Ask Polly: Should I Cut My Abusive Mother Out of My Life Forever?

dearest Hi Polly,

I’m trying to figure out how to get the gist of this across without writing a novel, but here goes. I am a 30-year-old woman who is really hitting her stride. I bought a home with my boyfriend who recently became my fiancé, I have a great job and live a great life in Southern California. It’s a dream, and I can’t wait to start a family blah blah blah.

Obviously these are the types of joys in life that you want to share with family, but I only have one family member left, my mother, and right now I have such anger toward her that I feel like it would be therapeutic for me to tell her she can’t be in my wedding, or have anything to do with me for that matter.

Choices she made throughout her life basically made my childhood chaos and my life a living hell. She divorced my father, and remarried an asshole with three sons who pretty much tortured me for four years straight. She used to forget me at school until dark, and then she would send one of her employees, often a grizzled contractor in a smelly truck, to pick me up. I grew out of my clothes, and she didn’t notice when I wore the same (too short) pants to school every day for weeks. Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for days at a time, because I would take the bus to school, and she would work through my bedtime. When I tried to tell her about my unhappiness, she said things like, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” or “Who ever told you that people are supposed to be happy? No one is happy. That’s the way life is.” It’s sad, in hindsight, because that must be how she really felt.

As an adult, I can see that she had her own problems with her husband, and their failing business put her in a tough spot financially, so I know she was working to make ends meet during those times that I didn’t see her. And I can’t be mad about being poor, you know? I just tried to make things easier and not make waves. I was a perfect student in high school, got straight As and over thirty thousand dollars in scholarships. My mother looks back on these as the “glory days,” unaware even today how often I crouched in the bathtub crying with a razor blade to my wrist, wondering if I had the guts.

At my freshman orientation for college, I was drugged, raped, and left in a field outside the dormitory where we were staying. (I didn’t tell anyone for many years; I thought that’s how college was and I was a silly amateur.) After that, I completely lost control. I drank heavily and started using a LOT of cocaine. I was extremely promiscuous. I was disrespectful to my mother, getting wasted at family gatherings and smoking cigarettes outside of church. My mother reacted by being completely disgusted. By now, she had a new husband and had recovered financially, so now she was in a position to criticize, apparently. She constantly made unkind jokes about my drinking and partying to other people. She seemed embarrassed of me and openly told me she was many times. She acted like I was a criminal, although I still graduated from the (pretty prestigious) university I attended in four years with a 3.0. I sometimes reminded her of how my step-brothers would lock me in a closets all day and yell taunts at me through the door, or held me down and shove dirt-filled socks in my mouth or snap me with rubber bands until I cried, and she would say, “What? They did NOT. No, you guys just played.” Okay.

Finally, after about six years of self-destruction, I picked myself up, saved some money, left the small town we were in and moved to a big city. Four years later, here I am, a shiny new penny. Because my improvements were made here, and not in front of my mother’s face, she can’t stop rubbing those days in my face every time that I see her. I’ve told her I don’t like it, but it seems like it’s some kind of reflex for her. I’m in therapy now (when your mother tells you no one is supposed to be happy, it’s hard to feel deserving when happiness finds you), and on one visit I asked if she might consider going herself. She said something like “If I open that door, I’ll never close it again.”

I want to repair things with her, because I have no one else, but when I am around her I am filled with so much anger that sometimes I have to leave the room. She has cried and told me she wants our relationship to be better, and I am surprised at how ice cold I feel toward her. I feel like she contributed to my decline and then mocked me for it. I don’t want to have holidays with her, and since my fiancé has a lovely, large family who will soon be my in-laws, I feel like I shouldn’t have to, at least until I’m ready. My question is, do I HAVE to forgive her? Can I just tell her that I don’t want to see her until I’ve made more progress with my therapy? Or is that… evil? Should I push myself harder to be civil and put up with it because she’s old and all I have that’s left of my blood, and that’s what people do? Because I genuinely don’t know if I even can. How do I fix this?

Sincerely,

Mad at Mom

Dear MAM,

You don’t have to forgive your mother, and it’s certainly not evil to make your own choices about this. I don’t think anyone else can understand how fundamental her betrayal of you feels, so taking other people’s advice in the matter is tough. There are people who will ALWAYS say, “You must honor your mother and be good to her, simply because she’s your mother.” There are also people who will ALWAYS say, “Seriously, fuck her. Do whatever you want. I cut my family off and it feels great.”

What’s interesting is that the feelings generated by other people’s opinions about your mom can tell you a lot about where you stand. When someone tells you, “Be good to you mother, you ingrate. She’s the only mother you have and that’s what people do!”, that probably kicks up that old feeling of not being understood or cared for or heard or supported. It reminds you how, when you came out of the closet as someone who felt misunderstood and invisible, instead of being loved, you were insulted and treated as a worthless, embarrassing aberration. So you not only want to say to that person who doesn’t get it about Really Bad Mothers, “You have no fucking idea how bad it felt!” but you also actually FEEL lost and misunderstood and neglected and insulted and abandoned in that moment.

But then, when someone else says, “WELL, fuck her. Tell her she can’t come to your wedding. Tell her to go fuck herself”? That doesn’t feel like relief either, does it? Because if that were easy to do, you would’ve done it already. It’s not just guilt that’s keeping you here, it’s the sense that other people can’t really understand THIS side of things either; they can’t understand why you feel a little responsible for someone who’s pretty fucking heartless, and who never took real responsibility for you.

You’re obviously conflicted over this. Maybe it’s just that you’re a person who doesn’t do the easy thing. Maybe you don’t believe in easy things. Or maybe you just feel, at some level, that you don’t want to be a person who cut off her mother forever. It gets dicey to write that, because certainly there are people who suffered physical abuse out there who actually get a kind of PTSD when they see their parents’ faces. But I still think, in your case, that it’s a legitimate thing, to simply acknowledge, “Even though I can’t TOLERATE my mother at all, I also have trouble understanding myself as a person who’d ban her mother from her wedding.”

So there are a million things in play here. There’s the physical feeling, the sense-memory, of being neglected and ignored by your mother, as well as the sensation of being treated like a leper in public, at the exact time when you needed her most. There’s also the intellectual response, the reasoning part of your brain that says, “She was busy piecing her bad marriage together and struggling to stay afloat financially.” The intellectual analysis, though, also includes a pretty damning picture of a woman who is willing to distance herself from you IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE, BECAUSE YOU MADE HER LOOK BAD. That one is almost unforgivable. Because what kind of an animal says “You’re embarrassing me!” instead of saying, “I’m worried about you”? I don’t know that many people who are capable of that level of betrayal—public betrayal. Particularly when your good little straight-A girl is essentially admitting she’s damaged, and looking to you for help. As a mother, it’s your job to see vulnerability and need in someone who’s pushing you away. I get that it’s not easy, that it kicks up your own damage. But it’s still your fucking job.

That said, your mother’s damage and issues are also a factor to weigh here, like it or not. You mention her circumstances and take them into account, but you don’t really mention how she was raised. My own mother was raised by a mother who was an alcoholic. My struggles with her always lead back to that. There’s a pretty concrete reason she was never that great at embracing and caring for me when I felt vulnerable. That didn’t change the sense-memory of feeling rejected at the exact moment when I needed her most. But it did mean that I tried to remind myself—intellectually anyway—that I was the one who was arguably more capable of rising above our fights and seeing clearly what was needed to fix our relationship.

But she was an amazing mother in many other ways. Your mother, not so much.

In addition to all of that, you’ve got to throw in issues of identity: How you see yourself, how you want to be seen by your new husband and his family, how they view family, how they might react to your mother. You feel like a shiny new penny now. Maybe you’re afraid to introduce your future husband to the scared, vulnerable, angry person you were before, the one who waited in the dark for mom to pick her up, the one who woke up in a field, the one who heard, through a drunken haze, her mom’s voice, making fun of her.

Your future husband is going to meet that person, though, whether you like it or not. He’s going to meet her. It’s your job to introduce him to her, in a way that makes it safe for both of you, in a way that makes it less likely that he’ll reject her or get embarrassed by her or mock her the way your mother did. Because a few years into your marriage, when you’re working together to raise a baby, blah blah blah, you might feel weak and try to overcome that weakness with anger. And if he treats your weakness with disdain, your view of him could cloud over with rage and blame that you can’t really understand or control.

In fact, when you write, “It’s a dream, and I can’t wait to start a family blah blah blah.” That’s maybe the most revealing part of your letter. That “blah blah blah” says, “I don’t feel comfortable expressing that I’m just another fool for this mainstream heteronormative fairy tale,” sure, but it also says, “I don’t feel comfortable expressing any hope about my future, or even a desire to love and be loved, because I don’t have a right to happiness like that and anyway fuck you, it’s none of your fucking business anyway.” It also says, “I sort of want to get married and have kids, but if it all falls apart I won’t be surprised, really, because my whole life up to now has been a shitshow of epic proportions.”

So your letter might be about your mother, but these issues stretch far beyond her. This isn’t about whether or not to invite your mom to your wedding, this is about whether or not to invite your past self into your current relationship. It’s also about identity, and control, and pragmatically pursuing a dream vs. optimistically, unguardedly throwing yourself into a dream without shame. It’s about owning your weakest self. When you got drunk and slept around and did coke in college and after, you were trying to access your omnipotent, bulletproof self, sure. But you were also trying to access your weakest self. As a former lonely, straight-A student with no one even watching, no one supporting, no one approving, and a bunch of jackals at home locking you in the fucking closet (while your one trusted guardian lamely chalks it all up to juvenile high jinx), I’ll bet you have trouble letting your weakest self out of the closet. I’ll bet you have trouble crying and telling the truth about how bad you feel and opening your heart, blah blah blah.

And before we go any further, let me just say that I FEEL YOU. I love my brother and sister, but they sometimes locked me in the closet and when my parents got home (yep, olden times) they just laughed at the silly tomfoolery we all got up to while they were away. Years later when I was about 24, my mom found a note I wrote to her as a kid that said, essentially, “Please, PLEASE do something about these sadistic fucking jackals.” She sent me the note because she thought I would think it was hilarious. And because I still had trouble crying and telling the truth about how bad I felt, I DID think it was hilarious. I laughed and laughed and showed it to my friend and she was like, HOLY SHIT THIS IS TRAGIC AND SAD. And I was all NO IT’S FUNNY BLAH BLAH BLAH SHUT UP IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS HA HA FUCK OFF.

I’m not implying that you’re that far gone. I’m just saying I feel you. Some people are taught, growing up, that they have people they can lean on. Other people are taught that when the shit comes down, they’re on their own. And when people who always had people to lean on tell you, “Oh, lighten up. She’s your mom.”? That in and of itself is enough to make you feel sad, to remind you that you’re on your own.

And maybe it makes you strong, too. Maybe it makes you say, “I will not let anyone drag me down. I will be a shiny new penny forever. No one will fuck with the good life I’ve built!” Surviving requires toughness. Why let people fuck with your good life?

But I want to encourage you not to be TOO tough and too perfect. I want you to be open-hearted and unafraid of feeling what you feel, whether it’s sadness or anger. Having hope for the future, to me, depends on being open to the past in all of its ugliness. Letting in the ugliness will give you a richer appreciation of the present and the future. Building a rock solid marriage and a good relationship with your in-laws depends, in part, on not hiding or trying to be better than you are. I mean, you do have to try, around husbands and in-laws. But you also have to relax and own who you are, and allow yourself a little breathing room. It is truly a miracle, how shiny and new you can feel when you’re with someone who cares about you and supports you and doesn’t fucking disappear the second you get a little sniffly. But it’s also unnerving how forlorn you can feel when something small goes wrong—you don’t get enough sleep, you feel passive-aggressively insulted by your shiny new in-laws (hello, universal, shared rite of passage!), you don’t like the way your shiny new husband changes the subject when you try to talk about your crazy mother for more than a few minutes. It’s ok to admit that the past has a hold on you, that it bleeds into your future sometimes. By pointing this out, I’m not painting your future black. I’m telling you that the future will be richer if the past is included there.

There are people who can’t include the past in their future, because if they do, they won’t survive. I feel terrible for them. I don’t mean to imply that THEY should get over whatever they suffered through. But we’re talking about you. The way you describe your current circumstances—the fresh start, shiny penny stuff, the new family, the new husband, the new everything—makes me think that cutting off contact with your mother will make your life harder in the long run. Even if we cut HER feelings out of it—and I have no trouble doing that considering her actions—I still think that YOU are worse off if you walk away. I think you’re going to grow more if you try to express yourself to her and connect with her, in spite of everything. By doing this, you’ll be working on your relationship with yourself. By doing this, you’ll be improving your chances of a solid marriage. You’ll be tolerating the feelings of extreme anger and sadness that, like it or not, may be triggered by your spouse and your children some day.

Blame is a tangled thing. You have every right to blame your mother for what you went through growing up. You have every right to stand up to her now, to tell her to stop shaming you for your relatively minor personal mistakes, which are NOTHING compared to hers. You have a right to your anger and sadness, which are understandable. The part where she insults you, in front of other people, for being drunk and lost—that’s the part that just twists the knife for me. She really doesn’t deserve to be called “Mom,” does she? She doesn’t fucking deserve your mercy, at some level. I guess some might say that every living being deserves mercy. But grinding your face into the mud when you needed her most? Fuck her. Really. When did she hear you? When did she take your word for it? When did she listen? Why should SHE be allowed to speak?

Maybe the answer is to call her by her first name, to never call her “Mom” because she didn’t really earn that name. Maybe that’s a way to pay homage to your anger for a while. Maybe that’s a way to allow some room for the giant fucking injuries that she inflicted, the ones she refuses to acknowledge.

The question here is not about what SHE needs or wants, can you see that? It’s about what you need and want and require to move forward. Maybe, ultimately, you will end up cutting her out of your life. But right now, you’re still so young and everything is changing for you. Right now, there’s a lot of beauty and promise in NOT cutting her off, in letting some of her ugliness and some of your hatred for her into your present. Instead of seeing her as something unfair and unsafe that needs to be shut out or kept away, I would try seeing her as an opportunity for expanding your ability to feel what you feel, and strengthening your resilience and flexibility. She presents you with a great opportunity, to accept what is. You might just become someone who can stand still, full of anger, full of sadness, and just feel it and accept it. Paradoxically, sometimes that’s what living a good life is all about.

Because the more you can untangle your blame, emotionally and intellectually, and allow for the fact that your mom is a very different person from you—a damaged, confused and lonely person—the more you’ll be able to untangle your blame in friendships, in work relationships, in your marriage. It will take years and years of effort, to talk through this in therapy, to feel your way through these emotions. You may never feel warm feelings for your mother. But right now you blame her for what she did, sure, but you also blame her for who she is. She had money trouble, worked too much, married an asshole, and believed that people shouldn’t complain and that no one should expect to be happy. That part sounds like seventy percent of the people out there. That part sounds like my mother. I’m not saying it’s the same, because it’s not even close to the same.

But I’m not convinced it would feel good or right to cut her off, and I don’t think “delaying” your contact with her is necessarily the right move. You don’t have to see her over the holidays. But you can stay in contact and try to work through things a little. You can also make your disappointment in her crystal clear. You can write down all of your grievances and send it to her. You can say that you need to do that, in order to consider maintaining a relationship with her. Maybe that will crush whatever relationship you have. That’s ok. You are committed to stating what’s true for you. If she wants to address it and let you know the pressures and troubles she faced and faces, she can do that in a controlled setting, or in a letter. You can clarify that you are not interested in hearing about what a drunk slut you were anymore. You can draw boundaries and ask for what you want.

My point is, you have options. You don’t have to make a sweeping decision at this moment. You can experiment a little. Thanks in part to your mother, you seem to believe that people can’t talk these things out. You think that you’re supposed to either accept emotional abuse, or cut it out of your life completely. But there are other choices. Some of those choices might make you feel like you’re cathartically expunging poisonous feelings. Some might make you feel angry. Feeling anger is not necessarily bad for you, if it’s anger that you’ve bottled up and or tapped into by getting wasted. You need to try a few things before you leave your mother behind. Not for her sake, but for your sake, and for the sake of your female friendships (which may not be great with a mother like her). You need to try a few things for the sake of your future family.

I wouldn’t necessarily advise most people to lay out their grievances to their parents. Certainly I would never tell anyone to expect apologies and new understanding from their parents when they do so. But this is where you are. I think you need to dive in and take some risks and see if being heard doesn’t make you feel a little better. I think you need to recognize the beauty of this moment.

Because this moment is bigger than your mother. This is your moment to invite that lost, lonely girl from your past in, and take care of her, and show her love for the first time. This is a moment that separates you from seventy percent of the people out there. This is the moment that you choose feelings over the need to tell an easy story, blame the enemy, shut out the past, control the future. This is the moment you admit that you still have sadness and fear inside you, that you are NOT in mint condition, that you can’t simply be placed behind glass, free from further injury.

The world is full of injuries. The world is full of love and soaring, unlimited gratitude and elation. There is darkness waiting for you, and there is deep love and joy waiting for you, too. You will be safer without your mother. You will be happier, and more vulnerable, and richer, and stronger and more full of hope WITH her. When you were younger, you wondered if you had the guts to kill yourself. But exits don’t require guts. Facing an uncertain future, full of fear, full of rage—that requires guts.

It feels dangerous not to cut your mother out. It feels dangerous to care. And maybe you never will care. But these dangers are good for you, because they lead to the truth. You can’t simply do things the right way, the opposite of the way your mother did them, and skirt disaster. It’s not that simple. You have to forge a whole new path that combines toughness and vulnerability, anger and acceptance, blame and forgiveness, boundaries and flexibility.

You deserve happiness. You know that, intellectually. But I want you to FEEL that you deserve happiness. By moving through your feelings for your mother, and tolerating those feelings, and allowing them space, and letting your husband see them, and letting your friends see them, too, you will feel your way toward happinessreal, true, lasting happiness. You can only feel your way there. Stay open, stay vulnerable, and feel your way there.

Polly





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Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.