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Bad Mother/Enough Mother?

To my teenage daughter:

I’m sorry I haven’t been the mother I wanted to be for you.

I knew that I wanted to give you a childhood different from my own. I had a gaping pit of need for love that grew as it went unfilled year after year. I wanted to protect you from feeling all alone, unloved. But my own pain and fear, lurking and unresolved, kept me from being able to fully embrace you in the way that you deserved.

At some point when I was young, I decided that it was painful to keep hoping for love from people and not getting it. So I stopped hoping and started protecting myself. As an adult, I thought that I had been able to obliterate that need through sheer force of will. But really I had just built a wall between my heart and other human beings. The need for love remained, buried deep, impacting and distorting my life like small, constant earthquake tremors creating cracks in the walls of a house, weakening it over time.

And here’s the bad mother part — My energy was spent keeping the wall in my heart built up, suppressing the pain, wondering what was this tight, closed, dark feeling inside me. I took care of your daily physical needs and wants, but I didn’t have enough space and energy in my heart to be fully present for your emotional needs. I didn’t learn how to set the boundaries that would allow me to love someone else while also getting my needs met, so I kept everyone at the same distance — far, far away.

I’m sorry, to you and everyone else I hurt. But especially you.

I took on parenthood like Superwoman on a deserted island. I set myself an impossible bar because I loved you so much — I thought that if I were really a good mother, I would be able to fulfill all of your needs. I didn’t realize then that no one person can fulfill all of another person’s needs. Not even mothers.

Because I knew deep within that I was doomed to failure, your need scared me. I knew that I couldn’t fill it, no matter how hard I tried, and I was afraid that I would be consumed by it in the trying. So I pushed your need away. Did you feel that? I’m so sorry.

I internalized the maternal ideal that society foisted on me, and then tried to accomplish it alone, because I couldn’t express my needs and ask for support. Each separately is a fool’s errand. Together, they’re a recipe for bone-deep unhappiness.

I see myself in you. Some of the great things — organizational skills, the ability to lead and help others, our sense of humor, a love of books and ideas. I also see some of the challenges that I deal with, and I wish that I hadn’t passed them on to you. I keep hoping they’re genetic so that it wasn’t my fault. But I suspect that you modeled your little self on all of me, including the “bad” parts — anxious, distant, avoiding and repressing my emotions, pretending that I was always fine and that keeping my life together was easy. I want to save you from the pain of living your life that way.

What I want to show you, if it’s not too late, is a mother who understands who she is. She can be a little too efficient and forget to connect with the people she cares about. She tries to anticipate everything that could go wrong and then keep it from happening, instead of seeing joy in the moment. She gets easily aggravated when life and people just don’t go the way she expects them to. Which, by the way, is most of the time, no matter what you do.

But she understands that there is no perfect balance of one’s self, and that the things that challenge her in some situations make her great in others. So she tries to have compassion for herself, and love herself in spite of and even because of her imperfections. Strangely enough, more compassion for herself seems to lead to more compassion for others, which leads to more connection with others, which leads to less anxiety, and more joy. Then she likes herself even more.

I still have to practice these lessons all the time, to try to get them into my heart instead of just my head.

I have a foolish hope that i can teach you these lessons without you having to go through the pain. So here goes nothing — Life is often painful, but trying to control yourself and your environment to avoid pain actually leads to more pain. If you can feel the pain — move through it instead of around it — then it can go away. Mostly. For a while. Long enough to find some joy. Because that’s the other thing — It’s easy to find pain in the world. It’s harder to find joy. That’s the task we have to apply ourselves to throughout our lives. Knowing what brings us real, deep joy and then going out to get it.

It sounds like a supremely selfish endeavor, to focus on yourself and your joy. “Selfish” feels like the ultimate insult to us, because one of the central experiences of being a woman is that we are raised to please others rather than ourselves. But this is another counterintuitive reality — the more you take care of your own needs, the more energy and compassion you have to take care of other people’s.

One more thing about avoiding pain — When you protect yourself from needing people, you don’t feel the hurt when they don’t need you back, or they disappoint you. But you also can’t connect deeply enough with another person to experience love. You cap the upside (joy) as well as the downside (pain) of human relationships.

I made a formula, in case you got bored reading this :)

Fear of pain = distancing/protecting = inability to negotiate needs = inability to get my own needs met = inability to be full enough to meet others’ needs (+ unattainable ideals for mothering/life/whatever) = feelings of failure, further withdrawal = yuck

What do I wish for you? To make choices that you won’t regret, you have to understand at a deep level who you are and want to be. What is the real, true you, and what is the you you try to be for others? This is a tough challenge for most adults. It begins in the teenage years, when you start separating from your parents. This very important job that you have never ends, because you never stop changing. There is no end point in life when you “figure it all out.” Not if you’re doing it right. So you have to stay in touch with yourself all the time to keep up.

Can I ever be good enough for you? Even as I finish writing this, I don’t feel that my words have done justice to the depth of emotion I feel for you, about you. I wish I could be more. For you, my heart, myself. But that’s the paradoxical job of life — to accept yourself as you are, and then keep growing.

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