Nothing can Prepare You for the World

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My mother is borderline.

Just writing this sentence down makes me shake a little. I know it, I’ve talked to other people about it, but…what if she reads it? What if somehow she finds this anonymous piece and connects it? What kind of a horrible daughter am I for even putting this out into the ether?

My mother is borderline, and I still never know what to do with it. How to navigate. It was something I didn’t even figure out or have the language to put to it until I turned 20. I suppose in writing this, my hope is that maybe just one person can find the language they need to begin healing. Or to feel some sort of validation. Because…it’s one of the most empirically confusing experiences.

If anyone is reading this who’s borderline themselves, by the way, please don’t think of it as a condemnation. My mother is very unaware of her effect on others, and not particularly able to work on herself. Please understand I’m writing from a place of childhood scars, and perhaps in explaining them, it can provide us all with more tools at our disposal for creating positive relationships. I guess that’s another hope I have from this.

Where to even start? My mother was the best mother. She told me that a lot. It was true too, measurably true. She worked freelance from home so she could be there for me and my siblings. She paid for a ridiculous number of lessons for the various instruments we played. She took us to a local botanical garden at least twice a month during warmer months and gave us sketchpads so we could develop ourselves as artists and have an enriching experience. She would sit down and gab with my friends when they’d come over. She was open about sex ed and trusted me to go down into the basement with my boyfriend starting at age 15, without interrupting.

How the hell could I have any complaints? After everything she did for us, how could I selfishly have a single negative thing to say? How could I have not hopped up immediately to unload the dishwasher when she asked? Of course she stomped up and slammed her door so hard the house shook—all she wanted was the bare minimum. If she ever gave us the silent treatment and avoided eye contact until we apologized, of course that was justified. How could we have upset her so much? What was wrong with us?

It’s difficult to explain what it felt like at times. The best I can put it was that love felt like something of a currency, which could be withheld at any time. One of us would be the “good” child—the coveted position of being closest to her—while the other two, while not mistreated exactly, were deemphasized, at least. As time passed and we reached adulthood, we’d sometimes become the “bad” child too.

I still remember the phone call my sister and I had when she told me my mother was borderline. I remember pacing around my dorm room and everything making sense. I remember first reading Surviving a Borderline Parent and refusing to believe how many checks on the checklist I was able to tick off. And realizing that I did have to mourn the childhood I never had.

But okay, so what? My mother is borderline. I’m an adult—8 years removed from that day—and so fucking what? She loves me as much as she is capable of. And she’s just…a scared, sad, lonely woman. I still want to give, even though I know it’s at my own detriment now. I still want to take the path of least resistance, because why piss her off? Why exhaust myself when it’s easy to just shut up?

The thing is, I doubt there’s ever a moment where it won’t be muddled and confusing. There’s never a moment where I won’t simultaneously love and hate and resent and want to protect her. It doesn’t mean the hurt I have isn’t real, just because I’d rather it was more simplistically derived.

But it doesn’t mean I have to shoulder it alone. No one is alone.

All these memories of sorting through my feelings, looking back as if the rug was pulled out from under me…none burn as brightly as when I found the language to express it. When I found the validation I had been craving. When I realized someone understood.

I’m talking about the day I watched Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (the taping of the original broadway cast, of course) for likely the 50th time and it all clicked. The Witch is a borderline mother.

It’s been written about before, but I’m not sure I can explain the authenticity behind it. Every single lyric the Witch sings is a gut-punch when I hear it, from her berating Rapunzel for not listening, to her explanation of the fear that governs her approach to motherhood, to her immediately turning and snapping the second Rapunzel tries to put up boundaries.

That’s…it. That’s everything. It’s exaggerated and fantastical, but there’s a part of me that does fear she’ll find a way to take away anything I’ve claimed for myself. She’ll blind my prince and dump me into a swamp (please don’t take this to mean a literal prince…) because she’s “trying to be a good mother.” Because she can discard us the second we stop being “good.” Nice is different than good, I suppose.

And yet, I’m Rapunzel, there screaming “no” as she lays on the guilt-trip at the beginning of “Stay with Me.” I’m there wanting to just let things go back, even though “I am no longer a child and it [is] lonely atop the tower.” It was easier then, and doesn’t she deserve as much?

The answer is, of course, “no.” The Witch shows her monstrous nature when Rapunzel asserts her own agency, and even if my mother would never be as obviously damaging, there’s still the lashing out. When Rapunzel tells her the damage she’s caused, she can’t see it.

Witch: What’s the matter?

Rapunzel: Oh… nothing. You just locked me in a tower without company for fourteen years, then blinded my prince and banished me to a desert where I had little to eat and again no company…and then bore twins! Because of the way you treated me, I’ll never, never be happy!

Witch: I was just trying to be a good mother.

Ultimately, Rapunzel gets caught between asserting herself and appeasing her mother, running away in a panic to her own demise. It’s not the most uplifting of tales, though seeing the Witch’s ultimate fear finally realized and her visceral pain expressed afterwards perhaps moved me more than anything. The messaging is clear: make choices for yourself, no matter how painful it might be in the short term, or else you’ll get crushed under the weight of the burden. And in the end, your mother will be happier for it too, even if she won’t be able to reach a point of true understanding.

So I have. It’s a work in progress, and every day is a new boundary. I might not see an end, but I see a path forward. Nothing can prepare you for the world, but you owe it to yourself to see it: the princes, and wolves, and humans too.

Image Courtesy of PBS and American Playhouse