“I always wanted to have a mother like yours. Somebody who is waiting for me coming home from school, baking cookies,” I said. My mother was a nurse, who worked her entire life. Nobody ever greeted me when I came home. My friend’s mother was a stay-home mother and wife of a prominent professor and well-respected surgeon at a local medical school. They moved from a big city and settled in the small city. To me her family looked an ideal upper-middle class made for TV family, while I was from a working class one.
“My mother never baked cookies,” Sookie said.
“But you were very close with your mother,” I said. “You used to talk to her on phone a lot.” When we were teenagers, every time we were away from home, we called home to let our parents know we were safe. My phone conversation was short. “Hi, it’s me. I’m here. Everything is O.K. Bye.” “Is that all?” she asked me when I finished the call. She chatted with her mum as if she were talking to a close friend. In my emotionally dysfunctional family, kids were not supposed to be seen nor heard. Having a conversation was unthinkable. Every attempt to communicate ended with yelling at each other. So I learned to keep communication at a bare minimum.
Sookie, my high school BFF, was talking about her difficult relationship with her late mother. Her mother has become totally dependent on her, who now is a prominent psychiatrist/professor of the same medical school her father taught. “She turned out to be a mistletoe, a parasitic organism,” she said in an detached tone.
“But she was a perfect professor’s wife,” I protested. “Yes, she was. My parents were deeply in love with each other. They were co-dependent,” she said. “When my father passed away, my mother chose me as the next host and expected me to provide for her as her husband did.” As she now had her own family and career to take care of, her mother’s demands were millstone around her neck.
“I always wished to have a mother like yours,” she said. “Your mum was professional. I respected her for building up her career up to the head nurse of a major hospital.”
“Yea, all the women in my family had a career,” I said. “But my mom was a terrible cook. Our home was always in a mess. I was always by myself at home.”
“She is independent,” she said.
“Yes, that’s always how it was in my family. Women need to be independent,” I said.
I still didn’t understand. I thought Sookie and her mum had a girlfriends-like relationship, like a pastel colored cotton candy. “But I remember you loved her when you were a teenager,” I protested.
“I did,” she said. “I was in a cult. I just didn’t know it.”
“Then, when did you realize it?” I asked.
She pondered for a moment and said, “After I became a psychiatrist, ” and added, “I realized I could diagnose everybody I know with one or more mental disorder.”
In a nut shell, her mother couldn’t understand her daughter and she were different individuals. Her daughter was part of her just like her husband constituted her identity. For Sookie it was a normal family, until she realized it was not. “She tried to make my son her next host. I couldn’t let her do that at any cost,” she said.
I was in a cult, too. My mother didn’t understand I was a separate individual from her. She still does not understand I have my own life. “Come home,” she says all the time. Come home to take care of me as I took care of your father. That’s what I hear. She doesn’t understand I am home.
Our family is the only family we know. We grow up believing our family value system is the only one, and often try to recreate it. We are programmed to act in a certain way. It could be good for us or it could be inconvenient for us. If we couldn’t or is not allowed to examine and assess if the value system of our original family is still suitable for the present life, we stay in the cult.
To get out of my family’s version of cult, I had to move across the Pacific. Now we have thirteen hours time differences (and 20+ years of therapy on my part) between us.
P.S. I grew up in an Asian country when stay-home wives were norm.