Swimming in Circles

When I was about eight years old, my family got a puppy, a beagle-mix we named Trinket.

Oh, I loved that girl. While she wasn’t the first dog in my life, Trinket was the first dog who grew up with me, a part of my life from age eight until I left home at eighteen. (She lived to be fourteen.)

My brother and I would fight over who Trinket would sleep with at night, so the rule became every other night. Trinket was a good bed companion, snuggling against my legs, on top of the covers. By day, she had freedom to roam and often followed me as I played with friends.

dog with tennis ball

My father handled Trinket’s training. He was amazing with animals. Beyond basic house manners, he taught Trinket all sorts of clever tricks, using carrots as motivation. Trinket loved carrots, but even more, she loved my father.

Trinket was protective of her family. When my cat would get into a spitting match with another cat, he’d run home and pass the baton to Trinket who would loudly chase the offending cat away. When I had gerbils and one would escape, Trinket would find it for me, usually hiding in a closet. Once I realized Trinket had no intention of hurting the gerbil, I started letting them out regularly so Trinket could herd them with her nose, something they all enjoyed.

Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.

Ann Landers

As I got older and more keenly observant, I noticed that Trinket was quite attached to my mother, in a way different than with my father, me or my brothers. It seemed like Trinket was always trying hard to get my mother to show her some attention and affection. I don’t remember my mother ever petting Trinket or talking to her in the loving way most people do with beloved family pets. Rather, my mother completely ignored her, except for occasionally adding table scraps to her bowl of kibble.

Trinket’s devotion to my mother was remarkable. If we were water skiing and my mother got into our ski boat – a rare occurrence – Trinket would insist on going along as well when otherwise, she preferred staying on land. Another example: once or twice every summer, my parents and several other couples living along our lake had “boat club.” After dinner, they would climb into their individual boats and motor out to the middle of the lake. They would tie the boats together, drifting, talking and drinking before returning home around 10 or 11 pm. Trinket would sit on the end of our dock and wait for hours for my mother to return. She didn’t wait like that for any other member of the family.

My mother never learned to swim. Mostly, though, she avoided the lake because she didn’t want to ruin her hairdo by getting it wet. (She went to the hairdresser’s once a week her entire adult life, getting her hair shampooed, dyed and set. Her hairstyle never varied.) But if it got really hot, maybe once or twice a summer, she would put on a life belt and wade into the lake just deep enough to float in a sitting position, gently moving her arms and kicking her feet for balance. Trinket would freak out, follow my mother into the water and swim circles around her until my mother, cooled off, came back to shore.

My mother never tried to comfort Trinket as she swam those circles, clearly distressed. In fact, my mother was annoyed by it, didn’t want Trinket to come too close and splash her and get her hair wet so she would splash water at Trinket to keep her away.

Observing these scenes – the boat club/dock sitting and the swimming in circles – I would wonder at Trinket’s devotion to my mother. Why? My mother hardly acknowledged her, and made no secret that she didn’t like all the dog hair Trinket shed in the house. The only reason we even had pets was because my father loved animals and insisted they be a part of our childhood. Was it the table scraps? We all fed Trinket from our plates, so it couldn’t be that. No, I told myself, Trinket tried so hard because Mom was the only family member who didn’t like animals and showed her no affection. I realized that by ignoring Trinket, my mother was (unwittingly) encouraging her to try ever harder in the hope that one day she might receive the affection she craved.

A dog is one of the few things in life that is as it seems.

Mark J. Asher

A few mornings ago, I was awakened at 4:00 am by Conall woofing at something beyond the yard fence. I pulled on boots, trudged through the snow and hauled him back inside. All that drama meant I was unable to get back to sleep, and my mind somehow wandered to Trinket. Those memories of her attempts to gain my mother’s love and affection came flooding back.

A realization hit me, hard, like a gut punch: Trinket’s swimming circles around my mother, begging for her attention in such a desperate way and always failing, is a metaphor for my entire relationship with my mother.

I, too, swam figurative circles around her, hoping to win her love, to show her I was worthy of her support and attention. As with Trinket, she kept me at arm’s length, splashing water in my face when I got too close. My efforts were futile. The desired recognition never came, no matter how long I swam, how frequently I circled.

I always assumed it was my fault, that somehow I was never good enough no matter how perfect my grades or how well-behaved I was.

The fault wasn’t with Trinket. Or me.

The fault was in my mother, a narcissist who wasn’t capable of loving others or showing empathy. For her, people fell into two camps: those who propped up her sense of perfection as a homemaker, having the perfect children and home and husband, and those who annoyed her by being less than her version of perfect. If you annoyed her, she ignored you.

The older I got and the less I fulfilled her desire that I be just like her, the more I annoyed her. She withheld her attention and praise. She showed no affection. Like Trinket, the more she ignored me the harder I tried to be her version of perfect, hoping she would love me, until finally – after fifty years – I stopped swimming in circles.

Instead, I set boundaries.

She got angry.

And stayed that way until her dying day, because it fueled her narrative: I’m perfect; it’s my imperfect daughter who’s at fault.

No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.

Louis Sabin

If I had been some unrelated, adult third party observing the interactions between my mother and Trinket all those years ago, I would have been appalled. I would have immediately distrusted that woman because I’ve come to learn that people who can’t connect with animals lack empathy and are worthy of my suspicion. I would have noted her as someone to avoid, to give her wide berth. I wouldn’t have sought to include her in my life.

But our vision as children is distorted, especially with regard to a parent. It’s as if we’re looking at them and their actions through a lens smeared with Vaseline, smoothing all the rough edges. Our love for them, coupled with our need to have that love returned, blurs the hard truths that are right in front of us.

I wish I had learned much earlier about narcissism in general and narcissistic mothers in particular. Too much of my life was spent with a sense of shame that I wasn’t close to my mother, and guilt that I didn’t want to be anything like her. If pressed I could articulate those two broad themes, could see how lacking my relationship with her was compared to the closeness my friends felt for their mothers, but I couldn’t give words to the underlying reasons for feeling the way I did. Nor could I believe that our strained relationship might not be all my fault.

Yet the more I reflected on those memories of Trinket and our shared impulse to swim protective circles around my mother in an effort to gain her love, I smiled. I mean, I love dogs, and I always strive to be more like dogs, which I’m pretty sure means I’m not my mother.

Be the person your dog thinks you are.

J. W. Stephens
dogs playing

15 thoughts on “Swimming in Circles”

  1. I read your whole post itching to comment about Gilda Radner. I was 13 when SNL debuted, and I had just started hanging out with an older high school crowd. We sat around and quoted lines from our favorite sketches. Gilda was always my favorite because it never seemed like she was trying hard to be funny. She just was. In 1994, I was staying in a hostel in Durango during a x-country bicycle trip. A kid in the bed next to me asked me what I was reading. I told him ‘Gilda Radner’s autobiography’ and he said ‘who’s Gilda Radner?’ An era ended for me right at that second. His comment had such a profound impact on me, because I thought (think) she should never be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rebecca,

    This is a simply outstanding piece of writing on the struggles of family and the healing power of unconditional love. I have always had a very complicated relationship with my father and some of what you write here brings me back.

    Thank you for the quotes, the brilliant writing and the truths which become much more speakable as we grow wiser.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. You’re right; these truths do become easier to speak with time, yet never easy. Families are…complicated, right? My stomach was in knots as I wrote and then scheduled the post, shame and guilt raising their ugly heads once again. So I played with my dogs, and guess what? Those negative thoughts disappeared.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Complicated . . yes. That covers a ton of ground, doesn’t it? LOL. But for your dogs and hey . .I know this is slightly off script but my cat Mr Speaker behaves like there is a dog inside of him just woofing to get out. When he comes over to sleep on my chest, all is right with the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mr Speaker! Great name! Got a kitten while in law school and named her Prosser (after the iconic law school textbook, Prosser on Torts). She definitely helped get me through law school.
        Love cats, do cat sitting regularly for friends. Haven’t had one for a long while, but fondly remember the warmth and comfort of a cat nestled in my lap or next to my head on my bed. Give Mr Speaker a gentle scratch between the ears for me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I took my narcissistic mom post down — I guess I felt I’d written it and didn’t want it up there. But as I read this I related to Trinket, too, and, of course to you. My therapist years ago said, “Look what you got from your mom. You’re always going to do your best. You’re self-reliant, undaunted, hard-working and kind.” That is indeed the paradox. And dogs. My mom always had one but they were never her “pets” not as much as they loved her. She never sat with one on her lap or even petted them. I just chalked that up to her farm upbringing in which an animal was an animal was an animal. As for me, I just got back from a “Bear Walk” which is 1 mph. Lots of smelling, rolling in snow, leaning against me, stopping to watch the cattle move in the distance, stopping to watch the geese, stopping to look at the sky, stopping to check messages. I think there’s more standing still than there is movement. The sweetest part is when she wants to tell me “thank you” and walks beside me with her shoulders or head under my left hand. Dogs know a LOT more about showing love than my mom did. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Can’t imagine what growing up with a mother like that would be. My mom has her own share of faults but loving and showing affection for her kids is not one of them. However, where I grew up pets were a possession and not considered deserving of the same affection. Luckily they did not successfully pass that on to me. My dogs are especially thankful because they wouldn’t be the spoiled boys they are now!

    Your last quote by J.W. Stephens makes me think of a sign we have hanging in the den that says “My Goal in Life is to be as Good a Person as my Dog already Thinks I am.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your pups are lucky to have you as family, Ari.
      Love the sign in your den. Years ago, visiting a dog-friendly dude ranch in B.C., I knew I was in the right place when I saw a sign in the office that said, “If your dog will vouch for you, you’re welcome to stay.”

      Liked by 1 person

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