I am at the park with my 13-month old daughter, Millie, when a dirty-faced boy waddles up to the slide where she is standing — she just learned how, and I am within arm’s reach — and takes her toy away. Millie had been clutching a toy goat from her farm set. She reaches for it now, but the boy pulls it back. He scowls. He picks up some leaves and throws them at her. At 6 or 7 this boy, though young, is much older than my daughter, and he smiles when he sees she is about to cry. I’m not sure what to do. Scanning the park for the boy’s parents, I think of my own mother, knowing instantly how she would respond.
My mother was a mercurial, fastidious woman whose moods came on sudden as a storm. Only her anger was not the storm. The world was the storm, and her outbursts were simply her attempt to batten down the hatches and protect her children. Most of the time, my mother’s anger emerged during classic mother-bear moments. Once, it was at a parade when another child stole candy that was obviously destined for me. My mother unleashed her anger at the kid’s mom like a snapping dog. If a teacher accused me or my brothers of doing something we swore we hadn’t done, my mother would tell that teacher where she could go.
I’d get into a fight with a girlfriend or say Sarah said I was ugly. And mother would seize the unsavory event to set things right. “She’s like a turtle, doesn’t have a neck,” she said, or “Sarah shouldn’t talk about who’s pretty. She’s no prize herself.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit feeling satisfaction and pride toward my mother during these moments. Even now I understand her impulse to say them. But at the same time, my mother’s judgments also unsettled me. Though my mother had never said an ill word about a particular friend before, I knew the critique was always there, lurking under the surface, ready to leap out. This indicated that even when my mother seemed pleased with someone, they could fall out of favor at anytime. The unspoken conclusion was that I, too, could fall out favor at anytime.
My mother’s anger was shaped by her pain. Her heart had become callused the way a heart does when it has been abused. Her marriage to my father was marked with violence and infidelity, a gleaming belt buckle with the name Debbie — not my mother’s name — sparkling on the floor of their red Dodge, the climax of a five-year struggle. They divorced while I was a baby and my mother remarried before I started kindergarten, but all my life my mother has nursed the sort of wound that burns with infection whenever I grow close to someone. The question was never if a friend or boyfriend would hurt me, but when.
In high school when I brought home a friend, my mother would comment on her thin lips or bushy eyebrows or big nose in an effort to dehumanize and distance her from us. Perhaps she did not realize she was doing the same thing to these girls that my father had done to her; perhaps she did not know that fixating on my friends’ flaws also had a way of amplifying mine.
The toxicity of living with a person who casually degrades someone you love — even when they hurt you — can be corrosive. Everyone can be reduced to a singular flaw: a bump on the bridge of a nose, a splatter of freckles that looks like flung mud. And though my mother often pointed out these flaws as a way of assuaging my pain in moments of hurt, it had the effect of comfort food: satisfying in the moment, but unhealthy overall.
“I used to be like you,” my mother said to me whenever I had a falling out with a friend. “Your skin is too thin. You got to learn to take it in the stomach, not the heart.”
My mother prided herself in her toughness. In her eyes it protected her, but in my eyes it made her cruel. When I look at my mother I see a woman who loves her children fiercely but who, somewhere along the road, learned to be afraid. She learned that to lift someone up you must tear another down; that to protect someone from the evils of the world you must make them fear the whole thing; that to keep someone close, you must degrade those who threaten to take them away.
It doesn’t take me long to find the boy’s parents at the park that day. They are nearby, smoking cigarettes and playing on smart phones, only glancing at their son every now and then. Watching them, I better understand my mother’s instinct to disassemble those who hurt me through the years; I understand the impulse because I am closer to it. I want to bound over to these parents, snatch the cigarettes from their hands, and tell them a park is not a place for smoking. I want to tell them to put their phones away and play with their child, to wash his face and teach him how to play nice. This is what my mother might have done. But what I do instead is take a deep breath.
“She let you play with her toy for a little while, but she’d like it back now,” I say. “You have to be careful around the baby. If you’re not careful you could hurt her.”
After all, it’s my job to protect her. Even from me.
Chansi Long is a former journalist, now stay-at-home mom, living in rural Kansas.
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