Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My mother has textbook borderline personality disorder—extreme insecurity, where anything can trigger her. When we were growing up, this manifested in physical abuse or the destruction of some item, like throwing a TV on the ground. She would cut my hair as punishment for bad behavior, call me a whore, and, when I got my period, she told me “it wasn’t real” and wouldn’t buy me tampons. She walked out of my wedding two years ago because “clearly I didn’t want her there.” My method of dealing since I was young was to try to become less visible.

I’m pregnant now, and she’s a renowned certified nurse midwife in high demand for jobs, teaching, and speaking. As a result, everyone is pressuring me, asking me how I could even think of not having my mom by my side during labor and recovery. They tell me that I need to let go of the past, and that everything is different with a grandchild.

The only time I’ve seen her be helpful or compassionate is during times of crisis, like after a death or when someone is severely ill. She really steps up then. I know I’ll need help post-baby, and I would love help. But I also know my mom is destructive. What should I do with my postpartum care? And what should I do about her long term?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Sometimes when people come to therapy, they want my advice on a question they’ve already answered. The person already knows that she wants to leave her abusive boyfriend, or switch jobs, or not go on vacation with her cruel sibling, but still she asks, “What should I do?”

Why do people ask a question to which they already know the answer? Often it’s because they don’t trust themselves, because, through no fault of their own, their inner voices have been distorted or silenced. Given your history, I imagine this is what has happened to you, too.

People who behave like your mother tend to be especially discombobulating to their children because children rely on their parents for what’s called mirroring—reflecting back the child’s internal experience. If a child says, “I’m sad!” but the parent tries to distract the child from her sadness with, “Oh, look, ice cream!” or the child says, “I’m scared!” and the parent replies, “Don’t be such a baby—there’s nothing to be scared of!” the child feels disoriented, as if she’s looking in a fun-house mirror. Your mirror was similarly distorted—you did something that seemed innocuous or maybe broke a minor rule, and the TV was thrown or your hair was cut off. You got your period and your mother claimed you hadn’t. I suspect that there were also times when you thought or felt one thing and your mother insisted that you thought or felt another. When the truth of your experience is consistently denied or called into question, your inner reality can become fuzzy.

Kids cope with this damage to their internal emotional barometers in various ways—they rebel, they become overly compliant, or, as you did, they withdraw and “become less visible.” Becoming less visible to a volatile mother served as protection from her ire, but an unintended consequence was that you also became less visible to yourself. Your inner voice became muted, while external voices became amplified. So if people tell you to “let go of the past”—a past that’s as recent as two years ago, when your mother walked out of your wedding—you can barely hear the inner voice that says, If I can’t trust my mom to be there for me at my wedding, I can’t trust her to be there for me after my child’s birth. The calibration is out whack, and now’s the time to fix it.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for motherhood is to start trusting your inner voice more. Becoming invisible may have been a useful strategy when you were a powerless child, but the good news is that now you’re an adult with full agency, and becoming invisible won’t only be counterproductive—it will be impossible, because, like it or not, you’ll be very visible to your baby. Simply by watching you live your daily life, your child will learn a lot about relationships, and you will have the wonderful (and healing) opportunity to show your son or daughter what an adult who trusts herself and isn’t besieged by self-doubt looks like—starting with trusting the answer you already have deep inside about bringing your mom in as your midwife.

Of course, this is going to require you to let go of a fantasy that many people with unstable parents cling to—the hope for a different parent. In theory, you want your mother involved with your child’s birth, but the mother you have also has the potential to ruin it. So you shush your concerns: Maybe this time, you say to quiet your inner voice, she’ll rise to the occasion and make this experience beautiful and special for me. Meanwhile, your inner voice is furiously whispering: Are you insane? Realistically, what are the odds? Your inner voice knows that unlike with the stock market, here past performance does predict future results. It’s possible that you’d be pleasantly surprised, but given her history of volatility, it’s more likely that a perceived slight will send her out the door just like at your wedding. To the part of yourself that wants to take the risk, your inner voice is saying, That’s an enormous risk to take on a birthing experience. To the part of you that might feel guilty for choosing do this without your expert mom, your inner voice is saying, You don’t have to feel guilty about choosing to give birth in a way that makes you feel most relaxed and comfortable.

As for the long term, it’s true that your mom might have a different relationship with a grandchild than she has with you, but that’s more likely to happen the more you trust yourself going forward and set boundaries accordingly. She may well turn out to have a lovely relationship with your child, and though you may end up having complicated feelings about this (Why wasn’t she this way with me?), it could be a meaningful experience for all three generations. So go ahead and encourage those relationships, but in ways that feel reasonable. And you’ll know what’s reasonable and what isn’t, because, as in your letter, if you have to ask, it’s probably not. Though you may have trouble hearing yourself, you can start now by quieting the external voices and really listening to your own. Between the lines of your letter, there’s an inner voice that’s loud and clear.


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