My Mother, My Teacher | Part 2 of 2

by Elouise

I’ve never thought of Mother as my primary role model for relationships with men or with women.  Yet she was precisely that, in ways my father never was.

About gatekeepers and me
Gatekeepers:  The bosses. The men in charge.  In my lifetime they’ve all been men.

Their words and attitudes could make or break a woman’s reputation.  Or open the door to small yet status-conferring opportunities.  Doors were opened for me from time to time.  I’ve served on a number of teams.

Perhaps they already knew I was a good rule-keeper.  Sometimes this meant helping other team members look better than they could have by themselves.  Not a bad strategy for members of teams.  It isn’t about me;  it’s about the mission of the organization.

My biggest problem, however, wasn’t the gatekeepers.  It was my way of relating to them.  By the time I was in my 40s I’d perfected the art of working myself to death.  I was still desperate for male approval.

I had a near-empty bucket in me that never seemed full enough.  No matter what anyone said or did, I didn’t believe I was good enough.  So I worked hard and long to show my commitment.

To complicate matters, funds were often scarce.  That meant limited clerical help.  No problem.  I can do this all by myself!  Did you know I used to be a cracker-jack secretary?

I was a prime candidate for burnout and deeper depression than I already had.  All of which happened not simply to me, but to Mother.

I was repeating history.  Not making it.

What about women and me?
Why haven’t I gone out of my way for women as I’ve gone out of the way for men?

I felt cut off from women of my generation.  Part of it was about clothes and culture.  But I’m wondering.  What was Mother like with other women?

Ironically, Mother was wonderful with other women.  Her warm, outgoing personality was always evident, even when I knew she was struggling with health issues.  She seemed attracted to women who had been through hard times or were having personal struggles.  She knew their worlds and could relate.

I watched her sometimes after church, talking with another woman her age or younger.  Just writing that sentence brings back memories of several women friends coming to see her when she was in hospice care.  Mother always had extra energy and smiles for them.  It was wonderful.

And it wasn’t.  I often felt a stab of pain.  Why couldn’t she relate to me like that?  Was it because I was her daughter?  Because I wasn’t as lovable?  Pretty?  Interesting?  The list could go on.  I felt like a bystander, watching Mother have a ‘real’ life with women who weren’t her daughters.  The smiles and warmth and hugs disappeared when they left.

My relationships with women have been difficult.  Not because we didn’t get along.  Back then I got along with just about everyone I met.

No, the difficulty was in me.  Though I don’t understand all of it, here are some factors that seem important.

  • I didn’t have a close relationship with Mother. In fact, I invested a lot of energy in avoiding her. I found her intrusive and manipulative—always wanting more from me than I could give.
  • I didn’t have close relationships with my sisters. I put out a lot of energy watching my back and competing for limited parental attention. Besides, Mother grilled us about each other. It wouldn’t do to get too chummy with a sister.
  • I didn’t have close friendships with other girls or young women. Our rural address, strict family rules and moving around until I was 7-8 years old didn’t help. I got along with other girls, but I never had a ‘best friend.’
  • I didn’t regularly experience Mother’s love and affection, even though she made sure we had food, clothing and activities that kept us busy. Her primary loyalty was to my father, not to her daughters. Her secondary loyalty was to her health as a post-polio survivor.
  • I didn’t trust Mother to represent me fairly to my father. She reported on us to him. He believed her, not us.
  • I didn’t share confidences with her, for reasons just named.

Early on I decided that I needed to keep my business to myself.  I became painfully private, whether I had anything to hide or not.  Friendships with women don’t thrive on super tight boundaries. I didn’t know how to do anything else.

Until the last three decades, almost every time a woman wanted to get to know me better I panicked. I had too much to do. (True!) My calendar was already committed. (True!) There wasn’t any wiggle room in my schedule. So painfully true. No room for myself and no room for friendships with women.

Every now and then I gave time to other women and a carefully measured out piece of myself. Just enough, I hoped, to satisfy them; not enough to come back and haunt me. Why? Fear, shame, family secrets, personal secrets, guilt, anxiety, and a deep belief that I was an imposter.

It wasn’t about the women. It was about me.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 November 2014