The Good Mother
By Sarah Minor
When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told was my mother.
At least, that’s what I told her.
I called my mom on my drive back to work after my first doctor’s appointment. The mascara that had survived the stream of happy tears clung to the tips of my lashes.
There, on the screen beside me, I had just seen my baby. A little bean. A pulsing heart.
“Hey, Mom,” I said. I hadn’t planned anything to say and had to speak quickly before she interrupted me.
“Ahhh!” she screamed when I told her. “I knew it! I’m so happy!”
I smiled into the phone. A real smile. “Yes! I just went to the doctor today. You’ll never believe…”
“I can’t believe you waited so long to tell me.”
“I mean, how far along are you? Most daughters call their mothers the moment they find out. Most women just can’t wait to tell their mothers.”
I clenched my teeth.
“Well, you know, I just wanted to wait until I saw a doctor. I thought I was only eight weeks along. But it turns out I’m twelve!”
“So when are you due?”
“Oh,” her voice turned grim. “That’s going to be hard, with the holidays and everything. I’m not going to want to miss my grandchild’s birthday, and the way I have to share holidays with Paul’s family, I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
“Oh. Well, I’m at work now,” I lied. “I have to go. We’ll figure it out.”
The first person I actually told, aside from my husband, Paul, was my sister, Jill.
“You can never tell mom that you knew first,” I whispered. “Never.”
“Oh my God, of course not,” Jill said. “She’d kill you.”
But now, with my mom told and the first trimester safely behind us, my pregnancy finally felt official, real. Paul and I set about preparing for the new baby: picking out furniture for the nursery, attending childbirth class, whittling down a list of names.
The news of my pregnancy also set my mom’s wheels in motion. The arrival of the baby would bestow upon her a new title and with it, a new purpose in life. She had been retired from teaching for five years and was in a on-and-off long-term relationship, the second since her divorce from my father. As displeased as she was about the due date, this Christmas baby was for her, in many ways, a savior.
Our conversations immediately turned to when she would come see the baby and how long she would stay. She was a plane ride away, so the details of her visit couldn’t wait until the last minute.
“I think you should come in January,” I told her, positioning myself in the chair in our home office like I was conducting a business call. I tried to keep my tone light. “The baby could be late, and it would be silly for you to be here twiddling your thumbs with us waiting for the baby. And Paul will be home for the first week anyway. It would be good to have someone here when he goes back to work.”
This was not acceptable.
“None of my friends can believe that you would ask your mother to wait to come until two weeks after the baby is born,” she told me, her voice climbing an octave. “Their daughters want them in the delivery room! They just can’t believe you would do that to me.”
“Mom, I just think it would be good for us to have some time alone, just the three of us, before anyone visits.”
I was standing now, pacing the checkerboard rug, waving my free arm for emphasis.
“Oh, that’s right, you and Paul, your perfect little family,” she sneered. I sat back down.
“That’s not what I’m saying, but yes, this is my family! And I think I should be able to decide when we have guests!” I was yelling now, lightheaded with anger and effort.
“Maybe I just won’t come at all. I’m sure you can just figure it out. Everything has to be just how Sarah wants it.”
“Yeah,” I said sharply. “This time, I guess it does.”
“Well, I hope you don’t have a special needs baby because then you’re going to need me and wish I was there.”
“Oh my God!” I screamed. My throat was raw. “It’s almost like you hope that will happen so I’ll need you! That is sick, Mom! This is not about you!”
The screaming brought Paul into the office.
“What’s going on?” He was used to our fights, which he had witnessed during the power struggles over our wedding and which had only intensified since we’d moved halfway across the country. Her visits were always full of tension: her thinly-veiled barbs followed by my snide retorts, and then my mom, shocked that her daughter would talk to her that way, storming out to the car or pouting in the guest bedroom.
Something always got broken. Sometimes it was an accident, a dishwasher-loading slip. But other times were intentional, like the time I wasn’t appreciative enough of wine glasses she bought me and she smashed them into the garbage can.
“This cannot happen when we have a baby,” Paul said. “We are not raising our child like this. It has to stop now.”
He was right. At 30 weeks pregnant, I called a therapist.
Her name was Libby. I found her on the Internet. We arranged a brief “get to know you” conversation before making a formal appointment. I took my cell phone to a private room at work and dialed her number. My hands were shaking.
“So, I’m pregnant, and I’m, um, just really worried I’m going to be like my mother.”
Libby’s voice was soft and soothing, with a hint of a New England accent. She sounded like an NPR news reporter. We talked on the phone for 30 minutes, mostly me rambling about my mom’s reaction when I told her I was pregnant and our subsequent arguments. I made an appointment to visit her office in a week.
“In the meantime,” Libby said, “I want you to get a book.” I jotted down the title: Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown Up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.
Narcissist. No one had ever used that word to describe my mom. I felt terrible even thinking such a thing about her. Yes, she was a little crazy. Needy. Mean sometimes. But she had such low self-esteem. She never seemed sure of herself, was always fishing for compliments. Narcissists were in love with themselves, weren’t they? How could she possibly be one of those?
That weekend I went to the book store. I searched the self help section to no avail. Finally, cheeks burning, I approached the register. I felt like I was at an adult bookstore asking about a kinky video.
“I’m looking for a book called Children of the Self-Absorbed,” I practically whispered.
As soon as I got home, I opened the book, a glossy paperback that looked like something for a college psychology class. Inside, information was organized in a series of bullet points, quizzes and writing exercises. I grabbed a legal pad to jot down my answers. My heart started to beat faster as I read.
Critical and criticizing…never completely satisfied…gets anxious when alone…hypersensitive to perceived criticisms…never forgets an offense.
My mom didn’t have all the traits of what the book called “Destructive Narcissistic Personality,” but certain paragraphs felt like they were written specifically about her.
There were explanations for some of the behaviors I’d struggled with, too, the “lingering effects of parental self-absorption.” Defiant, combative…overly defensive in response to comments she perceives as critical.
I started crying. Crying out of sadness for my mother and for myself. But also out of relief. This behavior wasn’t normal. It had a name. I wasn’t crazy.
And my mom wasn’t either.
Every Tuesday on my lunch break, I spent an hour on the worn red love seat in Libby’s sunny, cluttered office. Traffic honked and whirred outside the window behind me. My belly jutted out in front of me like a torpedo. I cried so much at each session that I eventually moved the box of tissues Libby offered from the coffee table to the empty couch cushion beside me.
Libby and I talked about my childhood. She took notes and occasionally illustrated points to me on a small whiteboard, stick figures and arrows demonstrating how my mom and I had reversed the roles of parent and child. Even as a child, she explained, I had in some ways been responsible for my mom’s well-being instead of the natural opposite.
Then she asked me to talk about my mom’s childhood. While she had always painted it with an idyllic brush, my mom made it clear that she was an “accident,” born a decade after her sister to older parents. Even as an adult, she felt like she lived in the shadow of “perfect Barb.”
I told Libby of the interactions I had witnessed. Divorced twice, my mom took her new boyfriend home to meet her parents.
“Careful with this one,” my grandmother told her. “You don’t want to be a three-time loser.”
Libby helped me realize that my mom wasn’t a bad person, she was a hurt person. A bottomless well of need, desperate for validation. And because of this, she didn’t realize how much she was hurting others. And though I fought with her, screamed, pleaded and prayed, I would never change her. I could have sympathy for my mom. I could mourn the relationship we never had. But I had to accept that this was my mother.
“All you can do is create healthy boundaries for yourself and your family,” said Libby.
My mom booked a ticket for January 5. I was relieved that she had honored my request, but hardly triumphant. Maybe I was too controlling. Maybe I was being crazy. Maybe I would wish she were there sooner. But it was my pregnancy, my family, my baby and my right to find out for myself.
Ten days after my due date, I was induced. The induction turned into an emergency C-section, so I stayed in the hospital for four days. My mom arrived the day after we got home.
Our homecoming was surreal; I was dazed from sleep-deprivation and pain medication. Hormones and powerful feelings of joy, love, fear, inadequacy and the overwhelming responsibility of parenting swept through me like tidal waves, nearly knocking me senseless.
On our first night home, I fed William and laid him down to sleep in the bassinet next to our bed. I turned off the light, climbed under the covers and started sobbing.
“Oh no, what? What is it?” Paul asked.
“I just love him so much!” I wailed, my nose stuffing up. “And I just realized how much it will affect me if anything ever happens to him, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If he died, my life would be destroyed forever. What if he grows up and decides he wants nothing to do with me? It doesn’t matter what happens, good or bad. Nothing will ever be the same.”
My mom arrived the next day, her arms full of gifts for the baby. Books she had bought years ago, just in case. A cross to hang in his room. She needed pictures, lots of pictures, to email to her friends.
“Okay, enough with the flash in his face!” I exclaimed one afternoon as she held the camera inches from William’s bouncy chair.
“Oh, Sarah, please, this isn’t hurting him,” she said.
“Well, I think it’s enough!” I said. “And maybe I’m crazy, but I just had a baby so I have the right to make some crazy requests.”
Paul went back to work the next day.
“I’ll be back soon,” he said, kissing the top of my head. I started to cry. It was the first time since William was born that our little family unit was being separated.
Seeing my tears, my mom started crying.
“I’m here,” she sobbed. “Am I not enough for you?”
But she was good with William, cradling and cooing at him, animatedly reading him books. And she was helpful, too, running out to buy diapers and lanolin cream, vacuuming while I napped, making blueberry coffee cake and tuna casserole.
And as we sat marveling at William’s dark hair, his tiny fist pressed against his cheek, I could not deny that in our love for this baby we’d found something on which we could truly agree.
At the end of the two weeks, I took her to the airport. I had mixed feelings: she had been helpful, and I was nervous about going back to an empty house with William. I felt guilty for my nit-picky comments and overall impatience with her. I knew it hadn’t been the idyllic bonding experience she hoped it would be.
But mostly, I felt relieved. Relieved that I’d be free from the daily task of meeting my mother’s emotional needs, a job that was as exhausting as it was impossible.
“Thank you,” I said, returning her hug and inhaling the familiar scent of her perfume. “You were a lot of help. You’re a good grandmother.”
She pulled back from our hug and looked me in the eye, the muscles around her mouth tensing.
“Well, am I a good mother?”
I couldn’t change her into the kind of mother who would never ask that. I couldn’t fill the void in her heart. But now that I understood how fragile a heart becomes once a child has claimed it, I could tread carefully around it.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re a good mother.”
Author’s note: Six years later, I continue to struggle with setting healthy boundaries with my mom. While I no longer worry that I’ll become my mom, having children has further complicated our relationship. My kids adore their grandmother, and I don’t question her love for them. But I’ve also seen her try to undermine my relationship with them and use them in her attempts to manipulate me. That said, I truly feel sorry for her and want nothing more than for her to find peace.
Sarah Minor is a writer and mom of two boys living in North Carolina.