What if my child woke up one day and said: “This is the last boundary of mine you will ever cross.” Would I die of a broken heart? I
I woke up on vacation in Lake Tahoe with my husband and told him to drive us home early so I could sever business ties with my father and finally go no contact with my mother. This wouldn’t just require a blocked number and email address, it would require the complete upheaval of my family foundation, my financial security, and my foreseeable future. I had nothing but the support of my husband, a patchy resume, and an embarrassing amount of credit card debt accumulated trying to make ends meet while simultaneously starting a business. None of those things mattered to me anymore. I wanted out. I had been validated too many times by too many professionals. This was a toxic nightmare that I had been gaslit into believing was the “dream” mother-daughter dynamic.
My whole life my mother told me I was her best friend. She devoted all of her energy to me, my social life, and my friends. I grew up in a zero boundary household. I remember being jealous of my friends that had secrets. I remember reading books about rich, Upper East Side teenagers and thinking about how lucky they were that their parents left them alone. My mom was everywhere; at home, at school, and after 2006, constantly blowing up my cell phone. She was the front office secretary, then a teacher at my school, and coincidentally started teaching seventh grade just as my older brother entered the seventh grade. She knew everything about everyone we were close to and relayed gossip back to me and my brother long before it ever reached us through the chain of our classmates. My mom knew every bad thing that was said about me, and she reveled in telling me as if she was giving me constructive criticism. “We tell each other everything, right?” I never knew I had another option.
The first real red flag and one that even registered to me at the time was my mother’s relationship with my middle school boyfriend. She seemed to be competing with me for his attention, always noting that after I was too tired to talk on the phone any longer, he would call and talk to her into the wee hours of the morning. This went on well into my high school years and long after we had broken up. She hated every other boy I dated because she couldn’t get information from them. Dating older boys became almost a habit out of self-preservation. I never wanted to date anyone that was ever in my mom’s class. I couldn’t risk that connection being made again and used against me. She would tell me all the locker room talk that was said about me, none of which was true, yet she was in a constant state of suspicion that I was some sort of sexual deviant. My curfew was never consistent with anything but her preferences of who I was with. Years later, when I questioned the appropriateness of their relationship, she told me I was disgusting for even suggesting anything. She had even raised questions with her administrators several times before for how much extra time the boys spent in her classroom. Even then, she never had the self-awareness to stop and admit that her behavior might be inappropriate.
When I did lose my virginity in high school, she broke down and told me how devastated my old boyfriend would be because he always thought he would be my first. I guess that’s what she had planned as well. I remember being so stunned that her initial reaction was to go tell my seventh-grade boyfriend, that I said nothing. Even this experience wasn’t my own. The only reason I told her was that I knew it would get around to her via my ex anyway, and I wanted to avoid the backlash of her thinking I had a secret. It might be almost laughable if it wasn’t a complete invasion of my privacy. My sexual activity was hers to talk about and respecting a boundary as a mother or respecting my privacy as a human was never even a consideration.
The second red flag of note was the juxtaposition between Private Mom and Public Mom. She paraded me around like her prized pony, laughing joyously when I painfully referred to myself as her dancing monkey to her friends. I thought I had to perform. I thought I had to be funny to make up for my personality that she had made clear was a real obstacle for her.
Cold, unforgiving, alienating, harsh, bitch.
This is how my mom would describe me to me.
“That’s why no one in your grade likes you. You alienate everyone.”
However, she would describe me to her friends as “quirky, eccentric, an old soul”. My identity felt like two massively contradicting sides for the first twenty-five years of my life because of this. My boldness and my irreverent sense of humor were always praised in public, yet any act of defiance to her will meant punishment until I made myself small enough to meet her comfort level. She never did this outwardly or within earshot of anyone whose opinion mattered to her. She would merely undermine my thoughts by planting any seed of doubt that she could. “Should you be doing that? Do you regret that? Do you miss this?”
The day I realized this was the day I began to understand a generational pattern that was stopped dead in its tracks by me. Here was this grown woman so destabilized by a bold little girl that she would preach guilt and shame to her as gospel just to try to get her to shrink to the size the world had scared her into. I loved her so much, trusted her completely, it never occurred to me before that she quite possibly didn’t know better.
Wrestling with that thought was nearly impossible with my father around. He was ready to defend and justify her behavior at all costs. What is a kid supposed to do when no one is in their corner? They’re telling me they’re in my corner, that this is normal, that she’s allowed, entitled even, to treat me like this, that this is a learned behavior from her mother that we should let slide, but somehow I’m in the wrong? I was constantly told to consider her feelings, but never my own.
“Don’t be like that.” “You don’t feel that way.” “Don’t be that way.” “You don’t think that.”
I didn’t even know what gaslighting was until I was twenty-five. I had no idea I had been such a regular recipient.
Then came the alcoholism. The dirty little secret. The secret that I was the “only person that could know or understand”. Suddenly, I had an entirely new list of responsibilities. The roles switched entirely, and it wasn’t lost on either of us. My mom was constantly praising me for my maturity, how I gave such good advice, and for being such a great daughter. I was always there, but not like a daughter, like a parent. My mental health was suffering because I still needed a mother myself, but somehow I had become one. My dad never noticed the drinking and to this day remains in complete denial about it, so this was solely on me. In the South, it kind of looks like everyone has a drinking problem, so you have to work harder to spot the real drunks. Even telling my dad about the night she picked me up from the airport wasted and almost drove us into a guard rail didn’t seem to sink in as a real threat to him.
I graduated high school at sixteen, for good reason. I spent most of my twenties being completely lost and sick and questioning my sanity. I had so much anger and resentment built up, but no real indication of where it was coming from. Things went from bad to worse the year my maternal grandmother passed away and I got engaged to a longtime friend turned whirlwind romance. I don’t know what I expected when I got engaged, but it certainly wasn’t my mother’s daily slut-shaming for spending the night with my fiancé instead of spending every waking moment I was in town with her. I didn’t expect to be called delusional during the happiest time of my life. I didn’t expect to be berated for wanting to have a semblance of personal life, a personal life I had never allowed myself because I was too busy trying to succeed. She screamed at me for not involving her, as if I was intentionally withholding her from this experience she was owed. In truth, it was such a small wedding, it didn’t take much planning and we just wanted everyone to show up and have a great time. She insisted on being in charge of dessert, which she chose, and then proceeded to get too drunk to replenish throughout the night, so about 90% went to the megachurch of the pastor that completely botched my grandmother’s eulogy. My mother made me cry more in the two weeks that led up to my wedding than any boy that had ever broken my heart. Her friends harassed me about my fiancé and treated my wedding like a joke. One of her friends even insisted I change the date to accommodate her tennis party. Not a single aspect of that day was about me. It was all just “happening” to my mother.
The pattern became so blatantly obvious, my adult brain simply couldn’t deny it any longer. Every conversation we had was something negative about someone else, and there was very little hope to lead the topic in a different direction. Bad plastic surgery, weight gain, failing marriages, etcetera. She talked badly about my dad to me, which I begged her not to do repeatedly. I would get off the phone completely drained. She demanded access at all hours, no matter where in the world I was, and it was all negative. It felt like she loved when bad things happened to people, including me. She constantly tried to summon them into fruition, bring up old hurts, salt any wound she could find so she could be the “concerned parent”, so she could feel “needed”. It was exhausting. It was emotional labor. If I didn’t oblige, which became increasingly difficult as I got older, the punishment was relentless. It could be anything; I was on a hike with my husband and couldn’t text back or I hadn’t called in the appropriate amount of time since our last talk. The texts would come in like rapid-fire before I even had time to react to the previous one. Total character assassination, absolutely anything to get a reaction out of me. Unfortunately, I learned this too late. I always reacted because I loved her and wanted her to understand my emotions. I just didn’t understand that she couldn’t. She would immediately turn my desperate pleas to be understood into the usual, and might I say tired, list of character flaws I had, and oh did I mention she was the victim of an attack now?
“I can’t talk to you about anything. It’s like I have to walk on eggshells all the time. You’re impossible. I never treated my mother so horribly.”
An incredibly memorable epiphany occurred on the day she told me I was just like my dad’s “greedy” estranged brother and I was just “leeching off” of my parents. This statement got me to wise up to a very ugly truth I did not want to face. My dad had been using his support as access and my mom had been using it as ammunition for guilt. All my life, I had been reminded of how difficult it would be for me and my brother to take care of ourselves because we’re both creative types. I grew up believing this economy just wasn’t made for me to thrive in. So, I did what I thought I had to do to pay back my parents for all their years of investment into my future. I made my whole life about paying them back. I went into business with my dad. I felt so guilty about how much they had helped me, that I let them walk all over both me and my husband because they picked up the check. The gentle nudges turned into a blatant disregard for our wishes and our boundaries, and just like in my childhood, the boundaries completely melted away. This became glaringly clear to me once my parents started inviting guests to stay at our house while we were out of town, without telling us, after we asked them to pet sit our very anxious dog. The response to that boundary was ‘You’re being ridiculous. It’s not a big deal. I can’t believe you’re making this such a big deal. Maybe we need to rethink our situation.”
That’s when I realized, this was not love. It was control.
I can still recall my blood pressure that day. I can still hear the ringing in my ears as my hands shook and sweat as I aired my grievances. She tried to guilt-trip me up until the second before I blocked her number. It was the first time I had called her behavior exactly what it was, abuse. I said, “I am blocking your number so you cannot continue to abuse me.” I never felt more sure of anything in my life. It felt like I had just landed on the moon and shoved that American flag into the rocky surface. I knew in my bones that this was decades of emotional abuse, manifested as illnesses, mental breakdowns, and finally a complete reckoning, coming to a halt. I was the only person that had the power to break the cycle, so I did.
A wise person once said that the only people that get upset about boundaries are the ones who benefit from you having none.
I’m sure many people would read this and be completely horrified that anyone could ever turn their back on family, and I used to be one of those people too. At what point in your development do you get to decide that perhaps your guardians don’t have all the answers and maybe they don’t have your best interest at heart? Maybe they just have their best interests at heart. You don’t. Our society doesn’t allow that distinction to be made without consequences. I’m just going to say the thing you’re not supposed to say, and that’s any ole idiot can have a kid. You’re not entitled to someone’s life because you gave them one against their will. I know, I know that sounds so crass and just like something someone without kids would say, but hear me out. Do you trust that every elder in your life has the self-awareness and empathy to not project their past traumas onto you solely based on their age and relation to you? Our emotions exist to guide us. Isn’t it possible that they could guide us in the opposite direction of the people who raised us and it not be a tragic estrangement, but rather a necessary distancing?
I’ve researched myself into a hole of covert narcissism, emotional abuse, toxic family dynamics, enabling fathers, etcetera. My goal is no longer a diagnosis. My only goal is peace, and I am well on my way. Everything I’ve learned, all the data I toyed with cramming into this article might validate something deep inside you that you have felt ashamed of for years, but it’s also not necessary. I knew. I always knew something was wrong. Even as a little kid, I knew that my mother wasn’t supposed to make me feel like I was difficult to love. I was just taught not to trust myself. Trust your instincts above all else. Your nervous system will fail you in an attempt to get you the f* out, and it is up to you to listen. It hurts, it is not easy, it is like an assassination of your identity and everything you thought you valued. It is also entirely worth it. Do not betray yourself. Other people’s toxic behavioral patterns are not your responsibility. Boundaries are your birthright.