My Mother’s Obsession

I spend a lot of time thinking about how people see me and what I look like. Not because I am vain and stylish, but because my mother was obsessed with making me look like a girl. We were both unhappy with how I looked; we had different ideas on how to solve the problem.

no-clothes-for-butch-dress-upEvery day I struggled to get dressed and go to school. I hated wearing skirts and dresses. I hated wearing tights. I hated wearing Mary Janes. I hated wearing pastels, lace, bows, and anything that had elastic in the waist or a zipper in the back. I threw a lot of tantrums. I wanted to look like a boy not a girl. I could not understand why my mother insisted on putting me in clothes I hated.

By the third grade I had acquired a wardrobe of drab unadorned dresses, and dark Oxford shoes. While I despised these clothes, they were the least objectionable of what was available. I wore them like a prison uniform. The clothes were ugly. but innocuous enough that I could numb out in them. I refused to inhabit them. I daydreamed my way out of them.

I changed as soon as I got home. I had some girl clothes I could tolerate and some hand-me-downs from my brother that I cherished. I avoided the mirror unless I was wearing clothes I felt comfortable in.

My mother was determined. I refused to make any effort to look like a girl. She bullied me. I didn’t budge.

It was a dreary battle that went on for years. The kind of battle that makes a child sullen and stubborn. An argument that got imperceptibly meaner each time it was fought. My mother was sharp-tongued and vicious. She would yell at me and I would stand still and try to let the sound bounce off of me. I would concentrate on the syllables and ignore the meaning.

Day in and day out she sniped at me. I tried not to argue back. I wanted to defend myself but when I did it backfired. It gave her more ammunition. I avoided talking to her. I did my homework. I read books. I stuffed myself with food. I pulled myself into my own thoughts. I pretended to be a boy. I watched baseball on TV. I listened to music. I killed a lot of time.

Every sentence was loaded. Every conversation ended with raised voices or slammed doors. I thought this was how all mothers behaved in private. She pretended to be nice when there was company, but the moment they left she reverted.

I did not realize that my mother’s behavior was out of line until I was in my teens. I did not tag her as abusive until I was in my twenties. I thought I got what I deserved. I thought it was my fault; if I’d been “normal” everything would have been OK. I half believed her when she said I was over-sensitive and couldn’t handle constructive criticism.

I convinced myself that the solution was to go away to college. That once I got away from her I would be alright. I thought I was leaving my mother behind but I carried her with me. I did not realize how much damage had been done; that her obsessions had become my obsessions. I did not realize much how much work I had to do, and still have to do, to be free.

28 thoughts on “My Mother’s Obsession

  1. halitentwo

    You are brave and daring and getting freer every time you share it. I used to liken trying to get through it as shoveling out a mountain of shit with a teaspoon. Now that I am a parent I am even more horrified by my mother’s abuse. I look into the innocent eyes of my children and cannot imagine doing to them or saying to them ANY of what was said to me. I’m not glad you had to go through it, but I am glad I am not alone. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I didn’t talk about my mother’s behavior for a long time – I thought I “should get over it”, but I don’t think I ever will. The best I can do is to accept that it happened, that it wasn’t my fault, and learn to live with it. Still, I wonder what she would have been like with me if I had been girly, and if she still would have needed a scapegoat for everything else that was wrong in her life.
      It is great that you can raise you kids without repeating your mother’s mistakes; they are very lucky kids.

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  2. amediablogger

    What a wonderful post. It’s rewarding recognising what happened and how you’ve developed. Life takes us on a long journey -several in fact – and the one that is most challenging is self development and self awareness.
    As a child I used to think I was a boy. My father would take me with him to the barbers for a haircut and I’d go home with him having a matching hair style. My mum used to get so angry but I loved it. I loved wearing jeans, shorts, tshirts, flannel shirts and sneakers but oddly my father would get upset and say some terrible things to me, my mother would say she’s just a child but she too used to constantly remind me I’m a girl. I was a tomboy and I still am deep inside. Today I’m a combination of girly, rock chick or sporty. Plus I wear mens deodorant and use mens shower gel but the most feminine perfume; go figure.
    We are who we are and no one should judge or attempt to change our nature. I wish you the very best and I admire your courage.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I would not have guessed you were a tomboy, past or present. We are all works in progress (hopefully progress). I’d like to be able to mix and match comfortably from both sides of the spectrum, but I get too much pleasure stealing from from the boy’s/men’s aisle. The best I can do is to reclaim some colors that I refused to wear as a kid – I look good in pink and in orange, and I’ve mixed them in with the navy blues and grays. Even I got tired of being monochromatic.

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      1. amediablogger

        Not only a tomboy but honestly I wanted to be called mike or michael and I used to ask my family and friends to call me by that name. Now I’m happy with my name but it took a while. Some of my friends joke and call me mike at times.
        My favorite colour is pink and inside this adult feminine exterior I’m actually a teenage boy 🙂

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  3. aharman411

    This post hits close to home, you are very brave. It is crazy how we can carry our mothers with us wherever we go. lol Still getting mine to fade… slowly but surely.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I know, it is like there is a tape of her that I can’t quite erase. It does get fainter though. Thanks for reading the post and commenting; it helps to hear from other people who have difficult mothers.

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  4. Shandi

    I always had long hair. Girls had long hair. Two of my favourite aunts had short hair and I remember the comments behind closed doors about how “ugly” they were trying to look like men, and let me tell you they are two of the straightest women I know. When I finally worked up the courage to cut my hair off in my third year of University I felt like I was seeing myself in the mirror for the first time, but those voices in my head still kept screaming that I was performing my gender wrong.

    Thank you for writing this, it is extraordinarly powerful.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for stopping in and sharing the story about your aunts – I think sometimes people have a harder time understanding gender-non conforming straight women because they think that straight women only exist in relationship to pleasing men – and have no separate independent life. Whereas butch lesbians at least make some sense to them.

      I also love your blog title.

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      1. Shandi

        Ironically both aunts are unmarried and incredibly successful professional women who have a profound impact on the world around them. It always confused me how their appearance seemed only to matter in as much as it conformed to the idea that they “needed to get married.” As a little girl that already felt incredibly lost in all the girly things that didn’t seem to fit, the message that ALL women at ALL times were required to be super femme was unsettling to say the least.

        As for the title, well, it’s pretty honest. 😉

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  5. RonaFraser

    I hear ya. I canNOT believe I still have my dad in my head. In real life, he’s mellowed a bit, but in my head he is always at full-strength critical. When I am aware, I consciously hear it and challenge its validity… but when I am busy or stressed, the negative voice just keeps on chipping away at me. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Even when parents get old and frail, they still have that power to psychically hit a raw nerve, particularly if you are feeling vulnerable. At least you have the opportunity to work it out a bit with your dad; my mother stuck to her guns even on her deathbed.

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  6. txbridgefarmer

    This sounds so much like the battle I waged with my own mother. I think they felt that our differences were a reflection of a failure on them.
    To this day, I have to fight my mothers voice telling me to dress “properly” or “do your hair”. Telling me that people will call me a boy and that’s embarrassing.
    Even after she finally accepted my lifestyle she still didn’t understand why I wasn’t comfortable trying to act “feminine”. To me, trying to dress or act in that way made me even more obvious. Made me stand out even more. It wasn’t just my clothes or hair. It was my walk, the way I carried myself. The confidence that a person naturally has when they are comfortable in their appearance shows.
    You’re not alone. There are so many of us that are right there with you towing our mother around every day!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I know. And what were they thinking when they finally got us dressed up and we looked like boys in bad drag? Who did they think they were fooling? And why can’t we stop towing them around after all these years?

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  7. bloggingpioneer

    I liked how brave the written voice ‘sounded’ in this. I am still trying to figure out how to write about my parents without feeling guilty — partly because they read my blog! I appreciate your courage, as it serves as inspiration for those of us still unsure how to move forward after unpleasant parental experiences and in some cases, serious traumas.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I set some limits (Donna would say not enough) on what I write because Donna reads my blog, and because I use our real names (and if you were good with google you could figure us out and stalk us).
      I don’t know if I would write the same way about my mother if she was still alive; I started blogging after she died and now you are making me wonder if the two are related. My mother would have had nothing good to say about my blogging (why are you telling strangers all this personal stuff?) unless it turned out I was making money from it (not a chance).

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      1. bloggingpioneer

        I definitely have to set limits with what I write (probably a good thing), and there is a lot that I have chosen to put on the back burner to spare parental feelings, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be fair game one day. I think family situations make incredible stories, painful as they are to write. As always, I have enjoyed reading your works!

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  8. underfrog

    This is the exact story of my childhood! ….And my “favorite dress” in elementary school (had to wear them 2 x per week) was the ugliest dress ever -gray with pink ribbon…!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      We should have an ugly dress competition. Mine was olive green with brass rivets on the patch pockets. And another one with a blue/green plaid and a peter pan white collar. Ick.

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  9. skye83

    Sounds a little bit similar to my mom. Even at 36, she STILL tries to tell me what to do! And she criticizes me for my transition choices. She’s relentless, but I’m firmly resistant to anything she says I should or shouldn’t do. Basically, I tune her out…and do whatever I want! What can she do? Ground me?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      My mother treated me like a teenager too. I think her favorite sayings were that it was just a phase I was going through (from birth to death) and that I would never find anyone who would put up with me if I didn’t listen to her (not true). Even when I didn’t speak to her for 5 years at a time (and we lived a mile apart) I could hear her anyway. I swear she is trying to speak to me from the grave.

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  10. Nicole M. Sartain

    I never had that problem. I dressed in boy clothes as a kid. My mom knew better. As an adult I do wear a combination of the two. Women’s clothing but with a significant look to them. Defenitley my own style and approved look.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You are lucky that your mother had common sense – and either didn’t care what people thought or accepted you as you were. I think kids who are allowed to wear whatever they want (no matter how oddly they mix and match) are able to make better choices in adolescence and adulthood. If you don’t let kids experiment, they never get it out of their system – and always want what they were denied access to.

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  11. Jamie Ray Post author

    I follow a couple of blogs by the mothers of trans* kids (interestingly I haven’t seen any by the fathers) and always wonder what my adolescence would have been like if my mother had empathy for me instead of antipathy.

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