Every now and then, this meme makes the rounds on social media:
For many people, what it says is probably mostly true. Most mothers love their children, and many try to do so unconditionally, accepting and loving their children for who they are. But not every mother loves unconditionally. Some mothers love very conditionally, criticizing their children when they don’t measure up to their standards. Some mothers cannot accept the children that God gave them, preferring to remake them in their own image. And some mothers are so mentally ill that they are literally incapable of loving in any kind of healthy way.
I’m a mother myself, and my own mother falls into the mentally ill category. For many years, my experience of my mother was one of confusion, frustration, and anger. I could barely spend ten minutes in my parents’ presence without becoming seethingly angry. I thought something was wrong with me. They certainly thought so. It took a long time to understand what was really going on.
I understand that my mother suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and this brings with it a whole host of toxic behaviors that simply felt normal to me. But the most difficult piece of her toxicity was the splitting. Ultimately, this is why I had to cut off my parents.
The Golden Child vs. The Black Sheep
I was an only child, so I didn’t have to compete with a sibling. I’m not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I tend to think that if I’d had a sibling, I would’ve lost him or her, too, so maybe it’s just as well.
As the sole child of a narcissist, my mother could only see me as an extension of herself. Therefore, I needed to have all of the qualities that she liked about herself. This aspect of me is The Golden Child, or the “All-Good” person. When I was the Golden Child, I was her. She couldn’t separate us in her mind. No loving devotion was spared for the Golden Child. The Golden Child could do no wrong, and woe to those who disagreed with that assessment.
Unfortunately, the image of me as the Golden Child often conflicted with reality. Perversely, I insisted on becoming a very different person than my mother. I had my own likes and dislikes, my own ideas and opinions, my own beliefs, my own personality. So the Real Me was at odds with the Golden Child. How could I be both things? Of course, I couldn’t.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), splitting is defined as “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” In other words, you’re either all good, or you’re all bad. The actual gray area where most human beings live is not an option for someone who is a narcissist or who suffers from borderline personality disorder.
So, some days—some minutes—I was the Golden Child. But then I might do something to reveal my Black Sheep side, the part of me that was the shameful, disgraceful failure. Failure, in this sense, meant that I was not behaving “correctly” and that I was not fulfilling my mother’s fantasy of who she wanted me to be. On any given day, this fantasy could be a moving target, so you can imagine how often I might find myself exiled to Darkest Black Sheep Land, for no discernible reason.
The Golden Child is Thrown Under the Bus
After spending many years being confused by my mother’s irrational splitting behavior, a series of events solidified my status as Black Sheep and eventually led to my enlightenment about her mental illness. The first event was that I left my husband, and then I moved in with and later married a woman. This did not fit my mother’s fantasy of who I was supposed to be at all, so the Golden Child part of me began to disappear at this point. My mother was so upset by my lesbianism that she avoided me. She would not come to our wedding, nor was she interested in visiting.
The second event occurred a few years later: I had a baby with my wife. This child physically came from me, so this was a genetic grandchild. Suddenly, my mother wanted to visit.
My parents visited us five times over the course of the next two and a half years, and each visit was worse than the one before. One thing was clear: my relationship with my mother had changed. I was a Black Sheep, all the time. The Golden Child was now my daughter, whom my mother saw as the new, better extension of herself. In fact, she said as much. I mentioned to her that I was disappointed that she did not send me a birthday card one year, and she replied, “Out with the old; in with the new.”
My mother had thrown me under the bus.
“Saving” the New Golden Child
When my parents visited, it became clear that my mother only had eyes for my daughter Wren. They came to help us with a move to a new house, and at that time I became seriously ill. I had a high fever that developed into pneumonia, and the morning after my parents arrived, there was something really wrong with me. My lips were blue. I was trying not to pass out.
My mother did nothing while I sat in distress; she just held my daughter and told my father to get me some orange juice. I couldn’t speak for myself. My wife finally saw what was happening and asked my father for her cellphone so she could call 911. He hesitated. She had to ask again. My mother said I was fine and just needed some juice. My wife asked for her phone again. My dad finally gave it to her.
The paramedics came and diagnosed me with tachycardia, which meant a first-class ticket to the hospital’s cardiac ward, later followed by a cardioversion. Before the EMTs took me out of the house, I remember vividly feeling that my mother secretly hoped I would die, and then she could have my daughter. I didn’t imagine that feeling. My wife told me later that after they took me to the hospital, my mother closed the door and said, “What’s for breakfast?”
I could see that my mother wanted my daughter to herself and that she had found a new Golden Child. This also meant that I, the Black Sheep, was in her way. She began to thwart me in every way possible. Whatever I asked her to do regarding my child, she did the opposite. When my daughter was old enough to talk to, my mother began to whisper things in her ear, about “mean old mommy” and “good Granny.” My daughter, who was confused, began to act out. After the last visit with my mother, it took about two months to get our family back on an even keel again. I realized that this kind of “divide-and-conquer” behavior from my mother was only going to get worse. I couldn’t have her visit and then spend months trying to put my family (and my emotional state) back together again. So I ended my relationship with my parents.
Embracing The Black Sheep
One of the last times I spoke with my mother, I really saw her. I was having a “fierce discussion” with her about my child and how certain things were just not okay with me (like jerking her by one arm, a tactic she’d used on me as a child, which resulted in frequent shoulder dislocations). I used “I” language (I feel that…), and I kept my cool. But I also stood my ground while I spelled out my boundaries. No one had ever really done that in our family, and the person who emerged during this discussion was fascinating. My mother screamed and literally spit venom. I had never seen her act like that before. Then she’d stop and cry, and I could see that she was in pain and really just did not know how to deal with me. I also understood that, truly, you cannot reason with a narcissist. She just wasn’t capable of it. I was at a dead end.
I am probably forever The Black Sheep now, if not worse. The Big Bad Wolf? Who knows. But that is her perspective. It’s not the truth. The truth is that I’m a wonderful, fallible, healthy, and happy person. My children are neither Golden Children nor Black Sheep. They are who they are. They’re wonderful people, and I’m privileged to know them.
I always tell my children that there is nothing they can do, say, think, or feel that will make me not love them. To me, that’s what unconditional love looks like. I do my best to give it to them, and to me. I deserve it.