While watching the classic Harlow films in an undergraduate psychology class it became apparent to me that I was raised by a wire mother — a mother who met my physical needs but did not provide the warmth that would come from emotionally-engaged, affectionate interaction. For example, when I was sick as a young child she would quite correctly explain that I should go to bed and go to sleep, because that would be best for my health (though I couldn’t help but feel banished by this response). And she has always avoided every type of emotionally-charged topic by changing the subject or walking out of the room. Yet being in her quiet presence has always been comforting to me. Through late adolescence I woke up extra early just to watch her put on her makeup before she went to work, and spent my Sunday mornings sipping coffee extra slowly, just to watch while she did the crossword puzzle.
My mother learned her inability to communicate or tolerate emotions and physical affection as a means of living through difficult early years of poverty, illness, stress, and parental depression – and this coping style has generally served her well. When I first realized the severity of her deficits in what most people would consider basic human capacities, I felt sorry for her. But fortunately, no pity is necessary, because my mother’s deficits protect her from being aware of what she is missing. In fact, I’ve hardly ever heard her complain about anything, except for times when others’ displays of emotions disrupted the smooth day-to-day routines that she has worked hard to maintain as her foundation.
Growing up I hated myself for not being able to keep myself from crying, for not being able to live up to my mother’s model of constant productivity and practicality. (And, thinking in all-or-nothing terms, I saw myself as hopelessly destined to be the overly-emotional, irrational, and consequently cruel person my father is instead.) One day when I was about 18, I tentatively mentioned something about this to my mother, and her response thoroughly surprised me. What she said was something like this: I never meant to suggest that you should be like me, or that there is any value judgment to it one way or another. I’m just the way I am, is all.
She’ll never understand how much this meant to me. And she’d never be able to let me tell her without reflexively changing the subject to some interesting article she read in the New York Times about some random thing. But I love her for that too.