Posted on December 16, 2015
Back in the 1950’s a psychologist called Harry Harlow conducted some experiments. He took baby monkeys from their mothers and gave them two bizarre substitutes: one “mother” covered in cloth, and one “mother” made only of wire (but containing milk). Even though the cloth mother didn’t give her milk, the baby still preferred it to the wire mother. She would nip over to the crappy wire Mum for feeding but come right back to Cloth Mum afterwards and cling on for comfort. This picture makes me want to howl with grief for those sad, confused babies. And then beat the crap out of the dickhead scientists.
One of the sad side effects of Harlow’s research is the fucked up monkey mothers it created. This will be a surprise to no one, but the babies deprived of real mothering, who were traumatized (he kept some of them isolated for 6 -12 months) grew up to be terrible parents themselves.
My mother was born just after the Second World War. Like many, many people from that generation in our culture her parents were damaged, in one case deeply, by it. My grandmother lost her great love in the War, and my grandfather was a barely functional alcoholic after his war experiences. I feel like WWII still lives on in her – the conflict, the lack of trust, the fear, the loss, the betrayal, the hatred and most importantly, the deadened or non-existent emotions. And perhaps, behind her parent’s generation, WWI lives on her and others too. For what she was, and has been my whole life, is a wire mother. She could be relied on for basic sustenance all of the time, but all that other stuff – unconditional love, appropriate responses, support – only some of the time or not at all.
I’ve been writing about her, on and off, for the past decade. Once I described her as a beautiful, dangerous, rotting flower. That I couldn’t explain the depth and breadth of her because it was all twisted up inside me. Now I have enough distance to see her as a profoundly damaged person, like her parents. Someone who shouldn’t have had children. I know – especially at this time of year – that saying your mother shouldn’t have had you is Christmas sacrilege.
Nonetheless it is the truth.
But she did, and in her own way she tried to do things differently to her own mother. For example, it haunted my mother for years that all her toys were taken away when she was a child because she was ‘spoilt’. In response, she hung onto all our old toys for us, and we, holding our own grudges against her, resented it, seeing it as yet another attempt to control. This is how the best intentions fail. And maybe I shouldn’t have had children either. I hope I’m doing better, but I won’t know until my kid grows up. Be humble, new parent.
I have friends who have similarly difficult relationships with their parents, and whose parents have similar backgrounds: born in bombed out homes, on the run from invading armies, no security, constant fear. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but I wonder: maybe those wars really did change our parents, even as babies; and maybe those wars are part of why our mothers are made of wire, like Harlow’s creation.
Merry freaking xmas, all children of wire mothers. I know this is a really tough time of year for a lot of us. Hang in there.