Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Drama of Mother's Day in High Demand Religion

For many reasons, Mother's Day takes on great significance for me this year. I turn fifty later this year, and my high hopes of possibility of having a baby of my own have vaporized with my age.

My next sentence that I must write? I take a deep breath, as I know well the showers of words of well wishers who ask why why didn't pursue adoption. The answer to that question is very complex and only people who struggle daily with chronic illness – those often suffered by children who grew up in troubled families – aren't really anyone's business.

But people ask, and people pressure for answers that they find comforting and satisfying to them with little awareness or regard for any pain that such questions might pose for others. They ask because we human beings fantasize and idealize the virtues of motherhood, and we need them. But for many of us, the reality of the subject of motherhood is not at all pleasant.

Healing Births Hope

Though it was unintentional, and parents don't often realize that they're sending mixed or damning messages, I understood motherhood as something that destroyed everyone. It robs a mother of her whole life, binding her to her bane and to misery. It robs a father of his freedom and shackles him with duty, and he becomes the slave to both mother and baby. And parenthood never ends. And as a broken soul, I felt that I could only ruin the life of a child in my ineptness. And I am grateful for the dramatic change in my perspective on such things. This view of motherhood doesn't even seem real to me now, but I remember well what it felt like and the fear and shame that came with it.

A couple of my babies!
My friends who loved parenthood and a husband who loves me more than anything helped me to heal from these lies of painful experience – lies that were passed on to my mother in a world that was much different from the one in which I grew up. I don't know where I would be without all of the kind people who understood me and loved me, regardless of the details.

The Drama Imposed on the Childless

I spent my childbearing age years in Evangelical Christianity which was polarized by the issue of parenthood. Whether I attended a Quvierfull Movement minded church or not, the fantasy and the drama of motherhood in some way colored and touched nearly everything I did, all the information that I took in, and all of the feelings I had. It is a virtue and ideal that was and is a part of the culture. And so much like me in nearly every other area in life, I didn't fit the norm. I faced this always.

In Quiverfull, I was harshly judged for it – even if it was just an evangelical church. Questions about my family situation that I would have never asked strangers were constantly leveled at me. Sometimes they were innocent, and sometimes they were part of a measuring of my holiness and value. Always, they were painful. Rarely did anyone respond with grace, acceptance, and understanding. Rarely did a happy mom respond in a way that didn't make my life some kind of evidence that invalidated hers.

And when unfairly judged, I stand secure and free in the liberty of healing, but it is still an uncomfortable drama that I'd rather avoid. I always think of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that was rife with Quiverfull folks who would soon leave to attend Doug Phillips' Boerne Christian Assembly.

I still had some hope left at that age, so people frowned on me there. One Sunday morning in the Spring of '99, as we left the parking lot, I actually uttered the idea that I might be better treated if I wore our medical records around my neck. I could perhaps find grace for having lost two babies early in the first trimester of pregnancy, couldn't try then because of my medications, and my husband was ill. My mind was consumed with how I would support us both and if we could manage to keep our house because of our illnesses. Some in that religious movement even say that if we were too sick to not manage to adopt children, we shouldn't be having sex. Did I also have to wear some statement about that around my neck to get any compassion in this inappropriately intrusive and cruel subculture? The truth is that it wouldn't do any good. Such high demand belief systems don't want any damaged goods.

I suppose that it wouldn't have been such a burden and a painful thing if I were not also grieving the personal disappointments and losses, too. If I spoke about the great healing in my heart and how far I had come from the idea of a baby as something that destroyed lives – I was never believed. The people of drama and shame wanted proof. And I was not yet assertive enough to walk away.

A Demanding Mother

I do have a mother. My mom could be a wonderful mother when she felt well enough herself and whole enough herself to manage it. But she was the victim of someone else's drama and shame. She did a better job with me than her parents did with her in that different world where she grew up. She carries the wounds and shame of her world, too, even though she tried desperately not to pass them all on to me.

Yet I am motherless in a sense because high demand religion and the highly demanding dynamics of dysfunction makes me unacceptable to my mother. That life was such a self-defeating struggle that I lost all hope in the fantasy that kept me trapped in that drama. Last week, I depicted the way that I feel within that relationship.

I am trapped in a box – an image that popped into my mind as I read this passage about a frustrated young child who could take no satisfaction or comfort in anything that she did. This creative image described my whole relationship with my mother. It was a box in which I ran from corner to corner, constantly hoping that I would find something that would make my mother happy and would deem me worthy of her lasting acceptance and good favor. It is a frenetic feeling of futility. I feel it in my arms which become weary and heavy and weak and nervous. And my feet run frantically from hope to hope – trapped corner to trapped corner, hoping to find a solution or a magic key to help lift me out of the box and into the fantasy relationship which never existed.

Mother's Day is a trap for me. Nothing I can ever say or ever do will change the situation. I am always a hapless, naked child in a box. After you take away the window dressing, this is the only relationship that I feel that have ever managed to have with my mother. And I no longer wish to be placed back in that box with her.

The Drama Imposed of the Motherless

Our society, our churches, and especially the Quiverfull minded also place mothers and family on a pedestal. I do believe that the hand that rocks the cradle powerfully changes the world. I do believe it is a noble job and that there are few if any that are so. But because of so much lousy humanity and fragments of a less than ideal life – because I don't want to feel like a bug in a box – this childless woman that I am faces another painful drama on Mother's Day. I am functionally motherless in my estrangement.

With Christians, I have some hope that someone might understand that I was pushed into a place where my parents demanded that I show more honor and duty to them than I showed to God. They ask me to be a person that they would like me to be, and they reject and condemn the person that I am. They ask me to role play and placate to the point that I have to deny who I am which has a profound affect on me. I give up. I fail to thrive. I lay down to die like the little girl in the box in my drawing.

Oh, the things people say...

A meme from The Lighter Side
Unless people have walked such a mile themselves, like those people who say things to make themselves feel better when faced with the painful idea that I have no children, people say just as ridiculous things about my mother. They seem to wonder “What's wrong with her.” And don't worry... I've asked myself that question a million times over myself. The wrong is that I'm me and my parents are full of their own shame. I can't change the latter. And I've decided that I don't even want to change the former, even if I could. (I once had a counselor say that if I could have destroyed and replaced my personality, I would have already done so a long time ago.)

Not quite as sad and painful, only because of past painful experience and the work of healing, I do anticipate the questions that follow and the words of well wishes. “Maybe you could try again to reach out to your mom.” Like the shower of well meant ideas about adoption and parenting that people mean to bring comfort to themselves, people have showered me with all kinds of “ideas” that they hope will magically make things right.

I found an interesting list of them here in an article entitled, “13 ThingsNo Estranged Child Needs To Hear On Mother’s Day.” It nails the problem rather well and captures most of the things that people say with some gif pictures to let people know how we who wrestle with this problem tend to feel.

I think the thing that frustrates me now more than anything are those people who issue a threat and a scolding after they hear me express the futility of even a distant and remote relationship with my mom. “You'll regret it when she's gone.” There are even well meant and valid articles about the subject online.

But I'm faced with something much different, and I've tried all of those things – more times than I can count. But those who offer such advice don't understand that I've been grieving for a lifetime. I've already mourned the loss of what I wanted and wished for that could never be. We'll see when I get there.

Nothing about any of this situation is pleasant, but I'd rather live a happy life with people who value me than toughing out a horribly painful and destructive relationship with someone who acts like she hates me – even if that someone is my mom. The fact that my mom is a great person with others makes it that much more difficult. It's just not that simple of an issue. No one knows how I wish that it were.

Some people just hurt too much to love. I do better at loving and honoring and celebrating the good things about my mom and the good things that she did for me from afar.

This Mother's Day

Instead of going to some church (where I don't often go anyway) to be bombarded with questions, I'm doing something different. My husband and I are going to spend the day with another motherless childless friend. And we're going to celebrate how we mother one another and those people in our lives who understand this pain.

But we're doing NO DRAMA!

More About Mother's Day:

The post that I wish I could write:
  • Margaret Mowczko on the differences in the way women are portrayed in the Old and New Testaments.

And more for those who have less than ideal relationships with their moms: