Education Life Parenting

The Parent-Pleasing Trap

By Kristen Polito of SaltandPeppertheEarth

My mom is first and foremost a Pragmatist.

Straightforward and matter-of-fact, she doesn’t typically let emotion distract her. I have to assume that these characteristics are innate, for this has been her nature as far back as I recall. Compounding that, it could certainly be argued that 14-plus years of raising severely Autistic children has necessitated an intensified level of efficiency and practicality.

To the nth degree.

From my own perspective, these traits can sometimes seem remote or standoffish. If I am in a particularly emotionally raw state, her straight-forward manner can feel critical and disapproving. I need to emphasize that this is how I experience our relationship, and may or may not be accurate.

My relationship with my mom is complicated and confusing. Land mines, just under the surface of our 33-year connection, threaten to erupt at every interaction. I am her first-born. And her only girl.

Naturally, there is the implication that dreams in the realm of “feminine” glory or success are my responsibility to fulfill.  How could it not be intense? My mom wanted so much for me, and likewise she has done so much for me.

My mom is a really amazing person. A good mom. However, as a highly emotional, rapid-cycling Bipolar, eating disordered adult-child, I struggle with a lot of internal, self-imposed pressure in relation to our dynamic. Regardless of how objectively successful or unsuccessful I happen to be, I have always felt as though I haven’t pleased her. Fallen short of the mark.  Without exception.

The underlying concern that I am “not good enough” isn’t a recent sentiment. I didn’t begin feeling this way during my recent and significant struggles with physical and mental health. It didn’t start when my marriage dissolved, I claimed bankruptcy, lost my job and fell into legal trouble. It’s not a neurosis stemming from angst-riddled teenage years or even from middle-school.

This desperate desire to “perfectly please” my mom has been with me always. I remember the anxiety in elementary school, in preschool even. I probably was a stressed-out, high-strung baby.

One particularly traumatic memory from 3rd grade demonstrates both the longevity and irrationality which characterize my fears.

My teacher had administered a pop quiz on which I’d performed poorly along with a large percentage of the other students.  Apparently, the teacher was having a bit of an off-day because her reaction to the less-than-stellar performance of the class was overkill. In a loud and (what I remember to be) intimidating voice designed to humiliate, she listed the students’ names who had failed to use periods at the end of their sentences and would, therefore, be receiving an F grade. I remembered being terrified to go home that day, dreading the inevitable confrontation in which I would have to present my mother with such a shameful abomination of schoolwork.

I suppose this was my first experience with failure, and I was unprepared to handle it. Ridiculous as it sounds, that experience shook me to the core. The terror in potentially disappointing my mom was sufficient to remain in my memory to this day.

From that moment on, my subconscious had become altered. My preexisting anxiety to please became augmented by the new knowledge that I possessed the capability to disappoint. The sheer inevitability of it was overwhelming.

I felt as though I was defective somehow. 

At age 33, there’s a part of me that remains overly reliant on her for validation and approval. This is an entirely different type of acknowledgment than that of which I seek from the ever-evolving relationship with my father. With my mom I feel childish and stunted, as though I’m still earning gold stars to stick onto one of those achievement poster boards lining the sad, fluorescent hallways of Anyschool, Anytown, USA.

I am the first to admit that, given my genetic predispositions (Bipolar I, Anxiety and Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses), I experience the parental dynamic at a higher intensity than others.  However, I am not alone in the seemingly uphill battle that is parent-pleasing.

No one’s relationship with their parents is perfect.  No one is exempt from the desire for parental approval and (sometimes) the feeling that it’s just out of reach. 

The truth is, I haven’t failed my mom. Not at all. Even at my rock bottom, my mom has loved and supported me unconditionally. Yes, she may scowl, speak sharply or give me the silent treatment. But it’s less about whether I have achieved that all-so-elusive state of “success” (whatever that is) and more about her wanting “more” for me. No matter what, she wants more. More for me. And more for my brothers.

Because she loves us, she wants more.

More than anything.


About the Author

Kristen M. Polito aims for brutal candor in regard to her own struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and bipolar disorder. Besides writing, she loves running, reading, organic gardening, and dogs. If she ever grows up, she wants to be a Stigma Fighter, an Eating Disorders Awareness Champion, and a Mental Health Advocate. You can read her public blog, SaltandPepperTheEarth and follow her on twitterFacebook, or visit her author page