| Family Tempo |

Happy Birthday

“Narcissist.” An ugly, nasty word, almost an onomatopoeia, hissing of insidious things

The ironic part of the entire thing is that Ma came specifically because she wanted to be with us for her birthday.

No. Not ironic. “Ironic” means “happening in the opposite way to what is expected and typically causing wry amusement because of this.”

This, in fact, aligned perfectly with everything Ma is, and it wasn’t all that amusing.

Since I was born, it was a point of pride that I shared a birthday month with Ma. We were the only ones in the family who were January babies. The shared birthday month was always our point of connection, one that I wore like a pearl choker in my youth — an adornment at first — and then as I grew larger, a noose. I was her birthday present, she told everyone with swagger.

I only realized in retrospect what my discomfort was born of: even my day of birth was centered around her.

Years later, a therapist put a label on Ma: “narcissist.” An ugly, nasty word, almost an onomatopoeia, hissing of insidious things.

Did that explain the flip-flop from charming woman to raging tempest? The plans that shifted on a dime, regardless of whom it affected, because it no longer suited her? The decisions and rules that changed based on her wishes and fancies at the moment? The fact that she had zero ability to think about another’s perspective?

Stepping gingerly on eggshells was how I learned to walk. I was certain others had the same experience.

The first time I recall acknowledging something was amiss was in 11th grade. I mentioned in passing to a teacher that when my mother walks into the kitchen, I tense up.

Her face — horrified and compassionate — gave me pause.

“Do you feel that way when your father walks in?” she gently prodded.

I laughed in response, thinking how ridiculous that sounded. Ta? He’s the gentlest man on earth! “Of course not!”

Then I stopped. Oh. It didn’t seem quite so funny anymore.

Thus began my years of therapy, of healing, of working through numerous traumas.

I now live in Israel, miles of land distancing us physically and emotionally, and still, her existence casts a shadow on my life. As a mother, a wife, I’m always on guard: are there aspects of her that have trickled down to me, affecting my own parenting? I watch myself like a hawk, nitpicking at my faults to ensure they don’t resemble Ma’s tendencies; I’m empathetic to my children to a fault, often siding with them in place of supporting my husband. (And as I write this, I’m questioning myself: Well, here I am, writing about myself; isn’t that narcissistic? The fear never strays too far.)

I’m nothing like Ma; I’m nothing like Ma. It’s a battle cry, a balm, a prayer, a hope.

I’m wary of outsiders, critical of potential friends. I cringe when I see whiffs of narcissism: the woman who somehow brings every conversation back to her, who casually hints at accomplishments, out-horrifies with her personal stories of woe. Her friends might label these traits as idiosyncrasies; I stay far away from these types of women. I wonder about her children.

Now, Israel has opened up again to England, and Ma insists on visiting. It’s been two and a half years since we’ve seen her last.

“I want to be with you on my birthday,” she says gently.

There’s always that whisper of hope: maybe things have changed, maybe they’ll be different this time. I drive to the airport to pick up my parents, excited to see Ta, that familiar twist of dread brewing in my stomach thinking of Ma.

She sits in the front (of course), asks me about my graphic design business, seems genuinely interested in how it’s doing. Then the rest of the trip she spends delineating how I could improve my work, which contacts I should pursue. I tune her out, nod and mm-hmm; that’s all she really needs.

Ta interjects here and there, innocuous comments of support and love.

He’d never actively argue with Ma, and I wonder if years of living in her shadow has trained him to believe his opinion no longer matters. They don’t see eye to eye on things; he’s confided to me as much in private. But he’s a broken man, too afraid to insist on his perspective. So, he goes go along… gently down the stream… insisting we follow his lead and do the same.

Life is but a dream to him; he’s a passive participant, going wherever his wife’s whims move him.

It’s frustrating, maddening, and I sit there quietly, witnessing it all.

Ma is here for her birthday. Ma is also here for my daughter’s birthday, another January baby. When I was expecting my own child, I discovered with a sense of dread that my due date was the exact same as Ma’s birthday; secretly, I resented it, although I cooed over the phone to Ma, “Another birthday present!”

It was with a twist of relief when my daughter was born a few days early; my rebellious streak seemed to have affected my hormones, my child.

During Ma’s visit, we make plans, cancel them last minute. And still, we nod along, row, row, row your boat, with Ta whispering, encouraging, “Just agree, don’t argue, it’s simpler that way.”

Ma hasn’t only taken away my mother; she’s taken my father with her.

On my daughter’s birthday we celebrate who she is, and then it hits me: I didn’t believe she was my personal birthday present; I see my daughter as a separate entity from me, with her own wishes, beliefs, ideas.

Me? I never had that luxury; Ma believed I was just an extension of herself, a recipient of her criticism, a source of potential pride.

With a grateful sigh, I reiterate: I’m nothing like Ma.

So, here’s where the non-ironic, should’ve-been-expected, non-amusing sucker punch landed: when I saw her travel itinerary, I glanced at her departure date. She was flying out on January 26 at 11:50 p.m. My birthday is January 27.

Being with her daughter on her birthday didn’t seem to matter to Ma.

It could’ve been sad, depressing, hurtful. Instead, I thought about birthdays, about what, in fact, I’m celebrating.

Certainly not my day of birth alone; of what value is there in something I had no say in? To that, I owe my parents my deepest appreciation (there is much to be grateful for, granted).

What can I celebrate on this day?

I can be proud of what I’ve achieved, what I’ve become. Day by day, month by month, year by year, I’ve worked on myself, molded my traits, learned from others, did intense inner healing.

This year on my birthday, I was alone and surrounded by loved ones: my wonderful husband, my amazing children. And yet, I shared company with an individual I’m most proud of: myself.

Happy birthday to me.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 819)

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