About ten years ago, I caught up with an old classmate from grade school named Summer. Despite attending public schools, I had an especially strict and religious upbringing. So, I was sort of surprised when she told me about her work with spiritual tools like astrology and tarot. Ooof. My mom would kill me if I got involved in that sort of stuff, I thought.
When I saw that my former classmate offered a variety of in-depth “readings,” I decided to get one done out of my own curiosity and a desire to support her work.
After asking me several questions about my birth, Summer spent a few days compiling a 16-page assessment. All about me.
The reading was interesting and certainly entertaining, but I found myself terribly confused whenever it brought up my mother. Basically, the assessment suggested that I had a lot of issues with my mom and that I needed to get out from under her desire for control.
Back then, I knew I had lots of unresolved issues with my father who passed away suddenly in 2008. He was cruel and distant my entire life. But my mom? She was the only family member who’d been there for me. I’d always chalked up our biggest “issues” to her misguided but well-meaning love.
Eventually, I filed that astrology reading from Summer away as a silly thing I’d done that didn’t mean much to my real life.
These days, it’s safe to say that I’ve got a complicated relationship with my mother. It’s only natural since I spent most of my life so unaware that many of her tactics with me were abusive. Much of what happened when I was growing up felt awful, yet completely “normal” too. It was the only childhood I knew, so of course, my baseline for normalcy was skewed.
For many years, I simply thought my mom was too strict. We spent most of our time at home and I was very isolated from the rest of the world when I wasn’t in school. She didn’t want me dating or hanging out with non-Christian kids — her fears that I might one day get mixed up with “the wrong crowd” started out when I was very young. She abated those fears through the use of strict discipline and corporal punishment.
And I thought that’s just what some Christian parents do. It didn’t occur to me that my mother ever crossed a line and abused me.
Sure, my mother used to spank me when I misbehaved, and again, I thought that’s just what mothers do. She had this pink and black Goody hairbrush that she kept for probably thirty years. I can remember seeing that darn hairbrush in her bathroom even when I was an adult and living on my own.
When I was a child, I didn’t register her spankings as problematic. In one way, I thought that I was “bad” and deserved them. On the other hand, I knew I was a good kid and not rebellious by any means, so I didn’t like to ponder why I was constantly in some sort of trouble. At a very young age, I learned how to block out certain memories I didn’t want to think about.
A lot of the stuff my mom did during my childhood falls into that territory. Things I didn’t want to think about or understand why. I didn’t want to think about how she spanked me or why she did it so much. I didn’t want to remember how helpless I felt at home, not to mention how out of control she seemed to be.
Besides, I’d read about abused kids in books. I saw child abuse in the movies and on the news. I knew my life wasn’t perfect, but I also thought it wasn’t that bad. I somehow believed that I’d know if I was an abused child.
But I didn’t know.
At thirty-five years old, I finally admitted to the world that I suffered through an abusive childhood. I’m not sure what exactly led to my realization that my mom’s parenting style was abuse. I suppose there were lots of little inklings along the way. My life felt like a slow unraveling — bits and pieces I learned about the world took hold and pulled at my frayed edges.
Oh. So, it wasn’t healthy for a mother to expect the worst from her well-behaved child, or to continually look for reasons why she couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t out of the goodness of her heart that she read her daughter’s diary and made accusations that were beyond her child’s understanding. It wasn’t “normal” that I had these lifelong, recurring nightmares about my mom refusing to believe me.
Slowly, I began to unpack many of the memories I’d boxed up and shut away since childhood. It occurred to me that if I’d ever done any of the same things to my own child, I’d consider it abuse. Worse yet, I realized that the way my mom treated me groomed me for future abuse by other parties. Churches, boyfriends, bosses — when other people later crossed lines with me, I didn’t question them because it always felt so familiar. Without meaning to do it, my mom set me up to be further abused.
Of course, none of the abusers in my life ever thought they were doing something wrong, and that includes my mom. I’m pretty certain they all thought their actions were justified. As if they were giving me exactly what I needed.
My mother manipulated me into believing that I was no good. And then she called me crazy when I grew up and admitted to her that I felt worthless. Ironically, she first began teaching me that there was nothing good in me when I was very young.
Sometimes, the terrible memories from my childhood catch me by surprise. Things that I very well know happened, but I haven’t considered for twenty odd years. One of those memories crept upon me earlier this week.
When I was as young as five or six, my mom had already made me feel ashamed to make mistakes or apologize. Anytime I said that I was sorry, her response was an indignant and emphatic, “You should be!” There was no forgiveness if I did anything, “wrong.” Instead, I had to wait for my mom’s anger to subside before she could even look at me without glaring or bringing up whatever terrible thing she thought I’d done wrong. Apologies and explanations meant nothing to her. What she demanded was full compliance and no mistakes.
I was too young to understand it back then, but I was deeply frustrated with my life. I received daily Lupron injections for central precocious puberty, and I was struggling with these deep, sad emotions I didn’t even understand. Both my mom and my sister (who’s five years older than me) began calling me a cry baby. It’s true that I did cry a lot, but that name stuck with me for the rest of my childhood, and it was regularly used to brush away my feelings. Anytime I was hurt or upset, those emotions were suddenly suspect or illegitimate, because I was just a cry baby, after all.
Not knowing what to do with all of that frustration, I began biting my older sister whenever she went too far in picking at or teasing me. As the single mom of a (non biting) six year old right now, I can only imagine how overwhelming that was for my mom. Rather than talking to me or trying to get to the bottom of my behavior, however, she decided to wash my mouth out with soap.
It wasn’t the first time my mom used physical force with me. But it was probably the first time her use of force truly frightened me. She took a brand new bar of blue or green body soap, something deodorizing like Zest or Irish Spring, and then she told me to open my mouth. She wet the bar under the bathroom water faucet and shoved it into my mouth — sudsing it up and telling me how much I needed to learn my lesson and stop biting my sister.
The taste and smell of the deodorant soap was horrible. Nauseating. These terribly potent soap suds ran up my nose and burned me as I gagged and fought to breathe freely without pain. I could feel thick flakes of soap wedge themselves in the spaces between my teeth. Bits of the bar gunked up onto my molars and I thought I was going to puke.
It was awful. Tears streamed down my face and I felt like such a monster. Hadn’t I done this to myself? That’s what my mom told me — that I’d behaved so badly I gave her no choice.
When it was all… over, my mom told me to rinse the soap out of my mouth and warned me to never bite my sister again. Rinsing my mouth out with water felt like it took an eternity of spitting out soapy slime. I tasted soap for hours longer after it was done, but I assured my mom that I’d learned my lesson.
I never wanted to go through that experience again.
But I did go through it again. I can’t even remember how many times. Too many to count, I suppose.
She did it once more because I bit my sister again. Then twice more. Three more times. Four. My mom couldn’t understand what was “wrong with me.” Why I couldn’t stop biting. Or why I insisted upon making her so mad.
I didn’t understand it either because I wasn’t a rebellious kid. But I was an honest and emotional one. Like plenty of other kids with autism or precocious puberty, I struggled to feel okay. My mom taught me that I was defective for having big emotions, or for having opinions she didn’t like.
She did this all in such a way as to convince me that it was all my own wrongdoing. That I was a difficult child.
As it turns out, I was just a human one.
Washing my mouth out with soap (obviously) did nothing for my real life issues. I was an anxious child who gradually learned how to bottle up and conceal her emotions in an effort to appear more acceptable. But pain and frustration still loomed above my head, and I didn’t know how to carry those weights at all.
While I eventually did quit biting my older sister, I can’t credit the punishment. It was less of a lesson and more of an assurance that I didn’t learn how to manage my emotions in a healthy way. There was no one to show me, and no one to hear me out either.
I wasn’t a happy kid, but I internalized all of that sadness. That made it hard to recognize anything I was feeling or to trust myself. Anytime I had even an inkling that things were not alright, I felt deep guilt, like it was my job to protect my mother from any bit of criticism.
“I may not be perfect, but I always admit when I’m wrong.” That’s something my mom said constantly when I was growing up, but it never made any sense to me. It’s something she continues to tell me to this day despite the fact that at nearly 40 years old, I know this isn’t true. She says it when she’s angry and thinks I owe her an apology, despite the fact that she’s never once accepted an apology from me. And she says it when she seemingly wants me to agree that she is “better ”— better than me, better than my father, better than her mother.
She, unlike the rest of us terrible humans, admits when she is wrong. That’s what she insists, anyway. Yet we have never talked about these parts of our lives. Hey, mom. Remember when you used to wash out my mouth with soap? My daughter’s that same age and I would never even think to ram anything into her mouth against her will.
I get frustrated and exasperated too, but we don’t talk about that. My mom and I don’t discuss what’s real because somehow, that’s unacceptable. We don’t talk about reality. My mom knows that I don’t spank or harshly discipline my six year old and she thinks that’s great. “We know more now,” she says, without a twinge of irony. As if it wasn’t her hitting or pushing her children. Like she didn’t wash my mouth out with soap on more than one occasion when I was young and overwhelmed.
Turns out, Summer was right all along. I had (and have) issues with my mother. Real ones you can’t just sweep beneath a pretty rug.
As a result, I grew up craving approval, and for a long time, I thought it was approval from men that I wanted because I had such a lousy relationship with my father. But I was wrong about that. I had a difficult relationship with my mom too — one that left me feeling unloved and starved for real affection.
Funny how I spent so much of my life defending her tactics anyway.
Looks like I was wrong.