I Told My Mother I’m Done With The Emotional Abuse of ‘Covert Incest’
Covert incest, enmeshment, parentification — whatever term you identify with, the damage is the same. When a parent relies upon you as a child to meet their needs, the resulting sense of confusion over who you are, the persistent sense of guilt, the constant need for validation, the inability to say no and the feelings of being worthless unless you are meeting the needs of others is pervasive and extremely difficult to heal.
The acknowledgment of being a parentified child is hard. Often, we don’t even recognize the abuse and neglect that our childhoods were filled with until we are in so much distress that we land on the couch of a therapist’s office who recognizes the signs and tells you. But coming to terms with it, being able to assert healthy boundaries with that parent (which may involve going no contact with that parent, something that comes with a whole host of societal stigmas), learning how to have feelings that were stifled as a child to protect that parent and discovering that who we are outside of being the needs-gratification machine we grew up being requires years of therapy.
I’ve been in therapy for over five years, a relatively short period of time in “psychological years” as my therapist puts it (I beg to differ but I digress). Up until relatively recently, I couldn’t even feel angry. The idea of allowing myself to recognize how much had been taken from me, how much I resent it and allowing myself to place the responsibility where it belongs rather than turning my anger inward has been an uphill battle of epic proportions. It didn’t help that I constantly got messages from both my extended family and society telling me that I should forgive, forget and let go of the anger because it’s “unhealthy.” There was a constant tug of war within me of what was expected of me by everyone else versus what felt true to my lived experience.
A couple of weeks ago, something changed, shifted, like a huge seismic event. I don’t know if it’s been the weeks of isolation at home due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic or just something that finally clicked, but after yet another meaningless text exchange with my mother in which she lamented the hard life she had, threatened suicide and told me that all she ever wanted in life was to have a child who would love her unconditionally so she wouldn’t feel so lonely, I snapped. It was like a giant lightbulb went off in my brain telling me that I’m done playing this game. I’m done being the one who is responsible for my mother’s happiness and I deserve to live a life for myself, free of guilt and free to feel all the feelings that humans are equipped to have.
So, I called her. It’s the first time in four years I had spoken more than a few words to her. I gave her the rules under which I was willing to talk to her. I would do the talking, she the listening. I didn’t want excuses, I didn’t want apologies, I didn’t want anything — just the chance to talk. She agreed. And with that, I unleashed all the pent-up pain and anger I had been holding on to for 44 years of my life.
I told her how I always knew that it was my responsibility to make sure she was OK. There was an unspoken contract between my entire family and myself from the time I was born that I’d be the one to not only fix whatever was wrong with my mom, but especially to not rock the boat and make it worse. I was to hide my sadness, my fear. I was to tend to her when she was sick. I was to calm both her and my grandmother down when she’d self-harm or have meltdowns. And that was not fair.
I told her that no matter how broken she felt, motherhood was a one-way street. She made the choice to have a child. I didn’t choose to be born. The onus was on her to protect me and to make me feel special. It was on her to teach me how to be a self and to learn how to deal with things no matter what came my way, not the other way around. I told her love and respect are earned, not birthed. Her being my mother doesn’t mean I owe her anything in life, no matter what society or my family say.
I told her that forgiveness doesn’t guarantee reconciliation. If I choose to forgive her, it’s to no longer allow her to take up any more of my energy or real estate in my head. It doesn’t mean I’m going to go back to being her only reason for living, nor does it guarantee I will even have a relationship with her.
I told her I will no longer entertain empty apologies ending in “buts” and excuses for why she did what she did, how awful her life was or placing any responsibility upon me for being a child who needed a mommy to protect her from being sexually abused.
I told her that her irresponsibility with money left a lasting impression on me of constantly fearing for my security. It’s the cause of most of my marital tensions and it has resulted in many a restless night worrying about ever having to beg others for money again.
And finally, I told her that I don’t want anything from her. The ball is completely in her court. If she attempts to die by suicide because she’s miserable, that’s not my problem. If she’s a shopping or gambling addict, it’s not my problem. If she’s lonely and has no friends, it’s not my problem. It’s hers. If she wants things to change, she has to do the work herself, the way I have for the last five years. Even that’s not a guarantee that I’ll have a relationship with her, but that’s her only shot.
Then I hung up. And the weird thing was, it was like someone had lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. I didn’t feel guilty and most of all, I didn’t have any expectations. I have no delusions that she will do the work in therapy to really change. I have no doubt that she didn’t hear half of what I said. I don’t believe she will actually take any ownership for her role in my mental health struggles. I said all that for myself.
For the first time in my life, I feel free of the burden of being her everything. I’m me, not an extension of her. I’m unique unto myself. I deserve to have feelings and to take up space. I no longer need to hold onto the hope that she will miraculously become the mother I always wanted or needed. As my therapist said to me, “You grew up without a dad or a mom, and I think you turned out just fine. It’s time to trust yourself to be who you always needed and to know that you are capable of surviving anything.” She’s right. Now, it’s time to figure out who the heck I really am, and that’s both exciting and terrifying.
If you were a parentified child, I hope you can find the courage to acknowledge the pain you’ve experienced. I hope you can accept that you didn’t do anything to deserve being placed in such an impossible situation. I hope you recognize that you can put your own needs first and that you don’t owe anything to your parent. And most of all, I hope you can begin to heal the self that you never got a chance to get to know. You matter just because you are you and not because of what you can do for others. I see you, I feel you and I’m rooting for you.
Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash