“I’d rather be honest and authentic and disappoint some people than to exhaust myself trying to keep up the facade of perfection.” ~Crystal Paine
“You’re the Best Mom Ever!”
“You’ve always listened, loved, and let me lean on you.”
For most of my adult life, every year before Mother’s Day I stood in front of a beautiful display of cards fairly bursting with love, and tried to find one that my authentic self would allow me to give my mother, and that my mother would be pleased enough with that the day would be calm and pleasant.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw other people browsing, smiling, choosing, and leaving, while I stood there desperately trying to find a verse that would honor my personal integrity.
Eventually, I would find one that was close enough—usually one that expressed what a wonderful woman I thought she was. Because I did. Then I’d head to the checkout counter with a knot in my stomach.
My mother was a narcissist, and most likely had borderline personality disorder.
She was extremely intelligent, attractive, sometimes funny, and a real go-getter. Her creative output was truly amazing. But our relationship was fraught with competition from day one—a push/pull of my trying to satisfy her limitless needs while holding on to whatever threads of my inner self that I could.
There wasn’t much room in her life for me, other than as an extension of herself.
Over the years, I investigated and experimented with innumerable maneuvers to try and please her. But either she did not want to be pleased, or she did not care to grant me the satisfaction of having made her happy. I never knew which it was; I only knew that I never pleased her.
Mother’s Day was one of the most difficult holidays in our family, because no matter what happened or how much attention we gave my mother, her bottomless need for attention remained unfulfilled at the end of the day.
I finally learned that the only way to maintain my sense of self was to give what I comfortably could and let the result roll off my back. Of course, it took a few decades of off-and-on therapy before I could separate myself enough from the enmeshment with my mother that I could keep my own point of view in the forefront of my mind while I interacted with her.
I’d like to share some things I learned in the hopes of helping others whose relationships are similarly entangled. This same advice could apply to your father, should you need this come June.
1. Remember that in the real world, your needs are just as important as your mother’s.
It may only look like hers are massively more important because that’s how she behaves. Do something nice for yourself on Mother’s Day if you can—especially if you’re a mother or father yourself.
2. Try to hold on to your own point of view even while you’re interacting with your mother.
For decades, I just dissociated and became the “Good Little Girl” whenever I was with my mother, but in doing that I caused myself several weeks’ worth of plummeting self-esteem after each visit.
Even if you don’t speak your mind, you can hold on to your own beliefs and feelings about the relationship so you don’t totally lose yourself.
3. Choose not to add fuel the fire.
If your mother gets upset or tries to initiate a struggle, say something like, “This is your special day, Mom. Let’s not fight.”
4. If you need space, take it.
Use the bathroom, go for a walk, offer to get her a cup of coffee or a sweater so you can move to another room. If it works for you, ask a friend a few days before the event to give you a call at a certain time, then say, “Sorry, I have to take this,” and move into another room or outside.
5. Photos can defuse a difficult situation.
Have some photos of your kids, pets, friends, or landscapes on your phone, and whip it out if needed: “Hey, did I show you the new photo of Rover?” Also, this tactic turns your attention and hers from each other to a device.
6. Refrain from mentioning any great news you have until a few days after Mother’s Day, unless it includes your mother.
Some mothers are pleased to share the spotlight; some are not.
7. Remember that you’re probably doing a great job of supporting and encouraging your mother, and you’re most likely an intelligent, talented, and worthy person.
Don’t buy into whatever criticisms your mother might throw at you. Some people get a lift from criticizing—even when they’re just making something up.
8. When you leave, leave it behind you.
Move your thoughts to something you’re excited or happy about. Don’t run over the conversations in your head. They’re in the past, and you can accomplish so much more without bad movies replaying over and over in your mind.
In spite of my lifelong difficulties with my mother, there were many things I loved about her. You might say I loved her soul—it was her personality that caused the difficulty.
If you can remain aware of what you love about your mother, it may make your time together easier. And since what you focus on expands, it might even bring those qualities out in her behavior over time.
I know on a very deep level how difficult it can be to move forward in life when a parent seems to do everything possible to hold you back. But it’s imperative to keep going, to build a life that fulfills you. One day your mother will be gone, and there will be much more space in your life for you and your needs and desires. Don’t let her “timing” dictate when you get to start living your life.
In fact, I think there should be a “Celebrate Self Day” to go with all the other holidays. It may be what we all most need.
About Katherine Mayfield
Katherine Mayfield is the award-winning author of a memoir about recovering from emotional abuse in her family, The Box of Daughter: Healing the Authentic Self. She’s also written several books on dysfunctional families, including Stand Your Ground: How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family and Recover from Trauma. She blogs on dysfunctional families on her website, www.TheBoxofDaughter.com. Twitter: @K_Mayfield