When To Call it Quits With Your Toxic Mother

In Complicated Roots, Maternal Narcissism by Louisa Leontiades

Sometimes I think about calling the woman who raised me. Trying to put it all behind us and move forward on a lighter path. But the mother I want to love doesn’t exist. And if I try too hard to force together the shards of the image she showed in public and the few fragments of childhood sweetness, they would make my head bleed like they did before.

I believe she’s a narcissist… unable to recognize that she has been anything but a perfect mother and a perfect role model. Not by her words, of course. What perfect mother wouldn’t be able to admit she was wrong sometimes?

Which means there’s a problem. Calling someone a narcissist does not make them unlikeable, nor always a bad parent. There were times of great joy. Times which she can point at and say ‘Do you really think that if I was a narcissist I would have done that for you?’ Trying to be a perfect mother, means that sometimes she was. And if those moments had been the only ones, then maybe we’d still be in contact. So when does the bad outweigh the good? When it is better to call it quits?

Living with a mother who’s a narcissist is to be isolated because you’re the only one who sees both sides. My mother could be a shining light when she was happy, when I behaved myself. The happier she was, the less likely she would be to find fault in my actions. But she lived with my father, an emotionally cold man, and she was often unhappy. Then she divorced and was even more unhappy. And I was often at fault.

Even now, her friends adore her and laugh outright when she tells them of my accusations. She is the victim of my treachery and in a certain light this is true. From their perspective, I have turned into the devil child and her abuser. I have rejected her as a mother, despite the joy that she brought me and the sacrifices she made for me. I have committed the ultimate sin. But it’s not the whole truth. What they do not know, what they will never see is that my experience was not of the mother she truly believes herself to be.

The only way to really see a maternal narcissist is to go against her directives. To upset her self-image. It happens first, by mistake. It doesn’t take much, and you are punished by a withdrawal of love. You are shocked at the severity of the punishment, scared because of the threat to your survival and confused about the version she tells. Surely it didn’t happen that way. One of you must be wrong and she tells you, it is you. Then you do badly at something inconsequential. A school project perhaps. She is overwhelmingly hurt. Over time you learn that you must strive to do your best at her goals or risk rejection. Her goals become your goals, her hobbies your hobbies, as they must be, in order to win approval, in order to survive. But with every failure, her disappointment increases, you are not the child she needs you to be. And she loves you less each time.

It is to be subtly shown time and time again that the real you is not worthy of consideration and that your worth is entirely tied up with how you enhance her image. It is to learn from the hand that feeds you, that you are constantly inadequate. That her love is a gift which must be earned through the actions she approves and taken away when you fail, which you do of course – you are not the perfect child. Until instinctively you start to fail on purpose and question her abilities as a mother, because it is the only way that you can force her mask off. The truth, no matter how painful, is better than living a lie.

Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but its there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

Morpheus ~ The Matrix

Living with two clashing realities will drive you mad. The psychological explanation of this is called cognitive dissonance – the situation where gross and irreconcilable inconsistencies occur causing psychological distress. It’s not only living with the lie it’s also the fact that try as you might, you cannot match the two versions of your mother up to one picture. She says she loves you but sometimes acts as if she despises you. She tells people she’s proud of your achievements but relentlessly criticizes you in private. It’s a form – albeit unconscious – of mental torture. It’s mind bending and mind breaking.

She could make my world dazzle. She could make the air around me shimmer and glisten with possibility. ‘Let’s go on an adventure’, she’d say. ‘I can be queen and you can be the princess’. So off we’d go, exploring the mountains that surrounded us and the realms of our imaginations. It was amazing and that’s the mother people saw. But it only took one wrong word, one wrong step to turn the world black.

There’s no warning. No sounding thunder in the distance. And even though we might have been surrounded by people only I would know how dark it really was. She’d still be laughing, but her laughter would have a different edge. Shrill enough to cut glass. Her seemingly innocent words cracked like a whip tightening around my throat… a secret message, meant only for me. In those moments fear rushed over me so intensely that I felt faint from the terror. They didn’t notice the steely gaze, the tell-tale eyelash flutter or feel her hand clench around mine. I didn’t want them to go because I didn’t want to be alone with her. But they always did leave. And I was always left alone.

You get used to the agony of treading on eggshells. You get used to being your mother’s confidante for her tragic blameless life and her scapegoat for when things go wrong. You get used to rating your father as second best because otherwise she will feel insecure and her insecurity might have devastating consequences for you. You get used to hearing her constant criticism justified under the banner that ‘life is not fair’ and you should take it on the chin. You get used to being told that your emotions are a sign of weakness so you hide them, whilst sympathizing with her tears. You get used to being a disappointment. You get used to playing a charade in public. You get used to having to watch every action you take of constantly trying to be one move ahead. You get used to thinking you are losing it because what she says and what she shows the world, is not the person you know. You get used to lying. Anything to avoid her wrath.

Until one day you realize that you will never measure up and you stop. You stop trying to be what she wants. Then come the arguments. Full on violent rows which drive you mad. But it feels better because she finally shows you plainly that the child she wants, is not you. And after years of believing yourself to be crazy, of believing that she wanted what was best for you, you finally believe that she wanted what was best… for her.

But with that belief comes an even more bitter revelation. The child she said she loved, was not you. She loved what she thought you could be made into. She loved you if you did well. You go round and round your head trying to reconcile this impossible fact. Mothers love their children. This is the most sacred truth. To upset this truth is to turn the world on its head. It takes courage. The only world you have ever known, you know, the one where you are crazy. You have a difficult choice. You can be crazy  and believe that she loves you or you can be sane and live with the fact that your mother didn’t love you. You cannot have both.

My friends feel sorry for my mother. They see the bright lights of a woman whose brilliance added texture and glow to every room. They see the tragedy of a woman who grieves her only child. They see my absolute refusal to include her in my life and my children’s lives, and they join her in her mourning. They don’t understand how toxic a reunion would be. How she would try and force her version of events on me time and time again, to undermine my sanity and save her own.

For if she were to believe any truth in my version, she would not be able to live with herself. My version makes her out to be abusive, even if she was unaware of it. For both our sakes therefore, contact is out of the question. Our experiences and realities cannot exist side by side. When you realize that your realities are so diametrically opposed that any contact results in futile but vicious arguments where even dates, names and sequences of events have been altered to suit our differing realities, it’s time to call it quits. Because if you don’t, you will go mad.

So 10 years ago we ceased regular contact. My life became lighter and more fulfilling because I was allowed to be me. Me without disapproval, me without being terrified of what I might do wrong. As I’ve recovered she has on occasion tried to rekindle contact. The perfect mother keeps trying and it fits her narrative. Each time, I’ve become more and more certain that any contact between us would be detrimental to both of us. Each time, I’ve called it quits, much to the disappointment of my friends who wanted a happy reunion. They don’t understand what they are asking of either of us. Because as much as she is not the mother I need, I am not the daughter she needs either.

Her narcissism helps her survive. If it were to be destroyed by my version of events, it would undermine her self-esteem, her very sense of self and the context of her existence. She would also go mad. As it is, she can continue to believe that she was the perfect mother and all the issues are on my side. She’s over 70 now and I think it’s best. But I’m not doing it for her. I don’t do that anymore. I’m doing it for me. Because the day I called it quits, was the day I started to live the life I wanted instead of trying and always failing, to be the daughter she wanted. It’s the day I realised that I was safer living without the love of my mother and better off loving myself.