorter and she never stopped acting abusively towards me. The good times I spent with her became fewer and farther between until in my 40s, I made the decision to step out of her life completely. During her final seven years, my mother and I had almost no contact at all.

Last June when I told friends and acquaintances that my mother had died, I made clear that I didn't need the usual sympathy and sad looks. I said I'd stopped contact with her years earlier, healed from the relationship, and had no more grieving to do. Her death was a relief for me and brought me freedom from this woman whose anger and bitterness was so big that she spent her final weeks inflicting yet more emotional pain on her family.

As I talked to people about my mother, I found that a surprising number of people don't mourn their mothers' deaths. I discovered that the world is full of broken mother-child relationships, and many grown sons and daughters don't feel sad at all when their mothers die. I was suprised to find that I wasn't alone in feeling glad that my mother, with all her rage and pain, was finally dead.

My parents were born in Houston, Texas and almost all of my family still lives there. But back in the 1960s, my parents settled in California, away from all family. Under my mother's influence, I grew up believing relatives should be kept at a distance, physically and emotionally. I didn't get to know my grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles. My mother made clear to me that any alliance I might form with anyone besides her -- and this included my father -- would be seen by her as a betrayal and I would be punished accordingly. My mother, who I loved, was the most important person in my world and I was terrified of doing anything that might make her angry with me. So I had no other close relationships when I was growing up, not even with my own father.

It took years of therapy for me to realize that a mother shouldn’t require her child’s allegiance at the expense of all other ties, but even after I broke with her, I continued to have little do with my extended family. It was a hard habit to break. I didn't even realize I was still doing it until my mother's final weeks when I began communicating more with my cousins and aunts. This communication represented a huge change for me: I began leaning emotionally on my aunts, making friends with my cousins and getting to know those cousins' children (with my prosopagnosia I have a lot of trouble keeping them straight). 

Another big step for me is that this year I'm spending Christmas Day in Houston, with all those great people I'm related to. I didn't do that before because I didn't want my mother to feel envious and angry that I was spending Christmas with our extended family, instead of with her.

Now that I'm free from my mother, at the age of 47, I'm finally getting to know my family better, including my father. I had stopped visiting my parents, but now it's safe to return. My dad and I email more than ever and I'm going to visit him next month. I like him! It turns out my dad's a cool guy. I have yet to face the pain of fully realizing that I could have had this great dad in my life all along if my mother hadn't blocked our relationship. I needed a good father desperately during those decades, but it's not too late. I plan to make the most of the time we have left.

It's the first Christmas after the death of my mother and it feels good. I'm now safe to love the people in my life the way they deserve, the way I should have always been able to love them. I'm grateful to be able to enjoy the holidays without worrying about the price my mother will later exact from me. This is not a sad December. I feel great freedom and gratitude and I look forward to building relationships with the family I missed out on for so long. This is going to be a good Christmas and a good rest of my life.


Jessica Young said...

Reg, you know our situations are almost identical. I am glad for you that you've been able to reconnect with your father. My own dad is still so connected to and with my mom's way of life (she's still alive) that a relationship with him is impossible. They feed each other's false selves, and because of that, I don't know if I will ever have what you have. I'm glad that this is a part of how you're doing Christmas in a way that's healthy for you.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Thank you, Jess. I hope you're able to have the relationship you want with your dad one day.