My “Cool” Mom: Laura’s Story
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Sybil Liberty.
Editorial note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Laura” is a pseudonym.
My mother’s friends think she’s awesome. I understand why. She throws fun parties, with tons of food and card games and music. She posts funny videos on Facebook, or funny things the kids who are still at home say. She wears cute clothes, and presents herself as the cool and hip mom. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s always ready to hit up a new crafting store or try a new sewing pattern or change things up in her flower garden.
But this public image is incomplete.
Her friends didn’t see her scream at my younger brother when he stopped wearing his purity ring when he was a teenager. They don’t know that she treated him so terribly that the first time he visited home after going away to college, he could only make himself stay a single hour.
They don’t know that she prevented my siblings from being in my wedding. I’d had roles all picked out for them, but because I was marrying against my parents’ wishes, those plans were scuttled. They don’t know how much that hurt, and still hurts today.
They didn’t see the guilt-ridden lecture my mother forced on my younger sister after she got a tattoo—a lecture that reduced my sister to a tearful mess.
They weren’t there to pick up the pieces.
I was. Me. And that’s where I’ve found myself, again and again, for years.
My mother’s friends don’t know that she sees my contact with my younger siblings as something to be negotiated, a concession and not a given. My parents’ first reaction to my “rebellion” was to worry about what kind of example I was setting for siblings. It was then that I realized I could lose them.
I could go on. I could talk about how my mother reacted when I put my children in public school rather than homeschooling them. I could talk about how my mother reacted when she found out that my husband and I do not spank our children. There were tears and angry lectures. I could talk about mother’s insistence to this day that I should have broken up with my now-husband when my father told me to, because my father’s timing was God’s timing, and my father’s will God’s will.
I could talk about all the phone calls and tears. I could talk about how even today, I have a visceral reaction to seeing a letter come in the mail with her name on it. She used those letters to hurt me enough times that they give me a flight or fight reaction—as does seeing her name on an incoming call on my phone. I could talk about my fear of being alone with her, of being trapped with her in a car while out on an errand and forced to listen to yet another lecture. I could talk about how along it has taken to gain the confidence to stand up to her, to talk back with boldness, and how very hard that still is.
When someone tells me that their parent is manipulative or controlling—or worse—I believe them, even if it stands in contrast to their parent’s public image.
I believe them because I know how easy it is to hide all that, to craft a public image that stands in stark contrast to one’s private actions.
And it hurts. It hurts to watch people pat my mother on the back for being such a wonderful mother and awesome person, without really knowing her. It’s like there’s a side of her only that her children ever see.
I sometimes think about commenting on my mother’s social media posts to let others know the pieces they’re missing. But if I did that, I would be the problem, publicly shaming my mother in front of her friends. It is incredibly difficult, in our society today, for adult children to speak up about being mistreated by their parents. We’re seen as ungrateful. We’re seen as sewing discord in our family. Our parents deny, deny, deny, and throw on the charm again for their friends and others. If our parents do admit they’ve made mistakes, they see it as a one-time thing—a quick confession, and then it’s over, and should never be mentioned again. But real life doesn’t work like that, and abusive patterns are not so easily ended.
Part of the problem has to do with how we think about abuse.
We have this stereotype of the abusive parent as a person so horrible and so thoroughly evil that surely they couldn’t accidentally befriend one.
Real life isn’t so simple. There are different forms of abuse, and different degrees. Perhaps the word itself has become so loaded as to be almost meaningless to real-world situations. Perhaps instead we should talk about parents who are controlling or manipulative. We need to move away from an assumption that the world is made up of black and white “abusive parents” and “good parents.” It’s not. It’s messier than that.
Take my mother, for instance. I have many, many, many wonderful memories with her. She was always ready to read books to us as children, always ready to make cookies or some other tasty treat. Her meals were delicious, and she kept the house clean and neat. She went all-in at holidays, making us homemade nightgowns and cocoa by the gallon. She took us to the park, or the zoo, and let us have adventures outside. When we were older, we would sit up with her watching old movies and folding laundry or eating ice cream. And yet, seeing her name on my phone’s caller ID gives me a fight or flight response.
Perhaps we need to move away from talking about abusive people and start talking about abusive patterns.
While there are certainly some parents who are unequivocally horrible people, there are many others who have good aspects combined with troubling patterns of manipulation and control. We need to find ways to communicate this that can break through the positive public facade these parents often create. We need to be able to say “I love you, and I cherish our positive memories, but this thing that you do—this specific pattern—it is wrong, and it is not okay.”
I’m not sure how we get there, exactly. I don’t have all the answers.
If nothing else, though, we need to remember that it is all too easy for manipulative and controlling parents to craft an all-too-shiny public image.