Correlations

On a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Erika had a full-on meltdown during dinner with the other ladies. Unlike most of the housewives, she has been very reserved—not unfriendly to the other women but not chummy either. Throughout this season, she’s clashed with a newcomer to the cast, though she kept her feelings mostly to herself until this particular evening. In a deluge, all the hurt she’d held inside came rushing out. When another cast mate tried to say something helpful, Erika overreacted, lashing out at her, too. She reminded me very much of myself.

Forty-five-year-old Erika Girardi joined the cast last season. She’s a self-described homebody and tomboy who’s married to a high-powered lawyer, but she has an alter-ego—she performs as the dance club musical artist Erika Jayne, wearing ultra-sexy, ultra-glamorous outfits during her somewhat risqué shows. It’s a seemingly crazy contradiction: quiet, shy Erika Girardi vs. flamboyant Erika Jayne.

Recently on the show, she revealed that her mother had been hard on her while she was growing up. She called her mother a “disciplinarian” and said her mother had been very critical of her. She pointed to her mother’s treatment of her as the reason why she seldom cries and finds it difficult to connect with other women. Others have described her as cold, but she sees herself as tough. She was forced when very young to buck up, to handle things on her own, and she’s carried that directive inside herself all this time.

I can’t help wondering about the link between the child Erika not having a mother who was a solace to her and the grown Erika who tries to conceal her vulnerability from other women. This makes sense to me. It’s something I’ve recognized that I also do. Vulnerability often feels to me like a weakness that shouldn’t be revealed, and other women feel the most unsafe to me, probably because I want to avoid experiencing again the pain of motherly criticism or rejection.

But there are times when we all need to cry on someone’s shoulder. When we try to handle everything on our own, we risk an explosion like the one Erika had at that dinner. Sometimes we don’t even understand why we’re so upset until long after the episode is over.

It was interesting to see and hear the other housewives’ reactions to Erika’s meltdown. None of them seemed to know how to interpret it or how to help Erika calm down. Their faces displayed their shock at her outburst. They didn’t have the tools to approach her in a way that wouldn’t seem critical, dismissive, or threatening in that moment. The one person who came closest to understanding what was happening mistakenly reached out in the wrong way and endured Erika’s wrath in return. It was like watching a rerun of episodes from my own life. I’ve blown up over seemingly minor things or at inappropriate moments. I’ve jumped down the throats of friends who have only wanted to help. Sure, RHOBH is a fluff TV show in which the cast is thrown into contrived situations intended to provoke drama. Even so, this incident was very real and revealing to me about what is and isn’t reasonable for me to expect from other people, what it looks like from someone else’s point of view when I overreact, and how my behavior may be misinterpreted.

People who’ve grown up in mainly healthy, emotionally secure environments may have trouble understanding why someone might feel they always need to protect themselves, why they might not want to reveal themselves very quickly, why they tend not to easily trust. Watching how the women reacted to Erika both in the weeks before and the minutes during her meltdown made me realize how my own words and actions may give a different impression to other people than what I intend, consciously or not, to communicate. I’m sure that some people haven’t known how to deal with my being as closed off as sometimes I am. Maybe they’ve mistaken me as being cold-hearted or not liking them because I’ve held back. I’m sure that, like Erika, people find me hard to get to know.

Watching the show, I want to throw my arms around Erika and say, it’s okay, you’re okay, I like you. I want to tell her it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to want to talk to a friend. She and I both struggle with making female friends and tend to feel more at ease with men. I wonder how a weak bond with one’s mother correlates. In interrogating the motivation behind her behavior, I’m also investigating my own.

I read an article last week about children who grow up as people pleasers, how damaging that can be because these kids never have the experience of messing up yet being loved anyway. They become adults who think they’ll only be loved if they do the right thing—whatever that is. I know this is part of my psyche, and I wonder if it’s part of Erika’s, too. How many unmothered daughters are still trying to figure out something they can do that will please their mothers enough to be loved? This need to please can be another reason why we hold back. We hesitate to speak until we ascertain the right thing to say. We want first to observe, to figure out what we need to do to earn approval.

Deep down, though, we long more than anything to be seen and heard. So sometimes we do big, showy things for recognition. We rebel in major ways to challenge this requirement that we must conform in order to be loved. We want to show off our ugliest, our most outrageous, most dangerous selves to challenge people to love us anyway, to prove that we weren’t crazy, that the love we received was conditional all along. But these displays aren’t the whole of us. The tender parts are hardest to reveal. We are still on guard, still protecting ourselves, even at our most flamboyant. I think of how Erika puts on a glamorous costume for every scene on RHOBH, as if she’s reluctant to let the other women see her un-made up, how her makeup and hair and clothes are a challenge as well as her armor. If you don’t accept this part of me, I’ll sure never let you see the rest.

There’s a separation people like me and Erika create between the parts of ourselves we allow to be public and the parts we hold sacred. Maybe most people do this to some degree, but it’s evident on the show that Erika does it to the extreme, and I know that I do, too. It’s a means of hiding, of trying to stay safe, by not risking all of ourselves. How would it feel to walk around in the world unarmored and to be okay? I imagine that’s what freedom feels like.

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #10 of 52.

I Told Myself I Would Be Real

I never felt known as a child. When people looked at me, I felt they saw the shell but nothing underneath. I became what people wanted to see when they looked at me; in this way, I created the shell of myself that no one could see beyond.

I hid inside the shell. Instinctively I protected my tender core, the real part of me that I felt was not known. I wanted to be known. But being known felt dangerous. Yet over time, not being known also hurt me. I felt intensely lonely. Alone in the world, as if no one could understand my language.

I believed that my real mother would understand me. This was the story I told myself: My real mother somewhere out in the world loved me, and one day she would find me. She would know me without my having to explain anything at all about myself. She would know the colors and flavors I liked, she would know why I needed to have long hair, she would know why walking barefoot outside was the best thing and why I couldn’t see the world the way the people I lived with did. She would just know.

I didn’t have to create a fiction for myself because I knew somewhere in the world there was a woman inside whom I had become real. It was just that we weren’t together. I told myself we would be, and then I would become real again. I didn’t come from thin air, I couldn’t have, because I couldn’t fly. I came from water, just as everyone did, and I would swim again.

I didn’t want to be this mystical creature inside my shell. I wanted to be normal. Normal seemed good to me then, desirable. Born of a body. How odd I must have seemed, without a solid form. Without matter. I wanted to matter.

I knew my mother was somewhere out in the world loving me because I could feel it. We had a bond that could not be broken. And if I was with her, she would care about the core of me, the real me that no one cared enough about to even miss. I would be important to her, I told myself over and over, and this story gave me hope, and hope kept me going all the way out into the real world.

 

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I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #9 of 52. 

 

 

Mother Love

Last week I got sick with a nasty cold, and I wanted badly to check out of my life for a few days. There were things I should have done that I didn’t do, as happens when one is sick. The hardest thing about being sick, though, for me, as a mother, is letting down my kids. I got to thinking about this after I blew up at them one evening when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself and wanting to be the one cared for instead of the one who always has to do the caring. The incident itself was unremarkable, but for days afterward, I ruminated on our relationship to each other, on the roles of mother and child.

Mothering is more difficult than I ever imagined it would be before I became a mother. The first few weeks after my son was born, I remember being in a state of shock over the fact that I could not go anywhere ever again without either taking him with me or arranging for his care while I was gone. This should have been expected, but it was something I’d never contemplated previously. I had been a singular, independent being, then suddenly I was one half of a conjoined duo. Another being was completely dependent on me for survival. Yes, sure, I had help from my husband, who is a very hands-on dad, but that didn’t change the fact that primarily it was me who had the responsibility of making sure our son’s needs were met.

It is still me, the mother, that my now teen and preteen kids depend on. Nothing is right in the world if I do not listen to their stories, if I do not help them with their school projects, if I do not counsel them on their friendships. I am expected to provide them food and remind them to eat it. I am the one they need to take them shopping when they outgrow their clothes and shoes. I am the one who calls the right doctor and gets them the right medicine and holds them close no matter how contagious they are. My husband is still the hands-on dad he’s always been, but I am always the one my kids need above all others.

I am the mother, and mothers are supposed to care for their kids before anyone else, including themselves. I know that my kids love me, but I understand also that their love is based on my satisfying the need they have for a caring mother. Last week they knew I was sick, and I know they cared that I was sick, but that didn’t stop them from needing me to care for them. When I lashed out in protest, they experienced, for a brief moment, the despair of not having a mother who cared about their needs. Shortly thereafter, I apologized to them and, within a few hours, they had recovered from their brief despair and our relationship was back to normal. That was only possible because I have proven to them repeatedly, through our daily interactions, that I do care about their needs. Continue reading “Mother Love”

Family Secrets

There are things we do not discuss openly in every family I’m part of. Things that have happened, things that have been done, things that are going on now. There are whispers, meant to be confidential, then more whispers, until the whispers become sighs we all perceive but never mention out loud.

We hide things, because we fear the repercussions of revealing our secrets. Someone might be hurt. Someone might be exposed. Relationships might break down. We drift past each other in silence, too afraid to open our mouths, not wanting to cause pain. We cannot say what we actually feel, what we really mean, so we say less and less of any consequence to each other. We talk about how the job is going, what we watched on TV, how hot it’s been this year. We avoid words like angry, hurt, lonely, lost, afraid. We learn which questions never to ask.

The mention of a specific person can cause pain. The one in jail. The one who left. The one who died. The one who is sick now. A person becomes a secret. The utterance of a certain name carries shame.

The secret child who was given away. That’s me. I was that secret, and I am a secret now. Continue reading “Family Secrets”

Reflection (a poem)

In response to today’s National Adoption Month prompt from Lost Daughters, I’d like to share a poem I wrote years ago after my first child was born. This poem was originally published at Poets on Adoption in 2011.

Reflection

You
with your mother’s wide eyes,
olive skin and old-world customs,
with cousins akin to sisters

You
with your father’s gravelly voice,
his cleft branded on your chin,
his surname on your back

You cannot conceive what I saw
when I studied my boy
lying bundled like a burrito
innocently twisting in the plastic hospital bassinet

I gazed into a mirror
and saw my gray eyes for the first time
and saw my milky skin for the first time
and saw my Slavic nose for the first time
and saw my earnest expression for the first time

For the first time I saw
my mother and my father
my tribe
my birthright

For the first time
I saw my self