A Sort of Present

There was once a mother who had a very hard time indeed, emotionally, inside.

As she remembered it, she had always had a hard time, even as a child. She remembered few of her childhood's specifics, but what she could remember were feelings of self-loathing, terror, and despair that seemed to have been with her always.

From an objective perspective, it would not be inaccurate to say that this mother-to-be had had some very heavy psychic shit laid on her as a little girl, and that some of this shit qualified as parental abuse. Her childhood had not been as bad as some, but it had been no picnic. All this, while accurate, would not be to the point.

The point is that, from as early an age as she could recall, this mother-to-be loathed herself. She viewed everything in life with apprehension, as if every occasion or opportunity were some sort of dreadfully important exam for which she had been too lazy or stupid to prepare properly. It felt as if a perfect score on each such exam was necessary in order to avert some shattering punishment.1 She was terrified of everything, and terrified to show it.

The mother-to-be knew perfectly well, from an early age, that this constant horrible pressure she felt was an internal pressure That it was not anyone else's fault. Thus she loathed herself even more. Her expectations of herself were of utter perfection, and each time she fell short of perfection she was filled with an unbearable plunging despair that threatened to shatter her like a cheap mirror.2 These very high expectations applied to every department of the future mother's life, particularly those departments which involved others' approval or disapproval. She was thus, in childhood and adolescence, viewed as bright, attractive, popular, impressive; she was commended and approved. Peers appeared to envy her energy, drive, appearance, intelligence, disposition, and unfailing consideration for the needs and feelings of others3; she had few close friends. Throughout her adolescence, authorities such as teachers, employers, troop leaders, pastors, and F.S.A. Faculty Advisers commented that the young mother-in-waiting 'seem{ed} to have very, very high expectations of {her}self,' and while these comments were often delivered in a spirit of gentle concern or reproof, there was no failing to discern in them that slight unmistakable note of approval--of an authority's detached, objective judgment and decision to approve--and at any rate the future mother felt (for the moment) approved. And felt seen: her standards were high. She took a sort of abject pride in her mercilessness toward herself.4

By the time she was grown up, it would be accurate to say that the mother-to-be was having a very hard interior time of it indeed.

When she became a mother, things became even harder. The mother's expectations of her small child were also, it turned out, impossibly high. And every time the child fell short, her natural inclination was to loathe it. In other words, every time it (the child) threatened to compromise the high standards that were all the mother felt she really had, inside, the mother's instinctive self-loathing tended to project itself outward and downward onto the child itself. This tendency was compounded by the fact that there existed only a very tiny and indistinct separation in the mother's mind between her own identity and that of her small child. The child appeared in a sense to be the mother's own reflection in a diminishing and deeply flawed mirror. Thus every time the child was rude, greedy, foul, dense, selfish, cruel, disobedient, lazy, foolish, willful, or childish, the mother's deepest and most natural inclination was to loathe it.

But she could not loathe it. No good mother can loathe her child or judge it or abuse it or wish it harm in any way. The mother knew this. And her standards for herself as a mother were, as one would expect, extremely high. It was thus that whenever she 'slipped,' 'snapped,' 'lost her patience' and expressed (or even felt) loathing (however brief) for the child, the mother was instantly plunged into such a chasm of self-recrimination and despair that she felt it just could not be borne. Hence the mother was at war. Her expectations were in fundamental conflict. It was a conflict in which she felt her very life was at stake: to fail to overcome her instinctive dissatisfaction with her child would result in a terrible, shattering punishment which she knew she herself would administer, inside. She was determined--desperate--to succeed, to satisfy her expectations of herself as a mother, no matter what it cost.


So it went, throughout his childhood and adolescence, such that, by the time the child was old enough to apply for various licenses and permits, the mother was almost entirely filled, deep inside, with loathing: loathing for herself, for the delinquent and unhappy child, for a world of impossible expectations and merciless judgment. She could not, of course, express any of this. And so the son — desperate, as are all children, to repay the perfect love we may expect only of mothers — expressed it all for her.

1 Her parents, by the way, did not beat her or ever even really discipline her, nor did they pressure her.

2 Her parents had been low-income, physically imperfect, and not very bright--features which the child disliked herself for noting.

3 The phrases lighten up and chill out had not at this time come into currency (nor, in fact, had psychic shit; nor had parental abuse or even objective perspective).

4 In fact, one explanation the soon-to-be mother's own parents gave for their disciplining her so little was that their daughter had seemed so mercilessly to upbraid herself for any shortcoming or transgression that disciplining her would have felt 'a little bit like kicking a dog.'

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