Part 5. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Nurturer

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Mother As Nurturer

From The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori [affiliate link]:

Since a child’s first language is touch, much will be communicated by the mother’s holding and handling of the infant as well as by the way she continues to touch her growing child. Does the touch communicate real caring and love, or is it simply accomplishing the task at hand?

The main message associated with this function is “I love you.” This is crucial to the development of self-esteem. When it is present, the child thinks, Mommy loves me, so I am somebody.

It is my father who holds me in the photos from my childhood. I don’t remember any loving touch from my mother. She was in many ways a human cactus. My mother’s mother didn’t love her and my mother didn’t love herself. I’m not sure my mother loved anyone. A few dogs perhaps. My daughter maybe. African violets definitely. The rest of us were bystanders.

Her touch was utilitarian. Checking temperature, accomplishing the task at hand, punishment. My late brother and I never had the sense that she loved us. She presented one face to the world and a different, meaner one at home. According to her, everything wrong in our families was the fault of our respective fathers. My mother’s family had a long tradition of tall tales meant to obfuscate serious problems within the family. My grandmother lost her favorite daughter in infancy and all of her nurturing – if she had any – vanished. My mother was not nurtured and her nurturing only came out in her nursing career. Not at home. All we as her children could do was nurture our own children, giving them what we wished we had.

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Part 4. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Modulator

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Mother as Modulator goes hand in hand with the First Responder role, this time, teaching the child emotional regulation that in time becomes self-regulation.

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

When Mother is modulator, she helps us transition from negative emotional experiences to positive ones. One way she does this is by first empathizing with what is going on, and then leading us to more comfortable territory. She shows us how to let go of one emotion and move on to another, and in her own cheerfulness gives us something brighter to join with. We see this in the mother who meets her child’s tears with a sad face and soon has her child laughing.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

Or not.

As a survivor of incest and other abuse, my mother could not regulate her own emotions, let alone teach that to anyone else. She never once told any of us “it will be all right.” She didn’t believe it would be, not for herself, not for us. She didn’t much care about the emotional states of anyone around her, unless they were one of her patients while she was a nurse.

This hole in our learning as trauma survivors means we are wide open to triggers that can shut us down, prevent us from thinking clearly, or cause dissociation. Self-regulation can of course be learned, but the road there is often bumpy and painful. Access to a therapist trained in complex trauma is incredibly helpful and something we need to focus on if we’re to improve overall mental health, given the alarming statistics on child abuse.

My mother was ambivalent at best about her role, about having children. She was born in 1919, before birth control was an option. She aborted her stepfather’s twin boys, presumably before attending nursing school. I was not ambivalent about my own children and perhaps that’s the difference. Mirroring and modulating their emotions, guiding them from distress to calm came far more easily to me than to my mother. Given that my mother’s mother was never warm to her, my mother never received that comfort as a child. And that is how generational cycles continue.

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Next week, Mother as Nurturer….

Part 3. The Genesis of my C-PTSD: Mother as First Responder

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Mother As First Responder

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link)

A very important role that secures Mother in her role as place of attachment is what I call Mother as First Responder. The “first responders” in our modern world are firefighters and police officers, the folks you call when there is an emergency. Imagine your home is on fire and no one comes. How would that affect you in terms of believing help will be there when you need it?

My teenage brothers used to put me on top of the refrigerator when I was a toddler. I screamed to get down. When my mother finally showed up, she was annoyed with me, not them. It is telling that her solution was to wait until I was big enough to climb down to the counter then the kitchen floor without help. I never thought of this as other than an oft-told family joke until a former boyfriend and single father said in response, “One of my kids ever did that to another, it would be the last time.”

Oh.

Cori goes on to note:

It may be hard to remember how your mother responded to you as an infant and small child, but often a telltale clue is how you feel about your needs now. Are you respectful and attentive to your needs, or so ashamed of needing that you try to hide them?”

For years, I denied that I had any needs and our culture tends to expect and reward self-sacrificing women, making it easy to assume the problem was having needs rather than ignoring them. An important step in recovery and healing is to determine legitimate needs and growing the boundaries to protect them.

For those of us with chronic childhood trauma, the failure to have a mother as First Responder was akin to the house burning down with all of our needs and unanswered calls for help or assistance inside.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Next week, Mother as Modulator

Part 2. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Place of Attachment

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I realized that stating “The Genesis of CPTSD” in the title for this series was open to misinterpretation. This is very much about how mine started and so I made that adjustment. Your mileage may vary.

Mother as Place of Attachment

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

Jasmin Lee Cori writes:

Here we focus not on Mother as the ocean we come from, but as the more immediate place where we are attached….

When you watch securely attached toddlers and young children with their mothers, they are in constant physical contact, climbing over, pulling on, sucking, and hugging the mother’s body.

I don’t remember any contact even approaching that kind of intimacy with my mother. As with her mother, grandmother, and all the female relatives on her side of the family, there was no physical contact. No hugs, no kisses, no leaning up against them. Holding hands was rare, usually a means of yanking us into submission or crossing the street. The only pictures I have of anyone holding me are of my father or brothers. There was always space around my mother in family photos as in real life and there were unpleasant consequences for breaching that space. Not unusual in an incest survivor/victim, but still detrimental for her children. My brothers and I were very affectionate with our own children, having missed out on it growing up.

Attachment for the young child brings the feeling I belong to you. And because I belong to you, I have a place. Without this, we are untethered, adrift well into our adult years.

From The Emotionally Absent Mother

Driftwood is an appropriate metaphor since I grew up near the sea. Floating on unpredictable waves, adrift well into my adult years is a very good description of my experience. The thing about driftwood is that it’s had all the life sucked out of it and lies dormant, lifeless. It took years of work to recover my creativity and sense of fruitfulness.

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Next week – First Responder.

Part 1. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Source: The Hostile Womb

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In her book, The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori cites ten faces of a good mother, which I’m considering as I finish writing my trauma memoir. Her list of ten are Source, Place of Attachment, First Responder, Modulator, Nurturer, Mirror, Cheerleader, Mentor, Protector, and Home Base.  Unfortunately, my mother – as her mother and grandmother before her – did not succeed in any of the ten areas. Not even close. As I finish writing my book, I’m going to examine each of these in their own post over the coming weeks, first with Cori’s definition, followed by how I experienced my mother.

Mother as Source

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

“Mother” is what we come from and what we are made of. In mythology and religion, this source is often depicted as some kind of mother goddess, often an ocean goddess. Just as life is said to have evolved from the ocean, human life evolves from the mother and, more specifically, the womb. Thus, at both the mythological level and the more mundane, the source of life is Mother.

When the child has a positive experience of Mother, he gets the sense, I am of Mommy. I come from her. I’m part of her. I’m like her. This becomes a building block of identity.” (pg 22)

Source was definitely not a positive association for me to the point where the phrase “knit together in my mother’s womb” makes me nauseous. It was not an inviting place and she did not want me. She drove that point home, taking me to tea every month with her abortionist when I was a kid. That behavior even shocked a very experienced trauma therapist.

My mother did not have a warm, nurturing relationship with her mother and so it went back through generations. What happens when you are rejected and humiliated or, in her case, simply not loved by your earthly source? In my family’s case, it meant neglectful and outright abusive behavior. It meant sexual abuse. It meant ridicule and humiliation. It meant a dearth of emotional resources. It meant the kind of chronic trauma that results in Complex PTSD.

I don’t remember ever feeling a sense of pride being her child. When I was 21 or 22, I was visiting my brother and one of his childhood friends said I looked like her. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to insult me other than he was always laughing at someone else’s expense. He knew who she was and the dig was intentional. Appalled and mortified, I replied that I looked like my dad – something everyone else said. That “friend” was the outlier and though he’s been dead for decades, I still hold it against him.

Not identifying with her as Source meant feeling adrift growing up. I never had a strong sense of belonging in my immediate family. I suppose it’s fertile ground for the creative life, but at a cost. My strongest sense of family came from the theater, film, and my great escape was books. Victor Hugo’s Paris, Edgar Allen Poe’s colored rooms, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond were far more real to me than the house I grew up in. Books, art, music, theater, and film became my Source, along with the ocean. Staring out at the ocean I was lucky enough to have nearby was a balm in a way my family never was.

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash

Next week, Place of Attachment.