The Narcissist and the Difficult Mother

There's something compelling about the narrative of the Difficult Mother. You know, the mother you love but who has never fully understood you or approved of you or validated your life. The mother you grew distant from, only to reconnect with later in life, perhaps after the birth of your child or the death of a loved one or a sign of your mother's oncoming frailty.
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Mature woman looking anxious
Mature woman looking anxious

There's something compelling about the narrative of the Difficult Mother. You know, the mother you love but who has never fully understood you or approved of you or validated your life. The mother you grew distant from, only to reconnect with later in life, perhaps after the birth of your child or the death of a loved one or a sign of your mother's oncoming frailty. As daughters especially, we get this story because it resonates with our own usually temporary repudiation of our mothers when we hit twelve or thirteen. We understand how closeness can sour into detachment. And we understand, too, how relationships can be saved. The narrative of the Difficult Mother comforts us because it offers the possibility of triumph and redemption. It's a kind of Cinderella story in which we are the step-daughters of our very own mothers, rediscovered, embraced, valued anew by the women who have kept us at arm's length.

If you tell friends you have a Difficult Mother, they will offer useful and constructive advice on, say, how to make it through the holidays or your wedding. You see, they are motivated by the hopefulness inherent in that narrative. Surely, if you smooth the path, there will be a chance for ease and maybe reconciliation with your beloved but challenging parent.

But there's a particular kind of difficult mother for whom none of this advice will work: the narcisist. Even if you explain that your mother is a narcissist, your well-meaning friends will still offer advice on how to make things better. What -- thankfully, it must be said -- they can't understand unless they've lived it is the plain fact that with a narcissist, there is no relationship to be salvaged. There is no distance to bridge because the narcissist doesn't view herself in relation to other people in the first place. The Narcissist makes the Difficult Mother look like Maria Von Trapp.

I was on the receiving end of some Difficult Mother advice this past December as I anticipated a visit from my mother. She would be staying in my home for 10 days, and while the holidays would take up roughly four of those, I was terrified by the gaping maw presented by the remaining six. My mother is a widow and I am her only child. What on earth would I do to fill the time? Friends of mine suggested I call my mother's friends (she had moved back to her native Greece after 45 years in a Boston suburb) to arrange outings. If I wasn't free at the right time to drive her there, instead of twisting my schedule around, I could spring for a taxi. It would be worth it to give my mother a chance to socialize and keep my peace of mind.

The thing is that my mother left her adopted country after more than four decades without much of a social ripple. Narcissists don't make friends. Or, rather, they may think they do, but they conduct their relationships in such a way that makes them not relationships at all. An encounter with a narcissist is a one-way affair. Listen to the narcissist's stories of her successes, her exploits, her past or recent achievements, but don't bother bringing up any of your own because she won't take the information in. The narcissist is clothed in a kind of emotional Teflon.

People sense this and eventually stop offering pieces of their own lives. They may not mind listening to the narcissist--many narcissists are thought to be charming--but they learn not to bother doing much more. So when the narcissist leaves the room--or, in my mother's case, the country--people go on with their lives as usual, undisturbed by the passing of this self-centered person.

But if the narcissist is your mother, going on with your life as usual is much harder. No matter how much you might try, you can't remain completely undisturbed by her actions or her passage through your world. It can take a long time to understand that you're dealing with more than just a Difficult Mother (and I use the word "just" with the knowledge that there is nothing simple or easy about that kind of relationship).

I think I was almost 40 before I figured it out with help from a professional. I hadn't known that such a thing existed beyond the myth of Narcissus in love with his reflected image, but when a therapist explained the disorder I recognized my mother in every bit of the definition. The charm, the grandiosity, the extreme priority placed on the narcissist's own desires, thoughts, beliefs, and wishes: it was what I had grown up with. My mother was and still is athletic, beautiful, stylish, artistic. Most of all, she was an object to be viewed and admired. Whatever got in the way of that presentation was a problem.

The best strategy was to just go along. Never disagree, never change plans, never bring up a conflict. More fundamentally, never acknowledge the existence of any thing or idea that the narcissist has not herself experienced. (The laws of physics, for instance, unseen but everywhere, do not exist. Try telling my mother hot air rises and she will tell you you are wrong because she has never seen it. Carbon-dating? A sketchy practice she's never heard of.

But even after I knew what I was dealing with, I still behaved as if I was part of that other story, the Difficult Mother narrative. I always thought there was a chance to connect, and so sometimes I would tell her things about my life -- only to discover that they struck that emotional Teflon coating. She never took any of it in.

Just recently, I realized that all the time that I thought I knew what I was dealing with, I was wrong. I thought that, though my mother didn't connect to me, she still saw me as me. Then I told her I had done a radio commentary voicing an opinion about Greece that she fundamentally disagreed with (her disagreement itself was a product of her narcisissim: she was unable to countenance the idea of a non-triumphant and glorious Greece and refused to believe in the current economic crisis). Her fury at my ideas was so intense and so pure that I saw it was fueled by more than a simple disagreement with my point of view. This was rage at the notion that I could have a point of view. I didn't exist apart from her, so I couldn't think anything she didn't think. I saw then that I didn't really exist except as part of her identity.

The concept of the parent who lives through his or her child is familiar to anyone who has stood on the sidelines of a youth soccer or baseball game. The narcissist's reaction to her child's life is qualitatively different. It's not just annexation; it's the redrawing of the borders to completely absorb the other life into her own. This is why my mother returned to the US for the holidays with no real friends to visit. And why it didn't really bother her. She couldn't feel rejected by people whose existence she didn't fundamentally acknowledge.

The holidays with my mother didn't begin well. Having not seen her in a few months, I had let myself believe she would be difficult but that I could cope. I was planning to adopt the strategies suggested by my friends. Instead, I found myself challenging her assertions (On a lightbulb burning out: That's never happened before. On reports of Greek unemployment: The cafes are full and there's no crisis.), knowing that this would only make her angry. I was almost goading her, as if trying to reestablish the limits of her narcissism. All I did was create a situation that proved stressful and miserable, for both of us.

Eventually, though, I realized that my mother really doesn't have a choice. It's not that she won't take in the stories or experiences I tell her; it's that she can't. She's not psychologically equipped to relate to her child as a mother can.

I do think there is some solace to be found in the narcissist mother. The Difficult Mother on some level chooses to be the way she is, chooses to disapprove of her child or to remain detached. No matter how great its possibility of reconciliation, that situation is a tragic one. All the same, would I choose a Difficult Mother over a Narcissist, knowing that my Difficult Mother had some agency over her actions. Absolutely. The child of a Difficult Mother always has that hope of change. There is, after all, a narrative of the Difficult Mother because there is a story that changes and develops. The narcissist has no narrative. Hers is an existence that rejects change, time, otherness. If the narcissist is your mother, all you can do is remember it's an existence she didn't want.

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