Girl Talk: What My Mom Taught Me About Motherhood

I was in an online networking group, for a while, in which there coincidentally happened to be many, many children of narcissistic parents, mothers especially. Well, either it was a coincidence, or there are more narcissistic parents in the world than one would imagine. It sounds horrible. Apparently, narcissistic parents rely on their children for their own self-esteem, keep their kids possessively close to them, and then when the child starts to branch out and become independent, the parent gets jealous. It can be, and apparently often is, abusive. It leaves those children with a lot of baggage. (The link above has good information and resources for adult children of narcissistic parents.)

It got me thinking, though: My mom is kind of awesome. Well, no, she just is awesome. During the conversations about narcissistic mothers in that networking group, I’d just think, “I should probably show myself out.” I didn’t want to rub my awesome mom in the faces of people who struggled with their mothers.

The only context for motherhood I have is my own mother. I’ve told her that I’m convinced that I will be uncomfortable with motherhood, myself. I look toward the possibility of having children and feel deeply conflicted. I don’t want to have to sacrifice my job in order to take care of a child; I don’t want “mother” to become my primary identity (part of my identity, yes; primary, no); I’m aware that there are things I do now (taking nude photos, writing about my sex life, dedicating a lot of time and energy and focus to creative projects) that some people would tell me I’d have to stop doing in order to be a good mother. I wouldn’t stop, of course, because that’s bullshit, and a bad example to set for a child — that you can and should just erase whole swaths of things that you value in order to better fit into someone else’s expectations. I just want to be myself, regardless of who I’m responsible for. I don’t think that being a dynamic, outspoken, slightly selfish, very independent person and being a responsible parent are mutually exclusive.

And I don’t think that, because I have an example of it. My mom comes from a historically Catholic family, but has tempered her own spiritual outlook over time — and I think that that was at least partially influenced by myself and my sisters, who were all at least a little rebellious, and freethinking, and unconventional as children. We challenged her to accept things about us that made her uncomfortable, or that she didn’t understand — like my fondness for hair dye and tattoos, my bisexuality and my dedication to advocacy for the LGBT community, my obstinate refusal to play sports (even when I was already on a team), the fact that I sometimes thought that going for a walk or drawing or hanging out with my friends was more important than going to class, my tendency to challenge the authority of my principals and teachers, my long and winding religious inquiry that eventually led me to atheism, or my ADHD, depression, and early-in-life suicidal ideations. Accepting me for who I was and trying to understand it and incorporate that understanding into her life was the best way she could support me and make me feel loved.

That being said, she didn’t just absorb her daughters. Accepting our very colorful personalities didn’t mean that she compromised on her principles: We had to work, we had to contribute to the family and the household, we had to be kind to each other, we had to respect her and my dad, we had to behave appropriately at school and around our friends and their families. We had to be polite and considerate. We had to empathize with people who we got into fights with, or disagreed with. She constantly played devil’s advocate when I was upset with someone. Did I say something that upset them? How was I speaking to them? If I did something wrong, did I apologize to them for it?

We also learned to respect her time, her independence, and her privacy. She spent most of our childhoods working on one project or another — she was very involved in the local League of Women Voters, and spent droves of time organizing fundraisers for them. Before she had kids – and for a little while after she had my eldest sister — she had been a blues manager; when she was raising my sister by herself she worked; she wasn’t going to stop once she had the youngest two of us. Eventually, she and my dad transformed his consulting company into a brick-and-mortar business, and she acted as its president and manager. My parents’ marriage was equitable, and my dad was an enthusiastic father; she also had a network of friends who would help to take care of us, so she had support to be able to do things she felt were necessary for herself outside of being a mother, even when she wasn’t working. She got manicures every week and swam at the YMCA, went out for dinner with my dad and/or their friends regularly. She went back to college when I was in high school, and graduated two years before I got my own degree. She did what she had to do for her own happiness and didn’t ask permission to do it — she just made it happen.

When I was married, or for that matter while I was dating the man who ultimately became my husband, she and I were at constant odds. My ex really despised my family, but particularly my mom, because she didn’t buy his bullshit, and didn’t let him do and say bullshit things around her without letting him know her opinion of it. She hated watching me suffer for being with him, but knew me well enough to know that I was going to see it through until I made my own mind up that I deserved to be treated better. She didn’t let me behave unacceptably toward her in the process of being manipulated by my then-boyfriend, though: I started espousing his attitudes toward her, because I was more afraid of him than I was of my mom, and she kicked me out of her house. That hurt, and that sucked, and there was a lot that neither of us said to each other for years. Still, when I got sick of being treated like I was subhuman and finally left my husband, it was my mom who came and picked me and my stuff up and let me stay with her until I could get a life of my own set up. It’s been easier since then. We both know ourselves well enough, now, to be able to manage our own fairly different personalities, and each other’s, while we’re together.

So yes: I’m afraid of having children. I’m afraid that it’ll change my life in a way that I’m not comfortable with now. I’m afraid that I might look at a baby and feel like my hands are stubs and have no idea what to do with it. I’m afraid that I might not like motherhood that much. I’m more than 90 percent sure that I’ll tell their father to stay home with the kids so that I can work, because I like working so much. But when my mom tells me that once I actually have a baby, I’ll feel like spending all of my time with it, and become aware of a love that is deeper and greater than anything I ever thought I could feel, then, I kind of have to believe it. Maybe when she was 27, two years before she had her first baby, she felt the same way — and motherhood was a beautiful fit for her.

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