What’s in a name?

In my previous post about past Mother’s Days/Mothering Sundays I gave an outline of what my mother’s general behaviour had been when I visited in person.

It’s strange to think back. Would I have begun to understand just how long and consistently my mother had been emotionally abusive to me if I hadn’t gone through the process of changing my name?

To give some background: I’m a non binary person and I’ve known that I didn’t fit into the CIS, exclusively male or exclusively female categories since I was six years old. The names and definitions were unknown to me then, although of course all kinds of people with different binary orientation or other genders existed. That was the 1970s and 1980s in provincial England, there wasn’t much of what you’d call an open or progressive attitude towards gender, sexuality or relationships, or at least not in our family. I learned to keep my mouth shut about any differences I felt regarding my gender or sexuality. I kept it firmly unacknowledged and hidden until around 2014.

I came out to my partner and my best friend in 2015, and although there was some surprise, there was more of an immediate acceptance than I expected. What I didn’t do was tell my mother and stepfather. I knew that acceptance and support was the last thing that was likely to be offered. However, my slow and ongoing transition had a starting point and that was changing my given first name. I’d never liked it or felt it reflected the person I knew I was on the inside.

I’d decided to inform my mother of my name change after it had been legally processed.

Why wait? Well, I was very aware (even without consciously realising the extent of the emotional abuse) that our relationship had never been particularly close, encouraging or emotionally supportive.

What I hadn’t expected was that it didn’t go badly, at first. Over the phone and via letter  it appeared that, apart from some initial surprise, my mother was okay with the news. At this time I’d already introduced limited contact with her, so that perhaps delayed the later problems.

The first visit after my name change was not a full-on disaster but it was clear that only a month on from announcing it neither my mother or stepfather were practiced at saying my new name. They never say it aloud once. I wondered if my mother had concealed this from my stepfather as he made absolutely no indication that he knew my name had changed. It should’ve been a big, red flag, but I allowed for the fact that it was a new and potentially distressing situation for them. As people in their seventies and eighties they might need more time to get used to using my name and patience from me in allowing them that time. I let the matter be without saying anything.

Five months later the issue exploded in everyone’s faces, and finally began to peel away the levels of defense I’d constructed to deal with years of abuse.

It was a lunch at a restaurant for my mother’s and my partner’s birthday, which falls on the same day. Every year we’d get together around that date to celebrate. Being out in public was usually a lot less stressful than being invited to lunch at their home.

This time it was an utter nightmare, for me and for my partner.

I immediately noticed that both my mother and stepfather were not calling me by my name and this time it was grating on me to say nothing. There was not a single apology made for getting my name wrong. During the three hours that followed I counted that my mother used my deadname sixteen times, compared to my stepfather who used it only three times. It was far more than my mother would ever usually have called me by name in a week, let alone a day.

What followed on from that was almost a masterclass in the range of emotional abuse and negative, manipulative behaviours that I’d grown used to since I was a child. There was belittlement of my achievements and appearance, emotional vampirism, forced teaming, as well as general levels of negativity.  It was enough in itself to leave me depressed and unhappy but it was her letter to me, some weeks later, that finally made me realise how bad things had been for a long time.

I’d written to her a week after that painful afternoon. I’d gone through version after version to try and find a way to vent my anger, and then, when calmer, to explain how I felt to be called by the wrong name. I tried to keep my tone hopeful and conciliatory but I still hadn’t understood at that point just how deliberate her emotional manipulation was.

A reply arrived. There was not a single word of apology. There was no mention of her feeling any sadness that I’d felt hurt. Not even as lip service to us ‘getting along’. Instead it was a full-on attack of how wrong I was to even dare mention how I felt because it was, of course, all about her. She’d been ill in the previous months! She was an elderly person! She deserved understanding and sympathy and I was just being selfish and demanding. Why all her friends, who had been so amazingly supportive during her illness, had told her she was a wonderful person! I had to be making it up to accuse of her of being anything less than completely marvellous at all times.

And it was with that I was forced to recognise how little she actually cared for me. It was one of the unhappiest Eureka! moments of my life. All her previous behaviour became clear to me, at last. Which I will write about further in my next post.