It's taken me a long time to admit that there is something wrong with my adoptive mother and not with me. As the adoptee, it was I who bore the scar of the primal wound, and she - the martyr - who tried so hard to heal it. Who would criticise a woman who had given up her whole life for me? Who would be so cruel as to accuse a woman who was abused by her husband? Who could be so cruel as to question the love of a woman who gave up her career at his bidding in order to hold the family together?
As it turns out, I am and I can.
My adoptive father was no help. Broken plates piled on top of the relentless verbal wounding. I could see it as plainly as he had spoken it. A woman who can't have children? Worse than useless. And sometimes he did speak it.
"What kind of woman do you think you are anyway?"
The hitting usually happened out of sight, not that I didn't know about it. For a woman who has experienced the hellish trauma of not being able to give birth when she longed for children, his words were often crueller. I felt her pain. Luckily, I was around to validate her.
We'd been dancing the mother daughter dance for a while, but I hadn't quite got it right. In my first school, I'd sullied her reputation of a perfect Mum by being the imperfect daughter. I was 3.
'She's bored.' My teacher had said. 'She already knows how to read. So when we're teaching the other children the alphabet, she has nothing to do. She read out loud once. But then some of the other children got jealous and bullied her in the playground. I'm afraid distinguishing her from the others will lead to more of that.'
When we got home she said. 'I was only trying to give you what I didn't have. Besides I know what you need, You're so intelligent, but you're lazy. You need to be stretched.'
'I know Mummy.' I said. 'You did the right thing. You're the best Mum in the world.'
'Don't use the word 'Mum' it sounds common. What will people think? And for goodness sake, stand up for yourself. Do they call you names?'
'Yes' I said.
'I was always called names too. Remember the mantra; 'sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me'.'
Narcissism is insidious. To the outside world it looks like you have the perfect mother. But on the inside, I was judged, criticised, competed with, made invisible. Me and my feelings were unimportant. I was never good enough. Because I was a reflection only of her mothering skills. It was all about her.
It's what they call a spectrum disorder. And until I knew this, I couldn't bring myself to admit that there might have been something wrong with her. Because the binary criticism 'You're a narcissist' seemed too harsh - and well - just plain wrong. Sometimes she would go out of her way to get me the best clothes... especially in front of my richer friends. It was too psychologically wrenching to face the fact that my mother didn't love me like I needed, when she told me time and time again that everything she had done was out of love. Calling her a liar meant risking rejection once more. And having lost my biological mother, I clung to the illusion of any mother, even one who couldn't love me. And as I clung to the lies of love she was telling me, I suppressed my sense of self. The sense of self who knew she just didn't care about my wellbeing. Only about her own.
As she opened the school photo, I knew there was something not quite right. And an inkling of impending doom trickled over me like ice. She stared at it for some minutes before smiling broadly at the teacher and pocketing it.
Still I waited for the blow. And in the car, the critcism flowed...quietly and decisively.
'What were you thinking? Why aren't you smiling in this photo? You're not unhappy. I've tried so hard to make you happy. How could you show everyone that you were unhappy? It's almost as bad as lying. You're a liar. It must be in your genes. They say nature is stronger than nurture and you're living proof. '
I know now that it wasn't about me. It was about the fact that I should pretend through my unhappiness to be happy at all times because then everyone would know what a good mother she was.
I left that school after one year. And when I got in trouble at my next school, and the one after that, and the one after that, I moved schools. I attended 6 schools in all and then eventually I moved country. Because my errors began small and grew bigger. Weeing my knickers. Reading too well. Getting the second scholarship instead of the first. Not smiling in the school photo. Writing a incorrect account of the worthwhile activities she took me to over the weekend. Kissing a boy in the playground. Stealing from the birthday bag. Getting drunk on antibiotics. And at 16 having sex with the music master's son in an attempt to find the love that had eluded me. In each and every school, I sullied my reputation and consequently her reputation as the perfect mother.
It comes as no surprise then that in my life I've moved country and house over 30 times. Wiping the slate clean and starting over became such a force of habit that it honestly never occurred to me that dealing with pain could be healthy and helpful. Burying it, and carrying on regardless was the way we - and everyone else we knew - did it. Because once shamed in our middle class world, it was never forgotten. To the outside world, you had to be perfect.
For someone adopted who has already been abandoned, the fear of abandonment is a real and present danger. With a narcissistic mother, the abandonment actually occurs, again and again and again, reinforcing the truth that you are unloveable unless you meet the standards set out for you. And even then...
Oftentimes when the mother is narcissistic, she may be able to do some of the earlier nurturing because she has control of the infant and small child and can mold the child to her wishes. But as the child grows older and develops a mind of her own, the mother loses control and no longer has the same kind of power. This causes the mother to begin her demeaning, critical behaviour with the child, in the hope of regaining control, which is crazy making for the daughter.
From the time she went to bed for 2 days in great emotional anguish because I'd played the piano so badly in front of everyone at a village competition (even when I explained to her that I'd trapped my fingers in the piano stool), to the time she asked my permission at age 11 to get a divorce and then threw it back in my face as a justification of why I wasn't subsequently allowed to be unhappy, to violating my privacy again and again on the grounds that it was for my 'moral' good.
Her narcissism has profoundly affected my self worth and my self esteem to such an extent that even now, who I am, is a product of what she forced upon me, and how eventually I rebelled against it.
The Maternal Narcissism Trail
Growing up with a maternal narcissist - a mother who views you as an extension of herself - teaches you to suppress your sense of self in order to be loved. It warps you, stunts you, in such a way as you may never recover. It makes you insecure, hypervigilant and highly susceptible to abusive relationships in adult life. It's horrific, but there is hope, recovery and validation together with others who have experienced it. There's far too many of us.