real life

'Your dad had a heart attack because you were bad.' Growing up with a narcissistic mum.


This post deals with child abuse and might be triggering for some readers.

One day, my mother and I were walking into IKEA. She was holding my daughter in a particular way she liked to, sort of a torso chokehold.

“I don’t like the way you’re holding her. I don’t want you to hold them that way anymore,” I told her.

“I held you and your sister like this all the time and you’re fine.”

“We survived. There are things you did that I don’t want done to my children.”

“Like what?”

“You want to go there?” I said, smiling at my own jab.

“Yes,” she snapped.

“Like beating us. I won’t do that to them. Never.”

“You just wait,” she said.

Watch: Women and violence. The hidden numbers. Post continues below.

Video by Mamamia

And there was my fear, hanging out there. My dear mother, that I might become just like you, and my children will have to learn how to survive me too.

Early on in our relationship, my first husband came from behind me with his arms raised. He may have been trying to scare me.

I saw the shadow of his extended arm and dissolved into hysteria.


He repeated sorry over and over again, but traumatic recall can surface in an instant, even when it’s with someone you love.

I couldn’t bear my forearms to be touched for years.

I had a monthly massage membership, and I wrote on all of my forms and reiterated before each session the importance that that area of my body not be touched. I said they were “ultra-sensitive.”

I worked up to allowing one practitioner to massage them with “very light pressure” until I could stand them being massaged more deeply.

I’ve become prone to carpal tunnel and immediately got “mummy thumb” or “De Quervain’s tenosynovitis,” a condition marked by pain in the tendons that run along the thumb side of the wrist, from the way I held my children by their armpits and cupped their heads before they could support them themselves.

I have wondered if my mother caused real damage, structural weaknesses when she cornered me and beat my arms with that metal mop.

My first husband told me I should work to strengthen them, do exercises, which I did, half-heartedly. Maybe I just wanted them to remain weak.

My father had a stress heart attack when I was eight years old. In the waiting room, my mother told me it had happened because I’d been bad.

I told her this years later, and she brushed it off. “I could have never been that cruel.”

And I thought, ‘Of course you could be; you are that cruel.’

And I wondered if we are all that cruel, if cruelty is just dormant, if my mother was right in warning me, “Just you wait.”


I always come back to the metal mop.

She was laughing. I was trapped in a corner, and she was smacking my forearms with it. I had bruises up and down my arms for weeks. I learned how the muscles and tendons and ligaments in my arms worked from how painful holding a pencil was.

It only happened once, or I remember it only happening once, but it was enough.

All of the other moments — the fear, the slaps, the hair-pullings, the anxiety about whether I could load the dishwasher “right” for her, or if I wiped the countertop well “enough” — were so minuscule compared to the metal mop.

I struggled doing chores for years. My first husband liked a clean house, but he married a woman who saw cleanliness as a standard she couldn’t keep up. It would often cause fights when he’d come home and realise I hadn’t cleaned. Yet again.

Or he was the one sweeping and mopping while I was off from teaching over the summer. Yet again.

He’d rail against the streaks I’d leave on our bathroom mirrors. Tell me, “If you were my housekeeper, I would fire you” when I didn’t wipe off all of the dog hair stuck to the top of the toilet lid.

Sometimes, things came up and I didn’t clean. The act of not cleaning became greater and greater. The more I would wait, the greater my anxiety about cleaning became. I’d wait for him to yell, make some comment like, “Why haven’t you loaded the dishwasher?”

My old anxieties would come up, like, “Will it be okay if all the silverware doesn’t point up?”

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For her first Mother’s Day as a grandmother, I struggled to find a card that said nicely, “You were a shitty mum, but I’m glad you’re a good grandmother.”

I don’t remember what I picked for her, but I wrote, “It’s so good to see you be such a good grandmother,” saying without saying, “This is the only good thing I can say about you.”

I opted for a crafty present, painting my children’s feet, stamping them to a page, and scrawling, “We love you from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes!”

The innocence of children.

They don’t even know what people can do in the name of love yet.

At my sister’s bridal shower, she said, “You’ve always been mum’s favourite.”

“It’s only because I have the grandkids,” I tried to counter.

“No,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’ve always been her favourite. I’m dad’s favourite.”

I’ll never be able to reconcile how I could be her favourite and get beaten with a metal mop by her.

On the evening of his first Father’s Day, my first husband stomped our dog. She yelped and held up her right back leg.

His mother saw it.

I saw it.

I kept washing our children’s highchair trays. Pretending in the action that it simply hadn’t happened.

His mother sat on the floor, extending her arms out and said, “Oh poor little Rosie, I’ll pet you.”


He said, “I didn’t mean to hurt her. She just always gets in the way.”

I kept washing their trays.

I became aware much later that in my body my first husband was located in the same scared places that my mother still is.

Growing up, I wished my mother would fear me. I wanted to be powerful, so that she would cower and never put her hands on me or my sister again.

But physical power over someone or something is unstably built.

When I grew old enough, big enough, I too tried using physical power. I once hit her with a plastic drink cup while she was driving. She stopped the car, dragged me out of the passenger seat, and left me to find my own way home.

It didn’t do anything.

It didn’t stop anything.

It just added to the laundry list of things I would need to own. I couldn’t pretend I was just a victim anymore.

My mother would tell you she did the best she could.

Please note, the featured image is a stock photo, sourced from Getty.

If this post brings up any issues for you, you can contact Bravehearts (an organisation providing support to victims of child abuse) here.

If you are concerned about the welfare of a child you can get advice from the Child Abuse Prevention Service by calling 1800 688 009, or visiting their website. You can also report abuse to the relevant child protection authority in your state: details available here.

This article originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission. 

Tara Blair Ball is a freelance writer and author of The Beginning of the End. Check out her website here or find her on Twitter: @taraincognito.