Selective Memory – Crazy or Coping Mechanism?

I have selective memory. It drives my husband crazy. It drives me crazy sometimes.

For example…

This past Mother’s Day was wonderful. One of the best ever. And my husband was an absolute angel, treated me like a queen. When my sister asked me how my Mother’s Day was, I told her it was fantastic.

I asked her how her’s was. Less than fantastic. In fact, it was horrible and it all started on Saturday night when her husband….

Oops. Wait. I remember now. Mine wasn’t so hot. Well, it was, but it didn’t start out that way.

(Let’s play a little Mad Libs, shall we?)

You see, on Saturday, my husband decided to (insert activity) even though I asked him not to. It was something he does (time reference) and I usually have no problem with it. In fact, I never have a problem with it. But it was Mother’s Day weekend and it was sure to (verb) with Sunday. He did it anyway. So at (insert time of day) when he decided to (insert activity) and it (past tense verb) me, I was more than ticked. Mother’s Day started off with a (adjective.)

But the rest of the day was great. Fantastic. Magical, even.

My Pollyanna brain chooses to focus on the magical and forget the awful 24 hours preceeding Mother’s Day. Simple as that. It keeps me sane.

But there is something about my selective memory that really bother me. It eats away at me. It’s a nagging thorn in my parenting manual. What about my childhood memories of my mother?

I try. I really, really try, to remember the positive. You’d think, with my Pollyanna approach, the positive would be all I’d remember. But I can’t. I have fuzzy images of her smiling or laughing – but it either feels forced or it’s in a large group and she’s putting on her show.

There are pictures of her reading to us. But the only memory I have of her reading to me involves us cuddled together on an oversized chair while she lets me have sips of her White Russian (at age 5).

By the time I was a teenager I had learned the art of manipulation. My mother is a shopper. And when you’re in her good graces, she buys you stuff. Lots of stuff. And my parents had the money to buy us lots and lots of stuff. I remember a few shopping trips with me finagling some pretty pricey items (leather jacket, designer jeans, cashmere sweater, jewelry) because I was “Golden Girl” for that week. I was happy in that moment. But the little black cloud of being indebted to her makes that happiness fleeting.

I try. I rack my brain, picturing kindergarten, 2nd grade, 5th grade, 9th grade. Nothing. She is absent from any real memories. I can see my dad. My grandparents. I see my cousins, aunts. No mom. And if I do see her she has her arms folded over her chest and she’s glaring.

What childhood memories do I have?

Testing the waters each day to gauge the mood she was in and wondering if this was the day I could ask her about: going to a friend’s party, staying after school for a project, going to the mall or a movie.

Making vodka tonics for her when she got home from work, waiting anxiously for the bad mood to pass and her “couldn’t care less” attitude to take hold.

Keeping my three younger sisters quiet because she was studying or she was sleeping or she was sick.

My mother pulling my sister by the hair to get her to do something.

Laughing when we flinched if she made a sudden move, thinking we were about to be slapped.

The way she would barge into our room with such force, without knocking or calling out, and how we’d jump three feet into the air, hearts pounding.

Fists through the wall. Broken glass. Slamming doors.

Yelling. Lots of yelling.

Silence. Tip-toeing. Daring not to disturb the sleeping giant.

Because I have so few happy memories with my own mother I am panicked that I’m not creating them with my own children. I quiz my daughter, acting as if it’s a light-hearted exercise, “What’s your favorite memory of you and I when you were in grade school?” or “What’s a favorite vacation we took when you were little?”

The exercise is two-fold. I’m trying to reassure myself that I AM doing a good job. That I’m not repeating my mother’s mistakes. But I’m also trying to ingrain these positive memories, praying that she doesn’t forget the good times.

This is a part of me I’m not proud of. This insecurity I carry is unattractive and stifling. But I can’t seem to let it go. It keeps me focused. It keeps me from repeating negative behaviors.

And I desperately pray, it keeps the good childhood memories flowing for my precious angels.

(This post is part of the Five For Ten project at Momalom. Please visit their site for more wonderful posts on Memory. Or click the button below to find out how YOU can participate!)


Filed under children, Growing Up, Moms, Motherhood, parenting

28 responses to “Selective Memory – Crazy or Coping Mechanism?

  1. Whoa. That’s a pretty dysfunctional childhood you are describing. You were strong to overcome it and carve out a good life for yourself…I am in awe of your continual tendency to focus on the positive in the wake of such an upbringing.

    I, too, worry that I’m not making more “memories” with my kids. I’m unsettled about it, wondering what it is that they’ll remember.

  2. angelcel

    I think as long as you spend time with your children, playing with them, doing stuff together, there are hugs, kisses and plenty of ‘I love yous’ then they can’t help but remember the warmth of childhood, even if specific memories fade.

    I recently asked my husband why it is that I always have the underlying feeling that people are going to hurt me, where he doesn’t. His answer was that he grew up *knowing* that his parents loved him and I know from other conversations I’ve had with him that this came from everything I’ve described above.

    We all know that a less than spectacular childhood can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. That you went through such a very difficult childhood and came out the loving, caring person you are is quite remarkable and a testament to your inner strength.

  3. Amazing. Your children are so lucky that you are so aware of they dysfunction in your childhood that you work to make sure they don’t have to deal with the same kinds of things.

    But I don’t think you should worry. As long as you do everything out of love, they will be ok 🙂

  4. suzicate

    Jane, I know where you’re coming from to some degree. I also have three sister (all older and two older brothers), things were never calm, however we were not wealthy. My father was the drinker, my mother the enabler. She made us tiptoe around him. Her world revolved around him. I have many memories, many not so pleasant…I do not speak of them. I only write of the pleasant, and that sometimes makes me feel hypocritical but it would mean that those times were real and cause more pain for all involved. Were I to tell some of the stories, you would shudder. I remember these times, and use them as personal goals of what I do not want to repeat. I guess the difference between them is that my folks probably did the best they could under the circumstances and they truly have good hearts (now)…through time and their recent (last ten years) involvement with religion, they are changed people. I was resentful for some time, but I’ve been able to let it go. I think we all have selective memories to some degree…it’s a coping mechanism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We do what we have to do to help us be better people. I’m sorry you’ve had a strained realtionship with your mother, and I know that hurts you. But the up side it that you’ve been able to be a wonderful mother to your children and create beautiful memories for them.

  5. That is quite the childhood to overcome. But rather than trying to erase it or repeat it, you’ve learned from it. Your positive attitude shines through. Bravo!

  6. Uh, Jane, sometime we have to sit down and compare mother stories… Or maybe not. Maybe just toast each other’s strength at making the conscious decision to break out of that way of life.
    My mother didn’t drink but there were, I believe, mental health issues. Highs and lows. Tiptoeing around her, wondering what would set her off today. In HS she didn’t speak to me for days at a time, living right in the same house, sitting down to dinner together each night, because of course we appeared to be the perfect family.
    And I do what you do now: worry that I’m passing this on. But when I do get mad or act irrationally, I come back and acknowledge it. Apoligize. I am incapable of holding a grudge because it was always so hurtful. It’s like I had to go the opposite way. But I worry anyway.
    Powerful honest post. I so admire you. xo

  7. I do the same thing. Asking my son if he’s happy and what makes him happy. (He’s been grumpy a lot lately, so these conversations don’t end well. Let’s just leave it at that.) My selective memories of my mother are similar, and yet I know there WERE some good times. At least, less awful times. But even those few memories are clouded over with the understanding that “it’s all about her and FOR her”.

    And now I fear I’ve become my mother. I find myself doing some of the same things under stress (hopefully not as bad as her). I’m trying really hard, but being a single SAHM in a new place with no good friends yet, plus Fibromyalgia to boot… it’s rough. I find that I end up treating my son sometimes like I treated my mother: doing everything I can to please him and keep him happy so that he won’t have a meltdown because I have absolutely NO emotional reserves to cope with it. And then I catch myself, pack my emotions down tight and put a lid on it, and try to parent like “the books say”, but without the heart in it I should have. Sorry, I just went off rambling here. I should go now.

    Take care. We’re not our mothers. (I seriously hope!)

  8. Some of what you describe here is EXACTLY how it felt in my home growing up, only my stepfather was the “sleeping giant.” I am, also, constantly trying to create the best, happiest, safe-feeling memories I can for my children, because I know all too well what it feels like to be afraid when you should just be a kid. Thank you for sharing–and it sounds like you’re doing a great job, your children will have plenty of happy memories of their mom.

  9. Wow, these Memory posts are amazing.
    What a horrible experience to go through as a child. You are obviously not like her. Just the fact that you are so concious of it, that you ask your kids about their memories, is proof that you are doing your best to create positive, loving childhood memories for your children. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  10. There are some things we remember because we want to, and then there are some things we remember because we have to.
    Such an honest post.

  11. I am speechless right now only because I could have written this myself, down to the white russian.

    My mother to this day insists that she was a good mom and there were lots of good times-I just wish I could remember them. And I wonder if she has the Pollyanna syndrome so she doesn’t have to remember what she did.

    Do our brains just react more strongly to the trauma, so that’s why we remember it more? Very interesting, indeed.

    Thank you for sharing such a sensitive subject in such a touching way.

  12. How I understand “testing the waters” — taking the temperature of the atmosphere roiling above them too. I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

    Fears of repeating our parents’ mistakes are frighteningly powerful. I’m slowly learning that being conscious of my own choices in light of theirs is one of the best things I can use to steady myself against those feelings. Even if we have selective memories, the overall hope to do better by our children (and ourselves!) gives us some of that power back, perhaps?

  13. I think we all have big insecurities that we can’t let go. I like to think that mine keep me focused, too, on doing things to maximize confidence and minimize the insecurity a little at a time. I’ll bet your kids memories are happy and plentiful. Your writing is always so thoughtful and neighborly – a stark contrast next to a sleeping giant.

  14. Oh Jane… Thank you for sharing this – it must have been tough to write about the subject. It sounds like your childhood was definitely a rough one in many ways – although it’s so good that you have good memories from the time, even if not with your mother.

    Now, I know I’m not a mother yet myself. But I AM a daughter. And I can’t imagine, with any little piece of my mind, that you’re causing your children the pain that was caused to you. The mere fact that it scared you so much to act like your mother did is proof that you simply didn’t, don’t and won’t.

  15. unabridgedgirl

    There are many blog entries that you have written where I have thought to myself, “Aww! She is such a great mommy. I hope when I have kids, I will remember stuff like this.” I imagine that you are creating bushels full of happy memories for you kids. Every day.

  16. I hesitated, putting this post “out there.” I am a fervent believer that every parent does the best they can do with the tools they are given. And because, typically, I am a “rose colored” glasses kind of gal, I certainly don’t want this blog to become a place for me to bash anyone, let alone my family. But memory was the topic given for Five For Ten week and this is the first thing to come to mind – how I mourn for the lack of positive memories of my own mother and how that has colored my approach with my own children.

    Frankly, I’m a bit uncomfortable that I shared as much as I did. I thought about taking it down. But reading some of your comments here has shown me that some of you weathered through a similar childhood. I will leave this post up to say: you are not alone, I’m scared, too, and we don’t have to repeat unhealthy patterns.

    Thanks for your supportive comments and for sharing your stories.

  17. I know it took courage to write that. Thanks for not censoring yourself. I admire you for your honesty.

    I am certain that this honesty will guide you when you raise your children. I think all mothers, to a certain extent, worry if they are creating enough happy memories for their children. I hope we all are. For our sake and theirs.

  18. Sounds like my mother but without the booze. 😦 The few memories of my childhood all include violence.

  19. Jane – thank you so much for sharing this, it couldn’t have been easy. I try to be on the pollyanna’ish side, because I want to show my kids how to be positive and look for the best in situations… because that’s not how I grew up.
    You are doing an incredible job as a mother. Just by reading your blog I can tell.
    Having the memory of what you don’t want to be like can be a blessing, but also a huge curse.

  20. Selective memory – sometimes an irritant, sometimes a saving grace. Learning from those memories is one of those priceless things. Not being able to remember why you went into that room is one of life’s major frustrations.

    Good for you for recognizing and overcoming the dysfunction of your childhood so your children will have happy memories!

  21. You know, Jane, forgiveness doesn’t have to include forgetting. If we constantly forgave and forgot the abuse from someone close to us we would never break the cycle. To me, it sounds like you have forgiven your mom and I believe you are right to not have forgotten the horrible acts.

    As for your children? Because of how hard you work I am sure they will remember the goods and the bads. Probably most of the good times. I didn’t have the most perfect family situation but I have some beautiful memories from growing up. My father was quite abused during his childhood and worked so hard to not do that to his kids. And he succeeded.

    (Sorry if I sound too bold. You could always ignore this comment.)

  22. Jane… I so appreciate you for writing this. Your childhood sounds like mine did with my mother; waiting to see which mood she was in, how she felt, and those decisions created the rest of the day.

    My mother spent most of my childhood in a gin induced haze, tho she won’t admit she had a problem until I was in college.

    She has 20 years, almost, of sobriety now. I am thankful for the relationship I have with her today, but there is no amount of time that can erase many of the memories I have of my own childhood, and the cloudy, dirty lens of gin through which I view it.

  23. Your childhood with those memories of your mother are so sad. Unfortunately, and I can tell by the comments thus far, you aren’t the only one that grew up like that.

    I have that Pollyanna reflex as well. Even some of the worst times in my life (divorce) when I look back I can recall some of the pain, but my brain has smoothed over most of it. So for me, it’s a sanity mechanism.

    Btw- love the paragraph inserting the verbs and time frame and adjectives. That made me smile!

    Have a great weekend!

  24. Your writing is amazing as always. Those are some heavy memories to say the least. But I can certainly relate to wanting to break the cycle, and wanting to be better for your own children. Wanting to give them better memories to reflect upon.

  25. ck

    That was an amazing post, Jane. I admire what it must have taken to go there, and then to share it.

    I also worry sometimes that my girls won’t have enough good memories with me. But I think the fact that we worry about it, that we seek to make sure they’re happy, means they’ll have lots of wonderful things to take with them in life.

    (And lots of things to tease us about later.)

  26. Selective memory is a really good coping mechanism, I think, and it sounds like it’s one your own kids are unlikely to need!

    But even so, I don’t think we can ever predict what our kids will remember when they grow up, which moments will stick with them–and why!– and which will fade. It takes a lot of faith, this parenting adventure. Faith that if we do our best, things will mostly turn out well. And that faith can be hard to come by, some days.

  27. What a post Jane. Really the best description of growing up with an alcoholic mother I’ve ever read. I can just see your child self standing there with the drink (a kid making a drink!) and hoping for it to mellow out her edges. Really devastating.

    Thanks for writing this powerful piece.

  28. I’d say both. I’m very sorry about your childhood memories involving your mother. Maybe it’s for the better? I tend to believe that repressed memories and emotions are more harmful than say anger.

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