Part of the title of this post has been borrowed from the memoire of Vivian Gornick’s book of the same title, in which she tells the story of her lifelong battle with her mother for independence. To quote Macmillan: “There have been numerous books about mother and daughter, but none has dealt with this closest of filial relations as directly or as ruthlessly. Gornick’s groundbreaking book confronts what Edna O’Brien has called “the prinicpal crux of female despair”: the unacknowledged Oedipal nature of the mother-daughter bond.”
I finished reading the book today and it stirred up mixed emotions in me. Oh, did I mention that this was gifted to me by my daughter? It was an interesting and apt choice I thought when I received the book from her. 🙂
I felt deeply moved by the honest and vivid description of the writer’s life, relationship with her mother and other events of her life and her ability to bring herself fully with vulnerability and rawness.
While reading this book, I had quite intense identification with the mother, with the daughter and with many other socio-cultural phenomena that are actually not similar. This book is written in the context of Jewish community – women in the 60’s in New York City, etc, which in reality is distant from my experience of growing up without a mother in Calcutta. Yet, the underlying and often sub-altern tonality of the narrative forced me to re visit my experiences of my growing up and my experiences of mothering my daughter in the ’90s liberalised India.
My first shock came when I realized that many of my orientations and proclivities in the past have been very similar to that of the mother in the book:
- not being able to trust the child’s inner wisdom
- holding on to the near deified, tragic victim identity above all else;
- not being able to listen with my heart
- holding on to a morbid and anxious inner judge who found it difficult to find happiness in the present or in the future
It took me years (despite my staunch faith in my love for my daughter) to actually experience her as a separate individual; one who is not just an extension of the parental system but is an individual in her own right. This then propelled me to enjoy her inner beauty, respect and value her wisdom, her core philosophy of the way she wishes to live her life and for her world view, despite our mutual disagreements over many issues. 🙂
I can go on… but this is not the topic of this post. This book also brought me closer to some thoughts that have been running in my head for quite a few months – i.e. thoughts about the critical mother. I am calling that entity the critical mother (or the critical parent) that we install in our heads and in our hearts and then try to shake her off for the rest of our lives – ha, an exercise in futility!! Even this book is mostly about that.
Many books and scholarly article have been written about this entity called critical parents and I do not wish to dwell upon those. I would like to write about some of my experiences and insights about myself around this entity.
While reading this book, I often revisited my experience of growing up in Calcutta in the 60s and 70s, a city which was often rocked by violent political outbursts but at the same time, it was steeped into the middle class morality which seldom allowed women to think for themselves apart fro being an extension of the family and at the same time followed the colonial left over happily. Growing up during this time was not easy as I received mixed signal of being my own person and at the same time be an extension of the larger context.
I grew up in a household largely ruled by women, none of whom were my mother but they brought me up like my mother would have; with care and love, albeit in their own ways. These were women who were educated, strong, feisty, intelligent and resourceful but who also ended up believing that life had treated them an utterly unfair hand. That life was not very kind to them was given but the intensity with which they held on to their misfortune and could never see what life had to offer to them or how they could transform life, was amazing. This is where the book struck a fierce chord with me. And, just like they did, I too looked down upon them and saw them as hapless bitter angry victims.
It took me years and years (after separating from them) to realise how strong and resourceful they were and what all they could have done. Again, perhaps it is very easy for me to sit in 2016 to speculate about them and may be I would have done the same thing had I been in their position. However, today I also know for how exceptionally courageous and brilliant women they were.
But then at that time what their despair and bitterness did to me was that it landed me in a permanently grey waste land inside my head, where melancholy ruled the roost and hope had little chance.
It also took me many years to fathom the depth of this wasteland and decipher the myths that I had created for myself. Some of the virulent ones for me are:
Myth no. 1
you shall always strive hard till you succeed.
In reality, what this does is that it actually does not allow one to discern what to strive for and what not to, or even to define success for oneself and savour it. Everything that one encounters in life becomes a matter of strife … relationships, work, vocation, image, innovation, ….. . Almost everything is to be engaged with a ferocious intensity of action and effort, often wasted on unsuspecting individuals (who get really scared by this), and on things that really do not matter one bit.
Behind this myth, laid a sad and depressing conclusion by those women – which was “I would never get what I want, hence I must try hard”
One of the ways I figured my way out of this myth is to check the reality of the depressing thought that laid behind that myth. Often the reality has been the opposite for me, i e I have received what I wanted and in fact have received more than fair share of what I wanted. It was very hard to acknowledge this to myself as it threatened to break the myth above but once I did, it was easy to feel grateful and enjoy this gift and to tell myself that “because you are worth it”!! (Like the famous shampoo brigade in the ads)
In order to break this myth, I also had to define my idea of success for myself and define what is really important. Sometimes, the simple act of enjoying the lazy afternoon laying herself in the balcony outside my living room has been very important.
Myth no 2
No one should ever dislike or disapprove you or your intentions
This is a deadly one, for it makes one very fragile, defensive and edgy. One is always busy checking the expressions of others, measuring every sentence that has been directed at the self, checking for hidden meanings, and of course defending oneself. This makes life very difficult, relationships become difficult to maintain and also to mend when broken and self worth becomes a thing that one needs to protect, rather than to have.
Behind this perhaps lies another sad conclusion “I am no likable or lovable”.
I am not sure I am out of it, but I know this that I am a very judgemental person and judging really comes easy to me and I also know how that hurts people at times and how my judgements are often a shield against feeling vulnerable and not be willing to show up and be judged.
Myth no. 3
You must be completely self sufficient and be able to manage everything on your own
I cant even begin to talk about how dysfunctional this myth is; I mean, can you imagine being absolutely and completely self sufficient? This goes against the very nature of being human and the ecology that we are a part of; it is denial of the interdependence that all beings on this earth have which is inevitable and irrefutable.
And when I struggled with this myth and had a delusion of being self sufficient, others perceived me as “know all”, arrogant, bitter, cynical and aggressive. I perceived myself as more competent than most others, had difficulty trusting anyone, struggled with the notion of perfection (which is achieved only when one is dead of course!) and worse of all, I felt like a victim all the time.
At a deeper level, my suspicion is that it is another sad (and unverified) conclusion that “no one will every help me” and hence!
Though I try and be aware of this myth most of the times, and yet at the time of distress, this is my oft taken strategy of distancing myself from my loved ones. Oh, how easy it is for me to get into my shell, or my cave as I call it and then tell myself that I really don’t need anyone or anything to get by and I alone is enough. At relatively saner times, I try to practice humility by actively listening to others, to own up my story, own up my faults, own up that all choices are made by me, to seek help from others and most importantly “allow” others to come closer to me. At those times when “no one will help me” visits me, I ask it to go visit some other town!
I have also heard stories from many other sons and daughters who are dealing and struggling with the critical parents that they have put up in their heads as also in their hearts where they experience this critical parent to be
- unforgiving, and so on …..
And when I meet them, I see their inner beauty, their aliveness, their wisdom, their extraordinary talent, strength and courage and at the same time their own harshness, criticality, coldness, depression and cynicism with which they punish themselves unknowingly. I wait and I wonder whether they see the same person that I see in them and if they did, would that transform their inner critical parent! What new steps would they take and how would that unleash their potential that remain trapped due to this critical parent?
So, this was my story. What about you? What myths have you created for yourself and how do you deal with them?