I hesitate to write this because I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying all my selfishness and self-pity came from my mother. Several points along the way, I could have chosen to take responsibility for my actions and for the way I viewed the world. I’ve written about the cultural roots of my problems and the inconsistency my mother taught. I have a few more thoughts on this, as I try to find root causes of my sick thinking.
First, my parents spent most of my early life shielding me from the consequences of my own decisions and actions. They blamed others for any problems I faced. They did not trust me to solve my own problems. If I got a bad grade, they would insist on intervening with the teacher. If I had a conflict with other kids, my parents blamed the other kids or blamed fate, tried to micromanage the way I handled it, and generally treated me as though I was a toddler, incapable of handling social interactions without my parents interfering.
If I did something wrong — a prank, for example — my parents never exactly punished me. They yelled, sighed, shook their heads, and talked about shame and disappointment. They never grounded me; in general, I wasn’t really allowed to leave the house except with specific permission, on a case-by-case basis. They did not spank me. They talked about spanking often, but never did it. In short, there were no tangible, measurable, specific consequences for my misbehavior.
At the same time, my mother did create severe and unreasonable consequences for my failures to meet her hopes or expectations. On one hand, she did not do what we try to do for our children: warn them that there will be a consequence if they misbehave, and follow through with the reasonable punishment, as well as let them suffer — within reason — the natural consequences of their choices.
On the other hand, my mother imposed consequences that were not tied to my choices. Rather, they were tied to her evaluation of me. It wasn’t, for example, something like, “If you fail to do your homework I will ground you.” Instead, it was more like my mother having an emotional breakdown if I lost the district spelling bee. Her consequences were not related to my choices, but to my performance. And, I feared her emotional outbursts, so much so that I began lying and hiding many aspects on my life in order to avoid my mother’s reactions.
I think this upbringing might be part of how I came to do such risky, heartless, illogical things during my years of adultery and lies. I was used to having no consequences for my actions. So, I gave no thought to potential consequences of cheating, consequences such as diseases, death, arrest, public humiliation for myself and my family, and more. God — actually my parents — had always ultimately shielded me from consequences, so I subconsciously assumed God would continue to be my safety net. Do you think that is a sick, twisted misuse of theology? It is. That’s my point.
Second, my parents also did not teach me accountability. They didn’t tell me I needed to try harder or practice more to improve. For example, instead of saying that I might want to practice baseball, they just talked about how some people are supposedly naturally good at it and some people are not. They made a big show of telling me I was smart, for example, but they never really provided consequences for bad grades, forgotten homework, or general laziness and evasiveness. Similarly, I never bothered to hold myself accountable for my actions. Mother had always been in control of my accountability. So, why should I bother weighing my choices against their potential effects on me or on others?
Third, my parents actively discouraged me from growing up, and I failed to resist it courageously. My life is a story of me allowing my mother to control me. I didn’t fully escape it until D-day. For example, to this day, my mother goes on and on about how she thinks I handled certain friendships wrong in seventh grade. To this day, I disagree. She viewed me as a toddler and treated me as such. That continues to this day.
She discouraged me from playing team sports, from leaving the house, and from dating. She made it clear she disapproved of every girlfriend I ever had. She didn’t even try to be subtle, saying awful things about each girl. I finally got away, by going to college out of state and never again living in my parents’ home. Even then, I didn’t get away completely. By the time I married TL, just two years after college graduation, I still had one credit card my parents had given me. TL helped me see that my parents were using that leverage to control my choices, and I was letting them do it. TL and I cut up that credit card.
My mother continued her habit of saying awful things about my girlfriends, or wife in this case. She spent 18 years making little mumbled remarks, inappropriate comments, and flat out rude critiques of TL, me, and our children, as though it was perfectly normal to behave that way. As I had been all my life, I was afraid of my mother.
I cut off contact with my mother for several months once when she harassed me non-stop for several days, at home and at work, to insist on inserting herself into the move TL and I were making.
A few years later, my mother made a big scene of reportedly purchasing funeral plots for her immediate family, including me but not including TL, “because a son should be buried next to his parents.” She told me it would be inappropriate for me to tell TL, my wife, of this plan and that I should not do so. I did tell TL, but never informed my mother that I told TL, nor did I confront my mom about her inappropriate behavior and expectations.
Years later, after our first child was born, my mother began criticizing our child. TL, who had patiently held her tongue for years, would not allow our child to be dragged into my mother’s psychological warfare. TL told my mother her house was not an appropriate place for our family and we would be moving to a hotel. My mother went ballistic. I told TL to pack-up, so we could just leave town altogether. But, I said nothing to my mother.
I sent TL into the house to pack us up, while I loaded our child and the car. My mother approached TL, blaming her for everything under the sun. TL let my mother know she knew everything my mother had tried to do to undermine our marriage, including expressing joy over a miscarriage and about the funeral plot secret. We again cut off contact with her for several months.
Each time, I eventually, gradually let my mother slip back into our lives, returning to her way of questioning with implied criticism, questioning with intent to control, and outright criticism. More importantly, I had a decades-long habit of not confronting my mother, not calling her out on her inappropriate behavior. She said something, and I would ignore it or try to change the subject. What I should have done instead is to calmly but bravely tell my mother she was behaving inappropriately and that I would not accept it.
Shortly after D-day, we visited my parents, and I began practicing relating to them as an adult, as well as not being afraid to show my love, pride and affection for TL in front of my mother.
After D-day, I tried very hard to get my mother to apologize for undermining our marriage. She never really did. She supposedly had my father apologize on her behalf to me, but never directly to me and absolutely never to TL.
After D-day, I considered a couple of things about my relationship with my mother. First, I had signed up to protect TL, and I had been failing in that responsibility, for years. I failed to protect TL from myself, from my psychological problems, from the world, and from my mother. If I was going to become a better husband, it had to include protecting TL from my mother. Second, my lies and adultery came, essentially, from my failure to grow up, failure to take responsibility, failure to see the world through the eyes of an adult man. This, in turn, was related to my failure to grow up with regard to my mother, to stop being cowed by her, and to have the compassionate courage to set limitations for her.
For three years now, I’ve been putting a stop to my mother when she tries to say or do something hurtful to TL, me, or our children. It has helped. It’s not easy. About a half a year ago, my mother tried to criticize TL in my mother’s own uniquely manipulative way, this time bringing our children into it. The children did not understand, and I put a stop to my mother. At this point, I no longer have any real relationship with my mother. It’s now crystal clear, even to my mother I think, that she has nothing to say to me aside from her attempts to control me.
In sum, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning responsibility, accountability, and self-control early. Let kids make mistakes. Let them receive punishment, from parents and teachers, when they do wrong or neglect responsibilities. Let them make choices. Within reason, let them control their own lives.