“Oh no! I’m turning into my mother!” All of us women joke about this. Some are excited to see that they are indeed becoming just like their mothers. Perhaps they’re excited to look more like their mothers or act more like their mothers or even to parent like their mothers. Perhaps their mothers are their role models and they have suddenly realized that they, too, have taken on the character traits that they admire in their mothers.
But then there are the rest of us.
Those of us who have had years of therapy to undo the damage of our mothers. Those of us who grew up listening to a deluge of criticism every day, without realizing how much it hurt us. Until we became mothers ourselves.
I have three daughters. For as long as I can remember, I have had one dream: to become a mother. I am a nurturer by nature. I began babysitting at age 11. I teach elementary school. I have always been told that I have endless patience, as a mother and a teacher. I used to take pride in this…and then suddenly, when my kids hit pre-adolescence, that all changed.
Suddenly with two teenagers and a pre-teen, I cannot go a day without some sort of altercation with my children. The patience that was part of my identity has disappeared. I am short-fused and I find myself yelling at my children and, even worse, throwing criticisms faster than my daughters can recover from them. Sometimes I make a comment — maybe it flies out of my mouth without my knowing — and I hear my mother’s voice.
Sometimes it’s a relatively benign comment as I try to get my alone time at 9:45 at night: “Please go to bed. I don’t want to see you right now.” But other times it’s more serious, more damaging, and very out of character for me — or who I thought I was. “I thought you were better than that. I guess I was wrong about who you are.” Or, “Would it kill you to help around the house at all? Everything I do for you and you can’t offer to help me?”
Sometimes as soon as these comments slip out of my mouth, I cry. I realize that sometime, somewhere, someone said this to me. My own mother. And though I may not have been hurt then, now — 30 years later — I am hurt.
You see, I am the daughter of a narcissistic mother. I didn’t realize this until I had three kids, moved far away and gained perspective. Sure, there were red flags throughout my life, but when you only know the family you have, there is no reason to think it isn’t how family is meant to be. The relationship I had with my mother seemed normal. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I started to realize my childhood was not as healthy as I had once thought.
When I was growing up, I knew my mom wouldn’t yell at us; that was my dad’s job. But, I also knew my mom wouldn’t be warm and nurturing. I suppose, thinking back, that was my dad’s job too when he was home. Everything with my mother was devoid of emotion; it was transactional and judgmental. There was no effusive pride, love, or even snuggles. Never did we hear apologies from her. There was a lot of anger if we “betrayed her trust” or “did not tell her everything.” What teenage girl tells her mother everything? I knew my mother would always tell me what I had done wrong whether it was setting the table, choosing something to wear, or even choosing the wrong friends.
Deep down, I always knew I was a good kid — maybe too good. I was afraid to go against what my mother would want me to do; I wanted her approval. I knew that when we left a friend’s house my mom would feel the need to evaluate us: “The Smiths’ kids were so much better behaved than you all were. How come their siblings are so close and you kids fight all the time? Would it have killed you to answer Mr. Smith when he asked you about school?” At the time, I yearned for my mother’s praise; on the rare occasion my mother complimented me or called me “sweetie” or “honey,” I preened. None of these comments hurt me when I was 12; in fact, I was immune to all of them.
But then I had kids.
Suddenly, these comments have emerged from the archives of my memory. I find myself spewing phrases, such as “would it kill you to…” or “Can’t you set the table right? What is wrong with you?” The words explode out of my mouth like involuntary sneezes. As I say these words, I hear my mother’s voice–not my own.
And I cannot believe it. I have turned into my mother. I must do everything in my power to freeze and reverse this metamorphosis.
Being a daughter of a narcissistic mother means you must be on high alert at all times. You must be sure that you don’t become your mother. You must be ready to apologize when the criticism flies out of your mouth involuntarily and ricochets off of your children and right back at you. You must be ready to own your mistakes and apologize to your kids. Explain to them what you have experienced; let them work with you to become kind — to yourself and to them.
I wish that turning into my mother were something that makes me happy. Maybe I will be able to break this cycle. Perhaps one day, when one of my daughters says something kind and loving she will think with a smile, “I am turning into my mother. Lucky me.”