Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Narrow expectations about Land of Unconditional Love
I want my mommy: I need a list of reminders to turn to when I start "wanting my mommy."
Through extensive counseling over the last six months, I've discovered I was loved "conditionally" as a child.
Much more conditionally than my sister, who toed the line and did everything she was expected. When I rebelled or simply chose another path, I was held at arm's length, and this still occurs (my sister and I are in our 40s).
I still grapple with that longing for the mom who will love me no matter what.
I don't feel this longing all the time, just now and then. I don't expect Mom to change, but feel that for my own peace of mind I have to let it go. Can you help me?
Carolyn: I might be able to help you with a misconception about your past. You say you were loved "much more conditionally" than your sister was — your sister who "toed the line and did everything she was expected," while you "rebelled or simply chose another path."
Assuming this is an accurate representation of the facts, I think you're missing that your sister was loved just as conditionally as you were. She merely chose to meet the conditions, and therefore received a love allotment that reflected this choice. You chose not to meet the conditions, and so received a smaller allotment.
Obviously, both of you were ill-served by that system, and you showed it by your reactions: Both her favor-currying and your authority-bucking are normal responses to a punitive environment.
Likewise, showing love conditionally to one's children is a typical, if unfortunate, response to having grown up in a punitive environment oneself. Were/are your mom's parents tough on her?
Following this trail of bread crumbs isn't going to take you to the Land of Unconditional Love. But there's a good chance it will take you to the Land of Seeing Your Mom as a Complete Person, vs. as an outsize emotional force.
It can also help you see what she might have been trying for. There's actually a fine line between raising good kids by rewarding good behavior (a widely endorsed and encouraged approach to child-rearing) and raising resentful kids by using rewards to manipulate them.
Such fine lines can be hard for any parent to discern, on the fly with young kids in a charged situation, when it comes time to give hugs or discipline.
So what happens when you ask parents to make the right choice — on the fly, remember, and emotionally charged up — when they've had no good example from their parents? You're going to see a lot of "Why can't you be good like your sister?"-type infractions.
Anyway. Seeing the way your mom was damaged herself (as is most likely the case) doesn't erase her mistakes — adult responsibility attaches at some point, no matter how bad the circumstances of one's childhood — but it can explain her, humanize her, and therefore narrow your expectations of her into a more realistic range.
In the best case, it can even fuel a rewarding impulse to mind her feelings, even while rightly holding her responsible for the harm she did to yours.
It's a complicated dance, but, then, that's how most dances are.