I have zero contact with my mother and have not had any for decades, so when I think about how our relationship shaped, I have to rely on some degree of imagination. I don’t actually “remember” very much about her.
I do think our relationship is at the core of what happens to me in the mornings when I wake up. As an infant, I woke up, I felt separation anxiety, I cried. And then something upsetting and frightening happened between us.
What was it?
I don’t think it was exclusively acts of physical violence. Violence followed it. That’s my supposition, anyway.
And this is my idea about it.
Because my mother sometimes got it right, sometimes cared for me, and wasn’t entirely rejecting or unresponsive, as an infant I developed an anxious attachment to her. And I think what happens in situations of anxious attachment is that the working model of the self and others revolves around the idea that the caretaker does not want to care for you, but can be forced to do so. There is an underlying assumption of rejection.
The child exaggerates and intensifies signals of distress so that the parent cannot possible overlook the signal, but when comfort is offered, the child appears to reject it, because in fact the presence of the parent triggers feelings of rejection.
The closer the parent comes, the more painful her feelings of rejection are. Given that the parent seems willing to listen to the child, the child’s instinct is again to exaggerate and intensify this feeling: the child wants to communicate to the parent her pain at expecting rejection, and this desire to communicate strengthens the feeling. The child appears to reject the parent and expresses ambivalence about being comforted, because she is trying to regulate the intensity of her rejection pain by trying to get the parent to move away again, so that she is able to lessen this impulse to communicate her pain.
Due to the working model that the parent’s intention is not to offer comfort, and comfort is only being offered under duress, the child is overwhelmed by the pain of rejection. The child’s expectation of rejection is stronger than the reality of the comfort being offered. Anxious attachment emphasizes feelings, and in this mode, feelings strongly shape perceptions of reality. Even if the parent is not rejecting the child, the expectation of rejection is so intense, it will cause the child to perceive rejection even when it is not there.
At a sensory level, my intense expressions of distress overwhelmed my mother. More than that, my apparent ambivalence about accepting her comfort led her to feel incompetent as a parent. I think she saw me and saw failure, saw rejection, saw pain and so she learned to be afraid of me.
This became internalized as my view of myself. In moments when I saw myself, this is who I saw first: someone frightening, monstrous, malignant. Because that’s what my mother saw. I didn’t at that age have an ability to symbolically manipulate images of myself. If my mother saw me as frightening, then I was frightening. Monstrousness seemed to be who I was.
And I think I became frightened of self-awareness.