There’s a level of abuse that is sometimes the byproduct of going through something like a divorce. Then there’s the level of abuse handed out by a person who never learned how to love her children at all. An abuser who only knew neglect and abuse in a dysfunctional family growing up only knows how to abuse, but doesn’t see that behavior as abusive in the least. What’s unfortunate about the timing in my situation was that I became a full-time recipient of bad behavior at a point in my life where I had not learned to set boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries…as an adult looking back on my upbringing, I can tell that my mother did not have a concept of boundaries. Based on the limited knowledge I have of her own family unit, I’m pretty certain she didn’t learn about boundaries. My parents divorced when I was young enough that I don’t remember if boundaries were set within our family unit. My experience growing up with my mother and also in dealing with m y mother as an adult leads me to believe that if anyone tried to teach her about boundaries or set them with her, she did not learn and/or she overstepped on a regular basis.
Therefore, beginning at age 7, the dominant parent in my life was one who had no concept of emotional, physical, intellectual boundaries. And of course, being 7, it wasn’t like I could actually set or enforce boundaries. I think that’s important to understand when thinking about my life at home after the divorce of my parents.
I grew up not knowing how to set boundaries, not learning to respect the boundaries set by others and not having any concept of boundaries myself. The relationships I entered into in high school and college were not healthy. And much of that can be traced to the fact that I didn’t understand boundaries. First and foremost, I dated boys/men who took advantage of the fact that I didn’t know to establish boundaries. I couldn’t make decent friendships with other girls because I didn’t recognize the boundaries they set and I didn’t know that I put them off with my behavior. when I did enter into relationships with people who set boundaries, I didn’t know how to respect those boundaries and those relationships were not successful. Ultimately, when I did start to establish boundaries and respect those set by others…I still didn’t understand that these were boundaries, per se. I just started to take some cues in my relationships and through trial and error, finally started figuring out how to behave.
This epiphany about boundaries took place about 2 years after I broke off my final “long-term” relationship with a man when I was 22 years old. That particular relationship was rocky from the start. I spent four years of my life in a relationship that was never going to go anywhere. The biggest reason it would never last was me and my inability to understand boundaries and that I was worthy of more. However, it never would have lasted four years if I had nailed down the concept of boundaries. yes, having a little higher sense of self-worth would have helped, too, but I really think the baseline issue was boundaries.
When I think about the years growing up after the divorce, there are the years BEFORE the move to the east coast and the years AFTER. During all the years before the move, my mom was attending nursing school, I was going to a small Catholic school where I was protected from some things, but where my siblings and I were bullied relentlessly. During those precious formative years, the lack of boundaries set and/or respected by my mother set me up for my missteps after the move.
Part of me wants to detail for you the lack of boundaries between my mother and my brother and my mother and me and my mother and each of my younger siblings. But, I think it should suffice that when I say my mother does not seem to have any understanding of boundaries — I mean that fully. There was nowhere in the house that anyone could feel was private. Even the bathroom, where a teen should be able to feel s/he can “escape” to for a few minutes alone, was not safe from invasion without a even a moment’s notice. Discussion of private matters was unheard of — everything was discussed — everything. I would imagine I’ve even blocked out some of the more painful events from that time. As an adult, I can recognize a lack of boundaries and see in the memories the blatant lack of respect for the personhood of each of us, and it’s easy to see how it led me where it did. It also makes me sad for the friendships I screwed up because I didn’t know any better. And it makes me regret the dating relationships I entered into, while at the same time angers me because there’s no way I would have entered into those with proper understanding of boundaries and if I valued myself.
The lack of boundaries, and the resulting lack of respect and devaluation of us in our own home/family is a sad state of affairs. I remember growing up believing I was ugly and that I was fat. Those were the usual adjectives I would have used to describe myself from age 8 until about 15 or 16. I was ugly because my hair was short and a crunchy, dried-out mess from it’s daily chlorination during swim practice. I was ugly because I had the most hideous glasses. I was ugly because I dressed in frumpy clothes. I was ugly because my dad didn’t want me. The thing is, my mom would try to tell me she thought I was pretty, but usually only after I had stated that I thought I was ugly. My mom had always obsessed about my weight. At the age of 2, my parents put me on a diet because I was “chunky” and when my mom started me on the swim team when I was 10, she said I was “chubby” and needed the activity. I often was subject to “conversations” with my mother about how much she ran (3 miles at least 3 times a week!) and in the locker room at the Y, she would weigh herself and show me how she was less than 130 pounds. She was very proud of that. I can’t tell you how many times she would say, “I think I look good for a woman who’s had five kids, don’t you?” Or, “I don’t know any other women who run three times a week, take full-time classes and raise five kids all by themselves!”
Those statements are just more examples of her lack of understanding about what a person should and shouldn’t say or talk about with their children. Back when I was trying to make my mother into someone she is not, I used to explain it all away with the idea that she was lonely, she didn’t have a husband anymore to share these things with and was forced to share them with her kids. But now, as an adult, I don’t say stuff like that to my husband…I mean, I rarely talk about myself when I see friends, and I think it’s poor social form to continually talk oneself up about how much one does, good or bad.
That brings me to one of the most important realizations of all of my life: My mom will never admit that anything she has ever said or done is wrong. And my mom will never be someone different than she is and has been. I have begun to accept that the relationship I will have with my mother will always be limited. I can’t make her into the mother I want her to be. She is who she is. I love her, as I mentioned before, and I care for her and want the best for her. But that doesn’t mean I have to listen to her say negative things about me, my father, my siblings or my children. Ever. I started putting a stop to it years ago — I set some boundaries. Every now and then I have to remind her of my boundaries. She will try to run over my boundaries with some sort of “No, you NEED to LISTEN to ME ON THIS…” or “YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND…” And I have, in the past 10-15 years, been able to say, “No, Mom, I don’t and if you insist, then this conversation is over.”
Thank God I finally figured out what boundaries were and also built up the strength to enforce them.