I think many of us make the presumption that our NMs reject us because we are somehow flawed, even if that flaw is the simple fact that we were the result of an unplanned pregnancy and we were therefore unwanted. But a cursory glance at history tells us that simply is not the case: for aeons women became pregnant without planning because no reliable means of contraception existed. You had sex, you had kids…and as long as you kept having sex, you kept having kids. Virtually all of those pregnancies were unplanned and certainly many of them were unwanted…but once those babies arrived, it’s pretty certain that the majority of mothers loved and nurtured those infants despite their unplanned and initially unwanted status.
Our mothers were different.
My maternal grandmother was born on an Iowa farm in January of 1910, the first girl of what would become a family of 11 children. She grew up to be a tiny, deceptively fragile-looking young woman and in March of 1926, she married a local farmer. Just days before her 17th birthday she delivered her first child, a boy. At less than 5 feet tall and under 100 lbs, her labour with her second child, my mother, in June of 1929, was arduous and she was warned against having any more children. But contraception was a hit-or-miss affair in those days and within three years, she delivered a second son. This child weighed nearly 10 lbs and my grandmother nearly died in his delivery. There were no more children after that one.
In May of 1946, just weeks before her own 17th birthday, my mother eloped with a 20 year-old sailor she barely knew in order to escape the authority of her father. Ten months later she gave birth to her first child: me. Her plan to escape the controlled life her father imposed on her did not include a child or even a husband-in-residence: no, she had expected her husband to go overseas for a year, a year in which she planned to live it up on the stipend she received from the Navy, free from the authority of both husband and father. But her husband got an early discharge and she fell pregnant within a month of the marriage, effectively scotching any chance of an annulment and destroying her plans for freedom.
Today, many people have the notion that because contraception is reliable and the ability to plan your family is commonplace, our parents and grandparents had choices similar to our own with respect to bearing and raising children. But when my grandmother was young, sex education, at least for girls, consisted of a brief, awkward chat with Mama just before the girl got married. Contraception was not reliable and many people were completely unaware it existed…and in many places it was even illegal.
My mother eloped so there was no opportunity for my grandmother to have “The Talk” with her daughter when she got married and apparently my parents were either unaware of contraception (which, by this time was legal but still not very reliable), or were too young and full of lust to care. It was not until 1965 that a really reliable form of birth control—The Pill—hit the market. Not only did it change women’s options, it changed the whole outlook of society with regard to family planning: for the first time in history, women truly had the choice of being sexually active and limiting the number and frequency of their pregnancies.
When I hear someone moan that if their mother hadn’t wanted children, she shouldn’t have had them, my first instinct is to ask when they were born…because if they were born prior to 1966, there’s a good chance that their mother had no choice in the matter except, perhaps, the choice to have sex. If they were born in the late 60s through early 70s, more choice was available, but that lovely contraceptive pill wasn’t as reliable as subsequent formulations (I was on the Pill when my own second child was conceived). They were also expensive and required a doctor’s prescription, something not easily obtained by many young and/or low income women. And, depending on your location, other forms of birth control were often available by prescription only, and those prescriptions were not available to unmarried females: doctors simply would not...or legally could not...prescribe for them.
Many of us presume we were mistreated by our NMs because we were unplanned and/or unwanted but I don’t think that is the deciding factor: none of my grandmother’s children were planned and her third and last pregnancy was “an accident.” And yet my grandmother loved and nurtured all of her children anyway. Additionally, she loved and nurtured her grandchildren, whose conceptions she had no control over.
My grandmother’s “accident” grew up, went to college, married and he and his wife used contraception to put off child bearing until they were financially able to provide well for children. When they tried to have a baby, it happened that the wife was infertile…so they adopted. These people truly wanted children…they planned their family and when my aunt couldn’t fall pregnant, they found another means to have kids. And yet, those “wanted” children, the ones they adopted, were not loved and nurtured and, six years after they were adopted, the children were returned to their birth mother and the adoption rescinded because one of the kids had behavioural problems my aunt and uncle were unwilling to (foot the bill to) address.
Rejection by your parents, whether they be biological or adoptive, is a bitter pill. Because as children we are hard-wired to please our primary care giver and because our very survival depends on nurturance from that care giver, we can be reluctant to accurately identify the care giver as the true source of the problem. From our own life experiences we understand the concept of rejecting something imperfect, flawed, substandard; we also understand that mothers “naturally” love their children. So, when our own mothers treat us in less-than-loving ways or even reject us outright, our natural instinct is to view ourselves as defective. What else, after all, could overwhelm a mother’s “natural love” for her child?
Unfortunately, when we make such an assumption, we prevent ourselves from fixing the problem: you can’t fix a leaky tap by changing the locks on the doors. Unless you can accurately identify and address the source of a problem, you can’t fix it…you can’t even tell if it can be fixed…accurate diagnosis of the source of the issue is critical to healing.
An article entitled “Mother Damned-est” by Terri Apter, Ph.D, in Psychology Today states “A difficult mother presents challenges that a difficult father or other relative does not. That’s because, starting in the earliest days of life, a child’s relationship with her or his mother is the foundation of a sense of self. Through maternal attachment, we begin to learn who we are and what we feel and to acquire the ability to interact with others... A difficult mother…uses a [child’s] continuing need for responsiveness to control or manipulate the child. The repeated threat of ridicule, disapproval, or rejection is experienced as a choice between life and death…A child does not have the option to say to a mother, I don't care whether you think I'm bad, or, I am not frightened by the prospect of your leaving me. A primitive panic at rejection lasts long after the infant's physical helplessness comes to an end.”
To reassure ourselves that our mothers are not at fault (because if the mother is at fault, she has the potential to reject us, which triggers that primitive survival panic), we long refuse to acknowledge that she is the defective one. For one thing, we know we can change how we behave, what we say, what we do, which gives us a feeling of control over the issue: “I can prevent my mother from leaving me if I stop doing this or start doing that…if I just try hard enough I can find that magic key to unlocking her love for me…” To acknowledge even subconsciously that it is the mother who is defective is to acknowledge that we are helpless to influence the situation and that mother could or might walk out of our lives at any given moment…a situation that will inevitably provoke a serious and pervasive anxiety.
Many (most?) ACoNs walk around feeling like they are somehow at fault for their lack of closeness with their mothers, even though often they cannot identify how. Some of us subconsciously assign a reason because it is easier than not knowing, and if you know that your conception and birth were unplanned, it is easy to assume that because you were unplanned, you were also unwanted and that explains your mother’s distance.
But that’s not necessarily the case. My conception was unplanned, but my mother claims that once she knew she was pregnant, she hoped for a baby girl and spun all kinds of fantasies about what it was going to be like to have a baby of her own. Unfortunately, her fantasies were the benchmark against which she measured me and I fell very short. When I was 14 she told me, her voice hard and bitter “Nobody told me having a baby wasn’t like having a doll, that I couldn’t put you back on the closet shelf when I was tired of playing with you.” So I was a disappointment because, in essence, I called the shots: if I was hungry or wet, I cried and she had to get off her duff and do something, no matter what it was she wanted to do at that time. Add to the fact that I had colic and eczema covering large parts of my body and it became clear that she was disappointed in me from the very beginning because I did not live up to her fantasies and expectations. She wanted a baby girl and she got one…but the reality of motherhood was nothing like what she expected.
When she made this revelation, I had to ask about my GC Brother—why, if she felt so imposed upon by my demands, did she have a second child. Her answer? “When you already have one child clinging to your skirts, what’s two? Your life is already ruined, so you might as well have another.” So he came along with no fantasies—or disappointments—attached. He also didn’t have eczema or colic. All the way around, he was a much more satisfactory child than I was. So much so, that shortly after his birth, my mother abandoned me to the state for adoption. I was two.
Such an event triggers a pervasive fear of abandonment. In my case, I was reunited with my mother when I was about four, having spent the intervening time with her parents, but the fear of abandonment never went away. I came to expect it not just from her, but from everyone…friends, boyfriends, employers. Wholly impersonal things, like my entire shift being laid off, I took as a personal rejection. I was programmed very early to look for rejection and abandonment and I found it every place I looked.
The fact is, when my mother found out she was pregnant, she wanted me. Like many pregnant teenagers, she expected me to be like a doll, to be played with and cared for on her schedule and according to her moods. She also was shocked at labour and then an emergency C-section: she had not anticipated 48 hours of unproductive labour (and the associated pain) or the surgery. She also blamed me for ruining her figure: the stretch marks and sagging boobs on her 17 year old body were my fault. And when I proved to be incorrigible in my demands for food, clean diapers and attention, she felt deceived and hard done by.
Did she love me? I think she thought she did. In a nasty letter she once wrote me, she told me “I do love you…I am just not very good at showing it.” To which I replied “How was I supposed to know? I was a child. When you don’t show love, or tell your child you love them, how is the child to know what you feel?” Typically, she gave no answer.
So, according to my mother, she both wanted and loved me, but within two years she gave me away like a puppy who had outgrown its cuteness and was shunted aside by the arrival of a new one. I gave a lot of thought to this over the years, and I don’t think the way she treated me had anything to do with wanting or loving me, but more to do with herself and her own processes. In the end, I became a convenience: the older and bigger I got, the more chores I could relieve her of, so she could return to her fantasy world of doing what she wanted when she wanted while I did the dirty work of minding her other child, cleaning her house, and absorbing the blame for anything that displeased her. Being wanted or unwanted, loved or unloved, had no bearing on how I was treated…it was never about me and who or what I was…it was always about her and how my presence impacted her life and the way she wanted to live it.
Whether or not your parents wanted you or loved you is, peculiarly, not necessarily the reason you were assigned the role of scapegoat. In functional families, an unplanned child is not assigned a negative role in the family dynamic, it is welcomed and loved as much as its planned siblings. In dysfunctional families, even a wanted child can end up the scapegoat because of the dysfunction in the parent(s).
How is this possible? Well, suppose you wanted a pet. You fantasized about a puppy you could train and raise and love. You had a specific image of the puppy in your mind: a cocker spaniel with floppy ears and lots of curly hair. You imagined yourself with your cocker spaniel and how other people would admire your great little curly-haired puppy, how it would lick your face and cuddle with you and love you more than anybody else in the whole world. Imagine how you would feel when your parents said you could have a pet for your birthday…and even though your birthday was months away, you would be waiting with anticipation for your puppy. And the big day comes…and the pet is a goldfish.
You wanted a pet…you got a pet…but it wasn’t what you expected and, in fact, the fish in its stinky aquarium that you have to clean out regularly is not what you wanted. But now you are stuck…this is your pet, the one you asked for. And there is a good chance that you are not going to like the fish, even if you accept the responsibility for its care.
My mother wanted a baby but I was not the baby she wanted. She wanted a cute little baby with blonde curls, and a dimpled smile and a quiet, cheerful, malleable disposition—and that is not what she got. I was bald as an egg, no dimples, screamed night and day from colic, had eczema marring my tender skin, and she had to tend to me on my timetable not hers. Heavens, the reason she ran off and married a near stranger was escape other people—her parents—controlling her life and here she was with a person who weighed under 10 pounds and didn’t speak her language controlling her night and day and punishing her with incessant screaming if she didn’t do as she was bid.
So if you are thinking that because your conception and birth were not planned and that is why you became the scapegoat, you may well be off base because one does not necessarily lead to the other. Wanted, anticipated babies grow up to be scapegoats and accidental pregnancies end up as Golden Children. Being a wanted, planned-for child does not guarantee you will be a loved and cherished child: I am living proof of that. But the reverse is not necessarily true, either: being unloved and cast as the scapegoat does not necessarily mean you were unwanted, at least in the time leading up to your birth.
Having a baby is a bit like getting a pig in a poke. You know what you are getting, but you get no say in what it is going to be like. You can’t custom-order a baby, you just have to take what arrives on D (delivery)-Day. For most of us, that is just fine. Regardless of how it was conceived or its gender, hair colour, or even state of health, we gladly welcome the new arrival into our hearts and homes. It is the dysfunctional personality who rejects a child and assigns him a role in the family dynamic that diminishes him rather than nurtures and uplifts him.
It isn’t your fault, no matter what you have been told, no matter what you have been led to believe. The fault lies with those who cannot accept their child for who and what he is, who blame the child for not popping out carrying a full load of fantasy-fulfilling traits. It is that adult’s lack of maturity that is to blame, her expectations that you be the fulfilment of her fantasies and punishing you with rejection when you are simply yourself…which you have every right to be. And this disappointment and rejection begins long before you are cognizantly capable of doing anything to deserve it.
It’s not fair…but by now we have learned that life is not fair. So, rather than expecting fairness from an inherently unfair situation, we have to find other ways to resolve our issues. But in order to heal, in order to move on, we need to be clear that nothing you are capable of doing between the time of your conception and today justifies rejection by your parent(s) and being cast in the role as family blame receptacle. Even if you have been a bad person at times in your life, there is still no justification to load you with blame for anything other than wrong acts you have knowingly, intentionally committed.
So if your perception of your mother or other family member is that she doesn’t love you, that is entirely possible but it is pretty much impossible for that to be your fault.
Think about it…and if you must assign blame, then put it where it really belongs so that you can begin to heal and move forward.