Yes, there was this woman who conceived, gestated and gave birth to me, and in the strictest relationship terms, she was my mother. But in the ways that count, I grew up without one.
What people often overlook—or even dismiss—is the fact that the word “mother” can also be a verb. And while the noun “mother” is an easily defined word—she who gave birth—the verb can be a bit more tricky.
I searched both online dictionaries and thesauruses and found that while the noun was expansively represented, the verb suffered from a paucity of description. Webster’s, for example, gave five variations on the definition of the noun and only three to the verb, one of which was circular (used the word to define the word)1. The fact of being a mother then, significantly outstrips the act of mothering, if the scantiness of information in the dictionary is any guide.
Interestingly, the ability to be a mother is available to the vast majority of sexually mature females, but the ability to mother does not necessarily come with it. Even more interestingly, the ability to mother is not confined to females who have given birth, it is not even confined to females or to people who have achieved sexual maturity. It is a quality available to us all, should we be so inclined.
That there is so little available on the difference between being a mother and being able to mother came as a surprise. One does not ordinarily expect an erudite definition of “mother” contrasted with “to mother” to come from a feminist activist and icon, either—but here you have it:
“Even if we are not mothers, the noun, we may be mothering, the verb. Indeed, unless mothering is a verb, it is a fact but not a truth, a state but not an action.
“To mother is to care about the welfare of another person as much as one’s own.
“To mother depends on empathy and thoughtfulness, noticing and caring.
“To mother is the only paradigm in which the strong and the weak are perfectly matched in mutual interest…one may be forced to be a mother, but one cannot be forced to mother.”2 ~ Gloria Steinem
“…unless mothering is a verb, it is a fact but not a truth, a state but not an action.” How true we ACoNs know this to be. And how representative of my life, for I had a mother, the noun—the state—but received precious little mothering—the act.
All parents leave their children a legacy and this is the legacy of the child with a narcissistic parent. Yes, even fathers, for fathers are capable of providing the same nurturing and caring, the same empathy and noticing, the same thoughtfulness and protectiveness we define as “mothering.” That a parent fails to provide these essential forms of nurture is not a fact of gender as much as it is a fact of personal character. Even people who do not feel an emotional bond with the child can provide nurturance and empathy, can treat the child with respect, can demonstrate concern for the child’s well-being. And yet, we still find the world awash with those who grew up in a vacuum devoid of such crucial comforts.
I didn’t have a mother. Occasionally I had a grandmother, for a time I had a step-mother, and while they were better—much, much better—than having no mothering at all, they were not my mother and even as a school-aged child, I knew and understood that. For a few years we had Mexican ladies live in as housekeeper/nanny and they were among the warmest mother-figures I had in my life, but when my little brother started school full time, that was the end of that resource for me. From that point forward, when it came to nurturing and mothering, I was pretty much on my own.
When I was perhaps eight—maybe a little older—I remember getting very upset with my mother over something and so to punish her I decided I would withhold my customary goodnight kiss. When bedtime rolled around I brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas and then went straight to bed. I waited a long time for her to come to my door and claim her nightly kiss but she never did. She didn’t notice. She didn’t miss it. And I began to understand that although she called herself my mother, she was not a mother to me.
It is significant to note that when I was feeling put out at her, my mind went to punishment. It was what I knew, it was what I experienced, it is what I understood. I knew nothing of a mother coming to her child’s side and saying “You must be disappointed in that “C” in math. What can Daddy and I do to help you?” I knew nothing of flinging myself into my mother’s arms to cry out some hurt or disappointment, I knew to stifle my sobs against my pillow and if I got caught with red eyes and a sniffly nose to blame it on my allergies because crying about anything except immediately after a beating was a punishable offense. I didn’t know about talking out a situation, about coming to an understanding with another party, I knew only about commands and pronouncements and third party intervention that, if defied, warranted more punishment. I didn’t know about building a skill by doing it over again, eliminating each error progressively and attaining mastery: I knew do it right the first time or there was punishment.
The worst part of this was that when I became a mother, this was what I knew. My grandparents and my father might ask if I knew what was wrong and if I planned to repeat my mistake—a contrite answer of “no” from me was all they required—but were neither critical nor inclined to punish me for simple errors. My mother, however, was the one who assigned chores and reviewed them, and it was my mother’s actions that I absorbed as the norm.
When my first child was a baby a telling event occurred. She was perhaps six months old and at the stage where everything went in her mouth. I would remove anything she had managed to her hands on that she shouldn’t, say “No no!” to her, then hand her a distracting toy. My mother happened to be there one afternoon and she said to me “She’s too young to know what “no” means. You’re wasting your breath” and I replied “But if I don’t start now, how will she understand it when she is old enough to understand?
My mother didn’t get it. The idea of teaching a child to not pick up the screwdriver Daddy left on the floor was just beyond her ken. Instead, her way was to smack—to punish—when the child innocently did the wrong thing because, in her words, that will teach them a lesson they will never forget. And I, being naïve and still wanting my mother’s love and approbation, gave up my efforts to teach my child what she could and could not play with, settling with smacking her hand when she grabbed something inappropriate.
It took many years and many mistakes for me to learn about mothering. I had the most obvious aspects down pat: hug my kids, cuddle them, do things with them, tell them that I loved them. But the rages I directed at them were the same rages my mother directed at me, and for infringements of the rules as petty as making noise and waking me up too early (I worked nights). I saw nothing wrong with those rages, even while my heart hurt at the signs of fear and alarm on their little faces.
In so many ways, lacking mothering myself, I did not know how to mother. The funny thing was, my stepmother was very good at nurturing and mothering her children and the year I spent in the home she and my father established was a time of great learning—but learning at a distance. In retrospect I can see that she was trying to nurture and mother me but two things stood between us: she did not know how to provide nurturing to a teen-aged girl and I did not know how to accept it—not having had consistent real mothering in my life, I didn’t know what it was, what to do with it, how to recognize or deal with it. So accustomed to was I to being commanded, with threats for noncompliance tacked on, I did not recognize less harsh and direct forms of communication. So desperate was I to be liked by my stepmother so that I would continue to be welcome in her home, I would do my chores and then retreat to my room with a book, spending little or no time with the family after meals—because this was how my mother defined “being good”—out of sight so she could forget that I existed. And, of course, my own definitions of such things as good and bad, acceptable and not acceptable, right or wrong, were shaped by the malignant narcissist I have lived with most of my life.
But Patsy interpreted it differently. She saw it as me isolating myself because I didn’t like her or I resented her having taken my mother’s place in my father’s life. Nothing could have been further from the truth! I was glad he had married her because I knew first-hand what a hurtful bitch my mother was and I truly wanted my father to be happy—I knew how much happier I was when I didn’t have to live with her and couldn’t imagine he felt any different. But I didn’t know how to be an integrated part of a family. With my grandparents, we ate supper, cleaned up, then sat outside in front of the patio fireplace until bedtime—I would often go to my room and read, not because they wanted me out of sight, but because my mind was much more active and needed feeding while they were content to sit quietly, nurse a cup of coffee, and stare into the fire. I didn’t know that Patsy expected more or different of me and she didn’t know that I didn’t know.
I appreciated anything she did for me but again, I had no idea how to adequately communicate that. A few years later, when I was a new mother with a military husband overseas, Patsy anticipated my needs and showed up at my house with a bag full of groceries. I think she had come to understand that I would not ask for help if I was on fire—although I am not so sure she understood why.
My mother didn’t want me to have my first child—I was 17 and unmarried and she wanted me to have an abortion (which was illegal in 1964). Next she tried to force me into a home for unwed mothers with the objective of adopting the baby out. Eventually she backed me so deeply into a corner that I took an overdose of sleeping pills. Once out of the hospital, I wanted to get married—which was the norm for girls in my situation back then—but she refused to consent. Not once during this entire ordeal did she show me the smallest amount of compassion or caring. It never occurred to her that I might be scared or hurt or worried about labour and birth and providing for my child. All that came to her mind was what she wanted—for the stigma to go away and to force me to “knuckle under” to her. When my father did an end run around her and helped me get a judge to authorize my marriage, my mother was livid.
“Do not come to me when times get tough,” she told me. “You made your bed, now you lie in it!”
My father had a wife who did not work outside the home and by this time, five kids at home. My brother Pete was living there because once I left my mother’s home, he became the target of her nasty mouth and temperament—he went to live with Dad and stayed there until he graduated from high school. And they had another baby just six months after my child was born—their plate was full and the dollars were tightly stretched. In good conscience, I could not ask them because I knew they would help and stretch their situation even tighter. And I didn’t dare ask my mother because she had already told me she wouldn’t help. All I would get from her was mocking “I told you so’s” coupled with whatever cruel barbs she could come up with at the time. I grew up with the woman—I knew that asking her for help would only put me in a vulnerable position that she simply could not resist exploiting.
You could almost excuse my mother with the fact that in the early 60s, having a baby out of wedlock shamed the entire family. But when you realize that “doing the right thing” (marrying the girl off) pretty much neutralized that shame, the fact that my mother withheld her permission for me to marry effectively revealed her agenda, which had nothing to do with me or my feelings or even my child and had everything to do with her being obeyed. I had “defied” her by refusing an abortion and she was going to pay me back for that.
I entered motherhood, then, with this for my role model. I remember sometimes being baffled with a situation having to do with my kids—or sometimes automatically reverting to some unloving behaviour I had learned from my mother but stopping myself—and asking myself “What would Patsy do?” I would try to imagine how Patsy would handle a similar situation, knowing that brutality was not part of her repertoire, and then try to apply that myself. Too often, however, my own mother’s behaviour would leap to the fore and before my brain could shift into “What would Patsy do?” gear, I would be screaming at my children and scaring them with the intensity of the rage that would boil out of me.
I would say that I “lost my way” except that I didn’t have a way to lose. I didn’t have a mother to nurture and correct me, I was not mothered, I didn’t know what it felt like and I didn’t know how to do it. My Patsy moments were imitations of what I observed or imagined but not something that came from within me because that was what I had experienced. As a kid I sometimes felt the only thing my mother did, with respect to me and my brother, was to put food in the cupboards every weekend. Most of the rest of the time we didn’t see her and if she was reading or watching TV, woe betide the child who intruded to put forth a personal issue that might interrupt Mickey Spillane or I Love Lucy.
Over time I learned to nurture others. It was a hit or miss kind of thing, learning to rely on my gut instincts for empathy and compassion and overriding the harsh backlash that I learned at my mother’s knee. Often I faced conflicts between a compassionate response and a punitive one because I didn’t know how to be effective and compassionate at the same time, while fully grasping the deterrent effect of punishment. But what I missed was that my kids weren’t terrified of me the way I was of my mother, so her methods didn’t work well for me because my children weren’t sufficiently terrified of me so as to be deterred.
But mothering was something alien to me, for all that I felt the feelings, but I did not know how to act on them. By recalling Patsy with her children, by imagining what she would do in the same situation, I learned it was ok to play with then, to tell them I loved them, to hold them when they were hurt and to respect their individual tastes—to mother them. But my instinct, my initial emotional response, was to scream and hit and punish, just as my mother had done to me.
It takes a long time—and a lot of mistakes—to overcome that kind of bred-in-the-bone response. It takes a knowledge of—or willingness to seek out and learn—what the “right thing” is before you can implement it. It takes a lot of backbone to stand up to the training received through experience, to step out into the unknown before you even have faith in yourself that what you are doing is right. It takes repeated failures, analyses of the failures, and infinitely renewed efforts. You have to mother yourself, even though you were never given the tools, even though you don’t even know how you are supposed to feel.
Often I see ACoNs cry out that they want their mothers when, in fact, they do not want the unloving women who gave birth to them—what they want is mothering. They instinctively want the nurturing and compassion and unconditional love that is mothering, which they never received. They want mothering, which they can get from any sufficiently compassionate person—even from themselves.
It is important that we learn to differentiate “being a mother” from “to mother” because they are planets apart: a brain-dead woman in a coma can give birth and become a mother, but she can never provide mothering to her child. We are those children, born to emotionally sterile women who can never provide mothering to us and when we pine for it from them, we are seeking to squeeze blood from a stone. We each need to learn the art of mothering and to give it not only to our children but to ourselves as well. It is the only way we will ever get a real mother. It is how I finally got one.
2 Steinem, Gloria. http://www.womensmediacenter.com/feature/entry/mother-as-a-verb