Published on The Huffington Post 12/28/2016, 7:03 p.m.

“Oh god, I’ve become my mother!” How many times have we heard friends, family, or movie characters exclaim that tired yet often at least partly true cliché? Clichés fill our cultural lexicon, but for me that one has a way of catching like my finger in a cheese grater.

My Narcissist Mother

Sure, my mother and I are alike. We both wrap our arm around the back of our head when we lean on the couch. We look alike, cook well, and share the same bladder problem. But when it comes to life’s important stuff—the hard stuff—we could not be more different. And that is a difficult sentence to write, one that took me decades and countless hardships to admit to myself.

Fact is, my mother doesn’t show up in a crisis, at least not for her daughter, and never has. And now that she has cancer (with a very hopeful outcome with treatment) being a no-show most of my life hasn’t remotely dimmed her expectation that I will hold her hand through every step of her ordeal.

The Midlife Sandwich

I drive my mother, via ferry, to doctor appointments and chemotherapy infusions. I run her to the emergency room when she is panicking or in pain. I spend the night at her house when she shouldn’t be alone after procedures. I call and meet with her doctors to advocate for the best care. I pick up medicine, make her soup, run errands, and include her in family dinners and outings to keep up her spirits. I counsel her week by week about how to take care of herself, how to stay strong and positive, how to manage her fears and discomforts. And I do these things while working and taking care of my own teenager, partially disabled partner, animal menagerie, and now suddenly ailing in-laws.

Being sandwiched between caring for aging parents and one’s own midlife responsibilities is not unique these days, and it’s exhausting and at times maddening for just about anyone. But adding to that the subtext of my narcissist mother’s sketchy history in my traumatic past makes for at best an ambivalent experience and at worst an infuriating one.

My Mother the No-Show

Like many narcissistic parents, my mother parentified me at a young age, looking to me to support her after my father left us when I was nine. Before that, and afterward, she offered little to no protection from my abusive father and then stepfather, overlooking the violence and telling me not to be so “sensitive.” When as a child I had a severe case of pertussis she never took me to a doctor. When I was a college student with virulent food poisoning she declined my request for help. As a young adult when I was besieged with debilitating spinal problems, she never visited or helped with mounting medical bills. Likewise, when I underwent surgery for a life-threatening heart condition that had gone unnoticed since birth, she didn’t show up for my operation or recovery. And the list goes on.

By the time I was bedridden with a devastating adrenal condition when my daughter was little, I finally stopped calling my mother or taking her calls, not out of conscious spite but rather sheer survival instinct. Since she had long made my problems her dramas and was a virtual stranger to my daughter, I knew she was the last person I could afford to talk to, and it would be two years before I felt strong enough to resume contact.

My Sometimes-Pretty-Good Mother

Why resume contact at all? The simple answer is that I love my mother. She can be warm, generous, fun, appreciative, and up for adventure. For my birthday she decorates and bakes, and, finally, after decades, when she gives me a gift she tries to think about what I like instead of giving me something random she found on sale. When I call, her voice rises with excitement in a way that I know is only reserved for me. With modeling and healthy competition from my in-laws, she has finally made an effort to bond with my daughter, and their relationship has become affectionate and important to both of them.

Reasons (Not Excuses)

My mother is still demanding, insensitive, and self-centered, and she steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for her actions. When she was a girl, her father was emotionally withholding, making her feel unloved. Her mother and childless aunt coddled her and shrouded her in an atmosphere of anxiety, stunting her ability to become a fully functioning adult. Those are not excuses, but they are reasons. Some of us rise up, and some of us look to others to do it for them. For better or worse, consciously or not, those are the roles my mother and I were cast. My mother’s robust health throughout her life (despite never bothering to exercise) makes her lack of empathy for illness slightly understandable—again, not an excuse but a reason.

Gratitude

I am still working on healthier boundaries with my mother. She makes me batty and sends me into bitter tirades. I haven’t forgotten or forgiven her exploitation and neglect, and it makes me impatient with her. Yet there are moments when we meet in the middle, moments when I tell her the truth about her lapses in my life and moments when she says she should have paid better attention and protected me more. For the first time she tells me the ways she admires me and points out my strengths in ways that feel genuine.

I may not have forgiven her, but I am softening to who she is and I am learning to let in the ways she is a mother to me. She’s the only one I’ve got, and I have learned enough to know that you never stop needing a mother in this life, no matter how old you are.

My mother is still here in this world, I know she is trying, and for that I am grateful.

Julie L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family. Read her blog The Narcissist Family Files.

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