When my sons were very small, they would occasionally find reasons not to like Mommy. I still chuckle inside when I hear a little one say “Bad Mommy” or “I don’t like you” to a mother in public. Such scenes, usually when a mom is doing a good job, bring back happy memories.
To balance those times with my own boys, I, tongue firmly in cheek, told them they had to say “Perfect mother strikes again” on the rare occasions when I did something they considered good or rewarding to them, something that made them especially glad I was their mom, something like predicting an outcome and looking like an Old Testament prophet later, or ironing a shirt just before it was needed, or cooking a favorite dish. The fact that those occasions were rare made it noteworthy when they did use the phrase—always to laughter.
The laughter, I’m sure, that accompanied the phrase may have undercut the seriousness of every one of those occasions, but we all enjoyed them. This year for my birthday, my 50-year-old son teasingly reminded us both of the custom with a card with this message:
Being your SON
Hasn’t always been
The easiest thing
In the world, you know . . .
People expect a LOT
Out of you
When you have a
And that simply proves that I also have perfect sons, at least one of whom can recognize understatement when he sees it.
I may not have been quite as quick to favor my mother with a compliment as my sons learned to be. Of course, my mother was often deserving of compliments. My father said that when he thought of her as a mother, he pictured her as a hen with seven chicks snuggled protected under her wings. And Mother did have her wings full! We seven were born in a ten-year span, enough to make almost anyone crazy.
I guess I should not call my mother “crazy,” but she certainly did have issues. Mother was physically and verbally abusive (never sexually) to us all, but she was especially abusive to me as the oldest of the seven. The sibling who directly followed me admits that her fainting spells when confronted by Mother were enhanced, shall we say, to protect her to a certain extent. Other siblings took other protective measures, but the younger six all depended on me, long before they realized it, for safety, for warnings, for security from our own mother.
My second sister, as headmistress of a Christian academy in North Carolina, realized that Mother was a narcissist when she had to deal with major issues involving a teacher who was a narcissist. I came to the same conclusion while reading The Everything Guide to Narcissistic Personality Disorder by Cynthia LeChan Goodman and Barbara Leff. My sister was dealing with a sad administrative situation only to think, This sounds like Mother! And I was reading the book not looking for Mother only to find her on every page. When the seven of us get together, we all tell stories that reveal Mother as sometimes loving but more often critical, cruel, crushing.
Through the almost seven years from her stroke in 2003 until her death in 2010, we all contributed time, energy, and care to guarantee that Mother’s final years would be as comfortable, secure, and loving as were our years when she treated us well. But I confess that for myself personally, her death brought more feelings of relief that her suffering was over and that mine could also end than it did mourning for my loss of her.
Many, many years before, I had come to terms with my childhood experiences, even understanding how difficult life had been for her with seven active little ones. I had come to terms with the oddity of loving her with all my heart while, at the same time, hating her for what she had done to us. I had come to terms with my own struggles never to be the kind of mother she was, and I had forgiven her completely, but I had not forgotten what she had done. To forget the abuse would be to lower my guard and risk what is declared so often: Abused children are in great danger of becoming adult abusers. I hope and pray that my sons and grandchildren would say that I have successfully avoided treating them as my mother treated me.
Recently, however, that sad, painful past returned to me. Nearing 70 and with my own issues involving life, the end of life, and the relationships that both sustain and try us all in life, I sought out a counselor in a Christian counseling group. A lovely young woman, the counselor listened to me and asked questions. I was often delighted, enlightened, surprised, shocked, hurt, and devastated in the ten 45-minute sessions that covered the gamut of my life’s experiences, including that childhood, my marriages, my motherhood, my widowhood, and recent events.
During one session, I remembered something my mother used to declare rather frequently to me: “I don’t know how anyone could ever love you.” Hearing Mother say it was devastating; remembering her saying it is devastating. Now, I know that people have loved me and others have liked me. My grandmother loved me unconditionally and my five aunts warmly, profoundly, lavishly. But I think that believing our mother loves us is critical to all our lives. Her declaration spoke to the little girl me that she did not love me and assured me that no one ever would.
After the ten 45-minute sessions, I became fully aware of my counselor’s frustration that I was not accepting every characterization she voiced about me. I did not even understand at times how she had arrived at her opinions or how to implement her suggestions. So I sat down to write every descriptive word or phrase I could remember her applying or implying to me in the sessions in an attempt to understand exactly the person she had found me to be.
Within a few minutes, I listed thirty-nine adjectives, some of them describing the same characteristics but in different words. They are listed here in alphabetical order: analytical, angry, bitter, cold, condescending, controlling, defensive, enraged, excuse-ful (i.e., offer excuses or explanations instead of “owning up”), fearful, financially responsible (i.e., good at handling money), furious, hard, hard-hearted, harsh, humorless, hurtful, incomprehensive or lacking understanding (i.e., of how someone still loves someone from the past), not captivating (to men), not empathetic, not soft, not vulnerable, proud, quick, repulsive (i.e., drive people away), stiff-backed, sharp (“but not in a bad way”), smart, tone-impaired (i.e., speak in a harsh, hurtful tone), unapologetic (i.e., never apologize), ungentle, unpredictable, unsympathetic, untrusting, verbally challenged (i.e., say the wrong things to others, such as asking about school to a child), wary. Also implied in the sessions were misandrist (i.e., hating men), mercurial (i.e., suddenly changing so that unrecognizable), and myopic (not considering the results or consequences of actions or words beforehand).
We had especially disagreed about the adjective “angry,” as I rarely exhibit anger at all or feel it—no adrenaline rush, no desire to strike out. I could not see where she was getting that idea. Perhaps I had reason to be angry. I still do not know.
But what I do know after writing the list and studying it carefully: I have to say what my sons did. I have to say “Perfect mother strikes again” to my own mother because, even with the few favorable qualities listed, there is no way for anyone to love the person those words describe. But I am filled with joy because I know the love of Jesus Christ.