Mother's Day

A few years after moving out of my parents' home, I was well into and enjoying being low contact with my parents. It was rare that I would talk to them and rarer still that I would see them. I experienced long stretches of freedom, and that was fantastic. It was why I moved away.

I dreaded holidays and familial obligations. I got nothing out of it. It was largely an exercise in personal discomfort. It was a sort of avant-garde performance piece about the tragedy of identity and the roles we play for people we barely like. Occasionally, it was nice to see my cousins. I mostly liked getting to see my grandfather, but seeing him as the shell of the man he once was since his wife, my beloved grandmother died, was painful. He liked getting to see my wife and that made me happy.

All it took was one irate, guilt-laden phone call from my father to send me off into a deep depression or an amorphous melange. Almost never was anything of substance discussed. Nothing but the most basic of pleasantries were exchanged. Even so, it still put me off for hours and sometimes days. I tried to end the call as quickly as possible. I tried to avoid answering as often as I could, but this just made him more irate and more demanding the next time I dealt with him. My mother never called.

At this point in my life, despite living on my own, I was still semi-dependent. My car was really their car and my phone was really their phone. I still felt obligated. Hindsight tells me I should've just put up with living at home long enough to save up money to buy my own car and put money towards my own phone--but I needed to get out of their house and out of that abysmal city as fast as possible. I, no exaggeration, think my life depended upon that. I've always had suicidal ideation, but when I left it was an act of life-saving desperation.

I was happily going about my Sunday, one day in May. I was on my way to my very fulfilling martial arts class--something I always wanted to do but was too afraid to pickup while under the thumb of my parents. While driving I got a call from my father. With great annoyance and mild contempt, he reminded me it's Mother's Day. When was I planning on coming by to see my mother? Was I planning on at least getting her a card?! It hadn't even occurred to me it was Mother's Day.

I didn't care. I had no genuine emotion to express. Every empty gesture I made out of obligation caused mountains of guilt, because not too deep down I knew I was lying. Every holiday I did what I was supposed to do and said what I was supposed to say just to stave off the guilt and the accusations of ungratefulness and unworthiness. These are some of the few lies I truly regret and feel remorse for telling.

I could feel myself wanting to give in. I could feel my self planning out how I would grovel and do my normal minimum effort good son act. But I couldn't take it any more. It was his tone that was the final straw for me. His indignation that I could shirk such an important duty. That my mother was so entitled to her day of obsequiousness. Fuck that. "No," I told him. "No, I'm not coming by." He was a little surprised. Why not? he asked. I almost laughed mirthlessly, "Because that sounds terrible." Finally some honesty from me. He again asked why, like a toddler comically missing subtext. I fell back to lying and said "I don't know" because I didn't want to talk any more. I didn't understand the depth of the abuse or the far reaching impact at the time. I only knew how terrible being around them made me feel and how moving away from them made just about everything better. I couldn't explain the years of torment, the damage that had been done to me; the absolute nothing I felt for the two people who brought me into the world and raised a broken sham of a person. Who taught me nothing of value, only how capricious and arbitrary life can be. I learned more valuable and healthy life lessons from being a latchkey PBS watcher.

Avoidance is not generally a healthy coping mechanism, but in this instance it served me well. It was absolutely the right move. I needed to get away from my abusers.

Years prior to that particular Mother's Day, when I told my father that I would be moving out, he stepped inside my room, closed the door, and asked in a hushed voice "is your mother that bad?" It was the first time in nineteen awful years that I had seen him acknowledge that she's terrible. I wish I had the strength back then to answer honestly. I was taught from infancy that resistance is not only futile, but will be punished. I instinctively dodged the question. I don't recall the lie I gave, probably something along the lines of I just want to live nearer the full-time job I just accepted.

I always assumed my father had the same perspective as me in regards to my mother. I realize now that is a foolish assumption, but I suppose that's the fog of war for you. Thinking back, my mother never dished out physical abuse when my father was present. And he did stick up for me a couple times when she was dishing out verbal abuse (to which she whined, "why do you always take his side?!"--yes, why are you always defending the crying five-year-old from from the screaming thirty-something?). But what this says to me, the fact that she hid what she did (she never tried anything in public, either) means she knew it was wrong. If ever there were the possibility of reopening communication, that epiphany eliminated it.

My father was a weak, emotional mess. Codependent and cowardly. Terrified of being alone and incapable of taking care of himself. He orbited around his wife and took his share of abuse from her. I blame him for his weakness. For failing to see his relationship as unhealthy. For not knowing he could do better. He was a victim of his own making and I would have more sympathy for him if his weakness didn't cause so much harm to come to myself. Maybe if he hadn't so willingly participated in emotional blackmail, I would've visited him that one last time on his deathbed.

Principally, my mother used pain and shame (and threats and violence) to control me. My father relied upon guilt. They were both raised Catholic and shaming and placing guilt came as naturally as breathing to them. Both of them continually played the victim. My mother was unquestionably the biggest 'victim.' Even when it was my mother being unreasonable or had made some mistake, it was my father who ended up apologizing and kowtowing to my now incensed mother, who proceeded to withdraw attention and affection that my father craved. I could always tell when my parents were fighting because my mother moved about the house silently, ignoring my father, silent treatment being her go to response after her rage-phase settled down.

I often found myself assuaging my parents' feelings. I did this for my father more than my mother, but my father plied me with guilt to do the same for my mother. Cooing and comforting and expressing my undying loving and appreciation for them--that same old song and dance of affection and acting like a good son. Being forced to commit to taking care of them when they are old. My father once told my eight-year-old self if I ever tried to put him in a nursing home, I should instead just buy him a gun so he can shoot himself.

As a very small child, I called my parents Mommy and Daddy. At some point, that didn't feel appropriate. Probably around ten, that's when a lot of this kind of stuff come to bear. But it also didn't seem right to call them Mom and Dad. Too informal. Too intimate. They weren't Mommy and Daddy any more and they weren't Mom and Dad. I was their ward, but they weren't anything to me, so from then on I didn't call them anything. I didn't use their first names either. I just carefully avoided addressing them and used pronouns wherever possible. I used father and mother when referencing them.

Somewhere in my teen years, my mother pointed out that I don't call them anything--actually, I think that's a lie of omission. This was immediately after I was kicked out of the North Carolina School of Science and Math and I had to deal with all that fallout and they vented at me about that and many other things. It seems the conflict avoidance was mutual. Guess it's obvious where I got that mal-adaptation. Anyway, they vented at me about how I must not love them (got a little too close to the truth for comfort there) and basically pointed out how all my social-anxiety, my distaste for face-to-face human interaction, and the rest of my abnormalities mean I'm a terrible person, said in not so many words.

To this day, I still have trouble using words to express emotions. Because even when I think I'm saying something I believe and I feel, it has the sense of being a lie. When I hear others' words, it seems like a tactic, like a maneuver. There is subtext that must be decoded from those words because what is said is not what is meant. And getting the intended subtext wrong is downright dangerous. Potentially hazardous to my emotional and physical well-being. Undoubtedly this is from all those years of putting on the Good Son Show and being forced to decode meaning lest subsequent abuse be endured.

I had to give so many hugs that were literal gestures devoid of meaning. My skin crawled at contact with them. I still can't stand physical contact with people without appropriate context being established. This forced, unwanted physical expression may very well be why I endure brutally violent intrusive thoughts when non-intimate people stand too close to me.

I happily hug my wife and children. It feels good. It means something. But words still feel dangerous. A heartfelt hug can't be denied, but words feel like an opportunity to be accused of lying; to be called out for not saying the right incantation; to be exposed as a fraud of a person.

Things have slowly changed. I used to dread Mother's Day and having to perform and lie. Mother's Day now means an opportunity to do something nice for my wife. To, ironically, show her she's more than just a mother. Because she's Mama 365 days of the year, and needs and appreciates being reminded that her most important person sees her as something other than just Mama. I am trying, and mostly succeeding, to do things the right way with my family, and I marvel at how easy the right way can be.