A look into the mirror of motherhood
Parenting can be like looking in a mirror, revealing behavioral and emotional patterns that are handed down to us through generations. As I’ve been parenting on my own for the past six-and-a-half years since I lost my husband, this mirroring effect can be harrowing and surreal. I hear myself saying things that make me feel like I’m channeling my mother, even my grandmother. Powerful waves of anger and panic well up in me, and I’m not sure where they come from. Without the benefit of another adult around to offer perspective or, at the very least, give me a break so I can take time for internal reflection, I am left to my own devices, which have not always served my best intentions.
I’d like to share some of my experiences with you, partly because it would be great to know I’m not the only one who engages in this struggle to remain centered amidst a whirlwind of emotion, but also because I’d like to think that all the times I screwed up might actually benefit someone else!
Boundaries were not a big thing in my house when I was a kid. My mom, although she meant well, did not really get the need for a clear distinction in roles between her and her children, either before or after her divorce from my dad. I have vivid early-childhood memories of being congratulated by her for our remarkable relationship that made us “more like friends than like mother and daughter.” On the one hand, this made me, the eldest of her three daughters, feel really special. On the other hand, it was terrifying.
Armed with the knowledge of how smart and precocious I was, I made it difficult for my mom to discipline me. She gave me the leeway to show off my intelligence and argue my case in any dispute, and because she was so impressed by her little smarty-pants, I usually got my way. On the few occasions when she did attempt to impose her will, I fought her with everything I had.
Once, in middle school (we called it junior high back then), I wanted to go to a Friday-night party. Back in the day, those parties were everything. I lived for the chance to kiss my latest crush during a game of spin the bottle. So when my mom chose this one particular night to plant her foot down and tell me I couldn’t go, I fought desperately to change her mind. I stormed off to my room, crying, certain I would not survive the ordeal.
After a while, a funny thing happened. As I became increasingly calm, a feeling of safety and order began to envelop me. Sure, I was disappointed, but I also felt my world simplify. I resigned myself to the fact that I would stay home with my mom and my sisters and figure out some things to do in my room. So when, after about 45 minutes, she knocked quietly on my door and said, “OK, if you really want to go, you can go,” what I felt mostly was disappointment and a sense of being thrown out to sea. I know she thought she was doing the right thing, but my ability to depend on her for the strength and safety I needed was broken.
Flash forward to now: I have a 13-year-old son. He’s as smart and precocious as I was at his age, able to argue his way out of a paper bag if I let him. I am constantly reminded of that time in my own adolescence when I pushed so hard to mother myself but secretly wanted my mom to be the immovable force in my life. It’s hard being the bad guy and weathering my son’s resistance when I draw a line and assert my authority. It’s challenging reacting to his emotions while reacting to the psyche of my own mom and untangling my own blend of emotional urgencies.
For Solo Moms parenting without the buffer of another adult, especially when bereavement is also a factor, it’s really easy to lose boundaries with your kids. You feel their pain. You have your own pain. You both want comfort and hugs and solidarity, not conflict and a sense of separation between you. But drawing those boundaries is essential. Overexplaining things, to soften what feels like harsh ultimatums, opens the door to your kids expecting an explanation for everything you require of them. That is not workable because sometimes the only acceptable response to their question is, “Because I said so.”
Our kids will fight us. It’s their job—increasingly so as they get older and begin the inevitable (and healthy!) process of differentiation. We have to keep in mind that although they struggle against the limits we impose, the chaos that waits for them as an alternative is infinitely more frightening and potentially damaging to their development.
For those of us who are widows, we’ve been forced to manage a life for which we may feel ill prepared. We may be angry and resentful, even scared, at the enormous responsibility that has been thrust upon us, not of our own design. I know when I feel frightened, I look for things I can control. I come from a long line of narcissistic women who learned to express their need for control by managing the people around them. But the habitual tendency to lash out at those closest to me for not complying with my need for stability and constancy is misplaced. It’s hard to remember in the moment, but the person I need to control, or at least accept, is myself.
As I write these words, this is my biggest struggle: being aware enough of my own needs to not let my fear about my circumstances result in impatience, anger, and panic directed at my son. He is a wise and strong kid, precocious, funny, and wily, as I was at his age, but he is still my child—not my friend, not my partner. No matter how much it feels like it’s just the two of us against the world, I know I can’t saddle him with the responsibility of meeting my complex emotional needs.
I think back to how my mom blurred the lines between us. She really didn’t know any better. She was also looking for comfort and distraction from an unhappy marriage. She didn’t get much in the way of proper training from her mother, who contended with her own emotional scars surviving the trauma of escaping Europe ahead of World War II’s plans for her tribe. For the longest time, I was mad at how my mom had confused me, burdened me with issues that challenged my very identity, my sense of how to relate to other people in the world. But now that I am here, I have more compassion for how lost and overwhelmed she must have felt. My current hope for myself, and all of you, is that we can be compassionate toward ourselves as we figure out how to work out these boundaries with our own children.
Deborah Oster Pannell is a freelance writer and editor who collaborates with other writers, artists, and creative entrepreneurs to develop and promote their projects. She is currently working on a collection of stories and poems about grief, parenting, and sexuality, which, as it turns out, are not always mutually exclusive.
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