Regarding Mothers

[CN: suicide attempt]


sargent_mother and daughter
Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel, by John Singer Sargent (via)

I have been pondering, of late, these words from Bethany Webster:

“The most insidious forms of patriarchy pass through the mother.”

I have been pondering these words (and the essay they title) so much, in fact, that I am having a hard time writing about anything else. At the same time, I am not ready or willing to write about my mother.

Not yet.

Maybe not ever.

I don’t write to my mother either, not any more. Not since she returned the last letter I sent her, a card for Mother’s Day three years ago in which I wrote: “I know things are rough between us right now. But I believe we both love each other enough that we will get through this.”

She returned that card to me a few weeks later, after the patch between us had become so rough—at least for me—that I needed space away and stopped replying to her phone calls. She returned the card via overnight delivery, together with two typed pages of violent and hateful anger. The viciousness of my mother’s letter was palpable even in the skimming I gave it, unwilling to take on the hurt of a more careful read.

[The other reason I didn’t read it carefully, I must explain, was that her FedEx arrived on a morning I hadn’t expected to wake up. I was too preoccupied figuring out why my latest suicide attempt hadn’t worked to give her letter more than a once-over glance, checking to see if it provided any motivation for me not to try again.

It did not.]

I tossed the FedEx envelope and its contents atop a stack of random papers on my desk and forgot about it in my flurry of other concerns. If I had succeeded at death in that third and final attempt (it occurred to me much later), the letter from my mother would have been easily found by anyone searching my room for desperate answers. In place of the farewell note I did not write, one might have found the letter I barely read—and drawn their own conclusion.

I’m glad I didn’t burden my mother with that.

Remembering the contents of that letter today still stops my breath in near-disbelief.

“My mother—” I said to her in a conversation the following year, “I mean—my mother who loves me—did not write that letter. Could not have written that letter.”

We stared at each other for a long moment, before she broke the glance and left the room. The following day, she brought it up again.

“What you said yesterday, the thing is…”

She and I again locked eyes.

“The thing is, I did write that letter.”

“Yes,” I nodded once, almost holding my breath. “I know you did.”

We exhaled in unison. For a moment, silence held the room.

When she spoke again, my mother’s tone had shifted. Brighter, and so fast she almost chittered. “You know who was standing right beside me the whole time I wrote it, though? Who told me I should write it? You know who took it to FedEx and mailed it?

“Because that wasn’t me!”

I sighed, tired of patiently re-explaining the obvious.

“Of course he was right there. My father is always there, right beside you, when you do these things.”

We have never discussed the letter again.

…the most insidious forms of patriarchy pass through the mother…


A link to Bethany Webster’s complete essay, for any what’s interested. I’d excerpt the most relevant passages for you—but I’m afraid I’d end up copying the whole thing!

* * * * *

[EDIT: Okay. I went ahead and excerpted a bit below, to give a sense of her argument that I found quite resonant/relevant:

“The patriarchal bind is that women are told that they should be successful but not too successful; sexy but not too sexy; strong but not too strong, etc. Mothers may unintentionally perpetuate this out of an unconscious need to avoid getting triggered by her daughter. If her daughter remains disempowered, small, and always a bit doubtful of herself, then the mother eliminates the possibility that her daughter will trigger the unacknowledged pain within herself that she’d rather ignore.

“For an unconscious, deeply wounded mother, a disempowered daughter is the perfect antidote to her misery because she allows the mother to maintain an illusion of personal power without having to do the hard work of self-growth and healing. If the daughter is empowered, flourishing, happy and fulfilled, the wounded mother would more likely be faced with the task of confronting her unhealed pain….

“A mother may experience her daughter’s empowerment as a betrayal, a personal rejection or a slight. Her unconscious message to the daughter may be ‘I obeyed the patriarchal mandate to stay small and non-threatening. You have to obey as well! Get back in line!'”]

* * * * *

“Regarding Mothers” is part of an ongoing memory project.
The entire series can be found here.

47 thoughts on “Regarding Mothers

  1. I know I’m coming in a little late, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing the essay and your personal experience. I’m truly sorry you’ve been through so much at the hands of your parents. My relationship with my mother is not nearly as bad as yours, but I think it’s really important to recognize the negative habits and self-belief we inherited from our parents. It’s the first step to breaking the cycle. I’m currently in therapy for post-natal depression and one of the biggest problems I face is an inability to do something I enjoy – like reading, writing fiction, etc – without feeling guilty, and I think most of that is because my mother always seemed to be resentful or even a bit jealous when she saw me doing something like that when I was a child or teenager. Even back then I thought she was being a bit unjust. I’d done all my chores and homework etc, so I didn’t understand why she acted like I was doing something wrong. And I think it was because she couldn’t do anything she enjoyed, so she didn’t think I should be able to, either. Most of it was probably subconscious on her behalf but it was still there. Anyway, I don’t have daughters, but I do have three sons, and my psych commented one day that it’s very important for children to see their mother take time for herself, especially for boys. We didn’t discuss it further but I’m pretty sure it’s important for boys because it will shape the way they think other women in their lives should be treated. So it helps that I feel like I’m breaking the cycle every time I sit down to read a book instead of slaving away cleaning the kitchen.
    My sons are going to treat their wives better than my dad treated his.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Miranda, Thanks for stopping by!

      I agree completely about family patterns: we cannot change what we are unable to recognize. This applies to our parents as well as ourselves; like you, I don’t think my mother acts in damaging ways with any conscious intent. We repeat so much of what was done to us–especially when it fits into broader cultural narratives, like all the impossible emotional baggage we heap onto mothers.

      My best wishes to you, your children, and the new stories you are all creating together. ❤ alice

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Alice, I can sympathize with your situation. My mother and I do NOT get along. It has been a solid 2 years since I have spoken with her last. Without giving you a long winded story about my own childhood problems I can definitely say that we will probably never come to a place where we can have a relationship. There is too much hurt. Too much anger. And too much unwillingness to bend. I wish I could offer you words of hope. Unfortunately I cannot, I can only offer my shoulder and we can tread through this shit together.
    -Motherless GlitterxZombie

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your empathy, and know that I send the same wishes back! Also, I think hope for oneself and the path one walks — with whatever chosen family by one’s side — counts as hope still. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I feel you.
      My mom recently encouraged me to remain in a bad situation because she did not want the burden of me at her door. Was disappointed.
      I’ve forgiven many things and had to accept her as she is or let her go.
      My relationship with her is fantastic when we don’t need or rely on each other.
      I’ve decided to keep a relationship with her. She tries. She’s not evil. I can say that.

      Like

  3. I need to footnote this in some way to come back to it later to s be to a friend. Haven’t a clue how to do that so hopefully I’ll find it again later. I dare not post it to Facebook as my mother will think it is about her.

    Like

    1. I sometimes post things to Facebook for reference only: you can either limit the sharing to “me only,” or post it — then save the link — then delete the post. Hope that helps! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Emily Prager’s short story “A Visit from the Footbinder” is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read on this theme. It will break your heart, but I encourage you to read it anyway!

    Like

  5. Ah… the miserable complexity that defines familial relationships… while I have no words for what you have shared, know you are far from alone in the struggle to remain your intact self when within breathing space of your mum. Seems many of us are struggling with that same burden, and it breaks my heart…

    Much love and respect to you, Alice.

    Like

    1. “struggle to remain your intact self”: YES. That’s it exactly! I think she thinks I am being cruel — or perhaps just callous and selfish — in distancing myself from her. I see that as the source of some (tho not at all ALL) of her anger. But I still don’t know how to keep my own edges intact when I interact with her. Until I better master that, staying away is necessary self-preservation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hard choices, but your sanity and heart are worth it! =) Again, I am sorry so many of us struggle with these relationships, but so honored to be in the presence of greatness on the journey! =)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. He is definitely the member of the Isak family who got all the looks, no doubt! Most of the personality, too. 😀

          [This is his “torn between wanting to be loved by you — and also wanting to murder you” face.]

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Dying here! =) =) He is SUCH a ham! =) =) And don’t forget, he may be the cutest of us all, but he cannot type with no thumbs, so you win. =)

          Like

  6. This essay you shared is nothing short of amazing, and eye-opening, and so very needed. I only skimmed it last night, but it deserves many readings and much contemplation. Oh hey…let’s say you keep wakin’ up every morning cause your voice means a lot to me, and I know that it is growing stronger and quite essential. You have work to do…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have to think about this one for a while. I am not only a daughter, but also a mother TO a daughter. Am I a link in the same chain, a conduit through which this damage passes? I hope not, but I also know to some extent it is true. I pushed too hard for conformity in my daughter. But I realized my mistake, and I have spent years taking steps to correct it. I think she’s going to be okay.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said in conversation with someone else today on this topic: sincere effort is the most that all of us can give…and is all that most of us would ask. You have given that to her (and to yourself). You are giving that still. ❤ So while of course you are a link in the same family chain, it does not follow that either your influence or her response will adhere to any inexorable or predictable path.

      Apropos of nothing — or perhaps, apropos of everything — I keep remembering: my mother was a daughter once, too.

      Like

  8. Oh Lord! Did that ever hit me like a ton of bricks first thing in the morning.

    My Mother just turned 91 and that essay exemplifies her relationship with us, her daughters, perfectly. There is no chance of enlightenment on her part. We, her daughters,are the ones who have to make our own lives in spite of her critical attitude attempting to hold us back. For the most part we have succeeded.

    It’s such a sad thing when you cannot trust your own mother enough to have a close emotional relationship with her. And yes, our father (now deceased) was right there agreeing with her treatment of us. Which means that we had two non-supportive parents. Or no parents at all.

    I am so glad that you did not succeed in ending your life.
    We can do this. We can rise above it. But we’re on our own.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am both glad and sorry to hear that the essay struck such a nerve for you! It is a hard reality that many of us must deal with — and unfortunately, the cultural narratives around mothers (and around “mothers and daughters” in particular!) doesn’t make it any easier. For mothers OR daughters. And all these saccharine tropes can make the reality much harder to see and process.

      At this point, I just want to find a way of understanding our relationship that neither demonizes her as a villain nor pities and excuses her like a child. I am an adult now — and in need of my own stories that do not trap me into playing either hero or victim.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I hope we will be able to find our way to a new, and separate, peace someday.

      Am continuing to hold good thoughts for you and *your* mother. Sounds like rough situations going on lately (speaking of “cripes!”).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “The most insidious forms of patriarchy pass through the mother.”

    Thats true in that everyone unconsciously internalizes the culture and passes it on to some degree. it’s hard to get outside our boxes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. True — though what resonated most for me in Webster’s essay is the way mothers (especially those women whose own wounds are still quite deep and unhealed) can communicate a demand for compliance as though it were an act of love [pls forgive the long quote; I am still finding this essay difficult to paraphrase!]:

      “The patriarchal bind is that women are told that they should be successful but not too successful; sexy but not too sexy; strong but not too strong, etc. Mothers may unintentionally perpetuate this out of an unconscious need to avoid getting triggered by her daughter. If her daughter remains disempowered, small, and always a bit doubtful of herself, then the mother eliminates the possibility that her daughter will trigger the unacknowledged pain within herself that she’d rather ignore.

      “For an unconscious, deeply wounded mother, a disempowered daughter is the perfect antidote to her misery because she allows the mother to maintain an illusion of personal power without having to do the hard work of self-growth and healing. If the daughter is empowered, flourishing, happy and fulfilled, the wounded mother would more likely be faced with the task of confronting her unhealed pain.”

      Like

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