I learned early the best way to survive was to fly under my mother’s radar. Do what I was told, when I was told, exactly as I was told. Her way was/is the only right way. No exceptions.
I was an “easy” child. I was a good student, earning good grades and comments from teachers. I had an excellent work ethic. I remained focused on practice — figure skating, ballet, music — whatever I was doing. I did not suffer the embarrassment of my mother screaming, “Get back to work!” across the cold ice as my siblings had. I loved my music, flute, piano, and saxophone. I could get lost in playing for hours. I did my chores first thing Saturday mornings. I was finished by 10:00 a.m. My room was always neat – no, perfect. Bed was always made, perfectly. T-shirts, underwear, socks, and pants were folded with department store precision. Blouses, skirts, and dresses were hung by type and arranged in rainbow-color order – ROYGBIV. Shoes organized in their shoe boxes labeled. I could have gotten dressed in the dark. I was more than compliant. This was compliance on steroids. And this allowed me to escape my mother’s wrath poured out onto those who disrupted her world. This is how I survived, tightly bound and afraid.
Even now, making decisions contrary to my mother’s wishes remains challenging.
It becomes increasingly difficult to say no or to choose my own path, to go against what I know or believe are my mother’s desires, as the stakes increase. Even when I know or soon realize a decision is a poor one for me, it is still difficult for me to say no.
Just over three years ago, I accepted a full-time job, primarily because I was repeatedly challenged by my mother as to why I did not have a full-time job yet. The new work I was doing, building a private practice, leading the single-mom’s group at church, running an abuse recovery group at another church, and providing counseling as a volunteer at a third church was never considered legitimate work. “Work,” as defined by my mother, is only working full-time for a company, receiving a paycheck and benefits. So, I took the full-time position.
The position was providing services to clients with chronic, severe mental illness, in their environment, in the community, on the north-side of Chicago. Within the first two weeks I became aware that I was not a good fit for the position. The position was extremely demanding – physically, emotionally, and administratively. It was the most challenging job I ever had. And I knew it would not be good nor healthy for me to stay.
And yet, I stayed. I stayed well beyond those first two weeks. I stayed after the week I consistently saw eight clients in a day, getting back to the office after everyone else had left for the day. I stayed even though the health and wellness practices I had systematically implemented over the past year and a half flew out the car window as I drove from apartment to apartment, appointment to appointment with little room for breaks, regaining weight I’d lost, derailing an exercise plan I had begun. I stayed even after my knee injury from two years earlier flared and became worse. I stayed even after I developed severe tendonitis in my foot causing such pain that tears would stream down my face as I got out of my car in the mornings. I stayed even after my blood pressure went higher than it had ever been. I stayed.
I stayed when my gut told me to leave. I stayed when my body told me to go. I stayed even after my body was screaming at me to stop. I stayed because, well, because that is what I do. I would rather suffer the consequences of my decisions within myself and in my body than to deal with the harsh venom shot out at me for leaving “where I was supposed to stay.”
Eventually, I did leave. It took me six months to leave the job that I knew I should have left in the first two weeks of working there. The push-back from my mother was fierce, but by then I did not care. I was in pain, injured, emotionally depleted, and spent. I ended my employment there because I knew if I did not, it would end me.
Today, three years later, I still carry the remnants of staying and still struggle to recover ground lost. Yet, as I practice the things I learned, things ordered by those who care for me, I am learning that I matter enough to prioritize my well-being in the order of my days.
Erin O’Connor’s favorite name to be called is “Grandma,” and she enjoys making crafts with her granddaughter. Erin also has two grown children, lives in a suburb of Chicago, and is a professional counselor. She enjoys mentoring others, reading, writing, and seeing God’s handiwork in nature. Erin is a contributing author of several devotionals published in Quiet Reflections of Hope. Erin has begun her journey of experiencing kindness from God, with others, and for herself.