When I was a tiny child I remember my mother rocking me and murmuring, “What shall I do when my baby grows up?” It was a memory that lingered for many decades, bringing comfort like the soft stroke of a hand. Despite all of the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my father when I was a young teenager, I always knew my mother loved me. When she found out about the abuse she took to her bed, sobbing continuously. My siblings and I wandered through the house in a daze wondering what happened to our “happy Catholic family. In an excerpt from my book, Let Me Hurt You and Don’t Cry Out, I wrote:
“No longer did Mom get out of bed and fix us hot cereal and chocolate in the morning. No more did she avidly question me on how my day went when I returned home. Now, she was asleep when I went off to school. We fixed our own breakfast, stumbling through burnt toast and soggy cold cereal. When I came home, the house was dark, Marine Corps blankets covering the windows and the breakfast dishes sitting on the table in an accusatory manner. There was no dinner happily cooking in the oven and no cheerful sight of Mom listening to her soap operas, shushing me until they finished their fifteen-minute segments. Instead, she lay in bed in an emotional stupor, depressed and withdrawn.
Dad began working a new job, one that took him away from home during the week. He returned on Friday nights to a house heavy with despair, a long line of crimes related by Mom about his children, who waited for punishments to be handed out.
The change in Mom slipped into our lives almost as if programmed. Was this just another stage in mothers? I wondered if she were ill. With little or no communication amongst my siblings and me, we didn't dare discuss it. As time passed, I realized that Mom had indeed changed for good. My heart was frightened and hollow when I approached our home and saw the Marine Corp blankets covering the windows, signaling that mom was still in bed. I tried to waken her, to get her to eat, oftentimes grooming her as I would a pet. She'd lie in a state of apathy and have me shave her legs, wash her face, or comb her hair. I felt someone had taken my mother from me and left this strange lady in her place. What had I done? Was she angry with me? Didn't she love me anymore? There was no more affection, no more interest, no more my mother. I grieved deeply. As time went on, my sorrow and bewilderment planted seeds of a neurosis that only grew with the passage of time.
My family life reminded me of a camp of mutilated and injured soldiers from some obsolete war, indescribable in its agony. All the figures were shadowy and disoriented, as if only half alive and that half living in a well of misery. We moved in and out of our days appearing to wait for some catastrophic happening, all of us knowing that once it did, we were ill prepared to handle it.”
Even in times of anguish, the wounded family seems unable to bond together and fight the battle from within. Lost and desolate, we carry our pain, a load that grows with each passing day, until it becomes more burdensome than our lives can handle.
Through the years I drew strength from the memory of what my mother had whispered as she rocked me. It was not until we moved from Nebraska to the Los Angeles area that I found evidence contrary to my belief that my mother loved me. I had just turned eighteen, anorexic and insecure, a prisoner of my parent’s continual restrictions and strong arm control: no makeup, no college, no friends, no phone calls, no driver’s license, they chose my job and I was to turn the money over to them. One day I protested vehemently and in response my father beat me with a belt so severely that it almost killed me. I can still hear my mother’s voice screaming over and over, “Hit her again, hit her again!” before I passed out. A few days later I ran away from home.
I learned to attach myself to older women who became substitute mothers. But it was never the same. I wanted my real mother. A hidden part of me, armed with that poignant memory, was certain that she had never ceased to love me. It wasn’t until I was at the end of my recovery and visiting with a neighbor who lived across the street from our house in that small farming community where my sexual abuse began, that I found out the truth.
My friend was talking about my mother. I was only half listening. Hoping to emerge stronger, hoping to have arrived at the end of my recovery, I had just gone into that bedroom for the first time since we had lived there. The memories had spilled out, leaving me badly shaken. My friend was talking about my mother, saying, “Your mother always tried to make everyone in town think that you had a happy Catholic family. But I never believed it. Something always seemed dark about that house. She used to tell me you were no good and unclean, that you lied and were lazy or anything negative she could say about you. I couldn’t understand why someone would feel that way about their own daughter. And I knew you were none of those things. You were just the opposite.”
Now I knew for certain. My mother hadn’t loved me; she had hated me. The shock reverberated all the way to my soul. I burst out with the truth of what had happened in that Red House with a willow in the front yard that swayed like a ballerina and the magical flower garden. My friend was shocked and told me she wished I’d have come to her for help. We spent a long time talking before I took my leave but not without hugging her and thanking her for having been a substitute mother, caring for me as if I were her own.
She was the first of a long line of those surrogate mothers who befriended me through the years. They will never know how much I loved and appreciated them. Perhaps you too have a mother who didn’t love you, one who hated you. Perhaps you have a story similar to mine. We always craved a loving mother and as time went on realized that we had to be our own mother. Friends who nurtured and supported us became our mothers. If you are one of the fortunate ones who had a loving and devoted mother I am so happy for you. As I said in the early part of my book REPAIR Your Life, my four children have been the greatest joy I have ever known. It is difficult for me to imagine a mother who didn’t love her children.
We were not meant to be orphans, not even semi-orphans. The loss of a parent, either emotionally or physically, cripples us as it follows all of our lives, its sorrow lingering in an abandoned closet in our mind, one we want never to open