It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means. It’s Letter from My Mother time!
For those of you familiar with her, I fully expect an eye roll. For those of you new to my blog, just roll your eyes. She seems to like to send long, hand-written notes on yellow legal paper folded up and stuffed into Christmas cards annually. At least this year it wasn’t a Dear Santa letter.
One statement that my mother has made in all of her letters is: “I’m sorry for whatever it is that I did to hurt you. If I could go back and do it differently then I would. I’m sorry that I wasn’t the mother that you needed.”
This has always grated on me. There are three ideas within this statement, and each one carries its own meaning. The first statement is a blanket apology: “I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry about it.” One can’t offer up an apology if one doesn’t know what it’s for. The very nature of an apology is to take responsibility for a specific action. This statement fails to meet the criteria for a basic apology. Am I being a stickler? Perhaps I could be defined as such had I not informed my mother prior to this letter of the actions that needed to be addressed. There should be no confusion.
The notion that she would like to go back and do it again mystifies me. If she doesn’t know what she did wrong, then what would she like to go back and change? That doesn’t fit. We have two contradicting ideas.
Her final statement, to me, is the trickiest of them all. She wasn’t the mother that I needed. Perhaps she could have been the mother that another child needed? Just not me. I had unique needs?
These types of slippery “apologies” are very common in families of origin where high-level abuse was in place. When you receive them, you might feel confused or crazy. Like something isn’t quite right. Did she just apologize to me? Why do I somehow feel worse? That is what I have been thinking about, and I think I’ve come upon an answer that you might find helpful as well.
There are some actions that we witness and experience in abusive families that cannot be defended. Sexual abuse, for example, cannot be defended. Attempted homicide cannot be defended unless it’s self-defense. Long-term physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect cannot be defended. One can’t offer up an apology for committing incest: “I’m sorry, honey, that I snuck into your bedroom every night and forced you to have sex with me.” That falls woefully short. “I’m sorry that you had to talk me out of trying to kill myself so many times.” Really? “I’m sorry that you were on the receiving end of my rages and violence.” Huh.
No one should ever have to endure abuse of any kind. The amount of time and focused effort it requires to recover and heal from abuse is staggering. How does an apology from the abuser mean anything in comparison to that? It’s worthless. The act of abuse is indefensible. There is no apology that could ever be meaningful enough. There is no apology that could ever build a bridge long enough to mend the gap. A better statement might be: “I should never have done _______ to you. That was wrong. You should never have had to go through that or witness it. I am sorry that I ever put you in a position to carry lifelong injuries because of my character flaws and subsequent actions.”
The notion that she was not the mother that I needed is absurd. An abusive parent or guardian is not the parent that anyone needs. We are not somehow demanding or fragile children because we do not like being abused. All children need and deserve a loving parent who provides safety, predictability, empathetic presence, and love. You and I are not high-maintenance because we ask for healthy boundaries, appropriate communication, non-deviant forms of love and intimacy within the parent-child relationship, healthy parent-child role modeling, and a validating environment. We are sound and healthy when we ask for that. Being made to feel somehow unreasonable for asking for such is gaslighting: “I’m sorry for whatever it is I did to you, and I am sorry that I was not the parent you needed.”
It’s very high level. The manipulation is so subtle that it’s easily missed. Your feelings, however, don’t miss it. It’s why you feel so crazy after receiving something like this. Essentially, you are made to feel somehow lesser for asking for that which is appropriate and healthy through an apology like this. The failures and abusive actions of the person apologizing to you are deflected onto you, and then you are blamed for not only not being able to accept their apology but also for not being able to accept them in their role as parent because, you know, “they did the best they could” and you somehow had special needs making it impossible to be a good parent for you.
I have not crafted a response, but I have figured out why I was so bugged by her latest effort to connect with me. She and my ex-husband have issued similar apologies. It’s painful. I just want someone to own up. That’s all. Is it that hard? It must require a Herculean effort because so many people refuse to actually take responsibility for their actions in a meaningful way. Instead, you see apologies coated with justifications or outright denial:
The only reasonable defense that I can conjure in my mind for abuse and extreme behaviors is mental illness. And, in the end, this is my mother’s only defense. She does struggle with mental illness, but one might argue that she is responsible for the treatment of that illness in order that she would be a safe and healthy adult. If an adult cannot stop themselves from abusing the people under their care and/or they can no longer differentiate good from bad behavior, then they are no longer fit to care for said minor children or adults needing their care. If their inability to properly care for people is largely due to mental illness and not an unfortunate character defect, then it is imperative that they seek help. If they are entrenched and treatment resistant as so many people are, then what?
That is the question to ask. We each have to decide for ourselves how we want to proceed in relationship with a family member who is a former abuser and also may struggle with mental illness. This is my current dilemma. I know for a fact that my mother has rewritten the past. The family history has been redacted in order to create a narrative that she can tolerate. She has participated in distortion campaigns and lied about me. She will never apologize for this. She will turn the tables on me and blame me should I ever try to hold her accountable for any past behaviors that hurt me. She will continue to be entitled and emotionally dysregulated. She will only see her needs and pathologically pursue getting them met at the expense of everyone around her. And, she will fail to see how any of this could possibly hurt me or anyone else.
This is reality. Is it even reasonable to expect an apology from a person like this? It’s reasonable to want one. To expect one?
Truth is a theme on my blog, and this is where we land again. To continue to heal from having been in a relationship characterized with this flavor of abuse, you must know the truth. You must know that your perceptions and memories of events are valid and valuable. You are not crazy. You are sane. You are not asking for too much when you ask for safety, predictability, empathy, nurturing, kindness, and healthy reciprocity. You are not too demanding when you draw a line in the sand against passive-aggressive and unsafe behaviors and defend it. You are not high-maintenance when you dictate that there will be no gaslighting or ad hominem attacks in future conversations.
You are showing signs of growth and maturation. You are moving forward and healing. You don’t need anyone’s apology to do that, but, admittedly, it sure would be nice sometimes, wouldn’t it?
For a review of gaslighting, refer to Gaslighting and Distortion Campaigns