My mother was a replacement child and I am finding myself seeking a place for her

My name is Evgeny. I am an analytical psychologist living and working in Moscow. It’s hard to speak today, I belong to those Russians who are going through an extremely painful experience of collective guilt, shame, and acceptance of personal responsibility. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate to speak at all about this but it is at least appropriate to say that there are millions of Russians who feel like me.

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I am not a replacement child. My mother is. And everything I write below is written with her permission and based on a recent conversation with her. She cares about this text as much as I do. For as long as I remember, I have always had a deep sense of compassion for her, and I have felt pain and fear for her. My mother has suffered from a sense of her own irrelevance or inadequacy, and this combined with the experience of her increased responsibility for all external reality. Not only towards her children, but also towards her sisters, their husbands, her friends, colleagues, neighbors. My mother was very sensitive about anything, from the big issues in life to even the smallest of troubles of daily domestic life.

When I was about 6 years old, she came back from the grocery shop with her face literally twisted in pain. Those were the hard years of food shortages, you had to stand in line for hours for meat and milk, she came back just after such a line and told me: “There was a girl with a child behind me, she didn’t get any good meat. I am so embarrassed, it is as if I took the meat away from her.” A year or so later, she came back one day from the funeral of a younger colleague who had passed away from a serious illness and said: “I took her life. It’s not fair, I’m the older one. I am the one who should have died. I’m taking someone else’s life, again.”Almost the same way she reacted to the deaths of her hospital room mates when she herself was battling a deadly disease and miraculously survived.

When I was about 16, contemplating further education, my mother told me: “You know, I never wanted my profession. And I don’t know what I wanted to be. I wanted my mother to be proud of me and I felt I had to go to that particular department, but I still don’t know why I did that.” Today, my mother remains one of the most famous Russian scientists in her profession, she has full professional recognition, monographs, top scientific titles, more than 300 publications, dozens of students. And still, before every lecture, for which she spends hours preparing, she struggles with serious anxiety, saying that she has nothing to say, she knows nothing at all about her subject and has never understood it. Every report for her, every exam of every student for her is an excruciating ordeal in which she has to prove all over again her right to her place. And despite all her achievements, she is invariably disappointed in them and considers them totally undeserved.

My mother had eight sisters. She is the youngest and now there are only three left alive. And 6 more of her siblings died in childhood from exhaustion and disease. My mother’s family went through the hardest events of Russian history – the civil war, famine, repressions – and these lives are the price my relatives paid. My beloved aunt, who is no longer alive and was born a year before my mother, became an object of substitution herself; my grandmother, desperate with the realities of life, tried to get rid of her during pregnancy, and this left aunt severely injured for life. My my brother and I only found out the cause of it at a very mature age; we were told for much of our lives that it was just a serious accident. An absolutely taboo subject in my mother’s family were our deceased uncles and aunts. This is a knowledge I also acquired relatively recently.

It must be said that my mother’s sisters possessed the same traits I have described in my mother. One of my aunts left an autobiographical novel called “I Live Someone Else’s Life”. But still, the prohibition on knowing about those who have passed on did not go away. And the dead seemed to demand contact with death; there have been many tragedies in my family: my cousin committed suicide, another cousin’s husband died in an accident, and another cousin, an extremely bright and successful man, died of very sudden and very severe alcoholism.

As I write these lines, once again I realize how deeply the same patterns of worthlessness and survivor’s guilt resonate even in me. I only became aware of these feelings after coming to psychoanalysis, and I am still in the processing them.  

Now, I can talk to my mother about them; maybe it’s my projection but she seems to be getting better. At least we are both looking for a place within us where those who have left are comfortable and where we can be tolerant and compassionate with them and with ourselves.

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