I remember being quite sure, at age 8, that I hated my mother. In the logic of my child’s mind, you loved everybody except those who hurt you for no reason: and that was exactly how I viewed my mother: she hurt me for no reason.
Our society idealizes mothers. It is as if, the moment that first baby pops out and draws breath, the woman involved is somehow sainted. And while it is true that becoming a mother is a life-changing event, for some women those changes are not necessarily for the better.
Let’s face it—there are a lot of “not nice” people in the world and a goodly portion of them are women. And of those women, a significant number of them reproduce. And not all of them are converted into loving mothers by the act of giving birth—some of them remain “not nice,” and now have a helpless infant to add to their list of victims.
One would think that is the most tragic thing of all—a helpless innocent being delivered into the hands of a not-so-nice woman for whom birth was not the pivotal emotional event in her life, but it’s not. The most tragic thing is that the rest of us, imbued with the notion that all mothers love and adore their children, don’t give credence to children when they complain—we don’t even notice the signs in kids who don’t complain—about being treated poorly by their own mothers. Those children are victimized twice: first by their unloving mothers and then by the clueless who invalidate the experience of those children by saying things like, “Well, I am sure she had a good reason,” or “You don’t mean that…of course you love your mother,” and “of course your mother loves you…” when they know nothing of the kind.
We all know about women like Susan Smith who drowned her two young boys when they became a burden to her, Andrea Yates who spiralled off into a psychotic episode in which she drowned her five children in the bathtub, or, more recently, Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murdering her child even though most people consider her to have “gotten away with murder.” We seem to have a digital mindset when it comes to mothers: either they are loving, adoring creatures who would do anything for their children or they are evil, unnatural, murdering harridans. No room in the middle for anything else.
But the truth is, it is somewhere in the middle where the self-absorbed narcissistic mother falls. Few of them premeditatedly murder their children, a la Susan Smith, and a likewise small number fall into the grip of madness like Andrea Yates and methodically kill their offspring. In fact, most narcissistic parents don’t kill their children at all, and a fairly large number of them don’t physically abuse their kids, either (although the malignant narcissists do). No, narcissistic mothers torture their children psychologically, emotionally, sometimes by design but no less often simply as a matter of their approach to mothering.
It should come as no surprise that the emotional abuse the child of a narcissist suffers is no less devastating than the physical abuse other children may suffer. Bruises and welts fade but cruel words retain their ability to draw emotional blood long years after they were first spoken. Couple cruel words with demeaning attitudes and behaviours, make it the child’s earliest experiences that are then stretched out over an entire youth, and you have a child’s entire life one of pain, fear, denigration, and lacking in demonstrations of love from the one person a child should feel emotionally secure in the presence of: her mother. This tragic situation is compounded by outsiders, people who neither acknowledge nor understand that, in order to be a nightmare of a mother one need not murder or even beat their children, one must only not show them love.
In one of the rare moments that my mother and I were able to dialog about the misery that was my childhood, my mother claimed, “But I did love you…I wasn't just any good at showing it,” to which I replied, “from the point of view of the kid, your not showing it was no different from it not existing at all: if you didn’t show it, how was I to know it existed?”
Typical of the unempathetic narcissist, she then shrugged it all off, excusing herself and blaming me: “Well, you should have known. I was your mother, after all!” She waxed poetic about how she had looked forward to my birth through her difficult (she gained a lot of weight and was unwieldy) pregnancy and how eager she was to have me home. She apparently forgot, however, that when I was only 14 she had revealed to me that having a baby was nothing like she had expected and, typically narcissistically, she blamed “others”—“Nobody told me that I couldn’t just put you back on the closet shelf like a doll when I got tired of you,” she had said.
At 14, my daughter had a phone conversation with her grandmother in which my mother expressed her disappointment in being a mother. “I never should have had kids,” she told my daughter, “I should have had cats instead.” This sent my daughter running to me in tears, feeling that her grandmother wished she had not been born. “If she never had kids, then I wouldn’t be here!” What could I say? I am sure that “your grandmother doesn’t always think before she speaks” was insufficient, but how to you respond to something like that? My daughter felt crushed, rejected, unwanted, without a single blow being struck, without any kind of emotional altercation, and from a great distance. Imagine feeling like that every day of your life and the perpetrator is your own mother.
We imagine mothers to be loving and to have their hearts full of love for their children but, unfortunately, this is not the case. Some mothers demonstrate dreadful favouritism, something that cannot help but be noticed by the children. All children are hurt by this, not just the unfavoured child(ren). A favoured child—called a “golden child” by some—learns that it is ok to dislike one (or more) of his siblings, that exploitation is an acceptable behaviour, and justice, fairness, is optional. Charlie’s brother was a perfect example of a grown golden child and he was insufferable, particularly to Charlie. Arrogant and supercilious, self-aggrandizing and boorishly rude, his mother excused his behaviour to me once by saying “Oh, he’s a millionaire—millionaires are like that!” My own brother learned early in life that nothing was his fault: no matter what he was supposed to do, if he didn’t do it, I got punished for not making him do it. My N ex-husband, James, once explained right and wrong, as it applied to him, thus: “if I don’t get caught, then it was OK.”
People observe parents fawn over the Golden Child and assume that they are capable of that kind of “love” for all of their children. It therefore stands to reason that if a parent is treating another child differently, not as well, that the child has somehow earned it. What people outside of the narcissistic sphere miss is that the narcissistic parent is not demonstrating love to any of the children: what passed for love in the observer’s eyes was merely narcissistic supply being nurtured.
Many people downplay the significance of emotional abuse. The emotional pain of being rejected, ridiculed, demeaned, particularly by one’s own family, is cruelly long-lasting. During my marriage to James, the malignant narcissist, I once told my therapist that I wished he would hit me. She was, appropriately, horrified. I had to clarify by saying that if he would hit me, leave a bruise or a mark, I could point to it and say “Look! See the mark he left on me? See how he hurt me?” and people outside our little pas de deux would recognize that I had been victimized, that I was hurt, and that he was the one hurting me. But because the bruises and pain were invisible to the casual observer, my pain went unacknowledged, thereby increasing its effect because I was alone in it. It eventually drove me to suicidal ideation—anything to stop the pain.
As devastating as it is to be in a relationship with a narcissist as an adult, we do have options. We can explore our pain on the internet, with empathetic friends, with professionals whom we pay to help us sort out the confusing morass of our feelings. Children, however, young, vulnerable, inexperienced children, have no such options. Little kids believe what they are told, especially by their parents, and so they grow up believing that something is wrong with them (or, if the child is the Golden Child, a sibling). Charlie believed he was stupid, when he was only dyslexic, because his mother told him so repeatedly, because the school put him in remedial classes (but didn’t address his dyslexia), because his brother believed and treated him as such. Charlie didn’t believe he was deserving of a nice place to live or a decent wardrobe or even of being loved. One of the reasons Charlie married me was because, in his own words, he “liked how he felt” around me.
You see, I never saw Charlie as stupid, I saw him as having a remediable problem. And I not only told him that, I showed him. I didn’t judge his problem—I have problems of my own that I do not expect to be judged for—I simply helped him find ways to get around his dyslexia, ways to deal with it. And little by little, Charlie’s self-image changed and he began to realize that not only was he not stupid, he wasn’t deserving of the shabby treatment his family meted out to him.
And that is perhaps the absolute worst legacy of being saddled with a narcissistic parent: coming to feel that you deserve their bad treatment, somehow feeling that the ill treatment and low regard your family demonstrates to you is warranted. You go from being called a “stupid” or “worthless” or “hopeless” child to believing yourself to be a stupid, worthless, hopeless adult—and deserving of every iota of crap that the people in your life drop on you.
At the age of 8 I knew something was wrong with my mother, not me. My mother somehow knew I felt this way and she was brutal in her efforts to bring me to heel. And while much of her behaviour towards me motivated unwise and self-destructive behaviours in me, I never lost sight of the fact that there was something wrong with her, not me. My therapist told me that I had a “strong inner core,” and that not everyone has that—some people succumb and believe themselves to be at fault—like Charlie did. But with or without that strong inner core, we go through our childhoods being assaulted and invalidated not only by our parents, but by the adults around us who persist in their belief that all mothers want only what is best for their children and children who complain about treatment at the hands of their parents just “don’t know what is good for them,” or they are exaggerating the direness of the situation or they provoked their parent to take unfortunate action. The children of narcissists are seldom validated by others, not even by members of their own family.
It is time to stop the knee-jerk reaction so many of us have when children complain. Just as we once minimized and discounted children’s reports of sexual abuse, we still minimize children’s reports of any kind of abuse that doesn’t leave a livid bruise or an ugly scar. But the fact that you cannot see them with your eyes does not mean the bruises and scars are not there. Sometimes you have to look with your heart.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.