Like Oil and Water This Emotional Life - PBS

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    Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

Like Oil and Water


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A few weeks ago my blog post explored a snippet of my dissertation research.  In an effort to learn more about early attachment and its impact on subsequent sexuality, I interviewed 20 women who work as actors in pornography to get a sense of their relationships with their mothers and how they came to learn about their bodies within the context of their maternal role models.  Here is additional insight gleaned through the interviews that further reveals the complexity of relational attachment.  

As I waded into uncharted territory with each of these women to learn about how they each think about and give voice to their own life histories, I did not know that I would learn about such messy and often dissociative aspects of the mother-daughter relationship.  A prominent theme emerged within and across the interviews which Madison, age 54, explicated with absolute certainty.

She and I were like oil and water.  It was very uncomfortable. My mother did not find it enjoyable to spend a lot of time with me because she was constantly criticizing everything I did.  Two or three days, we’d be fine.  But no, I would never choose my mother for a friend.  You know what I mean?  I loved her, but she was not my friend.

She was neither the first nor the last to describe the all-nothing, push-pull, love-hate, best friend-worst enemy, contradictory, and often traumatic dynamic with her mother.

The analogy made to oil and water underscores the feeling of relational polarity, not mixing harmoniously, creating melodic chaos and ending up in a regrettable cacophony of disconnections.  This was made evident through a variety of complex descriptions, ranging from a sense that the participant had to care for and act as mother to her own mother and, therefore, did not get her own needs tended to adequately, to feeling as if the relationship was changeable, disposable, absent, or traumatically crass and empty.  Although each individual narrator came from a unique standpoint, many of the participants had initial (and often ongoing) experiences of chaos and insecurity within the mother-daughter relationship.

Leila, age 28, described feeling peripherally connected emotionally to her primary caregiver while also feeling bogged down by having to be the protector of her own mother.  “You know what, I really felt like I was taking care of her a lot, even though she was very nurturing and like very supportive and stuff, I still always felt like I had to sort of like take care of her.”  This paradoxical reflection reeks of a requisite pseudo-independence made necessary by her mother’s seemingly sub-standard availability.  My mind flashed instantaneously to the Winnicottian (1971, 1987) false self image of a youngster, in this case a beautiful young woman of 28 who was sitting across from me sharing intimate details of her sexual and relational life, for whom it was compulsory to grow up mentally before it was developmentally time.  This quote does not at first reading necessitate an image as extreme as “like oil and water” and yet after rereading this and other details of Leila’s early life, it was clear that the boundaries her mother modeled were excessively befuddled and simultaneously diffuse.  As the interview unfolded it became increasingly more evident that Leila yearned, above and beyond anything else in her life, for relational constancy and maternal direction.

Emiko, age 21, contemplated the complexities still very much at play in her relationship with her mother.  Like Leila, Emiko expressed a lifelong desire for relational steadiness based on having been a receptacle of her mothers’ traumatic expressions of closeness and distance.  “In a way she was overbearing, but at the same time she was – it was so weird.  She would like cling on – she was very possessive, very overprotected, but yet she was so – like she pushed me away at the same time.  You know, one of those.”  Emiko’s longing for intimate connection and mirroring comes into focus at the end of this statement when she says, “You know, one of those.”  Perhaps she craves validation about the ubiquity of faulty mothering or alternatively maybe Emiko hoped I would acknowledge the depth of her disappointment as she attempted to stave off the pain of confusion and disconnection, a pain that was palpable in the room.

Jade, age 21, further illustrated mother-daughter disturbance and disavowal while detailing her mother’s unpredictable affect and abandoning threats:

She’s very moody, she swings so quickly, too.  I mean there’s one minute she’s in a very good mood and then, she’s a very biting kind of crucial person, I’ll put it – very critical; critical of all my friends, critical of everything. And so then suddenly it’s like when I try to actually stand up to that or something like that or try to go with it, she says, I’m just going to leave.  I’m like, ‘you always run away; stop trying to hang up the phone and run away.  Listen to me…’ There are times when she’s like really warm, very caring and then she’ll be very critical, very cold.  So I mean, it’s hot and cold with my mom, so to speak.   

Desperately attempting to teach her mom how to mother, Jade revealed a mandatory preciousness constructed at a very young age which secured her vitality in the mother-daughter dyad.  From hot to cold and back again, Jade’s mother seemed to provide a tending ground for inorganic growth and maturation based on her own limitations and lack of self-reflection.  Jade identified that this volatile communicative void greatly impacted subsequent friendships as well as romantic relationships.  Throughout the interview she spoke about the ever-present relational “roller coaster ride” that seems to “follow me wherever I go.”  Having to make meaning of life circumstances and disturbing hardship early on in her development, Jade seemed to blame herself for the bewildering juxtaposition of her mother’s emotionality.  Based on early deprivation of unconditional maternal responsiveness and/or predictability, Jade and other study participants seemed not to know their own feelings about their mother.  Instead, there appeared to be a goal-directed focus centered on gaining acceptance and love which often belies their own well-being.         

Elle, age 49, insinuated having always had quite a delicate bond with her mother, sustaining the connection in part through being acquiescent and primed to please.

I loved my mommy and I loved my daddy.  I’ve got the best parents in the whole world.  And basically I would do anything I could to please them.  What I’ve noticed is a lot of people in this business [porn industry] will do anything they can to get love and to get acceptance.  I would do anything that I could to keep love and to perpetuate that.  I was very liked.  I was a very loved child.  

Though Elle’s pronouncement of vast parental love contradicts the overarching theme explored in “Like Oil and Water,” the essential threads related to maternal longing, relational unpredictability, and the disavowal of the self in an effort to be “seen” or related to in a vital way are consistent.  The precariousness of Elle’s bond with her mother (and father) is confirmed through her voracious appetite for attention and acceptance, “I would do anything that I could to keep love and to perpetuate that”, and points to early lack or potential maternal misattunement.      

Sahara, age 42, elucidated her foreboding sense of mothering ambiguity with conviction.  “My mother doesn’t have a natural maternal instinct.  She was never good at being a mother, is not good at being a mother, doesn’t necessarily want to be a mother and today, and for, God, for most of my life has not really been a mother.”  Unarguably, Sahara’s girlhood was wrought with emotional disorganization and body vulnerability based on her mother’s fragmented self-states.  Resulting from tumultuous struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, her maternal caregiver was experienced as dangerous, exploitive, and far from coherent.  Fortressed in her intrapsychic world, Sahara erected impermeable boundaries in relation to her mother in an effort to harness a sense of safety.  To obfuscate painful feelings born in childhood, Sahara shared about her history of “self-destructive” behaviors resulting from feelings of “self-loathing and hate.”  Motherless in many vital ways, Sahara adopted a sense of maternal pride toward younger porn actors who were new in the adult entertainment industry.  Determined not to have her own children partly due to her fear of passing on “the schizophrenia gene,” she reveled in maternal desirability at a distance, somehow seeming to make peace with early disappointments and unmet longings.

Strewn with maternal trauma, Alona had difficulty articulating her life experience.  Words and descriptions did not flow.  Language seemed to be a luxury she could not afford, as survival was the central economy in her household.  Age 19, Alona and I spent little time together as it became immediately clear that talking, particularly about such stimulating relational issues, did not feel safe for her.  There seemed not to be sufficient distance between the past and the present to process.  Alona stuttered as she attempted to reflect on her caregivers’ aberrant mothering tools.  “And but then I started to like basically hate her because my step-dad was abusive to all of us.  So like we all kind of hated her and blamed her, but she was basically scared.  But he was physically, mentally, and sexually.”  Impossibly situated, Alona’s trepidation about her maternal figure was substantiated throughout her 19 years as her mother did nothing to protect her from perilous circumstances.  Relationally dizzy, Alona seemed afraid of her own shadow.  The sexual and emotional trauma Alona incurred was palpable during the interview.  She, unlike a majority of the other study participants, described “hating the sex industry, doing scenes, and having sex on camera.”  Alona explained that although “you might interview girls who love it, I hate it.”  Financially destitute, Alona came to Los Angeles for the adult entertainment industry to find emancipation from her family.  She and her mother are currently “trying to work things out” in their relationship, but Alona did not seem convinced that the efforts would prove fruitful.  Once again, an aspiration for connection with the maternal figure was accompanied by a learned expectation of disappointment, oil and water.      
 
Ava, age 48, delineated a double consciousness related to maternal love and care.  

I felt very – yes, very – yeah, when I was kid, yeah, most definitely.  I felt that she got me and was very loving.  I never doubted the fact that she loved me.  I just was confused at the way she would exhibit her love to me.  My mom’s pretty hands off.  Really was cut and dry about a lot of things.  You don’t really want to get into a lot of the emotion behind things, you know, very closed down, shut down.

Ava’s tone was even and the cadence of her speech thoughtful as she remembered her adoptive mother’s emotional orientation and communicative patterns during girlhood.  As illustrated throughout many of the interviews, reverberation of maternal perplexity assembled esteem for the self that was altogether shaky and questionable.  The daughtering experience was therefore quite destabilizing, necessitating a self-reliance and emotional hardiness reflected in fear of consequent relational intimacy.

The desire to love and be loved was evident throughout the mother-daughter stories, despite some of the insurmountable roadblocks to connectivity.  Despite the undeniably confusing spectrum of mother-daughter relational patterns summed up in Madison’s statement “like oil and water,” a commonality among these women exists; the ineradicable unending longing for closeness.