When I decided to cut my hair over Christmas break before my 15th birthday, I wasn’t expecting a reaction. I always used the longest setting to trim the back and sides of my head, but that day I forgot to put on the attachment, and didn’t realize until it was too late to turn back. I knew it would regrow in a few weeks, and I soon settled down in the living room and took a nap. But when my mother arrived home from work she picked up the remote control and smacked my head with it really hard, shouting “wake up! it’s five o’clock, you shouldn’t be sleeping all day while I go to work…” Later on I heard her tell someone on the phone what she was really mad about: “Caden shaved off all of his hair except a little patch on top!” That is not what I did or even wanted to do, but on top of the insult is the fact that she didn’t even bother to ask me what happened, she just silently judged me, made a whole false story in her mind and used that to condemn me, over and over again, and forever.
The fact is, my parents physically abused me many times when I was a teenager over my hair. My mother didn’t see my hair or really any part of my body as belonging to me, but as an extension of herself. She held a sentimental attachment to my hair being a certain way (like it was when I was a toddler,) and held me as responsible for nurturing this bizarre obsession of hers. But the physical abuse wasn’t worse then my mother’s constant rejections. After the time of hitting me had passed I remember many times she would pass me in the hall when I had made some change in my appearance, and she would stop, startled and stare for a moment before silently walking on. No smile, no compliment, no hello, no acknowledgement of me as a person. But I know she was sizing me up, and that her saying nothing was never actually “nothing.” Most of the time she was really saying “you’re nothing.” My mother acted like she was a judge at some grand competition, haughtily weaving past the tables, examining the entries before her and then moving on with utter indifference for how the contestants feel. But I didn’t sign up for any such contest by being born.
I spent my first Christmas after moving out with my sister’s family, and without my knowledge she shared all of the holiday pictures with our mother online. Thus my mother emailed me unsolicited to say that she had seen my pictures and, “You look different.” It made my blood boil to read those words from her, and I confronted her about how much I had suffered under her comments over the years. She responded by acting like I was the unreasonable one, and claimed that “All I said was that you look different. Of course you look different after six months of my not seeing you!” But the fact is, I could hear in my mind exactly the dubious sort of tone that she would use to say those words, and after twenty years of hypercriticism, I know what they meant. If it was so plainly obvious that I would look different after six months then she didn’t need to write an entire email about it. My mother had this way of not complementing, of not being nice, that told you that she thinks you look bad.
I remember when I received the results for my SAT’s, and the score was good, but I had no one to tell me at the time that I could always retake the test, that most people in fact get a better score the second time around once they know what to expect. My mother had been away for a week when the results came, and thus that was a whole week where I felt reasonably good about myself. But after she came back she groaned to me that she hadn’t been able to open the envelope (addressed to me) first and see my results, which she felt entitled to do because she had “paid for the test.” So I gave her the paper and she walked away with it. Five minutes later she quietly slipped the piece of paper under my door and walked away. No ‘good job,’ no ‘you could take it again,’ no nothing. My mother knew that I was right there, awake, sitting at my desk, but she didn’t even knock on my door to hand it back to me. That small act was so brutal and numbing of an attack that I was rendered frozen, cast off into the prison of her rejection where nothing ever changed.
She never brought up my SAT scores after that but she made it very clear with this gesture and many others that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t “deserve” encouragement, love, or kindness. My mother never took the SAT’s or went to college herself, the only thing she had to go on was my older sister and after almost ten years, I’m sure she didn’t accurately remember whatever my sister’s score was in the first place (not that it should matter because I’m not my sister!) But regardless, mother told me many times I would never be as “good” as her. When I told her I planned to attend college, she gave me this incredulous look, as if to say “why would they let YOU in?” She had set up these really high standards, insisting that she wanted all of us to go to college, but ultimately that wasn’t the role she had in mind for me. My mother had decided long ago that sister was supposed to be the “successful” one, while I was lumped together with my brother as a “failure” and so she did everything she could to make sure I did fail.
Withholding approval, withholding encouragement, withholding love, acceptance, and often just withholding speech through silent treatments was my mother’s way. It occurs to me that abusive people often roll their eyes and complain of the “time” involved in communicating respectfully, providing encouragement and praise to children. But nagging, harassment, passive aggressive comments, and building up these bizarre labyrinths of miscommunication takes a lot more time and energy. My mother would often groan “you mean I’m supposed to say all of that” (i.e. ask me to do something, say thank you, say something nice to me, pay attention to who I am) when she exercised her vocal cords constantly via gossip, yelling, and trite small talk. There is no excuse for the fact that she chose to budget her time in heaping hatred and judgment upon me, keeping me nervous and on my toes, starved for approval that was never going to come. I have a right to clear, honest, up-front communication, and that is what I strive for today.
Today I’m done with looking for my mother’s approval, I’ve left that poisonous little sand trap, and over the past six months I’ve also let go of the desire that anyone else in my family will approve of or validate me and my story. Their approval couldn’t have any meaning and in fact I realize that even if they did “approve” of me, that is something in their own mind, something about them. I don’t care about that, especially from such unreliable sources. My “family” should have kept their judgments to themselves in the past, and hearing “good judgments” from them today would only remind me of the fact that they had the audacity to abuse and tear me down in the past. Increasingly, I approve of myself and don’t judge myself or accept abusive treatment from others, and that is what counts. I have a voice today, and I’m glad their presence is not merely silent, it’s non-existent.