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Moving Beyond My Mother’s Limits
I stopped asking for what she can’t give me
D. Morrison

When I was very young, I adored my mother. The first 18 years of my life were spent with her and my four younger siblings in public housing, a.k.a. “the projects,” in Brooklyn, New York. I never developed a relationship with my father, who I believe lives somewhere in the 50 states.

My stepfather came into our lives when I was 7, but I’ve managed to stay distant from him. He is the father of my three little brothers, while my sister and I share the same absent dad. I have another sister 15 years my senior, who has a different father.

I cherish the memory of the years at home before my three brothers were born. My mother gave me freedom and privacy, so I could learn who I was. She engaged with my passions—Japanese culture, dogs, books— enthusiastically mentioning anything she came across that had to do with those things. I saw my mother as fun, playful, generous, creative, and youthful.

She grew up in Brooklyn, too, the second-youngest of nine siblings. She started working when she was 14. She was the only child in her family who went through high school and college despite giving birth to my older sister at 15. She completed her bachelor’s degree around the same time that she had me, at age 30. She was a loyal daughter to my nana, who died in 2014.

When I was 7, my mother decided to settle down with my stepfather. She worked hard, with little help from him. She got her college degree in public health, while working as a secretary and receiving public assistance. She wanted to get a master’s but had to stop to raise me, and then my younger sister. My mom wanted to become a full-time schoolteacher. Instead she’s a substitute teacher, which she likes but she doesn’t make enough money. She took pride in both my younger sister’s and my academic achievements but felt cheated that her own education was interrupted.

My stepfather has said he sees me as his daughter, but I’ve never considered him a father figure. Nor does he have any parental influence over me. He’s invited me to talk to him about my life, but I like the distance. My mother and stepfather don’t get along well and their loud, hours-long, late-night fights never endeared him to me. Plus, I’m queer and he’s homophobic, among other prejudices, so it is probably for the best.

As our family grew to six kids, more responsibility fell on me, and peace dwindled in the household. I didn’t know it yet, but depression was stalking me, and would soon catch me. At the same time, I began to see toxic qualities behind my mother’s good traits.

I didn’t realize until I was older that none of us kids ever shared personal things with her. If we expressed any negative emotion, my mother would either dismiss it or throw blame left and right. “Go sit down, ya kids are stressing me out.” So we learned to suppress ourselves.

Conceal All Emotions

“Don’t get mad,” she would yell, or, “You shouldn’t be upset! Stop crying.” This taught us that our feelings were wrong. She’d ask us what was the matter, but aggressively, yelling “What’s wrong?!” like an accusation, which made us fall silent.

If we broke something or fell and hit our head, she’d attack us with shouting or empty threats to smack us. Hurting ourselves was “misbehaving” and making a mistake was unforgivable. One day, when my brother was coughing and hacking loudly due to a cold, she said to him, “That’s why you are sick, because you aren’t listening to me.”

I told her that it sounded like she was blaming him for being sick.

She argued a bit, then gave a dismissive, “Oooh okayyyyy, whatever.”

I realized that she really had no idea—or didn’t care—how her behavior affected us.

My siblings and I hid our emotions, even from each other, because when they were visible, she would attack. You did not mope around or disagree when our mom was near, or she’d scream at you, accusing you of a “nasty attitude.” Sometimes she would present gentle sympathy, but if you took too long to comply with her request or express yourself, she’d start hollering.

No one else in my life ever provoked me as much as my mother could: My home life seemed separate from my social and academic life. I accepted the stress at home as my reality and tried my best to ease it for my siblings and myself. I would defend them when she yelled at them. I also encouraged my brothers, saying, “This wasn’t really your fault, don’t listen to her.”

Toward my second year of high school, I was beginning to feel what I would later find out was depression. Despite having nice friends, enjoying classes, and doing well, it washed over me. I spent a lot of time in bed and a lot of time crying, hating myself for feeling down and not doing my work. I skimped on homework and cut school. I put things off until they piled up. I stopped showering for weeks at a time.

I blamed myself at first—I was just being lazy and gross. I did not call it depression or anxiety, as I didn’t know what those things were. My mother barely noticed because I hid these feelings like I hid every hard feeling from her.

The pressure to keep my emotions concealed spread to other parts of my life. I grew selective about what and with whom I would share. I was the most open with particular online friends, and in my writing. Online friends felt safer and more accepting, because we primarily communicated by writing.

image by YC-Art Dept

Could Any Adults Understand?

My mother categorized mental illness with any other struggle and insisted the solution was God. I was 17 and not a Christian. As I grew sadder and less motivated, my mother nagged me. I would push her away, and even ignore her when she talked to me. I’d never done that before. It was a preservation of self: It took too much energy to argue with her.

Eventually, the depression got so bad that I had to reach out to adults for help, and then I learned that it wasn’t just my mom’s shortcoming. Many adults weren’t good at talking about what I was going through. Yet, I kept asking for help at school and eventually found a wonderful in-school therapist in my junior year, Mr. Allison.

It was hard to explain what depression felt like. Even my honest explanations sounded wrong to me. I downplayed how painful it was. Mr. Allison said that this habit of dismissing my own feelings was part of my debilitating condition. Partly because my mother had pooh-poohed my feelings, I felt like voicing them wasn’t important.

When my mother got mad, she’d poke at me: “What are you, sad? I can be sad too and you’re not going to like it. I don’t care if you cry or not.”

My mother learned about my depression at a meeting with Mr. Allison and my guidance counselor. They were the ones who explained to her that my grades had steeply slipped, and that I was depressed.

It was like dropping a bomb. I never let her see my grades, and she assumed from previous years that I was doing well. Cutting school had slipped under her radar also—she left for work early.

I already knew how she felt about mental illness: that it didn’t exist and that I’d be better off having someone pray over me to release whatever was holding me back. Before we even left the school property, she started in: “You wouldn’t be that way if you spoke to God,” and, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you kids,” and, “Why, why are you depressed, but why?” I tried to explain that there was no straightforward “why” that could be “fixed,” that it was a build-up of emotions and possibly part of my brain chemistry. She would not hear it.

My mom also said things like, “I thought you got over that,” or, “People with mental illness go to jail.” I learned to open up to supportive individuals, those educated on the topic, but to be vague with my mother. I saved us both a lot of stress by not trying to get her to understand.

After six months, Mr. Allison left my school, but I eventually found a second great therapist, Mary. My comfort with both of them allowed me to stick with the hard work of therapy. Having someone pay attention to my struggles and acknowledge the difficulty of my experience, while offering supportive information, felt much different than my mother’s scolding. Even when she seemed to be listening, her responses often had nothing to do with what I’d just said.

Mary and Mr. Allison are both gentle. They never challenged me but consistently brought my attention to my guilt, my self-criticism. They showed me that these things were learned and not really “me.” They trained me to work on rewriting my mental script rather than beating myself up for my thoughts. They accepted the way I was.

After talking to more people who were kind, deep listeners, and who didn’t get upset if I asked them a question, I realized that my mother’s reactions were unreasonable. I grew to recognize what was nonsense and what was rational, what was guilt-tripping and gaslighting and what was the truth.

I understand this without blaming my mother. Her own life experience with her family, her having kids so young, missing out on her career and not ending up with the husband she wanted shaped her in ways that have nothing to do with me. Although that doesn’t make her guilt-tripping, manipulation, and occasional terrorizing OK, it does offer a helpful perspective on her.

I think when I tell her about my depression, it leaves her feeling helpless and disappointed. Maybe that’s why she says such harsh things. The smartest thing I can do is protect myself. I don’t ask her for help or support because she doesn’t know how to give it. I have come to terms with her limits and I am happier getting the support I need elsewhere.

I appreciate many aspects of my mother, but I want to be a different kind of adult. I want to seek healthy environments, foster healthy relationships, keep my sights set on my education, and not have children until I’m ready. I will prioritize understanding, real listening, and honest engagement with emotions. These goals will help me create a healthy distance from my mother instead of trying to change her.

Learning From the Writer

This story may help teens discover ways to set healthy boundaries with parents or others.

Through therapy and her own perceptiveness, D. Morrison figured out why her mother was unsympathetic about her depression. She learned to accept that and find help elsewhere. Some of her insights include:

• She empathized with her mother, who was frustrated with her own life—she had a child when she was 15 and didn’t get to be a full-time teacher like she wanted.
• She recognized that her mother never let D. and her siblings express their feelings. Therapy helped D. realize that she needed to express herself to feel better.
• She understood that her depression is not her fault and not something that can be prayed or wished away.
• She realized the kind of therapist she needs—gentle, attentive, supportive.
• She stopped blaming herself or her mother for her mother’s limitations. D. is trying to accept her mom without repeating her mom’s patterns. “I will prioritize understanding, real listening, and honest engagement with emotions.”

Have you ever adjusted your expectations of a parent or guardian? What helps you do that?

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