Sunday, November 25, 2012

Score one for therapy

I've spent the last couple of months struggling with how to be a good daughter to my bipolar, wildly inept, crazy-making hoarding mother while remaining sane and healthy. After much mental anguish, several self-help books, and lots of therapy, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. Our culture has no real archetype or paradigm for bad daughters. Seriously. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Lizzie Borden. Given that I'm planning to figure this whole thing out well before I have the urge to hack my mother up with a hatchet, that's not exactly the role model I was looking for. (On the plus side, Googling "bad daughter" led me to The Bad Daughter: Betrayal and Confession by Julie Hilden, which is quite an interesting read.)

2. Although I've known this one for awhile, recent interactions with my mother have driven this point home once again. She isn't going to change. As much as I deserved a tuned-in, consistently caring mother as a child, she wasn't that person then and she isn't now. Harsh as it sounds, she is and always will be damaged and narcissistic. She is unable to see or acknowledge how her behavior affects other people and will continue to blame others (read: me) for her failures in relationships and in life.

3. She seems incapable of sustaining long-term relationships, whether with family members, friends, or her own children. She drives people away with her neediness, anger, narcissism, and social ineptitude. She doesn't know how to make and keep friends. Does it make me sad that my mother is lonely? You bet. Does it occasionally twist my stomach into a knot or two when I think of her dying alone, as seems likely? Damn straight. But am I responsible for this state of affairs, or for making her any less lonely? Nope. That's on her, not me.

4. And for the grand finale of all conclusions, one that surprised even me -- how I can be a good daughter to my mother while still taking care of myself? I can't. I can't be a good, care-taking daughter to her and still be happy and healthy. And given that I'm not willing to spend any more of my life sacrificing myself for her well-being, at least for now it means that I have given myself permission to be a bad daughter. As a wise friend once pointed out, I can be a bad daughter without being a bad person. What that means in practice, I'm not so sure. But I do know that just having this realization is huge and life-changing and just the beginning.


  1. I haven't gotten to the point of needing to be a bad daughter yet with my own mother, but my husband and I certainly did have to with his mother. We were "bad" children by refusing to get drawn into her unmedicated mental illness antics, refusing to give her money, answer middle of the night calls, or travel thousands of miles every time she said she was dying. But we were good children by making sure behind the scenes that she was safe and housed mostly by talking frequently with nearby relatives. We tried to be good and all it did was feed her illness and make us ill ourselves.
    You have to look after yourself, particularly when you are dealing with your mother who can't or won't.

  2. I think you should rethink the phrase, "bad daughter". It's important to consider what you think a "good" daughter is and to live by those standards. It sounds like you are judging your "goodness" based on HER criteria and know how faulty that is.

    I am the daughter of a bipolar narcissist but I raised by my mentally ill, abusive hoarding grandmother. The double whammy, I has it.

    I have played parent to my mother for many years and it was a very toxic for me. Severing my sense of self worth from her behavior is one of the most difficult things I've ever done and it will be a lifetime process of failure and correction. My mantra is, "I am not my mother's keeper and her behavior does not define who I am".

    In a way, I have been my own parent for a long time and as a self-mom, I know what kind of daughter is a "good" daughter. A good daughter is strong, smart, thoughtful, kind. Is her own person and is able to make the tough decisions and deal with the consequeces. She is honest and forthright and isn't passive aggressive. She knows she will make mistakes and doesn't beat herself up for every failure. She is someone who knows when to apologize and when to stand her ground. She is someone who doesn't surround herself with negativity or allow herself to be victimized. She knows how to take care of herself and how to say "no" and when to set boundaries.

    Don't label yourself as "bad" and add all the judgment and shame of that word on yourself. Not being a doormat to someone who is unstable and who will abuse you physically or emotionally is not an indicator of your badness, it's an indication of their inability to value you.

    Their skewed perception does not define you.