Just When DO Mothers Become Abusive?S

Mothers get shit on a LOT, as documented in basically every article on mothering by Jezebel. As a result of this, there seems to be a general feminist party line saying “look, moms, you’re trying your hardest, so just don’t be afraid to do something for you sometimes, and people who tell you that you’re abusive are full of crap. And obviously, don’t be ACTUALLY abusive or negligent, but instead let’s talk about all the things that aren’t abusive.” I really struggle with this, because my mom was a martrying, stay-at-home-mom whose entire personality revolved around being a wife and mother. She was also severely emotionally (rarely physically) abusive and negligent. Without clarifying when, exactly, mothers cross over into abuse and negligence, I worry that feminists (with their movement against domestic violence) would end up siding with my mother, not with me. So where do mothers cross the line?

It’s hard to set clear guidelines for what parental abuse looks like. What “emotionally controlling” and “infantilizing” look like become fairly relative based on culture and age – and are the sort of buzzwords people read about in a pamphlet on child abuse, but fail to connect to any actual behaviors they’ve experienced or observed. But I can look at my mother, and think of examples where she really crossed the line into being a cocktail of emotional abuse and negligence.

While my mother stayed at home for us, but then didn't actually attend to our needs or wants in a timely fashion - one of my earliest memories is of my younger sister just giving up on trying to get my mom to change her diaper and coming to me instead. This started a tradition of me parenting my sister more than is considered usual, and while it made us incredibly close, that closeness was incredibly codependent. It once took an entire month for her to get me new pencils for school, because she couldn't take us after school to the store because she hated rush hour traffic. (Couldn’t she have gone when it wasn’t rush hour, like on a weekend or while we were in school? Apparently not.)

She did not play with us, or have any interest in learning about our interests and sharing them with us - to this day, she has still not seen the movie that's been my favorite since I was 10 with me. On the significantly darker side, she got me diagnosed with bipolar and forced me to take a cocktail of psychotropic drugs with zombifying effects for my entire adolescence; turned out, I didn't have bipolar, I just had never been taught how to self-regulate my emotions by my primary-care giver because she didn't want to actually attend to human emotions with all of that at-home, not earning a paycheck time. I didn’t spend my childhood depressed, even suicidal, because I was bipolar, but because I had a mother who was always a room away, never any closer, nor any further.

But the answer isn’t simply that she needed to be more involved in my life. She’d spend huge amounts of money on “gifts” that I did not want, or need. When I came home crying when I was 13 because another girl had teased me about my upper lip hair, she didn’t console me and teach me how to deal with the shitty things shitty people say, or how to put on some mindless tv and feel better. She got me years worth of laser hair removal, even though I protested.

When my father kicked me out when I was 17, they rented an apartment for me, furnishing it with new furniture and paying for the rent and utilities (including the cable, internet, and landline), then laid down meticulous rules for how I could live in my new apartment (no friends over! No video games!) while promising to call the police and have me arrested for trespassing if I ever came home without permission. She offered repeatedly to buy me a house when I was in my early twenties, but refused to let me have the only key to a house she owned, and was insulted when I said that I wasn’t really “adult” enough to want to own a house, anyway. When I was 22, she tried to have me unemancipated so that she could collect child support from my father, because it was horribly unfair that she was helping me out with my rent instead of him. (Luckily, the judge didn’t seem to think that “my daughter’s laundry is strewn all over the bed, and she hasn’t dusted in months” actually qualified as “squalor” the same way she did.)

No one ever said anything to her. Quite the contrary, when I protested to others (family friends, teachers, police officers, mental health professionals), they rebuffed me for not understanding how much my mother sacrificed for me. They explained away her abuse, telling me that "she was doing it out of love, out of the goodness of her heart", like they were both capable of knowing that and like that somehow made a difference. They told me that I was really ungrateful for wanting to wear clothes I picked out, or live on my own as an adult without worrying my mother could break in at any time. They sympathized with her - how awful for her to have such a difficult child, and she sacrificed so much! When I got raped when I was 20, and no one did anything except excuse my rapist, it was like "oh, this shit again? Got it!"

I wish I heard more specifics about when we did agree that mothers became abusive. No, you aren’t an abusive mom because you bottlefed, or because you go on date night a few times a month with your partner. My mother is not abusive because she did not change my sister’s diaper this one time, but because not changing her daughter’s diaper was so much the norm in our house. I wish we could talk about both how mothers are shit on too much, and how it’s total fucking crap that any time they aren’t 100% perfect someone calls them abusive, without then shying away from when mothers are abusive.