My boyfriend sat down gingerly opposite me and said carefully,
"You've done a marvellous job renovating your therapy room. I'm really impressed."
"But..." I said. Because there's bound to a but after a phrase like that...isn't there?
"Two things you might want to consider for the next time." He said. "You don't need white spirit for water based paint. And you need to wash the rollers out before they dry." With that he took a deep breath and waited for my response.
"I didn't know that it wasn't oil based. But okay. As if there's going to be a next time." I said mischievously. "Are you expecting that I renovate your studio too?"
He smiled and said "Wow. Five years ago you would have been up in arms attacking me. I used to notice little things and think 'Oh I'm not gonna tell her because it will just cause more trouble.' But then it was such a little thing, so I did tell you. And afterwards I'd think 'That so wasn't worth it.'"
I've come a long way, baby. Five years ago I heard criticism everywhere, even in constructive feedback. Five years ago I felt belittled and incompetent. I heard judgement in compliments - because if one aspect of my appearance, home or personality was lauded, the others must have been lacking. And when I felt attacked, I barked hard, and bit even harder. But this is not a defect in my character. This is a result of being judged, and constantly criticized by my narcissistic adoptive mother.
There is little research to be had on maternal narcissism. It's not recognized as a separate pathology like Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) because it's considered that maternal narcissism stems from a parent who already suffers from NPD. But I've found in my own personal journey that the mother doesn't necessarily have to suffer from NPD to suffer from maternal narcissism, and indeed their brand of narcissism may not even be experienced by all their children. This makes for a very difficult, almost impossible diagnosis.
And yet the signs are there, in the behaviour of the affected child. Hypersensitivity to perceived criticism is one of them. As you can imagine this makes it very difficult to be in any type of healthy relationship. It means the individual is a state of arrested development because they are forced to conform as a matter of survival to the image of the self created by their mother. It means that they locked into a prison of someone else's idea of how they should be by guilt, shame, and conditional love. It is a form of abuse.
Still, I've wavered to and fro on using the word abuse. It's a mammoth accusation after all. Because my childhood, didn't seem on the surface to be very different to many others. I had a competitive mother and she tried hard to 'improve' me, usually via criticism. I had singing lessons, because her passion was singing. Spoke french fluently because she was a French teacher. Won every school prize going until my rapid and distasteful rebellion. So what?
But that all changed when I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Roald Dahl was a highly disturbed yet gifted man. He wrote about abusive adults and children in pain. When I read his autobiography 'Boy' I finally understood why. He was traumatized. The children in his books often took revenge on adults in peculiar and horrific ways, from The Twits and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Matilda and The Witches. His adult fiction was dark and twisted, it wrote about murder and revenge. But as a child I realized none of this; his fiction was simply that. Even as I read them though I wondered why Quentin Blake, the main illustrator of his work, produced such scary drawings. They were unlike any other children's books and had jagged angles. Quentin Blake had you see, understood Roald Dahl's perspective. It was the way Roald saw the adults around him.
Then Tim Burton arrived. He also 'got' Roald Dahl. And in his 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate factory he developed back stories to how the children became such horrific caricatures, among them Violet Beauregarde - the insanely competitive offspring of an insanely competitive mother who lived vicariously through her only daughter's achievements. Violet would never be allowed to fail because in doing so she risked her mother's love. Same bobbed hair as her mother, same tracksuit as her mother, Violet had been fashioned into a veritable mini-me.
"She's just a driven young woman...I don't know where she gets it." says her mother, aware of the irony. And even during Violet's crowning achievement of winning the golden ticket, her mother can't resist showing off "Of course I've had my share of trophies...mostly baton." Charlie Bucket's grandparents respond with "What a beastly girl. Despicable."
But they're wrong. The person who is truly despicable is Violet's mother who has warped her child into an object to satisfy her own inadequate self-esteem... and in doing so created a monster. Mrs. Beauregarde is a maternal narcissist. It's abuse. And worse, it's abuse which cannot be measured, criminalized or even counteracted.
I'm not concerned about me. I've worked hard on my self-esteem, can accept criticism and don't take it personally. But there's a bigger issue. My children. I know that the love of the people around me means nothing about the impact I might have on my children.
After all my own mother is also loved by many.
I'm very careful not to judge my children. Careful not to criticize them. Careful of their self-esteem. I'm too careful. I don't instinctively recognize the balance between encouraging their talents and forcing them to take on activities. So in the end, maybe they'll do nothing at all. I don't know what represents naughtiness as opposed to acting out of insecurity. So I try and give them free rein; I'm patient to a fault until I explode out of frustration and angst, leaving them wondering what on earth has happened. I'm unsure of the boundaries I need to set so that they grow up in a structured environment but without feeling controlled as I did. I'm a stickler for the belief that there is no right or wrong, only perception. But they are too young to understand this point of view and get confused between what they see as a black and white reality and how I try to explain it. When they fight with each other I'm torn - I don't see the 'fair' way to act, I only see bad repercussions of anything I might do to resolve the situation. Because I know, better than most, that with every action, there is a reaction.
People say that you pass along the issues from your childhood onto your children. But these are not the same issues. I'm not a narcissist. I'm a narcissist's daughter. I'm afraid that my children will grow up in an chaotic, boundary-less world because I myself have experienced the disastrous repercussions of an overly-controlling competitive and critical mother. A mother who couldn't recognise or appreciate me, for me. And I don't want that for them. But when I see their confusion and upset, I feel as if it would be better simply if I were not there. As if I am not fit to be a mother. As if I should leave the parenting to healthier adults. And just thinking these things is terrifying.
Because it's a terrible thing to think - even for a second - that your children would be better off without you. And it's something that I could never do, not in a million years. So in order to compensate for my own uncertainty, I choose instead to surround them with different adults as well - extended family and friends - so that any potentially negative impacts on their development are diluted whilst I continue to work on my own skills of parenting. But I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't... because this leads me to ask an even more important question. With my strategy will they also feel that my love is diluted? Absent? Above all. Above all, I don't want this. Because surely - out of all the abuse I could ever inflict on them - this is the worst abuse of all. But right now, I don't know.
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.