Messages I wish my mom had actually taught me

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Content notes for abuse, ableist slurs, misogynist slurs, beauty standards, drug use, mental illness

My mother considered herself a feminist. (She’s not dead, I just don’t talk to her any more and she might as well be.) She was also bipolar and had a difficult time communicating things in a way that made sense, even though she was intelligent and thoughtful about a lot of things.

Looking back on my childhood, I realize that there were messages she sort of tried to teach me, but didn’t effectively teach me at all. To me, it just looked like more things fitting into her patterns of erratic behavior, but now I understand why she behaved the way she did about me wanting to shave my legs and wear makeup, and why she didn’t mind walking around the house naked after a shower. A lot of my opinions were (unbeknownst to me) influenced by popular culture, so I looked down on her for some of it.

I first wanted to shave my legs and armpits when I was about 12. She stubbornly refused to let me for about a year, and I never just went and did it because she was abusive and generally I feared what would happen if I went against her directly, even if it had to do with my own body. All she ever said was that I was “too young” and that I “didn’t need to” shave my legs. It was never articulated, but now I think I understand her reasoning.

I wish she had been able to say, “Look, the reason you want to shave your legs is because that’s what you’ve learned is expected of women. It’s not considered normal or okay for women (even young teenagers) to have body hair, and you’ve absorbed that message from popular culture. I support you exploring what you like on your journey to adulthood, but please don’t feel like you have to change your body to meet anybody’s standards but your own.”

Note: I’m not a woman but I was AFAB and hadn’t yet figured out that I was trans, so our relationship operated as though she were raising a young woman.

When I wanted to wear makeup, the story went pretty much the same way. Even though I mainly just wanted to wear eyeliner because I was really into manga/anime and a lot of my favorite characters wore eyeliner, and I was just hitting my “emo” phase. She didn’t want me to dye my hair either, the reason being that it would “reflect poorly” on her and the other things I was doing at the time, namely my participation in Job’s Daughters. My dad let me dye my hair because he was actually supportive of me exploring my identity. I wish she had asked why I wanted to do those things and helped me understand how they fit into expectations of beauty standards for women. Alas, I was just told No.

It always really bothered me that she would be naked in the house, in front of me and/or my brother. That, combined with her serial monogamy, led me to label her a Slut and grew the hatred I felt toward her. Didn’t she understand boundaries? Didn’t she understand that I didn’t want to see my mom naked? Any of the conversations we had about it basically ended with “I gave birth to you, you came out of me and you shouldn’t be bothered by it.” We never discussed how you shouldn’t be ashamed of nudity or of the way your body looks. I wish she had been able to tell me that that was a message I absorbed from a sex-negative culture. (But also it would be cool if she understood boundaries or cared about what made me uncomfortable.)

Now that I’m an adult and poly, I realize that she probably ought to have been poly. She cheated on people and said things like “I love him but I’m not in love with him.” I hated her for it, because she was promiscuous and betraying people’s trust. I wish that she had at least explained that having a lot of sexual partners doesn’t devalue who you are as a person. I think she might have exchanged sexual favors for drugs a few times, and I looked down on her for that, too. I wish she had ever talked about sex work with me.

One time, I took a shower in her bathroom and freaked the hell out when I saw her vibrator in there. I thought it was dirty, I thought she was dirty, because of the number of her sexual partners. Again, I wish we had ever talked about sexual desire and the health of masturbation and how you don’t have to stick with one or two sexual partners over the course of a lifetime.

Straying from the feminist messages, she also didn’t let me or my brother play with toy guns or knives. Which, unfortunately, means I never had Nerf guns or anything like that. At the time it just seemed like draconian fun-ruining, but now I get that she didn’t want us to treat violence lightly. (Although I remember watching her play Grand Theft Auto on plenty of occasions…)

She didn’t let us call each other “stupid,” which I now understand is because she didn’t want us to put each other down over our intelligence. She had bipolar and obviously knew how painful it could be to have your brain not work the right way. However, she did let us call each other “retarded,” which is a hypocrisy I can’t understand now that I’m more knowledgeable about ableism and neurological phenomenon like autism.

Above all, I wish we ever had a real conversation about her illness and how it affected her behavior. At the time, I just labelled her “crazy” and called her Satan behind her back. I knew that she was often noncompliant with her prescription medication and that she self-medicated with marijuana. I was a child being abused and I couldn’t understand why she was the way she was.

There are a lot of things I wish had gone differently over the course of my childhood, but I’m trying to recognize that I still ended up a pretty cool person. I understand now how important body image is, and how stupid society can be about that stuff, and how awful it is to label someone a slut because of how many people they’ve had sex with. I understand now that people with mental illnesses aren’t entirely responsible for their behavior. And I’m learning to love myself even though I have depression and sometimes my instabilities mirror hers.

 

Sorry for the length and personal nature of the post, but thanks for sticking it out with me. Does anyone else have similar experiences with parents who tried to teach good messages but didn’t quite manage to?

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Messages I wish my mom had actually taught me
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20 thoughts on “Messages I wish my mom had actually taught me

  1. 1

    Are you sure you aren’t reading to deeply into it? I thought a lot of what my parents did was an attempt to teach me things, but in the end I think they were just being a little hypocritical.

    1. 1.1

      My default assumption has been to think that she’s being hypocritical or that there was no reason besides her being crazy for her actions. Now that I’m a bit more grown up, I can see that there were probably reasons for why she thought the way she did, even if it wasn’t always rational or consistent.

      Gonna be honest, I’m a bit irritated because I already question myself on whether I’m overthinking things, so it’s really not necessary for other people to do that for me.

      1. Sorry for the irritation. It’s just that its easy to see our parents as anything other than infallible. It took me years to come to the realization: “Maybe I’m not worthless or stupid, maybe Dad’s just plain wrong“, but everybody’s experience is different I suppose.

        1. I had the opposite experience, since my mother was super abusive and controlling. Like, there are things that I like that she liked and it took me a long time to be okay with that because anything associated with her was just super negative. But yeah, I see where you’re coming from and I did have that problem with my dad for a long time.

  2. 2

    LP is speaking only of her mother, but for me it was both. While neither of my parents had mental illness, they neither taught me anything of value. Their self-serving hypocrisy was incessant, as was their racism, emotional abuse and other repugnant behaviour (saying no more to keep this short). I’ve spent my life ridding myself of their effect on me, success with some more than others.

    1. 2.1

      *their

      =[ I’m sorry to hear that. I feel like I’m spending a lot of time trying to undo the damage done, and it’s nice to feel like I’m not the only one whose parent(s) messed them up. I wish you luck in your process. <33

      1. Thank you, though I don’t worry about myself. I’ve got the confidence, personal, professional and financial independence plus friends that I have no problems anymore. There are plenty of people worse off who need others’/our concern.

        And as a side note, thank you and Zinnia for this blog. While I don’t know if I’ll fully transition, I’ve started living and going out both as male and female and it just feels right. The blog’s existence is encouragement on its own. I just wish I had started as young as you are.

  3. 3

    I’m sorry to hear about your issues with parents-

    I don’t think I can remember anything specific that my parents tried to instill- though I do remeber one time-

    My dad said to me when I was ten, “I know it seems like a long time away, but if you work hard for the first twenty years of your life, then after that it’ll be okay”

    I’m now twenty six, and I have learned that in certain circumstances, working hard gets you into positions that seem like a good idea, but require even more hard work- but now I’m too invested in where I am to afford to change.
    So really, less of a ‘good message’ and more of a clever long con.

    (I understand in the context of other experiences that this is more than a little whiny)

    1. 3.1

      So what is the alternative to hard work? Ambition without struggle is unrewarding. Life without ambition is meaningless, no different to the existence of a snail or a rock. We strive, we imagine, we plan and we create, in doing so: we define ourselves as men, the highest expression of reality. Without the will to power, man is no more than matter, simply another mindless beast.

      1. Well I suppose that instead I could fulfil my lifelong ambition of writing terrible existentialist libertarian screeds on the internet from the warm, cloying embrace of a dusty trenchcoat and ill-fitting trilby.

        1. Screed? My comment was shorter than yours!

          And it is a greatcoat thank you very much (I brush it down when necessary so it is not “dusty” either).

          Once again you have made no genuine rebuttal, nor constructive agreement. You have simply spouted off a bizarre hat-related ad hominem.

        2. Guy, I understand that Meggamat tends to be incredibly insensitive on issues like these, but could you refrain from using stereotyped ad hominems in response? At the very minimum, it seems to only cause Megga to be more sarcastic, and I don’t think they have the skills to understand that you’re responding that way because they were insensitive.

          1. Hi Lux, I’ll try to avoid doing this in future,

            in the way of explanation (not excuse), the reason I’m replying in this way so frequently is because I am of the strong suspicion that Mega is a partially fabricated persona.

            I feel this way for two reasons.

            1) they fit the stereotype way too well- from the overwrought pseudo archaic language and reductionist ‘logical’ way of dealing with other people’s feelings (presumably to give their nonsense an air of authority) to their embrace of free-market libertarianism and constant re-focusing of all arguments onto this fact.

            This is especially suspicious, given the devastating effect of the unregulated free market in the country in which they live, where to this day a strong culture of anti-thatcherism still exists.

            I have encountered numerous people who carry part of this stereotype in their persona, from lack of empathy, unwarranted self-importance, social obliviousness, m’lady speak, a certain way of dress etc, but I have never seen these all in one person at once, believing this stereotype to be a distillation of the ‘worst’ of a broad group of people’s mannerisms, beliefs and other characteristics.

            2) because if they are NOT a stage performance then they are a nasty human being very rude and insensitive person who is happy to stamp all over other people sharing personal feelings or discussing matters close to heart, and sees no sign of changing in the future. This is particularly galling given what they have shared with their own parents above.

            Regardless, I’ll avoid baiting them in the future.

          2. He/him pronouns are preferred thanks, and as to your Thatcherism remark, many people in Scotland do dislike her. I am not one of them. Most people in the UK like Winston Churchill. You do not. We both hold somewhat atypical political views.

            That being said, assumptions about the way I dress and my tastes in literature seem wildly unfounded and off-base. I shall try to avoid stereotyping you, and I shall also try to avoid responding to your comments in a manner which makes light of any unpleasant or disheartening experiences you have had. That being said, please do not make the mistake of assuming that those who disagree with you are dogmatic or disingenuous. This is the twenty first century, there is plenty of room for gentleman of disparate views to engage in polite discourse.

            Something both of us have fallen short of, it would seem.

      2. Meggamat, you should probably know that responding this way to people sharing personal things about their pasts is not appropriate nor acceptable. Please be more thoughtful in the future.

        1. I see your point. Whilst valid, my response should probably have been saved for a later time, with a link to this comment, given that That Guy is discussing a personal matter. I’ll try to keep that in mind.

  4. 4

    Sorry for replying to a slightly old post, but it brings up an oddness with my mother. Someone who was similarly would say they were a feminist and was one of those pioneering 70’s women in tech, in IT. Worked in insurance and the BBC as a systems analyst, mainframes, the whole shiz.

    Problem was, as a mother, less good – in fact one of the things I wish she had taught me (she’s dead now) was feminism since it seemed her flavour was the one that Gamergate types bang on about…but in her case seemed to be true, since she sat there so many times growing up, smoking and telling me how all men are pigs (I’m a cis queer bloke btw, so yeah not exactly helpful) and constantly criticising my father, or her first husband, and anyone who had slighted her. Did she hate all men? Dunno…but for years I wrongly connected the two. So I wish she’d taught me feminism that was positive.

    Now I realise she was probably mentally ill and undiagnosed – not because of that, but more the way she kidnapped me once, or had these dark scary periods, or almost throttled me because as a kid I called her a bastard (I didn’t know what it meant!). She never really got close to people, but thought she owned all her children…with the inevitable results from myself and my half-sisters.

    So really what I’d love to have learnt is quite sad…having a mother that loved me? I don’t think she did. As I get older I think that was the case, not me specifically – but anyone. Or at least was open about being adopted, was open about her struggles or illness. She didn’t like being hugged, I always ran to my father which she hated but then she was all bony, stank of cigarettes (refused to stop even when I was diagnosed with asthma. Yeah. *loving*) and not at all cuddly or emotionally demonstrative unless it was negative – and hated it even more when I requested my Dad have custody, she fought that too (see ownership, I had no rights) in Kramer vs Kramer style which screwed me up for years.

    I now think she was autistic or had some really deep mental issues. Certainly I never understood friend’s mothers, kind of envious but then again not (can’t miss what you never had. just feels hollow?) – weirded out by what apparently ‘normal’ mothers do. Certainly they seemed to be tactile and interested with their children, rather than a black mood and chain smoking in the corner with clouds gathering above (she died of that unsurprisingly). It’s all very sad, but then again not…it was what it was, and I didn’t know it wasn’t normal, so not sure if I can miss it? I feel sad mostly for her.

    Hmm I’ll stop here, but I sense Lux you might feel like me, that Mother’s Day should have a big fuck-off trigger warning. People look at me in horror when I’m honest about her, as if I’ve contravened some major law, and even my partner who met her once and she put on the charm (she could do that, for a while) thinks I’ve got her all wrong. That’s why she did that….*sigh*

    1. 4.1

      Ugh, I’m really sorry =/ a lot of that sounds similar to what I went through, what with having a super controlling mother who wasn’t good at displaying affection and being physically abusive.

      I sometimes feel jealous of people who talk about having really loving mothers, or folks who are like “my mom’s cooking is hands down the best”. I don’t miss my mother, I just miss the idea of having a mother who cared for me and nurtured me. Sometimes I feel sorry for her because I know she’s bipolar but at the same time I can’t muster up very much sympathy for someone who was literally abusive and ruined my ability to process emotions in a way that makes sense.

      And yeah plenty of people freak out when you say you don’t like your mom, or don’t talk to her any more. It’s probably especially bad when your mother has died, since people are very sensitive about speaking ill of the departed. You have my empathy on this, and I hope you’ve managed to untangle some of the bad effects of that upbringing.

  5. 5

    I wish I could vent, but I’ve never been able to pull it all altogether so that I could talk about my childhood — and even my nearly 50 years of adulthood — in a calm and dispassionate way. I guess the simplest thing I can say is that my parents stole my childhood.

    Both my parents were/are profoundly deaf (“were” because my dad passed when I was 15, in 1966). As a general statement, there’s nothing inherently wrong, or more worrisome, about deaf parents raising hearing children. But, for who knows what, or how many, reasons, I did not do well in that situation.

    The one thing that most clearly affected me was this: from the time I was capable of communicating with hearing adults, I became my parents’ conduit to the rest of the world. Further, I had to convey the intensity of their emotions, and often their exact words, to the hearing,and vise-versa. To be fair, the treatment the deaf receive from the hearing world is often, if not usually, ugly, deceitful, and demeaning (ever hear the phrase “deaf and DUMB”?). Nevertheless, at five or six years old, I was ill-quipped to handle the anger, hostility, chicanery, and every other sort of bad adult thing, that passed through me in both directions.

    Nope, still can’t really talk about it.

    P.S. Yes, I know dumb also means mute. But look at the dictionary, there’s more than one etymology. Also, convince me that you never once used dumb to mean stupid.

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