Antioch-Part VI. My Mother and I

In the next few sessions, Dr. Leonard wanted to focus on my relationship with my mother. When I told him that my mother’s name was Erica, he asked me if I resembled her in any way. At the time, I was not able to see even a remote resemblance to her. It was a mystery to me why my parents gave my mother’s name to me, the fifth out of six children.

Years later I came to understand that, while my nature resembled more my father, my physiology resembled that of my mother with her sensitivities to chemicals and her sensitive digestive tract.

Dr. Leonard asked me to describe my mother. “She has black hair and green eyes,” I told him. “She’s slender, with high cheekbones—not the blonde, robust Swiss stereotype. Her ancestors were French Huguenots who fled to Switzerland in the 1700s to avoid religious persecution. She’s proud of that lineage.

“My mother speaks with a soft foreign accent. She prides herself on having learned “proper” English in England.

“Her father was the town doctor—a kind man, but always busy with patients. She didn’t see him much even though the clinic was part of their huge home in the town of Sirnach, near Lake Constance in Switzerland.

Her mother died in childbirth when she was six years old. A series of stepmothers took over the child rearing. The third and last stepmother was not much older than my mother when she came on board, and hardly equipped to take on the role of mother. She was cruel, constantly punishing my mother and her younger brother, Ernst, for very minor things. Nowadays, her behavior would be described as child abuse.”

Dr. Leonard looked at the photographs of my family that I had brought in at his request. He said, “You have a very handsome family. Your mother clearly looks European. She looks refined and glamorous in this one taken before she came to America. There’s no trace in any of the photographs that would give a clue about the heartless childhood she had in Switzerland. But it came out in the way she mothered you and your sisters and brothers. The hitting, blaming, and harsh criticism.”

“Mummy did have some tender moments,” I countered. “But they were unpredictable. The work of raising six children left her frazzled and exhausted most of the time. I think even one child would have been a lot for her temperament.

“A favorite memory of my mother involved a big freckle on one of my forearms. I didn’t like it and wanted flawless skin like my friends at school. One day, in an unexpected tender moment with her, I confided that I didn’t like the freckle. She put me on her lap and looked over my arms carefully and said that the freckles were beautiful. Such a statement from my mother was so unusual that I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve held onto it as proof to myself that my mother’s real nature, behind all the harshness and criticism, was tender and loving.

“We got glimpses of this side of her on the rare occasions when she was relaxed. My father frequently offered her a glass of wine in the evenings, probably with the intention of seeing her unwind. She usually refused, knowing how easily she became intoxicated and out of control, even after just a tiny amount. But on the occasions when she did swallow a sip or two of wine, all the tension left her; she became utterly charming and looked beautiful. In those moments, it was easy to see why my father had fallen in love with her.”

Dr. Leonard remarked, “With your father being a high ranking officer, why didn’t your mother get help running the household? Like a nanny or a cook or housekeeper?”

“We all asked ourselves that question growing up. Mummy was a bit rigid in her approach to life. She was a perfectionist and never satisfied with anything. Perfection meant doing things the Swiss way—her way. So, no help was good enough for her, neither paid help nor help from her children. We couldn’t win. We were criticized if we didn’t help, and then criticized if we did help and the results were anything less than perfect. ‘I work myself to the bone,’ she would say to us, with recrimination in her voice.

“Ironically, she came from an upper class background and had servants who did most things. She went from that kind of upbringing to scrubbing her own floors. It’s as though she was trying to prove something to someone, or to herself.

Dr. Leonard asked what it was like having a foreign mother growing up.

“It was embarrassing having a mother with a foreign accent, especially when we moved back to the States after living in England for three years,” I answered. “I was a second grader in Texas when we got back. I spoke with an obvious British accent. One of my classmates asked me if I was a foreigner in a tone that was tantamount to asking if I was a Communist. ‘I’m not a bloody foreigner. I’m an American,’ I said with an unmistakable accent.

“I worried about the school finding out that my mother had a Swiss accent. I tore up the school’s PTA notices given to the students to give to their parents for the quarterly parent/teacher meetings. It was bad enough dealing with my own accent.

“I started imitating the long drawl of Texas speech, dragging out the vowels and slurring my words. I practiced in front of the mirror at home. I had already been exposed to many foreign languages. Texas talk was simply another one. I quickly dropped the precise articulation that I had been pressured to learn at school in England, after being chastised for talking the American way. Now, once again, I had to learn a new way of talking. I wanted to fit in above all else and avoid being an object of curiosity.

“I never invited anyone to play at my house. I felt embarrassed by my foreign mother. I already felt different enough and didn’t need to add to my problems.”

“Have you always felt you were different?” Dr. Leonard asked.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve felt different from other people. Maybe because of living in so many places and not really being part of anywhere. I have a different perspective on life than the people I went to school with. I question everything that others take for granted.

“Dr. Leonard, on a different note, I just want to say before we end that I’ve always had—and still have—a strong feeling that there is a purpose to my life, but I have no idea what it is or how to find it. Sometimes I feel so lost. But since I’ve been talking to you, things are starting to make more sense.”

“I’m happy to hear that. It’s time to wrap up. As usual, we’ve gone far over the hour. That’s why I always schedule our session at the end of the day.”

“I’m so sorry to make you late, Dr. Leonard,” I apologized.

“Why do you apologize? You haven’t done anything wrong,” he assured me.

“I usually assume that when something isn’t right, it’s my fault. I grew up saying ‘I’m sorry’ for everything. It was a never-ending refrain. I think it’s because in my family we were constantly being blamed. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ just became a habit, a reflex. In fact I even said ‘I’m sorry’ when someone accidentally bumped into me in the hall yesterday, as though it was my fault. When I was young, I even said I was sorry when I got sick.”

“Tell me a bit about that, then we’ll wrap up. I’ll take responsibility for being late,” he assured me.

“My mother said we got sick because we had done something wrong, like not wearing our galoshes when it rained, or not wearing adequate warm clothing when it was cold, or staying up reading too late at night, or refusing to take our cod liver oil.

“Being sick in our family was not much fun. Instead of getting tender, loving care, ginger ale and ice cream, bedside stories, games, and time with the TV, we got reprimands. I remember one time waking up sick with a fever. There was no way I was going to reveal that to my mother. I pinched my cheeks to make them look rosy red—not realizing my face was already red—and went off to school.

“The teacher saw my flushed face and congestion and right away recognized that I was sick. She called my mother and told her to come and get me and keep me at home when I was sick. It took me years to understand that my mother’s anger was masking a fear that she might lose one of her children to sickness. At least, that’s the explanation I gave myself.

“In spite of my mother’s harsh response to sickness, I managed to soothe myself when I was sick. As I lay in bed, I listened to the vacuum cleaner going back and forth in the rest of the house, the washing machine tumbling the clothes around, the dishes clinking in the sink, and the cupboards closing in the kitchen. Those sounds had a hypnotic and comforting effect on me.”

Dr. Leonard looked at his watch for a minute, then looked over at me and said something that took me by surprise. “I’ve missed my dinner. But that’s ok. I really don’t mind. I’d rather be here with you.” My breathing became shallow as his words hung in the air.

Dr. Leonard went on to say that he no longer enjoyed spending time with his wife. He complained that she had gained so much weight that he had lost his sexual attraction to her.

Suddenly the roles were switched. I asked hesitantly, “Have you talked to your wife about how you’re feeling?” He told me that he had insisted she lose weight or he would leave her. He seemed surprised that his warnings made no difference and she continued to gain weight.

I was stunned. Dr. Leonard was sharing his personal problems with me. I didn’t know the protocol for therapists interacting with patients, but I knew that I felt really uncomfortable and wanted to change the subject immediately. I wanted to pretend that he never said anything about his sex life and his surprisingly harsh judgment of his wife. I felt terribly sorry for her. I mumbled that I had to leave because I needed to get some reading done before class the next day.

I wondered if every time I looked at Dr. Leonard I would imagine him thinking about sex. I dreaded going back. But Dr. Leonard never brought up his personal life again. We both acted as if nothing had happened.

In the following sessions we discussed the hitting that went on in our family.

I told Dr. Leonard how I grew up thinking that hitting was a normal part of raising children and that it happened to everybody, especially in military families. But when I saw how differently some of the my friends’ parents treated their children, I realized that hitting was not necessarily something that I had to accept. I started to fight back.

“I was probably the most rebellious and outspoken of all the children in my family. With puberty, I grew taller than my mother. My height emboldened me. At one point, as my mother raised her arm to hit me, I grabbed it. I looked directly into her green eyes and said, ‘Don’t you dare hit me ever again.’ And she never did. Instead, she enlisted help from my father to give me spankings when he came home from his long days at work. He reluctantly carried out her bidding.

“I remember repeatedly calling my mother a ‘mean witch.’ Behind my loud protests was a deep longing for my mother’s love and attention.

“I loved my mother and I also hated her at times and felt angry towards her. The anger and hatred made me feel terribly guilty and sad. At Sunday school we read from the Bible, ‘Love and honor thy father and mother.’

Every night when I was a young girl, I kneeled at the edge of my bed with my hands clasped, looking up at the ceiling. I prayed fervently, ‘God, help me to be nice to Mummy.’ I wanted to be a good person and act loving toward Mummy. But much of the time I wished that I had a mother like my friends’ mothers. They were kind and loving—or so it seemed.

One time I heard my mother talking outside to a woman whose family lived in our duplex. The neighbor had a preteen son my age that she was raising by herself while her military husband was on a “hardship” tour abroad. The woman enthusiastically told my mother about a technique she had discovered by chance that stopped her unruly preteen son when he was yelling at her. She said that she walked over to the sink and filled a glass of cold water and then threw the cold water in his face.

“I heard the neighbor say, ‘the next time you’re in the kitchen with Rickie and she starts talking back to you, just move slowly over to the sink, and then throw the cold water in her face. She’ll be so stunned she’ll know you’re in control.’

“I smiled to myself, knowing that I would be prepared for this new tactic. The next time we got into an argument, I watched as my mother moved toward the sink. I said, ‘Mummy, I know you’re going to throw that cold water into my face.’ My mother was the one who was stunned; she never had the opportunity to implement her new behavior modification technique.

“Eventually the hitting stopped entirely as we grew older. In fact, when we moved to Germany when I was sixteen, Mummy viewed me as her confidante, telling me how frustrated she was with my father, describing in great detail his shortcomings and all the ways she was disappointed and annoyed by him.

Dr. Leonard questioned, “You had said that your father also confided in you. How did that feel to be caught in the middle?

“Well, I had two feelings about that. I was flattered that they turned to me to share their troubles with. It made me feel important and useful. But, at the same time, it made me feel really uncomfortable. First of all, I love both my parents. They each seemed like they were trying to turn me against the other and take sides. And then they were talking sometimes about sexual matters that were way beyond what I felt comfortable with, especially since I can’t even imagine my parents having sex in the first place. In fact, it’s inconceivable that I was ever conceived. In any case, I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do with what they told me, so I just comforted them and listened.”

Dr. Leonard asked, “What long term effect do you think it had on you to be put in that position of being confidante to both parents?”

“I think it helped me to see that there are always two sides to the story. If I had just listened to my mother, I would think that my father was a really bad person. And if I just listened to my father, I would feel sorry for him and wonder why he stayed with my mother. So it helped me get the bigger picture and not get into who’s right or wrong. And it made me realize that I can love people who are not perfect.”

At our next session, Dr. Leonard wanted to return to the topic of my marriage with Jeff. He inquired about my sex life and wanted to know if the way I was raised impacted my ability to enjoy sex. He wanted to know all the details of our sex life, like how many times in a day and in a week we had sex, who came first, and what positions we got into. He asked if I enjoyed having sex and asked if I ever masturbated. He said that masturbation was a good way to relax.

I confessed to Dr. Leonard that I felt really uncomfortable talking about those subjects with him.

What I didn’t confess to Dr. Leonard was my suspicion that he was getting pleasure from hearing about my sexual experiences. Because I put so much trust in him, it took a couple of sessions before it became apparent to me.

Dr. Leonard dutifully dropped the subject and never brought it up again.

His next statement took me by surprise. He said that he could detect that I was having some mixed emotions toward him. His directness disarmed me.

“I think I’m falling in love with you, Dr. Leonard,” I blurted out and then quickly looked away. A long, uncomfortable silence followed.

Dr. Leonard cleared his throat and explained with a professorial tone of voice that what I was experiencing was called “transference,” and that it was a normal part of the doctor-patient relationship and could be therapeutic.

He didn’t say anything about “counter-transference,” a term that I learned in my freshman psychology class.

The following week I went home on spring break by myself to see my parents in New Hampshire. One evening during the visit, while I was washing the dishes after dinner, I had an epiphany that permanently changed my life.

During my college days in the 60s, I got exposed to many mind-expanding ideas and practices. I studied eastern religions and learned yoga and meditation—two practices that played a powerful role in my life in helping me to hold onto my center in turbulent times. I learned about Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who would eventually play a significant role in my life. In studying Hinduism, I learned about Kali, the goddess of death and destruction and, at the same time, motherly love. Her fierceness acted in the service of love. I imagined her slashing away at my illusions, misperceptions, and false ideas about myself in order to liberate me from my old self and allow me to align my spirit with a higher purpose.