May 20, 2004

the backstory

I want to be fair about this, because like most things, itís a whole hell of a lot more complicated than a quick blog entry on a Thursday morning.

I love my mother. Make no mistake. She worked very hard to raise me well. But having not had a very good example to follow (my grandmother is a bit cold and crazy), the warm fuzzies of motherhood didnít exactly come as second nature. I donít know if saying the Universe had been unfair to my parents in the early part of their marriage justifies any of the things that went on in my house growing up, but suffice it to say, things did not turn out the way my mother had imagined, and she may have been resentful.

As children, we grew up with the understanding that my father was not good enough for my mother. She came from money; he did not. You get the idea. She nagged Ė mostly about his weight, she complained, and my father, an equally tragic character, made it his life goal to please her. In our house, we were bombarded with the notion that being an overweight person made you unworthy of love. This originated with my grandparents -- a whole story in itself. It is no wonder, then, that three of the five siblings did not make it out of high school without serious eating disorders; the other two, obsessive-compulsive tendencies toward academic perfection. We all felt the same sort of pressure to be good enough. Did she mean for it to be that way? Of course not. Sheís not cruel. Sheís human. She made mistakes. But those mistakes do explain why I have a very difficult time relating to her.

In high school, she was constantly trying to get me to diet. Sheíd pinch my side and ask if I wanted to try the new {insert fad weight loss program here} diet. Looking back, Iíd kill for the figure I had at 17, and I wonder, and not without undeniable anger, why that wasnít okay with her.

My hair was too straight. Too long. Donít you think maybe you should do something with it? We were in the car. I was 18. And I became furious. I remember shouting, taking up the small space with years of pent-up frustration. Why am I not good enough for you?! She pinched her lips together and we drove home in silence. If I remember correctly, she apologized in the driveway.

One night, I came down the stairs dressed for a dance and my father looked up from the paper. ďDonít we have the prettiest daughters?Ē My mother, doing leg-lifts near the fireplace, looked up briefly and countered, ďAt least theyíre smart.Ē

I grew up understanding that my mother didnít like my father. In my teen years, I became fairly convinced that she didnít like me. Whether this is true or not, remains an open topic of conversation with my siblings.

Things changed. I went to college, grew up, became more patient and more compassionate -- compassion being something I lacked nearly completely up until that point. My mother grew up, too. She let up on us kids, heaping praise where criticism had been. And in a sense, she also let up on my father. She divorced him.

These days, she tells me she admires me. My courage for taking leaps that took me from McKinney to Manhattan. My physical beauty. My talent. And my reaction is to be angry.

Why now? Why now am I good enough? Iíve been the same person all along!

And itís all but impossible to fight the feeling that when I do see her, something wonít be good enough. I still havenít done anything with my hair. Iíve got a love handle and big hips. Will she politely smile through dinner, all the while wondering why Iím not just having a salad?

Probably not. But that doesnít mean I wonít feel like she is.

Posted by This Fish at May 20, 2004 08:46 AM

Am intrigued and on the edge of my seat!

Posted by: Kimberly at May 20, 2004 08:50 AM

Per house rules, no advice. Just a lot of sympathy. (Although not fixated on physical appearance, my dad was much the same way when we were growing up.)

But, BOY, do I have some advice for your mom.

Posted by: Lex at May 20, 2004 09:42 AM

good luck, fish.

Posted by: amber at May 20, 2004 10:03 AM

No explanation was necessary, but having offered details I hope you feel better. Family - a constant struggle.

Posted by: Kenna at May 20, 2004 10:31 AM

Geez, you know, I think we could be twins - born 15 years apart and seemingly by different parents. But the mothers - I think maybe they were the same person, except for the money part. Both my parents came from lower income families.

My mother was the oldest - I think that had something to do with her obessive nature about - the same things as your mother - hair (you should really try parting it on the side, instead of the middle), weight (do you really think you should have that cookie - when I hadn't had any nor did I have a weight problem - except for not being as small as she was).

Does she not realize that I don't just have her genes running through me? I also have my father's - who's sisters are amazons - tall, bigger-boned...I'm sure she didn't mean any harm - just as you say yours didn't either. But some scars are deep and hard-to-heal, regardless of intentions.

Posted by: GrumpyBunny at May 20, 2004 10:54 AM

OOf. I'm sure we could start a blog community: "stories about how my mom messed with me, things I promise not to do with my own kids, but other things I'm sure I'll be blind-sided by". And yet, we still, of course, love them, but man, do they screw us up sometimes.

Thinking back to my own seventeen year old self, who really really needed to EAT A SANDWICH SKINNY GIRL!!! (yelling at myself there) but thought inexplicably that I was fat, I can't imagine how cool it would be to be even ten pounds heavier than I was then. I used to wear baggy shapeless clothes because I didn't want anyone to see my fatness-- boy would I now be wearing clothing that would get me sent to the principal's office every freakin' day if I still had that figure!!!! :)

Ah well. I know I'll mess up my own kids in some way I can't even begin to imagine. But at least it'll give them something to write about one day. :)

Posted by: Kim at May 20, 2004 11:30 AM

It never ceases to amaze me how powerful words are--in our formative years and beyond. Words can torture us for years after they were uttered. At the same time, kind words can lovingly reverberate and soothe long after they were spoken.

Posted by: slim at May 20, 2004 11:37 AM

my mother was almost identical to yours - i was never good enough... until now. nothing's changed, except my reaction to what she says because i know she doesn't understand how it affects me (despite however many hundred times i've told her).

good luck, fish.

Posted by: mingaling at May 20, 2004 11:59 AM

I hear you Fish.

Posted by: Kristen at May 20, 2004 12:06 PM

When I was 16 my father told me that I should get a nose job. Like at 16 I needed another reason to have low self asteem. When I was 20 I actually HAD to have surgery on my nose/sinuses and my dad offered to throw in a free nose job. I didn't get one, just to spite him. These days he's over my nose- now he just tells me I have a fat ass. The funny thing is he honestly thinks he's helping me when he says these things. He doesn't realize that what he says eats away at me for years. Fish, I feel your pain. I know it's hard but please don't waste your precious time trying to live up to someone's unrealistic expectations.

Posted by: Torrie at May 20, 2004 12:19 PM

Count me in on the "this is my mom too!" thing.
Me: 15, 5'7", ~125 pounds, making my lunch in the morning.
Mom: "You don't need cheese AND mayonnaise on that sandwich! If you have mayo you shouldn't put cheese! It's extra calories!"
That was almost ten years ago but I still think it every time I make a sandwich, and she still doesn't understand why I get defensive any time she says anything remotely related to my appearance.

Posted by: lauren at May 20, 2004 01:02 PM

Wow. You are me! Or me, as I would have been, if I were a girl.

My mother meets me at the airport, and her first words were [in Boston squawk], "You look fat!" (two years ago) and now are, "You look skinning!"

I too went to college, grew up, and became more compassionate. My mother has only become crazier, alas.

Posted by: Mike at May 20, 2004 01:03 PM

I would pay good money to hear you to tell her something like "I just love this new laid back you! You used to be so OBSESSED with your figure, but now look at you! The extra just rounds you out, makes you look more approachable. I love it."

Seriously. We're talking mani and pedi on me. I know from mothers. Mine actually inspired the creation of the Menendez Brothers Fan Club when I was in high school. Not only was I president, I was also a member. Kidding. Sorta. I do so love her, though.

Posted by: nikilovely at May 20, 2004 01:13 PM

No advice, of course, but I just want to say that I feel the same way about my mother. Referring to the "why now am I good enough" when I never was before ... I think for my mom at least, motherhood was very stressful. She had only 2 kids to care for (and a high stress job), but honestly she should not have had children. She was cold and impatient, just not maternal material. But it was the sixties and she was expected to conform, get married and make babies. Now that she is free of me, I'm no longer dependent and much of the pressure is off our relationship. Things have lightened up a bit. What I'm saying is, I suppose we've all grown up. Looking at my mother's decisions does make me question my own future of marriage/children ... I might not be cut out for it either. Live and learn, right?

Posted by: ellephantom at May 20, 2004 01:13 PM

Good luck with the visit Fish.

Posted by: victoria at May 20, 2004 01:53 PM

Everytime my wife (Helen) and I visit her mother, her mom's first comment is something critical of her daughter. Comments about her weight, clothing, hair, make-up, etc. Helen swings between anger, frustration and sadness with each of these meetings. But both Helen and her mom always end every visit/phone call with "I love you."

My own mother has never been overly critical of me. For as long as I can remember, each of us has always accepted the other for who we are. There's a complacent comfort in that - but I wonder if familial relationships are supposed to be complacent? Family is about love, and love, in any form, is complex. It's starting to bother me that it hasn't before bothered me that neither of us has told the other "I love you" in over 20 years.

Posted by: soundbytz at May 20, 2004 02:18 PM

1. Are you from McKinney, Texas?
2. I understand the ordeal of having a family member(s) that become fixated on every detail of your being until it compounds into eating disorders and other issues. Thank you for telling your story.

Posted by: Liz at May 20, 2004 04:48 PM

Both my parents drank. A lot and often. From adolescence onward I was living with two drunks. In high school I used to find whiskey bottles hidden in my room. I never knew which one left them there. I guess it doesn't matter. My father often was a mean drunk, physically violent and abusive; my mother was passive and sloppy. I left at 18 for college and the Army and tried to have little to do with either of them. My father eventually dropped dead of a heart attack, and my mother drank herself to death in a trash-filled Florida apartment. My sister and I took one look and just left everything there, preferring to let the landlord deal with it. We took the last $400 from my mother's checkbook for the funeral. My sister lives alone and smokes enough every day for 10 people; I often feel enraged; I never drink. We are doing just fine.

Posted by: Michael at May 20, 2004 05:38 PM

Yow. I know everyone else has weighed in already, but I'll add my little story to the bunch. I was never smart enough. At eight years old, my father was teaching me algebra and quizzing me on it (as soon as regular homework was done). When I got an A- on a test, I was always asked why it wasn't an A.

I graduated with a 3.98 GPA from one of the top high schools in the country. I was a National Merit Finalist and had a full scholarship to college, but I was only ranked #13 in my class (out of 256). What did my mom say to me right before we left to go to my high school graduation?

"Honey, we're so proud of you for being {nearly chokes on the word} thirteenth in your class. Too bad you weren't in the top ten, though... at least then you could sit up on stage!"

Anyway, I think all parents screw us up in some way. Good luck with your mother's visit.

Posted by: Daniella at May 20, 2004 07:21 PM

Daniella is right. And we all survive. With time the pain diminishes. Fish will be fine -- and strongr and wiser every day. Be well, H.

Posted by: Michael at May 20, 2004 07:50 PM

Thanks, Fish. Now I understand the seemingly odd preparations.

I, too, was never quite good enough, and it's made me, among other things, a very competent guy. When I was a bit younger than you, and in the Air Force, I lived alone and spent a lot of time thinking about my life. By the time I was 22 and out of the USAF, I knew I was, in fact, more than good enough. Mother, well... she may not always think so, but so be it.

An added benefit to my upcoming marriage to my high school sweetheart: Mother was instrumental in breaking us up 25 years ago. Knowing she couldn't have that kind of influence on me, she worked instead on Sweetheart, and was temporarily (for a quarter-century!) successful. Now we're just wondering if she's going to attend the wedding -- my father will be my best man. :-)

And the old broad is showing signs of coming around, so maybe she will be there. Time will tell.

You're good enough, and then some. Nah... good enough and then a lot more. You're good enough for two people. I hope that some day while she's still on this side of the grass, you can find a way to appreciate that your mother thinks so, too. There's a fixed number of hours in a lifetime, and it'd be a real pity if you were stuck living out the last of yours, after hers are done, with a regret.

Posted by: Arthur at May 20, 2004 10:23 PM

I can so relate to this post. When I was in sixth grade, my mom offered to pay me 5 dollars a pound for every one I lost over summer vacation. And I look back now, willing to trade anything for the figure I had then. Someone should have explained the concept of 'baby fat' to her. I can't help but think if she's just left me alone, my weight would have just worked itself out....rather than struggling with it like I seem destined to do for the rest of my life.

I guess that best thing to do is figure out how not pass on the same hangups to our daughters.

Thanks for writing this.

Posted by: lainey at May 20, 2004 10:45 PM

Know what you mean. Really.

Posted by: Tara at May 22, 2004 08:01 AM

Somehow it's always comforting to know that most parents are insane, in one way or the other.
My mother has always been this highly sensitive, obsessive, raging nut. When I was little, it seemed her moods, while either the violent anger that lead to beatings, or the intense tears that kept her in bed most of the day, seemed to be totally random. Her own mother was this cold, work-a-holic, German bitch, who you wouldn't want touching your dog.
My father was on heavy drugs/alcohol through most of my childhood, so it wasn't an even partnership in any case. He was from the school of 'Beat The Problems Out of Your Children.'
Over the years, we've all changed.The parents have mellowed out a lot, though remain their crazy, angry cores that come out in certain moments. I don't know. If you look back on your life, you are almost always amazed at where you end up.

Posted by: lottacar at June 6, 2004 01:57 AM