The Good Love of My BPD Mom
I had a lot of good love from my mom. Many moments of feeling safe and loved and close to her. I think that’s one of the most challenging parts of reflecting on the painful parts of our relationship. It’s also one of the more confusing parts of reading about others’ stories around BPD. Sometimes discussing the painful parts of your experiences as or with a person with Borderline traits can be an exorcism, a sweet relief, and it certainly can be titillating because the behavior can be extreme, but I don’t as frequently see people posting about the positive parts of their relationships with a person who has BPD. And fair enough. The good and healthy parts don’t need to be processed, explored, deconstructed, understood, perhaps. For me they do, because I am striving to encompass the picture as a whole.
My mom desperately wanted children and my parents struggled with infertility issues for a while. They were married ten years before my brother came and then I came a long. My mother’s pregnancy with me was more challenging — she had bleeding, I was almost strangled by the umbilical cord during birth, and I was premature. All of these things means my parents spoke about me as a miracle, as a gift cherished and special. They spoke of me as something delicate, made of spun glass, worth protecting.
We grew up as a very lower-middle class family. We lived in a cute and clean, but tiny house of less than a thousand square feet. You have to learn to get along when living in such close quarters. Or play outside a lot, which my brother and I did. My parents put us in the best schools they could, really paid attention to our education and supported us. My parents loved music: my brother played French horn and got private lessons, and I sang in the school choir and a local, private children’s choir. My brother was put in all the sports teams, at first, until they realized he was never going to enjoy them. They let me get horse back riding lessons, because, like nearly every 10 year old girl I was obsessed with horses. My brother was put in a creative writing program over the summer. One summer my mother declared “summer camp” and we went to Michael’s to pick out the crafts we would do. I think my favorite way my parents engaged with us is they talked to us like we were really smart, like we could really understand things. They let us participate in adult conversations when their friends came over. They didn’t talk down to us or baby us. They didn’t give shallow answers to tough questions. They really engaged with us intellectually.
Despite my parents’ struggles, each coming from a background of abuse, they tried so hard and they overcame so much to give us their best. And it’s okay to recognize that and also maybe recognize that their best still wasn’t good enough.
Hanging over the backdrop of my relationship with my mom was the fact that my dad simply worked too much. It was partially because he didn’t make that much money so he worked as many hours as he could get to support the family. It’s partially because work is his favorite coping mechanism to escape his painful past. And no doubt to escape the painful parts of his relationship with his wife in the present. It’s partially because, like many victims of abuse, his self-esteem was so wrecked it was easy for a bullying boss to take advantage of him, and they did. And he let them. In my younger years, the dynamic went from my father being absent when episodes happened to later on sometimes being complicit when episodes happened. He began to agree with her perspective and hold me accountable for her wild moods.
And yet as I child, I was almost desperate for my dad. I think all kids start to have a hero worship for their dads, possibly because most dads work outside the home with the mom as the primary care giver. When dad comes home from work, you feel so excited to see him! My dad is a workaholic to end all workaholics, not just working extra hours, but sometimes days at a time before coming home. Two, three, four days would go by and he would be at his job, not travelling, but at his job in the same city where we lived. He would stumble in at 3:00 in the morning three days later and I would leap out of bed as soon as I heard him and fly into his arms for a hug. I remember I just wanted his attention so badly. I was like a person dying of thirst. My dad is very talkative and gregarious. He would sit on the couch and I would sit next him. He is talking away. I would climb in his lap. He is looking around my head, talking away, barely holding me. I would almost feel this rage like I wanted to just grab his face and make him look at me. Just see me.
When I did have my father’s attention, it was like golden sunshine. Sadly only a few fuzzy memories come to the fore: he is explaining lift and drawing a plane’s wing with a jet on it. He is driving us to school, making pretend we are in the batmobile, doing the voice of Penguin or Mr. Freeze. We are on the way to Disneyland discussing theology. I got straight A’s so he takes me to get an ice cream cone. We are driving down an underpass beneath some railroad tracks, and he goes fast on the upward slope declaring we are launching to the Moon of Endor. My dad was so, so fun.
And how do I explain? The fun times with my dad were just too far apart. The attention and love I got were oases in a desert and I felt I barely made it each time I arrived. The love I got with my mom was always a bartering. Me giving something up in order to get what I wanted. If I wasn’t in the mood for snuggling when my mom was, I just took it because who knows what her next mood would be? I felt antsy and squirmy and what I really wanted was to go play, but I would just force myself to sit still so I could be close to her for the time being. And also because I knew if I rebuffed her momentary affection she would dissolve into tears and histrionics.
If my mom and I played together, it was to play Barbies, her favorite childhood toy, and one in which I had little interest. (I was quite the tomboy. I preferred playing outside, climbing trees; I loved playing with Legos, Erector’s set, or Lincoln logs, or even building with Jenga blocks.) But Barbies was one of the only ways to hold my mother’s attention, so we played Barbies. If we baked together, it was when she wanted to bake. If I asked when I wanted to, the answer was always no. I also remember brushing and playing with her hair a lot, but she didn’t do the same for me. The dynamic of our relationship was ruled with an iron fist, and after hearing no enough times, you just stop asking for what you want. As I got older, I would preemptively decline invitations from my friends, just because I couldn’t handle hearing my mom telling me I couldn’t go. In seventh grade I was invited to a Halloween party that I wanted to go to so badly that I actually mustered the courage to ask her, and I almost fell of my chair when she said I could go.
On the other hand, asking my father for something was almost always met with a yes, but because of how much he worked it also almost never happened. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing with the tiny treasures of his tackle box, but never went fishing. After a first guitar lesson with my father, I practiced my scales on my guitar for months, waiting for him to have time to give me a second lesson. It wouldn’t come for another year. And then that was all the guitar lessons I got from my dad.
When I reflect on these moments of good love, I am surprised by how young I was when I already perceived the need to suppress my own desires to serve the needs of my mother. At 3, 4, 5 years old I am already giving myself up to her. But there were tiny rebellions to her influence as well, mostly garnered through playing outside. Once I was out, I wanted to stay out for as long as I could. If I hurt myself, I really did not want to get my mom involved. I sometimes snuck in for Band-Aids through the backdoor, hoping she wouldn’t see my scraped up knee. Or other times, just ignored my injury all together. I hated going inside for lunch or to use the bathroom and would avoid it as much as possible. The house sometimes felt so cold and silent, especially if she was feeling depressed. The air was suffocating.
And maybe that’s the only conclusion I can draw here. The love I had from my parents was such an intermixture. It was neither purely good nor purely abusive. There was so much tenderness and care and delight in us as kids. They cherished us and made us feel special. They tried their best in the midst of difficult circumstances. I can try to pry apart the good love from the bad love, the longing I felt, the safety I felt, the fear I felt, the submission I felt, but it all falls apart in my hands. Sometimes, all I can say is that it was, it was, it was. They loved us, somehow. They loved us and I don’t know what it means. They loved us.