Phew! A Leopard Can Change It’s Spots

The inspiration for this came from some inner reflection around the Thanksgiving Holiday about my relationship with mother. Before I go into this I want to put a disclaimer. My father was not much of a support either but I also saw him as a victim as my mother was clearly the alpha of our family.

I often refer to my mother as a cockroach. She could survive a nuclear blast and is resourceful. She could always pick her and our family up by our boot straps which she did by going back to work when my father lost his job and was having a breakdown. She took a 4:00 PM to midnight shift, so she can make sure that we. made sure we were dressed and got off to school; however, when it came to the softer more nurturing aspects, she was not so skilled.

I guess you could say I had middle child syndrome. I was timid and had little to no sense of who I was other than an alien that was deserted on earth and trying to figure out the playbook. I yearned for affection but never demanded what I needed, a skill my younger sister was quite adept at. Perhaps she learned from my mistakes. The one time I recall standing up for myself was on Mother’s Day when I was in the 4th grade. I had just gotten a light blue tie dye pants suit from Daffy Dan’s. The pants tied up in the back. I was so proud of it and wanted to wear it out to dinner. She thought it wasn’t “nice” enough but relented in the end. A few minutes later she came up in a pants suit. I pointed out that why was it ok for her to wear pants and not me. She told me she didn’t want me to look stupid. My pride in my new outfit and my short lived win in standing up to my mother was automatically deflated.

My older sister was the athlete, I was more academic and my younger sister a hybrid who excelled socially with people of all ages. Although my mother stressed the importance of being smart, I saw her respect for older sisters athletic prowess. It always seemed my mother was so proud of my sister at her gymnastics meets but made it clear that she found no joy in going to my dance recitals and her attendance was from a sense of duty.

To me my mother was powerful and I yearned for her respect. She had a tendency to rage out when met with resistance or things didn’t go her way. My father, sisters and I would cower. She was never physically abusive but the fire came out verbally and emotionally. I even wished she would hit us instead as I couldn’t imagine it be less painful. It felt like the shift from Bruce Banner to the Hulk and back again. She didn’t hold onto the grudge once she was done being incensed, but we were often left as puddles in the aftermath.

Emotional fortitude and strength was something she valued and it was clear she didn’t think I had it. In high school, I did a paper on child abuse. I was consumed with the topic and was motivated to volunteer and support children from abusive homes. When I mentioned this to my mother, she simply responded, “They need people that can be strong for them, not someone who will cry with them.” She valued strength and it was clear she didn’t think I had it. And since she was strong and knew what it took, she must have been right and I didn’t have what it took. Needless to say my inspiration died a quick death.

Not only was she strong but she was beautiful. I had heard stories of how she had her pick of men before my dad and they were like bees to her honey. When I was around 13, I want from being average to above average in height. I grew about 8 inches in one year. When I told her that someone said I should be a model, she said “Do you know how skinny you need to be a model,” and “You’re too smart for that.” My interpretation was that I was fat and ugly, as I don’t recall anyone using smart and pretty in the same sentence. I understand in retrospect that she was saying I had more to offer and she felt her beauty was all she had to offer; however, I just heard, your a fat and ugly duckling.

As you can tell, my mother was not prone to praise. In discussions I had with her later, she said that she refrained from praise because she felt it was a kina hora, which translates to an evil eye in Yiddish. This is ironic, because although she technically converted to Judaism to marry my father, she was raised as a Puerto Rican Catholic.

It was also a generation where parents didn’t share a lot with there children. We moved 5 times and I had been in 3 schools by the time I was 9. One of which happened in the middle of the school year and I didn’t know it was happening until my father came to pick my sister & I up, which was a shock in and of it self, and he said, “Come on we’re moving and your going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa over the weekend while mom and I take care of it.” Changing schools could be a bit traumatic for a shy girl like me and I don’t ever recall her inquiring about my day or how I was doing even during most challenging times in our family’s life (i.e., my father’s breakdown and her transition from stay at home to working mother). I most definitely never felt confident or safe to bring my troubles to her.

Needless to say I could not rely on my mother for any sense of confidence building and although these things may seem comparatively low on an abuse scale, I feel like I raised myself. Granted I had two sisters, but we were all figuring our own ways to survive. In my late 20’s I went to psychotherapy which finally gave me the confidence to dabble in many areas which lead to me finding myself and becoming mush happier. I no longer needed her love and respect to the point that when it started to come, my inner voice was saying, “too little & too late”.

Then in my 30’s and 40’s as I started to really become braver and understand who I was, I developed some empathy for my mother realizing that she was a first generation US born child of non-English speaking Puerto Rican parents that was raised in Spanish Harlem. My grandfather worked many jobs and my grandmother has married my grandfather so young she didn’t have many maternal skills herself. My mother went to a beauty prep school instead of high school. She wished she were smarter and not just touted for her looks.

I had been practicing shamanism and leading new and full moon ceremonies in my home. I invite her. Although as an adult I no longer needed her seal of approval, I guess there still was that little girl wanting her mothers attention. She came. And afterwards, totally unexpected, she came up to me and gave me a huge hug and said she was proud of me and that I was doing something she would never be brave enough to do. I won’t lie, it felt really good. Too be honest I don’t recall many or any hugs in my childhood.

After this I learned of all her spiritual interests that never got fully explored. She came with me on a shamanic journey to Peru when she was 72. This was part of a tour with the shaman that I had been apprenticing with and it involved some camping. We went around the circle saying why we were on this particular trip and she said that she knew that she still had a lot to learn and she looks up to me and continues to learn from me all the time. That was a proud shocker. This also wound up being a grueling trip as many people had gotten some sort of food poisoning. My mother being one of them. However, hers didn’t set in until we were on a mountain in our tents. On the first night, she was defecating on herself because she was too weak to get up and out. The next day we got a ride back to the hotel where we could ride out her illness in comfort while the rest camped. I gave my mother the option for us to end early and go home but she didn’t want to. They picked us up on their way back and she even participated in an all night San Pedro ceremony the next evening. I told she was tough.

We started to have more honest discussions. I remember the first time she said to me, “Your amazing and I take no credit for it.” I responded, “You should take credit for it. Because whether it was for the good or the bad parenting that you did, it all had an influence on who I am and the choices I’ve made.” In truth I was thinking I became who I was despite her more than because of her, what my kinder translation was very true.

I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what she kept thinking because as I got older and braver, I continued to live less traditionally. I’ve yet to get married and that doesn’t bother her in the least, which is rare for someone of her generation. While continuing my corporate job, I had a shamanic, holistic life going on. I’d go off and explore places and things and she never tried to stop me. Where she most impressed me was when I started to do Burlesque. When I first started burlesque I found an opportunity to go to Vegas with a troupe to perform. It would be my first time. It was new for me and I didn’t know that I would fall in love with this performance art as much as I have. I was about to go and I typically tell her when I travel, “just in case.” So I did and I was honest about what I was doing, maybe hoping to shock her. Her response was “I’m proud of you, that’s so brave.” And when I returned she wanted to know when she could see me perform. I waited until my 2nd solo performance to invite her and will say it was scarier with her in the audience. My mother was a bit of a prude.

Well she was super impressed and couldn’t believe I put together the outfit, the concept, the choreography, etc and wanted to know when I was performing again. I couldn’t believe that my mother was showing more enthusiasm for my burlesque avocation than my childhood dance recitals. I couldn’t just let that go and I asked her what was up with that. She said that she could see my passion and how happy it made me and that was what excited her. Go figure and glad I pushed as I got a great answer.

Her support has only continued. Recently I left a 28 year career and took a severance package since I didn’t want to relocate to North Carolina. I had planned on looking for a new job after 3 months but kept extending it. She would ask me where I was but never did she urge me to go back to work. She just would say, “Good for you and I know that you will get the perfect job when you’re ready.” I even told her that I found it odd that she wasn’t anxious. She admitted that some of her friends would share their angst about my not working yet but she trusted me and my process. Just the other day when I was telling her about some career challenges and risks, she continues to say I support you and offered to support me even financially if needed. I told her that would be a last resort for sure but that her support really mean a lot to me. And again, I didn’t need it but I most definitely appreciated it.

So maybe I can finally give my mother some credit on emotional support. My mother is proof that a leopard can change their spots. Her rage spots have either morphed or disappeared and she has definitely earned some nurturing spots.

So why am I telling you all this. As Jill Bolte Taylor says in her memoir, Stroke of Insight, “When your grateful, life is great” But I’m also sharing this as when I realize this I’m inspired with hope. Since the elections I have a lot of angst around the hatred that has been unleashed and I wonder how it can shift to a peaceful coexistence. Well that is going to require the changing of some spots. I may not know how we can shift the hatred right now, but, at least, I have faith that it can happen.

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