Her Bad Mother

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My Bad Mother

'What kind of mother are you?' is a fascinating, if totally loaded, question. I'm just starting out with this whole mothering thing, so I'm still really trying to find myself as a mother. The question that I've been more likely to ask myself, then, has been 'what kind of mother will I be?' And more specifically: 'will I be a mother like my own mother?'

I want to preface this by saying that I love my mother to the ends of the earth and beyond. We're the best of friends. And I’m pretty happy with how I turned out. I had a very happy childhood, and consider myself to be a relatively well-adjusted adult with no significant psychological glitches and no major character failings. I really wouldn't change anything about how I was brought up.

(Love you, Mom!)

That said, my mother was, for much of my childhood (and, it must be said, parts of my adulthood), pretty hell-bent on messing me up in the greater service of controlling me and amusing herself. My mother was the Original Bad Mother, originator of the art of bad motherhood in its most efficient and ruthless form. Her methods were unconventional, but they were effective. Oh, were they effective.

The big guns in her child-rearing arsenal:

Guilt. As in, “I’m so disappointed in you, Sweetie.” Or, “I expected more of you.” Prefaced by deep sigh. Followed by sagging of shoulders and slow shaking of head and silent transmission of the following message: you, my only light and hope, have broken my heart. At which point I would scramble madly to get my room tidy or boost that B+ to an A or rinse my dinner plate or floss or just fix whatever it was that I had done to break my poor mother’s heart. Brutal. She wonders now why it was that I was such a fastidious, obedient anal child.

Yeah, Mom. I wonder.

Humiliation. Was I refusing to get out of bed in time to catch the schoolbus? No problem - Mom would drive me to school! But she’d roll the convertible top down (in dead of winter), don a parka, driving goggles and a riding helmet and drive me right up to the grade-school playground area, honk the horn, and yell ‘WE’RE HERE SWEETIE! SAY HELLO TO ALL YOUR FRIENDS!’ I only missed the bus once in my entire school career.

And I'm not even going to go into the detail on the 'DO YOU LIKE THAT BOY?' moments, the many occasions of surprising me in the bathroom with a camera to up her stock of humilating photographs ('TO SHOW YOUR BOYFRIENDS'), the time she turned up in my seventh-grade classroom dressed up as a clown and planted big clown kisses on me... Let's just say that she was known (and universally adored, to my great frustration) among my peers and throughout our neighborhood and very possibly beyond the neighborhood as Cathy's Crazy Mom.

And yes, she always spoke, in such moments, in full caps. It's not really humiliation if every single one of your kid's peers and anyone else who might turn to look can't hear you.

Am I oppressing this child by turning her into an Object of Amusement? Or am I liberating her inner House Party?

Deception. My mother would tell me anything that she thought a) might control my behaviour, and/or b) give her a laugh. By the time I was five, I believed, among other things: that the bottom of my tongue would turn black if I lied; that there was a monster living in my parents’ bedroom closet; that the signs on the highway that said “Watch for Falling Rock” referred to a lost Native American boy who had wandered away from his parents; that I had been found in a cabbage patch and could be sent back there; that if I stuck my finger in my navel my bum would fall off.

Accordingly, I never lied, I never went near my parents’ bedroom closet, I never left my parents’ side when we were out, I refused to eat cabbage and I never, ever touched my belly button.

Distraction. My mother has worn dentures for as long as I can remember (the result of an accident when she was young). And my mother has loved her dentures for as long as I can remember. Why? Because there is no more effective means of stopping a child mid-tantrum than taking out one’s teeth, crossing one’s eyes and going ‘BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.’ This action is even more effective when performed in grocery stores, shopping malls, parks, doctor’s offices or any other public space. (See #2, Humiliation, above.) It is devastating to teenagers.

And just for fun? You can perform this stunt during your child's birthday parties, even when there's no tantrum to stop. Just for fun. And? It's even better if it's your child's 16th birthday party. Brings the house down. Kid won't speak to you for a week, but still. Good times!

This is so not how the story ended for me that day.

So. Did the exercise of these Extreme Parenting tactics mess me up? Absolutely. But did they work? Abso-f***ing-lutely.

I had my troubled teen periods (there was, for example, a Goth phase that freaked both of my parents out: nothing like listening to bands called Skinny Puppy and wearing a rosary as jewellry to freak out Catholic parents) but these were pretty mild - I mostly rebelled by sulking and shunning team sports in favor of Art and Poetry and Obscure Music and by just generally wearing my angst on my sleeve. I saved the Girls Gone Wild behaviour for after I left home, and even then, it was always pretty tame. More along the lines of Girl's Gone A Little Wacky and Is Maybe Getting Drunk On Weekends But Always Feeling Guilty About It Afterward.

(Okay, so the two years in Europe saw some extreme clubbing and a few embarassing Eurotrash club outfits and maybe passing out on the beach on the Costa Brava a few times. But I remained the kind of geek who would usually end up at a museum or art gallery the next day, nursing my hangover in front of Atomic Leda, clutching a dog-eared copy of Simone de Beauvoir's L'Invitée and recording Deep Thoughts in my journal.)

(FYI? The Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain, is the singularly best museum in which to nurse a hangover. Brilliantly askew, such that you are entirely comfortable in your own teetering, head-throbbing skewedness.)

Which is to say - I never had a close relationship with Trouble. I had to work hard just to flirt with Trouble. And if I did end up playing footsie with Trouble? I would usually run off shrieking in the opposite direction. Say it with me: Good Girl.

(For The Record: this is not to say that I was an angel. I very definitely dappled in the arts of bitchery and passive-aggressive psychological warfare. I just never got my hands dirty. And I always - OK, mostly - felt badly about it.)

I want WonderBaby to be a Good Girl - that is, my kind of Good Girl, one who knows when one can or must be bad, even as her mother's voice urgently whispers don't do it - as she sets out on her way to conquer the universe. There's much more that I can - and certainly will, in some later post - say about that, but for now this one statement suffices: I want her to be Good. Not pathologically good, obviously (see past discussions about vulvaphobia) but good enough that she is concerned to avoid, so far as is reasonably possible, being unnecessarily bad. (Could I be more ambivalent about the good/bad nexus here? I've studied Machiavelli and Nietzsche for too long to be unreserved in my praise for goodness.)

Aaaanyway. My mother's techniques were pretty effective in securing the end of Good Daughter. Now, however, I am Her Bad Mother. Do I fully embrace this, and use my mother's techniques on my own daughter, in some form or another?

Ah, there’s the question. I know that I do want to give my daughter many of the things that my mother (and father, who was not so extreme, tho' he could hold his own) gave me: a sense of wonder, a good heart, an experience of faith, a sense of humour. And these gifts, I think, were absolutely bound up in what I've been referring to as her extreme parenting tactics. So I'm inclined to think that if I do become the kind of mother that my mother was - and it looks like I'm well on my way there - that that might be a pretty good thing.

But whatever the case, I’m not sacrificing the teeth.

(Future) Bad Mother, Bad Grandma and Bad Niece, BWB (Before WonderBaby). You think I'm kidding on the BAD? Ha.


Blogger Christina said...

I feel like I understand you so much more now!

My mom utilized some of those same tactics, with guilt being the biggest one. I was a straight A student because I was expected to be, and I never wanted my mom to be disappointed in me. She did such a good job at instilling that in me that my own conscious took over for her when I was older. I had pre-guilt guilt just thinking about disappointing her.

Cute pic, also. Your mom looks like one of those tough grandmas. You know, one of the ones who would knock the other grannies out of the way for the last Cabbage Patch Kid on the shelf.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Pre-guilt guilt is exactly right. Didn't always deter me - I can still remember hanging out my bedroom window one night, racked, RACKED, with guilt for what I was about to do, but still dropping to the ground and bee-lining it downtown to a nightclub with my friends - but it did deter me more often than not. And if it didn't? Intense post-guilt guilt about the futility of the pre-guilt guilt. (And they wonder why Catholics are so often all fucked up.)

And yeah, she would so totally knock out anyone who got in her way. Cabbage Patch Kid, purse on sale, whatever. She'd take you DOWN. Still would.

1:19 PM  
Blogger The City Gal said...

My mom's technic:

Age 10-20: Boys are bad, smelly, disgusting. Guys are stupid like you daddy! Dont ever fall in love with these pathatic creatures. You will end up like me!

Age 22: how come you don't have a boyfriend? I think you are messed up! What are we going to do? Are you attracted to girls? Do you have sexual problems?

On the phone to everyone in 51 states: yeah...and my poor daughter has sexual problems! I don't know what to do with her! I think she should see a shrink. You remember cousin Lilie? They say she took pills.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

Yeah, Mom/Catholic guilt can screw you up for years. So why is it so darn effective??

Personally, I would have prefered more guilt, instead I got a lot of "I said so's". Do you want to guarantee that a good girl will rebel against you - Tell her she can't do something "because you said so."

btw, your Kid 'n Play reference was spot on!

1:49 PM  
Blogger chichimama said...

Loads of guilt from my mother. Similar results. I can't quite seem to pull off the guilt thing in my house though. I tell C I am disappointed in him, he shurgs and tells me that that's just too bad, and that it is my problem, not his. Damn that self-esteem ;-)

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should really read the Judith Warner Book (Perfect Madness), lady - I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

The chap I just finished talks a lot about how we are living out OUR fantasies and issues through our kids - being uber present because our moms were not (or vice versa).

My mom was struggling with her own crazy shit - mainly to make me "something" so I did everything and was everything - hard to live like that. Plus, she was fending off my crazy dad.

For me, it's just a matter of wanting my daughter to be happy and to live life to the fullest - AND to not have sex until she's 35. LOL.

God help me when she hits high school...ACK.

3:07 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

Ah, yes, I recognize the need to please and not stray too far into dangerous behavious too, and I too, wish it on my daughter, at least to a reasonable extent. What parent doesn't use humiliation? My mom used loud opera singing and bad pictures, my friend's dad was known to be invaded by a chicken spirit at random moments or use bizarre accents, and misterpie can't wait to start in on pumpkinpie. All in good fun...

5:15 PM  
Blogger Kristi said...

I think back to my own childhood when I have those "parenting" moments. Your mom sounds awesome. I, too, was the Good Girl, though dabbled in the occasional mishaps. Guilt is a powerful technique.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

Sorry to interupt again, but you've been tagged. My apologies.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic post.

Dare I say? Your Mom sounds awesome.

Mostly, I love that you can love her with all of her wackiness. So many times, daughters blame their Moms for so much and take everything so seriously. I think they miss out when they do that. Kudos to you on not being one of those daughters :)

8:57 PM  
Blogger littlepinkcar said...

this lit on 'mother' is grea, but you really need to go deeper: 'mother in law'...does ANYONE like their m.i.l.? do partners want their little stinkers raised as they were raised (thus using the m.i.l.'s parenting techniques..!). what's the partner saying about how the kid is raised/turns out? hmmm....i need more! more i say!

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Your mom does sound great! A great sense of humour when dealing with children makes all the difference!!

11:08 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

I love that you can clearly see your mom's guilty/ humiliating/distracting parenting techniques and somehow after reading your post I am left thinking she is the coolest.

At the same time, I so remember those exact approaches deployed by my mother. Especially the guilt. She was so good at it that I'd confess to things I'd done before she'd get warmed up.

But it worked 'cause she reared a "Good Girl" (but the kind of good girl that knows when to be bad -- even if I do feel guilty).

11:55 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

She was and is an awesome mom. And she knows it.

Kristen - I'm going to pick up a copy of the Warner today and will definitely share my thoughts...

Mrs. Chicky - Gettin' on that tag, stat.

littlepinkcar - MILs? Gah. Perhaps someone else would like to take that one and I'll come and *comment*...

9:18 AM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

I'm back... to say - TAG! You're it!

8:49 PM  
Blogger Carolyn S. said...

The guilt is crippling. It's about the only thing the Catholic church does well. I'd like to think an admirable side effect is a value system worth at least one token into the pearly gates.

I love the bad women family portrait.

9:06 PM  
Blogger SUEB0B said...

That was a fabulous post.

No matter what moms do, their kids are going to think they're nuts at least for a while, usually between about ages 13 and 25. Then, if the kids are smart, they suddenly think "OMG!!! All the stuff my darling parents did for me! They're merely human and yet they did ALL that! For me!" and fall back in sheer amazement.

9:50 PM  
Blogger Bad Grandma said...

My darling daughter never ceases to amaze and awe me. I have always considered motherhood to be a privilege and both of my daughters a precious gift. Even though I now have a very demanding (and rewarding) career, my professional accomplishments pale in comparison to the satisfaction/joy/gratitude of raising two incredible children. But, I must make one small correction to darling daughter's narrative - I did not tell her that if she touched her belly button her bum would fall off, I told her I could unscrew her belly button and then her bum would fall off (a small, but important, distinction).

12:48 PM  

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