Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Mother's Love Turned Upside Down

My mother-in-law inevitably makes me cry. Though it was a blog post, a tribute to a mother lost to Alzheimer's, that just set me off, I realize that at least some of these tears belong to my mother-in-law.
Not in a sappy, gee-I'm-lucky-to-have-such-a-wonderful-mother-in-law way. But in a how-does-she-always-manage-to-find-my-Achillees-heel-and-stick-in-the-knife? kinda way.
I've spent my entire marriage trying to figure this woman out. For years, my husband defended her unkind gestures, her cutting remarks. She lived through the Depression, I was told. She lost her father as a child. She was an immigrant with a language barrier. And on and on and on.
And I, to a certain extent, bought it. I excused her and shouldered the blame myself. I was too sensitive, I've been told my entire life. And I believed it.
Thing is, I don't buy it anymore. I'm starting to see that the problem isn't MY sensitivity, it's everyone else's INsensitivity. Admittedly, my response to these people is my problem. But I refuse to believe that the answer is for me to become less sensitive.
Still, when I'm weeping in frustration because yet another family holiday passed during which my mother-in-law managed to find fault with me, the meal I cooked, my children, my home, my hair and my pets. I take bizarre comfort (and some amusement) in the fact that she also finds fault with her daughter, her daughter's family ("too many boys"), her son (my  husband) and her other son. Oh yeah, and her nephew. I'm sure you get the picture. The woman is a walking talking toxic dumping machine.
I looked at my husband after she left. We had been to a funeral last week for a friend's daughter who committed suicide, after suffering depression that simply wouldn't lift. "How," I asked him, "did [our friend's daughter] kill herself...and you didn't?" It was an honest question. I can barely manage 24 hours with his mother without wanting to kill (a) her or (b) myself (though I'm leaning toward (a)!)
I don't know how I would have survived her (s)mothering. While  my own mother was a raging alcoholic, she was – if you could understand her slurred words – a really nice person. A bit sloppy when drunk. A bit embarrassing. But I always knew I was loved, even if that love didn't exactly look like the type of homemade-brownies-and-hand-sewn-clothes love I would have preferred.
My husband, on the other hand, knew absolutely that love depended on performance. If he made her look good (good grades, nice friends, acceptable girlfriends, presence in church, decent haircut, etc. etc.), he was loved. If, however, he pursued interests, friends, girls, goals that did not meet with her approval, it was made abundantly clear that love would be rescinded.
The result? A man who became a master at hiding who he was. Who never learned how to experience love or trust love. Who used sex with strangers as a way to manage feelings of anger, resentment an anxiety.
Am I blaming her for my husband's infidelity? Of course not. He's a grown man who made choices.
I am, however, blaming her for laying the groundwork for a lifetime of unhealthy coping. For creating a childhood environment so toxic that love became currency. And for costing us a small fortune in therapy fees to undo much of her damage.
Oh yeah – and I'm blaming her for ruining my Easter weekend.

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