Trust What you Know About Yourself
How others see you is not necessarily a reflection of who you are
The sensation begins at the base of my throat. A dull ache, almost like a burp is stuck there. The feeling slowly starts to drip down into my core, seeping out into my arms, while simultaneously increasing pressure in my neck until it fills my stomach, and its dull ache matches that in my throat. My back muscles tighten, and I feel shaky. I now recognize this feeling for what is, an anxiety attack. They do not hit me like a tidal wave, but rather creep up on me like a slow leak. I do not notice the creep until the flood hits, seemingly out of nowhere. Fortunately, I do now usually know how to work through and settle the attacks. That is until recently.
It took me 10 days, and multiple starts and stops to write this blog. I sort of knew what I wanted to say, but every time I thought about sitting down to write I had an anxiety attack. And then a few days ago I started having random anxiety attacks throughout the day, and then yesterday and again today I had one first thing in the morning. Not cool, because I thought I was doing pretty good lately, all things considered. I have been working hard on being present in the moment and being grateful for what I have. I have been trying to not let the things I am sad and hurt about, ruin all the things I am happy and proud about. But thinking about writing this blog sent me spinning. Despite this though, I knew I had to write it.
If you have been reading Midlife Madness since it launched, you already know that presently neither my three daughters, nor my mother are speaking to me. This situation is in large what finally propelled me to start the blog. I feel unheard and unconsidered, and at times it makes me feel as if I am going mad. Over time and many blogs, all the sorted tales about why and how we got to this place will come out. But this blog is more about where we are now and the final blows that made me realize I had to either fight to save myself or I would crumple in a ball, give up, and die.
For quite some time now, my daughters and mother have been describing me in a way that I cannot reconcile with who I know I am. Over the course of about five years this absolutely shattered my identity and self-confidence. I had worked hard all through my 30s and 40s to figure out who I was. I learned what I liked about me and made a conscious effort to work on the things I didn’t like about myself. I left my 40s and entered my 50s feeling fairly confident in my own skin, probably for the first time in my life. And then a fresh new era of questioning myself began.
My middle daughter (my oldest biological) sent me an extremely long letter attacking almost every aspect of me, my personality, and my mothering. It was cruel and it completely blindsided me. Although we argued we had always been reasonably close. But she ended the letter by telling me she wanted space from me. I thought as she got older our relationship would improve. It never occurred to me that after my daughters became adults and moved out of our home that our relationships would become more challenging. I thought once the teen years passed, things would get better. How naïve I was!
Although we have reconciled since then, things have never been the same. I have felt like I am always walking on glass around her. In the letter, she criticized childhood nicknames I had for her. She criticized my weight and implied I had unhealthy eating habits. She had a long list of childhood experiences that she had put a completely new twist on, claiming things were done to her that never happened. A couple of stories she told as her own experiences were actually ones I told her about my own childhood! When I tried suggest maybe she wasn't remembering thing accurately, she insisted I was gaslighting her or that I was in denial. It was/is exasperating. There is no way for me to prove what happened in the past anymore than there is for her, so what is the point of going there? The more I tried to defend myself, the more critical she became. And when I acknowledged my faults and apologized for the ways that I failed her, it made no difference. If anything, she took it as an admission of guilt on my part, and therefore a justification her words and actions.
My youngest is seven years younger than my middle daughter, but they are close. The younger has always looked up to her older sister. So naturally, when the older one started criticizing me this way, it didn’t take long for the younger to follow suit. It became common place for her to call me crazy. Since she was about 15, my youngest has felt it is perfectly okay to shriek at me at the top of her lungs anytime I say or do something she does not like. She holds her hand up in front of my face and tells me to “stop talking.” She tells me I disrespect her while I am driving her to work, buying her lunch, or taking her to run errands.
Our last argument started because I became teary-eyed when she showed me a picture of my grandson (my middle daughter’s son). I didn’t mean to; it was just an instinctive reaction. Between the relationship challenges with my daughter and COVID I have had little time to get to know him. I suffered a pang. But my reaction made my daughter angry. Without getting into the details, it ended with her telling me I was “a fucking adult, and to get a job.” She told me I should “work at fucking McDonald’s.” And finally, she told me to “shut up”. I should add that we were together because we had a regular date for me to pick her up at work and take her out for breakfast. On this day, I was also taking her to run errands. So, being told all these things under those circumstances was extra hurtful. But I could forgive it if this were the first time she spoke to me like this; but sadly, she has been speaking to me this way for six years! So, I sat on it for about 10 days, but then sent her a letter saying I needed a break from her. But I told her I did not want to hurt her or make her angry and suggested she take the letter to her therapist (whom her father and I pay for) to discuss. And that I would be more than happy to attend a therapy session with her to work things out. Blocking my phone number was her only response.
I believed prior to their outspoken criticisms that I was a pretty good mom. The best evidence I had of this was my daughters. They are, to others, lovely in every way. I think it is evident that I did not influence who or how they should be, because they are all different from each other. But they are all smart, hardworking, independent, strong, capable women. My older two are wonderful mothers and have built loving homes for themselves and their little families. They have all forged their own paths and my husband and I have always been present and available to support and help them in any way they wanted. As a mother I juggled my work so that I was present and available. I cooked homemade meals and we regularly ate dinner together. We were involved in their extracurricular activities both as cheerleaders and volunteers. We took them on some big, special holidays as well as camping every summer. Our house was open to all their friends and they barely had to ask if someone could come over – sleepovers were a regular occurrence. When they got older, we were the house their friends came to if they drank too much at a party and didn’t want to go home. I held special personalized birthday parties and always gave special personalized gifts. They never went without and we were not particularly strict. I fought more than a few battles for them with the school system; and empathized through all the boyfriends and teenage friend drama. I cannot think of a single time any of my girls asked my husband or me for help with anything and we said no. At the same time, we have never told them how to live, we have never criticized any choices they have made, and we do not interfere in their lives in any way.
As I said, the turn in our relationship completely blindsided me. It has been a brutal 5/6 years. Their treatment of me made me question everything. I feel like a complete failure as a mother. For the life of me I cannot not understand why they are so angry with me. I cannot not understand why they seem completely incapable of giving me the benefit of the doubt or cutting me slack. They treat me like I neglected them and intentionally hurt them. When I do kind things for them, I am told that I only do it so I can throw it back in their face (which I don't do.)
It hurt so bad that they were so critical of me that I would do anything to make it stop. I listened to their criticisms and tried to change. I chose my words carefully around them. I tried to stay away from any subject that might trigger them. If I sensed if they were going through a tough time I backed off because I was aware that I unintentionally triggered them. I tried to phone them more (talking on the phone gives me anxiety so I had been calling them less.) I tried to do helpful, but nonintrusive things like bring my daughter homemade soup for a meal or drive my younger daughter to work. But many of my overtures are rejected or criticized, they do not reciprocate, and they exclude me from things. All in all, I felt that no matter how hard I tried it didn’t matter, they want to find things to criticize and be mad at me.
There have been ups and downs with them over the last two years. I decided though to focus on the ups, and just try and ride out the downs. I thought if I just kept showing up in a consistent, loving, non-intrusive way that eventually their negative opinions of me would soften. But after I had my falling out with my mom last summer, my middle daughter started pulling away again. For a while I acted like I didn’t notice, but as things dragged on with my mom and I, I became concerned the divide was going to get too big to cross. So, I sat down and wrote my daughter a very heartfelt letter. It did not mention anyone else in the family, just her and me. I was trying a new approach. Trying to connect with her as a wife and mother, instead of just as my daughter. And, also, to let her know that no matter what, how very much I love her and am always here for her.
Her initial response was lovely and made me very hopeful that I had made the right choice. She did ask me a question about something I expressed. I was very excited when I completely understood her reason for asking, and also that I had what I thought was a response that would ease her concern. She also asked, “So my question to you is this, how do you picture our relationship? What do you hope to see? What type of connection and vulnerability are you willing to grow with me?”
I took time to respond to these questions with an open and honest heart, writing:
“As to how I envision our relationship looking, I never felt that was my place to determine. I believe that children leave the nest and have to spend time figuring out who they are and want to be. Oftentimes kids need space from their parents while they are figuring that out. And then over time, with a little distance, and an adult perspective, the child decides what they want their adult relationship to look like with their parents. I was and am still willing to fit into whatever picture you have of your life.
As for my ideal image… calm, love and simplicity. A weekly phone chat to touch base. Regular text messages to check in on each other. The occasional lunch alone. Time with you and Huntly. Perhaps a regular day that I get take Huntly to give you time. Family events where we are all together, getting along… love and hugs and laughter. Perhaps it’s a bit of sitcom image of family life… but it is always wrapped in love and support. This is always what I have wanted and strived for more than anything, I guess it just wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be 😉”
Like I said, I thought we were engaged in a good dialogue, but it turns out my daughter was just setting up the pins so she could knock them down. Because shockingly her response to the above was:
“Why can our family not get together as a group? This is not my reality, it is yours and again, you have to ask yourself why.
I only want what you want. Love. Peace. Calmness. Support. Laughter. Happiness. This is not what you have brought forward to our relationship or others in the family even if that’s what you’re intentions were/are. Its why we’re here now, with only myself left to speak to you.”
When I read that it took my breath away and not in a good way. I felt like I had been sucker-punched. Being a blended family, our dynamics are complex. Our daughters are a his, mine, and ours scenario. Things were not always perfectly harmonious, but I always felt proud that when you saw the five of us together you would not know or think we were a blended family. As they entered adulthood, however, cracks started to appear that were not as evident when they were girls growing up. There are resentments, jealousies, and misunderstandings between all three. Then the older two added their spouses to the group and dynamics changed again. There have been more than a few arguments and disagreements between the three over the years. And it is these arguments that have interfered with family gatherings. Generally, I try and stay out of it, but I have sometimes gotten involved.
However, having said all of the above, I cannot think of a single time that I or my husband have been the instigators of a disagreement between any of our daughters and ourselves. Every single disagreement, argument, or alienation has started with one of them and been directed at us. We host family dinners and afterwards talk about what a lovely time we had, only to wake up to a text message accusing me of something hateful. We find out days, weeks, even months later that I did or said something that apparently offended someone. And anytime I do the slightest thing that they think is bad, wrong, or whatever, they feel absolutely entitled to tell me – put me in my place more precisely. And if I apologize, grovel, say I did mean it, or that they misunderstood, I have actually been told that if I say, “I didn’t mean to,” that negates an apology. Which is absolute insanity to me. I step on your foot, and say, “sorry, I didn’t mean to.” Does that negate the apology? Both my husband and I felt we were constantly being put in no-win scenarios. And on the flip side, we would absolutely NEVER even consider telling them if they do or say something that hurts us – which happens frequently.
Now add to this that I could write pages and pages and pages of kind loving, supportive, and goofy things I (we) have done from birth to this day. I won’t though because it is pointless. When they were younger these efforts were taken for granted and not noticed, then when they were teens we were mocked and made fun of, and then finally they simply started ignoring or rejecting our efforts. On the rare occasion I have tried to explain how I feel, I get shut down, told I am making things about myself, and more often than not an argument ensues.
When I asked my daughter why she thinks/says that I do not bring love, peace, kindness, etc. to the relationship, her response was that I have been asking that for years and claim never to receive an answer, so maybe the problem is I don’t want to hear it. However, I continue to ask because despite her claim they have not provided a rational explanation that I can work with. Over the years, I have tried hard to respond to the things I have heard and understood, but those efforts have always gone unnoticed or miss their expectations.
So, all of this has had an unbelievable toll on my mental health. I basically stalled. I could not function. It seemed like all my waking hours were spent obsessing about why my daughters don not like me. I was doing nothing. I could not write, I could not paint, I could not tackle new projects. Every time I tried to start something my mind would wander, and I would start a non-stop internal conversation about what I would like to say to them. I so desperately wanted them to love and accept me it was killing me. My days were reduced to doing mindless chores and waiting for the clock to hit 5 so I could have a glass of wine. I was spiraling fast and really didn’t know how to stop it. Even as I write this, I can feel the anxiety seeping in. I miss my youngest daughter so much it is constant ache! I can’t stand not knowing how things are going for my daughters as new moms. My mom is 78, who knows how many more years she has on this earth. It is almost unbearable for me to think she might die without us ever speaking again. And it is so painful to have every kind gesture I make ignored or rejected. I was a broken woman.
Thank goodness for best friends though, because I credit mine with helping to pull me out of my pit of misery and despair. When I was ranting to her about my hurt and frustration with what my girls and mother were doing to me, she asked one simple question, “when are you going to take control of your life again?” I literally stopped in my tracks. She continued to explain in the near 40 years she has known me, she had never seen me allow others to dictate how to live my life. She wanted to know why I was letting my daughters do that now. And I had no answer. She was absolutely right. I was allowing them to control me.
When I further expressed my deep resentment for them bringing unnecessary drama into my life and ruining it. She admonished me to be careful where I was placing blame. (I love this lady for a reason!) And again, she was right! They were not ruining my life. I was allowing them to ruin my life. It was my reaction to them that was bringing me so much grief and anguish. I was allowing their negative reflection of to cast a shadow on my image of myself. They would criticize me, and I would take their word as the gospel. I would unquestioningly accept that their view of me was accurate. My friend's words awakened me to the fact that I was wrongheaded in my thinking.
My girls and mother, for their own reasons, and because of their own hang-ups, regrets, and unresolved issues paint me in a certain light. It is a dark, negative, moody light. And because that is the light they cast on me, that is what I reflect back to them. My friend made me realize that I had to stop doing that. I needed to remember who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, and where my heart is. And I am not a negative person who looks for problems and roadblocks and believes the world is shit and people are terrible. I have a generally positive outlook on life. I enjoy helping people and do so whenever I am asked and am able. I am a cheerleader and have encouraged and helped all kinds of people find the confidence they need to take big steps in their life. I am kind, thoughtful, generous, polite, and helpful. And, despite their focus on my flaws, I have been a loving, supportive, and present mother.
But perhaps most importantly, the thing I had allowed them to let me lose sight of, is that at 54 years of age, except for my current relationship problems with my daughters, I have carved out exactly the life I wanted for myself. I absolutely love my house by the river. We have lived in the same home for 24 years and have fabulous neighbours. I have a happy marriage; I adore my husband and we are best friends. I own my dream car – a ’66 Mustang. Last summer we finally purchased a camper van, something we talked about doing when we retired for 15 years but decided instead to take the plunge early while we are both still strong and healthy. I have several 40+ year friendships, cool people that I do not see often enough but feel truly blessed to call friends. Last spring, I got my dream pet – a black pug named Bowie. My daughters are healthy, happy, hardworking, contributing members of society. A have two beautiful, healthy grandchildren. My parents are still alive and reasonably healthy. And my husband and I have been fortunate to have taken some really wonderful trips together and we plan to take more post-COVID.
After my friend asked when I was going to take control of my life again, I made the above list of things I was grateful for and decided that was my new focus. I was going to build on what was good. I started working on the Midlife Madness website and blog the next day. Two days after I started working on that, I got offered the best writing job I have had since starting to call myself a professional writer 14 years ago. My days now are spent in my lovely little office writing with Bowie at my feet. I take long walks by the river at the end of the day, and then with my husband cook delicious meals made from organic ingredients. I wake up early and enjoy coffee with the man I love. We always have one or more projects on the go – currently we are renovating the interior of our camper van. I am more content than I ever been. My life is very peaceful and calm, vacant of “shoulds and have tos.”
Despite this, every day is still riddled with anxiety attacks. I think about my daughters constantly. I miss them desperately and I so want to be part of their lives. And in the throws of those attacks. I buy into what they have to say about me. I start to believe their opinions. But then I remind myself that the person they are describing is NOT who I am. It does not matter how many times they want to accuse me of being unkind, uncaring, unloving, unsupportive, or whatever, I KNOW that is not true, and refuse to become that person just because they keep telling me I am.
So, I continue to reach out to them in small ways. Not as often as I used to, but this is my way of showing them that no matter what I always love them, and that doing these kind, small things is just who I am, and I am not going to stop being that person because I like her. The rejection is hard to take, and I cry almost every time I do something kind for one of them because it is ignored or criticized. I am ignored, neglected, and overlooked, and this too makes me cry. But I will not ignore, neglect, or overlook them. As long as they are pushing me away there is only so much I can do. But I am determined to not lose sight of the woman I worked hard to find because others want me to be someone else. I need to trust that I know myself better than my young adult daughters know me, or even know themselves. I know that how they see me is not necessarily a reflection of who I am, so I need to stop looking at myself through their mirror.
It can take a long time to figure out who you are; once you do, don’t believe others when they say you are someone else! Believe the reflection YOU see of yourself, not the one other people are reflecting on to you!