Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mama bear

My mama bear has been coming out a lot lately. I kind of like it, in that it erases any early fears I used to have that I just don't have any maternal instincts. But I kind of don't like it in that in those moments, I remind myself of my mother.

Let me set the scene for you. It's the early eighties, New York City. It is filthy, lawless, violent, and basically an outdoor insane asylum, since all the state run mental institutions had recently opened their doors and emptied their contents onto the city streets. I am a small blonde white girl. It's not good. Pretty much every time I leave the apartment I am accosted by people who hate me because I'm white, female, or just exist at all. I am pinched, chased, spat at, have bottles thrown at my head, entire bags of white flour dumped on me, and the filthiest things whispered in my ear on buses and subways. I am ten. When my mother observes any of this, she screams and yells and throws a fit towards the perpetrator(s), which you would think would make me feel proud and protected. But somehow all this ever did was make me feel even worse. I remember one incident where we were on our way to have head shots done for me and some crazy homeless guy almost pinched the skin off my arm. My mother screamed and yelled at him and everyone stared. Then we had to go do the shoot, in which I had to be "bubbly" and "outgoing", neither of which I was on even my best days, and certainly not on a day like that. I remember her being disappointed in me that I didn't "perform" better during the shoot. I have the contact sheets from that day and I can see the trauma in my eyes. It's just awful. So, again, why when my mother defended me so ferociously, did it not make me feel better, closer to her? It had the exact opposite effect. 

Years later I brought this up with a therapist. Having established that my mother has NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), we came to the conclusion that, my being essentially her property and a reflection of her with no personality or feelings of my own, her defense of me was really defense of herself. It's kind of like the macho guy who beats up the guy who insulted his wife - he's really defending his own honor; it's really about his own ego. That's always how I felt about my mother. It was never about me, that I'd been hurt; it was always "how dare you touch MY daughter," and then my feelings about it were completely crushed and ignored. Or maybe I just can't ever give her a break.

Well, today I found myself once again defending my kid against someone else's horrible little brat. I was at a pool party, and decided to play with B in the shallow, non-operative hot tub away from the hyper older kids. Well, of course immediately all these little girls jump in with us and start splashing around, sticking their tongue out at him and making faces at him (to try to make him laugh, I'm sure, but it was really annoying), and then this one little girl thought he had splashed her and got mad and started sending waves of water into his face, over and over, until I looked her dead in the eye and said in my scariest voice possible, "HEY. You STOP that RIGHT NOW." The look of terror on her face told me I'd gotten my message across. Then I took us out and away because I just couldn't deal with these out of control unsupervised kids anymore. 

The intense rage I felt in that moment made me think about my mother and wonder how she felt when she caught someone hurting me, which as I said was pretty much a daily occurrence in 1980s New York. Did she want to rip their heads off, like I did? Were her instincts just normal mama bear behavior, or like my therapist posited, just an extension of her personality disorder? And if so, when I defend my son, is it all just about my ego? 

I really don't think so. But it does make me wonder.


  1. I think it is a matter of intent. Your concern was over B, not your own feelings. We had a similar situation at the pool this summer too. My mamma bear was about to rage on three 12 year old boys, I said to myself they do it one more time, and I will go all scary teacher voice/look on their asses. Turned out that the next time they splash, Isaac wasn't having it, and he gave the most pitiful cry. The offending boy apologized profusely, said Isaac was really cute, and asked me a bunch of questions about him (like can he walk). The boy even returned later to say hi to Isaac a few more times later on. It was a good lesson to me, that sometimes I didn't need to protect him, he had it figured out. In the long run, a splash was a good opportunity for him to voice his own limits (much safer than having a kid throw rocks at him or something).

  2. When I worked at a school-age daycare, sometimes the tougher kids would be really nasty to the gentler kids, and I could feel my 'Mama Bear' mode get activated -- and these were children I had no parent/child connection to! (Plus, I was only a teen/twenty-something, myself.) That wiring runs deep, and it's intense. Personally, I would give more of a side-eye to a parent who sat in the sidelines and watched her child get trampled under the pretense of toughening him up.

  3. I don't think it's your all. I'd lose it in that situation. I had a situation at the pool this weekend, Elena started playing with a floaty another girl had abondoned & of course as soon as the girl noticed Elena with it, she tried to take it from her. I told her no, there were plenty of others she could have. Well this brat goes & collects all of them, stacking them on the side of the pool. Elena, innocently, thinks this girl is starting a game so heads over to see. This girl looked like she was gonna go at Elena so I took her & went to the other side of the pool. The father apologized to me for his daughter's behaviour but didn't say anything to the girl. So E & I are on the other side of the pool playing with the floaty & this little brat comes over, tries to take it again then goes out of her way to push past Elena. Again the father apologizes to me for her behaviour but says nothing to her...I don't understand that!! He knows it's unacceptable behaviour yet doesn't teach her not to...okay, that's my rant!!

  4. I totally get Mama Bear when someone messes with my girl. Another toddler -- daughter of a close friend -- slapped my girl when the mom had stepped out of the room. Luckily I had been given express permission to discipline her if this happened, but it was like my blood pressure instantly went through the roof! Luckily my response -- barking "NO HITTING!" and dumping her on a chair for time out and then fawing over C -- was what the mother wanted, but she probably didn't get how much my blood was boiling. Just for a second. C wasn't hurt but the viciousness of a slap brought out pure adrenaline. I have no doubt that was about being a mama. The kind one is supposed to be.

    I have no doubt that you were protective in the right way... but that might not help you. I know we all doubt ourselves over the stuff that wasn't taught to us as children. But I think you should trust yourself. You seem like a pretty awesome, and pretty intuitive, mother.

  5. I've been thinking about this post since I read it this morning - what really stood out to me is the DIFFERENCE between you and your mom. Your reaction was because you wanted annoying kids to leave your son alone because you were concerned about him. Not because of what their actions meant for you. I think B can tell that love for him is behind Mama Bear - just like you could tell that your mom's reaction was not motivated out of true concern for you.