Breaking the Cycle of Abuse in a Family:
Finding My Voice After the Birth of My Son


I am the proud mother of a beautiful and happy baby boy, born just before Christmas, 2009. Because I had a C-section, I ended up spending Christmas Eve in the hospital, snuggled together on a twin-sized bed with my husband and new son. Although there was no tree or festive lights in the room to mark the holiday, my baby was the best present I ever received. However, my elation was tempered by sadness: my mother wasn’t there.

While still in the recovery room, I called out for my “mommy.” We spoke briefly on the phone, and I burst into tears when describing what I’d been through. She told me that it was a normal response…that my hormones were raging. I’m sure she was right, but part of me ached for something else. It hurt that she wasn’t with me, but I didn’t feel that I could express that to her.

Four months before my son arrived, my husband and I headed to Mom’s home in Maine (we live in Connecticut) for a baby shower she was co-hosting with my friend. Almost as soon as I found out I was pregnant, I suggested having the party at Mom’s because she doesn’t like to travel and isn’t very social. I wanted her to feel involved, and naturally wished to feel closer to her emotionally. She was thrilled to plan the party, which would take place in her beloved garden (which she tends to obsessively). Thus began months of painstaking preparation – planning that did not acknowledge any of my preferences. She served food she wanted, drinks she preferred, and was very controlling about who could “use” her kitchen and where the food would be available to guests. I’m pretty laid back, and my only request was for some of my favorite pizza, made by a local restaurant, since it was a big pregnancy craving for me.

She refused, telling me it would be too hot for pizza, that I could get it any time, and that my paternal grandfather (who she hadn’t seen in 20 years) wouldn’t want it.

I have talked to several therapists over the years, relating many stories of my dealings with Mom. The consensus was that there is a pathology there – possibly Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), caused by childhood abuse at the hands of her stepmother. Her biological mother was not involved in her life, so Mom clearly had no healthy paradigms on which to model her own future maternal behavior.

As a child, I loved my mother unconditionally; until I was 9 years old, we got along famously. As I entered my teen years, however, I began pulling away from her in an attempt to assert some independence – a normal rite of passage for most developing children. I was also now keenly aware that something was very wrong: her moods swung dramatically and drugs and alcohol were present, although they were cleverly hidden. She talked about her ‘terrible childhood’ to anyone who would listen, and would often cry while recounting details with her brother, who was equally as damaged and addicted. As 12 years old, I pleaded with her to get some help, a suggestion that was met with contempt — I was told to stay the hell out of her life.

Mom was so wrapped up in her own misery and failing second marriage that it left little time for me. If I told her I was upset about something she did or said, she ignored me. If I somehow offended or upset her (which was remarkably easy to do), she gave me the silent treatment for up to a week, instead spending her time lovingly tending to her garden. Nothing was ever resolved, and I was left with a pervasive feeling that I was responsible for her happiness…and that mine didn’t matter. The tension in our house hung like a toxic cloud. The neglect and verbal abuse I suffered caused severe stomach problems which were resolved, for the most part, when I moved out and went to college at 18 – another source of envy for my mother.

When it came time for the baby shower, my husband and I were only there a few hours before Mom came up behind him, stroked his beard and said, “I could get whisker burn from this.” Considering she’d also told him to feel free to walk around without his shirt on, I felt justified in letting out an embarrassed, “Mom!” Her response was, “that’s not what I meant!” Complete deniability, another hallmark of NPD.

My Mom read my thank-you card, in which I told her how much it meant to me that she and my friend threw the shower in my honor. She looked up from the card and stated emphatically that my friend only helped a little “here and there.” I knew that wasn’t true, and couldn’t believe it when, at one point, she actually patted herself on the back. Praise is something my mother has a constant demand for, and it’s tiring.

The shower went fairly well, my mother’s idiosyncrasies notwithstanding. It was great to see family and friends I hadn’t seen for so long, and people really wished us well. But the party was soon marred by Mom’s need to steal my thunder: she pulled out photos of herself from her 1985 wedding to my stepfather (the man whom she now loathed) and passed them around to my stunned friends. She also presented to us a christening outfit (she is not religious, neither are we), and it was uncomfortable reacting to it in front of a crowd of people. When she later pulled me aside and told me to use it for the christening, she was appalled to learn that we weren’t having one. I reminded her that we weren’t religious (I wasn’t even baptized), and she said defiantly, “So? That doesn’t mean your son can’t be!” My wishes and preferences were not only being ignored, they were being challenged.

I was nearly six months pregnant at this time, and it was hard for me to remain calm when my mother started throwing more verbal jabs my way: “You’re so lucky you’re having a boy,” was one that stunned me into silence. I didn’t appreciate the comment but chose to ignore it rather than add fuel to the proverbial fire. She also demanded in front of friends that my husband and I move to Maine so she could baby-sit every day for free, told us we should call our son “Jed” or “Ely” (she apparently didn’t like the name we picked) and said only, “we’ll see” every time I asked her if she could come down to our home to help us when the baby was born.

For a week after we left Maine, I cried about this visit. I’d learned over the years not to have a lot of expectations of my mother, but I was the one who was pregnant, and she wanted all the attention. Still trying to gain her approval, I e-mailed her almost daily after I left, and for a solid month, she ignored me. It was obvious she was mad at me, as usual, but I couldn’t believe she was ignoring me while I was pregnant. Eventually, she continued e-mailing me but never again mentioned coming down to help us with the baby. As I became less mobile and more lethargic, I stopped asking her.

As Christmas quickly approached, my mother sent us a present “to be opened as soon as he’s born,” and it was in my hospital bag. She e-mailed me obsessively before the planned C-section (I was 10 days late), asking me to ‘promise’ to open it as soon as the blessed event occurred. I was annoyed that I was expected to remember to do this the day I gave birth…like I didn’t have enough to think about. We did eventually open it – a Christmas ornament, with our son’s real name on it. It sat in the windowsill of my hospital room, a constant reminder that my mother wasn’t there.

While I was home recuperating further, Mom kept in close contact with me over e-mail (talking on the phone “hurts” her arm). After a few weeks of this, I asked her over e-mail why she didn’t come. Her response was almost immediate, long, and riddled with excuses. She told me she was “sorry we don’t live up to your expectations,” and variations on that theme. As usual, all her excuses placed the blame squarely on me. She acknowledged her cruel month-long silent treatment after my shower by saying she was offended that I’d made a joke about how long her garden tours took (she almost cried, apparently), and that I didn’t eat one of the two cakes she bought.

I couldn’t believe these perceived slights were her justification in not only ignoring me after the shower, but also why she didn’t come to see me when I had my first child. I told her that her silent treatment made me cry for a week, and she countered with, “well, I cried, too!”

I finally had enough. I realized that she was knowingly trying to upset me while I was not only recovering from a C-section, but while we were trying to take care of a new baby with little family help. She felt justified in upsetting me, ignoring me and my wishes on so many levels, and yet I was supposed to apologize for not eating one of her cakes and because I made a joke about her garden tours?

I asked her to consider coming down again, that my friends would give her a ride (she doesn’t drive), and was told that she was afraid she’d miss the baby too much when she left, and that she knew I wouldn’t take her advice, even though she has so much experience with babies. She told me she was fine with just seeing his photos on Facebook, and expected us to go to her in March. Again, it was all about Mom.

She ignored my first (and second) Mother’s Day, and I didn’t acknowledge her for the first time in my life. I am coming to terms with the fact that my mother is not who I need her to be. I am still mourning that loss; it’s like dealing with a death in the family, and it takes time.

Having a child made me realize how much children depend on their parents to become productive and independent people. When I look into my son’s innocent and trusting eyes, I realize how innocent and trusting I was as a child, and how my mother tried to take that away by burdening me with the sordid details of her own life; how she invalidated my feelings because she didn’t get what she needed when she was young. Giving birth threw me right in the middle of the pain I’d hidden for so long. I don’t want to continue that cycle of abuse.

My son is now 18 months old and my parents have yet to meet him. I stood up to the bully who’s my mother and she responded like she always has: by giving me the silent treatment – the longest one of our lives. It’s been hard, but also freeing. My son won’t think his mother is a pushover, hiding her own feelings to appease her mother. And he won’t be poisoned by Grandma’s bitterness, regret and competitiveness.

He will always be able to come to me about issues in his life, and I will validate his feelings, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. I finally feel free from my mother’s tortured past, and will never again try to make her feel better by stifling my own feelings. Letting go of my own childhood pain is what I continue to work on so that I can be the best mom I can be. I will make sure that my son has what I never did: a voice.

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