Upcoming book of interest to be published by William Morrow (October 13, 2009) and featured on Good Morning America on the same day:
Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt
Can be preordered at Amazon.com:
NOTE OF CAUTION: THIS POST (particularly the story in the second half) MAY TRIGGER PAST ABUSE ISSUES FOR THOSE THAT HAVE THEM. PLEASE DON’T READ, READ WITH SOMEONE CLOSE BESIDE YOU, OR STOP WHILE READING IF YOU NEED TO. TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF HERE!
Because my own mother was so far over on the mean end of the spectrum I have little ability personally to describe very hurtful mothering conditions that others’ might have experienced that did not occur as a result of a mother’s psychosis and severe mental illness. I look forward to reading Streep’s book as an ‘outsider’ because I cannot imagine or understand how any parent could possibly maltreat a child unless mental illness was present. What are we talking about, anyway? Nuances of abuse? I have a hard time thinking this way.
One of my basic premises is that the reason any parent abuses, neglects or maltreats any child is because they are just plain nuts and these parents are acting outside the realm of reason. If someone asks, “Why does a parent single out only one of their offspring to abuse and batter while they seem to treat the others well?” I would answer the same way. “Because they are crazy.”
I am interested to read come October of this year what Streep says about mean mothers. From my point of view, there is NEVER an excuse for a mother, or any caregiver of infants and children to treat them in any other way than with respect and complete benevolence. Parenting requires devotion to the provision of adequate care to offspring, and if this does not happen on any level we need to take a look at why not.
I hold parents accountable for every single action that they take in regard to their offspring. There are never justifiable reasons why parents maltreat their offspring. I understand that life can be ‘stressful,’ that accidental misplacement of parental emotion can scare, confuse and harm children. But it is a parent’s job to notice immediately when this happens and to repair the conditions, both inner and outer, that cause any malevolent action on their part toward their children. If the parents cannot make these changes themselves, they need outside help in order that toxic parenting actions do not continue to occur.
I do not excuse harmful parenting actions. Nature provided mothers from the beginning of our time as a species with all the hormonal and physiological ‘tools’ needed to birth and care for their young properly. As humans advanced mentally, we were able to wrest many aspects of mothering behavior away from nature ONLY because we could mother even better than any other mammal can. When mothering actions harm infants and children this means to me that something is WRONG. Some form of environmental influence exists that is throwing the mothering out of balance, either in the external one or the internal one — or in both.
I believe we have to name the problem and not obscure it with complicated psychological explanations. We are a predatory species. Our species operates on a continuum of dominance and submission based upon cooperation or competition. Nature intends parents to take adequate care of their offspring to best prepare them for their future parenting responsibilities.
If parenting is bad, this means something in the environment is bad and is being communicated to the offspring. The offspring’s body and brain adapt to these hostile conditions during their developmental stages so that they can be prepared to live in an equally hostile environment as they grow older. It is thus information about how to live a life under hostile conditions that is passed down generation to generation.
I believe that any time a parent treats an offspring badly, that parent is essentially in competition with their offspring because a perception of ‘scarce’ resources exists. I place even my mother’s extremely harmful parenting of me under this same umbrella. Just because she carried the deprivations of her own early childhood experiences into her adulthood and then exercised her reaction to them through her psychotic abuse of me, does not mean in any way that the conditions that existed as she raised me were any better than the ones she herself was raised under. It had become impossible for her to know they were different. Her being had formed around her early experiences.
The deprivations of my mother’s childhood built themselves thoroughly into her and changed her as she survived them. She ended up without the ability to separate past from present. This, I believe, is the way our bodies, including our brains, operate. This is how information about the conditions of our environments are communicated to offspring. This process is the legacy of carrying unresolved traumas forward through the way we treat our children. This is how we communicate to future generations that the condition of the world are harsh and malevolent and that a scarcity of primary, essential resources exists.
The inability to discern past from present is part of the inability to tell a coherent life story that is a primary ‘symptom’ of a seriously insecure attachment style and the presence of an attachment disorder. I believe that we are physiologically designed to carry unresolved traumas within us because they are signals that whatever caused the traumas to happen in the first place have not been adequately addressed and conditions have not been changed for the better. Our bodies carry this information within them telling us that the risk is still present and the world continues to be unsafe.
Because we are a complicated species, these states and conditions of deprivation in childhood that change the way our brains develop will manifest themselves in what we call ‘psychological’ ways. Only as we begin to reconnect our psychological self to our brain and to our body where they originate, we can we better come to understand how competency or its absence determines how safely and securely we are attached to the world itself as we are designed to control, manipulate and manage resources — including access to them in the first place. Any lack of primary resources that we do not recognize and address will be communicated in some way through our parenting behaviors to our offspring, thus signaling to them the condition of the world at large.
In my post on April 28, 2009, WHY NOT TO REMEMBER MY MOTHER , I alluded to an event that led directly to my ability to finally disown my own mother. This event remains as one of my most painful memories, if not THE most painful memory of my life. In the end it had to do with what I consider to be one of our species’ most valuable resources — having the ability to feel remorse. I will describe to you what happened that day.
I was living in northern Minnesota at the time. My last born child, my son, was not quite three. I had spent the winter taking art classes at the local college and had a studio room in the house with an eight foot table in it that I faced sitting on a tall stool as I worked on my clay sculptures. I had placed a shorter stool to my left so that my son could stand on it beside me and play with his own piece of clay any time he wanted to.
There is no reason and no excuse for what I did on this day I am describing. This does not, as I mention over and over again, have anything to do with forgiveness. This has to do with an instantaneous reaction that I had inside of myself directly related to a completely dangerous and inappropriate response that threatened, terrified and hurt my son. The consequences of my reaction could have been so much more severe that it terrifies me even now as I write this.
Even while I say there was no reason and no excuse for my action/reaction, there were underlying factors involved obviously well below my conscious level of awareness. I had been in one kind of therapy after another for my own child abuse issues for many years. I continued to experience difficulties with myself in interaction with the world and knew I needed to find yet another therapist.
I resented this and carried anger both at my parents for ever having let the abuse happen in the first place and anger at myself that I wasn’t ‘over it’ yet. I had a dangerous volcano packed up inside of me and I never realized either that it was there or what a hazard its existence caused for my children. I of course knew I was an ‘at risk’ mother for abusing my children but I thought somehow I escaped that risk. I didn’t know that I was just ‘an accident waiting to happen.” In reality all it would take was the wrong trigger at the wrong time and that volcano would erupt. And it happened.
I could not afford therapy, so I found a local woman in private therapy practice who was willing to barter with me for sessions. Truth was I didn’t like her, I did not believe that she had the capacity to really help me (and she didn’t), but I didn’t see that I had any choice. I agreed to make her a large eight-pointed star quilt. She chose the colors and I hated them.
I had started work on the quilt but and stopped seeing this therapist. I had found another therapist, but I still owed the other one the quilt. I was procrastinating on finishing what was my obligation. I had the quilt on the floor to the left of the table. I had always allowed my son to have a glass of juice on the table beside him when he stood on his stool next to me. The only difference was that on this day he knocked it over and the entire full glass of juice fell and spilled all over the unfinished quilt on the floor below him.
Now comes the nasty part. I acted, yes, but more importantly I REACTED. I let out a scream at him, extended my left arm and knocked him so hard off of his little stool that he flew backwards away from the table.
That’s how fast a child can be killed. I had a large solid oak double dresser against that side of the wall with sharp corners. Had his head hit one of those corners as he fell he could be dead now.
My next reaction is what led to disowning my mother. I immediately fell to the floor myself after my son hit it, picked him up, held him closely on my lap and began to sob like I had never cried before.
There is no way to ever completely repair this kind of rupture when it occurs between a parent and a child. The only possibility of repair would have been for my actions to have never occurred in the first place. It still makes me cry even as I write this. No amount of self forgiveness in the universe will ever take my pain away over this incident, nor should it. The pain is real and the pain is appropriate, as is the remorse and the recognition that I am obviously capable of abusing a child.
To my knowledge this is the only incident that happened in the 35 years that I had children under my care that I abused one of them. But the other side of the story, the good part that I believe is always a part of the bad –somewhere and somehow if we look for it — is that just a milisecond after my arm flew to the left and knocked him so hard to the floor, I was able to feel what I felt: terror, disbelief, recognition of what I had done, instant terrible pain, shame, guilt, and most importantly, incredible regret and remorse.
That’s when I knew it, that what was wrong with my mother was that never once, not one single time after thousands and thousands and thousands of harsh abuse incidents that she had done to me, did she ever feel what I was feeling. She never felt remorse.
Immediately after I had comforted my son to the best of my ability, trying to tell him how sorry I was for what I had done, and after I had calmed myself down enough to do it, I wrote that letter to my mother that told her I could never speak to her or have any kind of relationship with her again.
Looking for the good in a terribly bad situation allows us to learn and to change. Was I responsible for the reaction that I had in that instant that I battered my son even though it was not a conscious decision to harm him? Absolutely and unequivocally, YES I was. YES I still am. YES I will forever be. Did I learn and change? Absolutely YES to that question, also.
Yet it remains far easier for me to apply what I call ‘informed compassion’ to my mother than it is to apply it to myself over this incident. I believe that is true because I have the ability and capacity to love my children and I don’t believe that she had the ability or the capacity to love me. Whatever state I was in at that split second in time that I swung my arm out and hurt my tiny son was the state that my mother remained in toward me for my entire 18-year childhood.
Certainly there were temporary breaks in her storm toward me, but it never dissipated. I never knew what would trigger her, when she was going to attack me, why or how. But my brain took a different course to cope with her abuse of me than hers did to cope with whatever malevolent experiences she had as a child. I have no doubt that both of us were deeply and profoundly wounded from birth. But I did not carry the same brain-formative detour abilities that hers did.
Certainly the environment surrounding me and my mother did not provide any protection for me or intervention against her. But within herself I do not believe that my mother had the same ability to choose a different way to be with me. I did have a choice with my own children. That instant with my son taught me that. It taught me that the ability and capacity to feel remorse, the ability to do one’s best to repair the damage done from this kind of unconscious reaction/action, the ability to examine oneself as a consequence, to learn, and to make all possible changes so that the risk for this kind of action is expunged from one’s life, might be the best that we can do — ONCE.
Then, it better NEVER happen again!
Whatever had happened inside of me, even if I were to say I dissociated, which I’m sure I did, does not make what I did OK. It was always my job to keep my children safe and to never hurt them. Whatever the snake pit of triggers were that allowed me to react this day I should never have allowed to exist in the first place. That is the truth to me, no matter what.
There is absolutely NOTHING my son did to ‘deserve’ what I did to him and there is absolutely no excuse for what I did to him, either. The event was a terrible tragedy. Yes, I could say that I was ‘set up’ for something like this to happen eventually. Perhaps the miracle is that this is the only time it did. But even though I can find value in what I learned as a consequence of my harmful, wrong and dangerous action that day, nothing will ever make it right. Neither will any amount of ‘understanding’ about why or how my mother (and my father) treated me ever make that right.
There are some things we have to live with, but new information we can gain through conscious understanding of what happened in the past will show us where necessary resources are missing in ourselves and in our lives. That condition we can repair.
I learned more about the kind of mother I wanted to be to my children that day I abused my son than I ever could have if I hadn’t finally learned so clearly the kind of mother I did not want to be. It was only a result of making that distinction inside of myself for myself, that I could finally say a permanent goodbye to my own mother.
In the end it wasn’t because of what she had done to me that made me decide to disown her. I disowned her because what she had done to me never caused her any pain. She never felt any regret or remorse for her actions and never said she was sorry. Her altered brain had been able to make everything she had done to me right to her. She justified it. It was only after I had abused my own son that I knew finally and fundamentally how wrong that was.