It’s hard to be a successful adult when you never got to be a child

What exactly is a successful adult? It took me 60 years to figure out my definition, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my lovely psychologist, Alice.

I’d gone to her to try and finally put out the bushfires of anger and envy that flared inside me. A SaraLee frozen cheesecake would have cooled the flames, but I was determined to jettison that method. On my first visit to her, Alice drew a simple sketch of an adult cradling a baby. ‘To thrive and grow emotionally,’ Alice explained, ‘a little child needs to be cherished unconditionally’. I stared that felt-tip kid and felt like crying, because I never got to be her.

Geez Mary, you carry on like you were a hungry orphan in a Bangladeshi sweatshop. That’s the voice of Sam, my ever-helpful inner critic. And she’s right, in a way. I can’t complain about the physical treatment I got as a kid. My mother was a superbly capable farm wife. She fed me vegetables that she grew in her own garden, and delicious fried chicken that she’d nurtured from a day-old chick and killed her self. She made me warm snow suits to get through the Iowa winters. And she never hit me, as the father she loathed had done to her.

And yet, I couldn’t relax with her. My mother’s love came with a heap of conditions and the biggest one was, I was born to replace her mama. In my earliest memories I’m sitting on mother’s lap. She’s saying, “The only real friend I ever had was Mama”. She tells me again about the spring night when I was a year old and a phone call ripped through the country darkness to shatter her sleep and her life. With her adored mama suddenly dead, my mother longed to die as well. But she had to get out of bed and look after me. It was then she understood why God had sent her a late, unexpected baby.

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“You’re just like Mama”, she would croon, holding me close when I was four or five. And I so wanted to be Mama. Mother’s unhappiness wrapped tight around us as she recalled the terrible threats her Dad had screamed at her, the miseries and deprivations he had made her endure. I just wanted to stop her pain. Sometimes I could, with a cute story or a nicely worded question.

But I could never get it right for long. One minute I’d be on her lap, the next minute she’d be standing, towering over me, yelling, “You’re just like him. You’ll never amount to ANYTHING!”

What had I done? Used the wrong tone, looked the wrong way? Next time, I would be more careful!

Once I started school, when I’d come in from the bus in the late afternoon, Mother would be sewing, or canning tomatoes, or making jam. She never tried to teach me any of these skills. My job was not to prepare for adulthood. It was to sit down at the kitchen table and listen to what was going through my mother’s mind. In many ways it wasn’t a bad job. Mother was smart, and well-read. Her observations of our neighbours, and the wider world, were often insightful and frequently funny. But if I dared to venture an opinion of my own, it would invite an avalanche of the words that would live in the centre of my soul for decades: selfish, lazy, good for nothing!

So at my mother’s side, I didn’t learn to make a dress or slaughter a chicken. I learned to monitor every word I said, to set my face to give away nothing of what I might actually be feeling. My mother made me a master at pretending to agree with whatever anyone said to me. She taught me I could earn a blessed moment of appreciation by brandishing a prize: “Look, here’s a report card with all A’s. And a medal for my clarinet solo. And an article I got published. And a book I wrote!”

These techniques garnered the approval of a lot of people, but I have come to understand that you can look like a success and still be eaten up by self-doubt and internal criticism. With Alice’s help I’ve arrived at my definition of a truly successful adult. She acknowledges that inside her is a baby crying for love, a child hungry for guidance, an adolescent starving for approval. All these selves deserve her respect and kind words. She doesn’t need the permission or approval of anyone else to cherish them. Only when she realises this can she go on to form healthy and honest relationships with other people.