I’ve been reading about the pain that comes from insufficient mothering. And I’ve been reading about therapeutic approaches to support clients with this experience.
It’s an issue that has come up in therapy for me sometimes. It still hurts that my mother isn’t particularly interested in me, doesn’t want to know me well, chose my stepfather over me and my siblings, even when she saw how cold and even cruel he could be to us. The salience of this issue ebbs and flows for me. My mom lives far away, and a lot of the time I’m used to not having her in my life. Other times I notice the absence more acutely. Or I reach out again, and I end up disappointed. Occasionally we have a warm phone conversation and I sort of believe her when she says at the end of the phone call that she loves me.
So part of what I value in therapy is attunement – the sense that E understands what I’m saying, that she really sees me and understands those needs. Yes, of course, ultimately I have to be the Good Mother to myself, but E models it and shows me how to do it and teaches me that it’s important in the context of our therapeutic relationship.
Except when it doesn’t work like that, when she doesn’t get it.
Monday in therapy I talk about how much I hate my birthday. I dread it, every year. It’s never a good day. I’ll spare you the whole long list of things, but a lot of bad things have happened on my birthday, both in my personal life and in the world. It’s just a cursed day.
So I talk about this, and I say I don’t know what to do about the day, because I dread it. And much as I’d like to be nice to myself about it, I don’t have much faith it will work out. E tells me to take it as an opportunity to do something for me. But really, what would that be? It doesn’t work to invite friends over. Everyone is busy with the holidays. I like doing things outdoors, but it’s a miserable, wet, cold time of year. This year, as it happens, we actually have snow, and the roads are a mess and the city is pretty much shut down, because we don’t have the infrastructure to clean the roads. But even when it’s not like this, it’s just unpleasant and grey and dark.
This probably sounds childish. It is, maybe, I don’t know. I’m not really pouting because poor me, I have a lousy birthday. I am trying to say, how do I make it a day that is not depressing. And I don’t feel like E got it either. It sounds too trivial, maybe.
And I feel embarrassed to have brought it up. It kind of reminds me of when I was married to Miguel. He was ideologically opposed to birthdays. They weren’t a big deal when he was growing up, and he said they were just one more example of American consumerism and fascination with celebrating ourselves all the time. I shouldn’t want to celebrate. I shouldn’t expect a gift–how materialist was I, after all? How selfish! How immature!
Ugh I still feel shame around this. And it gives me another reason to hate my birthday. Maybe I have internalized some Miguel’s rhetoric around birthdays. They are stupid; I shouldn’t expect anything of them.
Anyway. So my birthday arrives, and we have a lot of snow and unusually cold weather. It doesn’t work to go out to dinner with my husband as planned. But I do have a nice cake my son ordered for me; that was sweet. In the afternoon, I accidentally catch my computer with my foot and kick it over and kill it. Even my technical genius husband can’t revive the poor thing. I’ll need a new motherboard at least.
In the evening, I text E and say, well, it’s not like the year a car drove into our house on my birthday (2013), for example, but it still kind of sucks. And she texts back, Stuff goes wrong sometimes, and you just have to deal with it.
And that response leaves me–I don’t know, disappointed? And confused. Here’s what goes on in my head: 1) E is saying, it’s no big deal, so don’t fuss about it; 2) which is actually correct; 3) but means she doesn’t a) care or b) even realize that there are a lot of emotional layers attached to my birthday including that 4) birthdays are supposedly about celebrating people’s existence except 5) mine is always inconvenient and uncomfortable and cold and a bit of a burden; 5) rather like I have felt many times in my life and 6) I just asked for her help in dealing with this but 7) she didn’t hear me or didn’t get it so 8) I feel dismissed by the person who is helping get over the feeling of being dismissed/a burden/not seen by my mother.
I don’t want to flip out about this and spend a week or two in emotional knots. But it’s a tender spot, a bruise that just got bumped again. I want to be nice to myself about it. I want to avoid criticizing myself for even caring at all, for not having given up entirely on the idea of my birthday feeling special. I want to take E’s comment as a sign she was distracted, maybe busy dealing with the bad weather herself. I don’t want to assume it means she thinks I’m being a baby about it all. I don’t want to obsess about how she doesn’t understand me, or worse, that she does understand me but judges what she sees. I don’t need to make those fears into weapons against myself. I don’t to rush to the conclusion that no one can be attuned to me because there is a flaw in me that sets me outside the category of people who deserve deep connection.
But it’s hard to know what to do instead. I mean that. I am not asking you all to wish me happy birthday or tell me that E is a good therapist but just didn’t text the right message to me this evening. (I know that.) I am sincerely wondering how I can let go of this birthday curse. Or let go of the birthday idea altogether; is that the solution perhaps?
Anyway, now I don’t have to resolve anything another 364 days. That’s a relief, at least.