Toxic Mom Toolkit: The Key to Unlocking Family Secrets

30 Oct

de0abd008850fb6bb344a2d280c7997aIf you’re like me you probably have a manila file folder where you keep that one ultra-complete and detail-filled work resume. Maybe you applied for a government job and it required not only your jobs and titles, but your many home addresses, too.

Complete records of our comings and goings in life are hard to come by and if something happened to that record, piecing it back together would be a real chore. It has value as a personal document and that’s why I keep it in a safe place, where I can retrieve or refer to it when I need to. You probably have something like that too.

So, why wouldn’t you want to have a similar record of your mother’s life?

As a retired newspaper reporter, I value timelines. They turn confusing stories into understandable narratives. They illuminate twists and turns. And I feel strongly that any topic in which you are interested can be illuminated with a simple timeline.

Creating Family Timelines 

When I began working on Toxic Mom Toolkit, the first thing I did was create individual timelines for each of my mothers: my awful birth mother, my horrible adopted mother and my wonderful stepmother. Then I merged them to create my mother history.

The adult children of toxic mothers can learn a lot from family timelines. They help us fill in the holes of our family history and pathologies. If your maternal line has a distinct pattern of crazy women giving birth to sane women, wouldn’t you want to know into which generation you fall? Also, very often, toxic maternal behaviors are handed down like good silverware, starting with the great-grandmother who abandoned a daughter with her mother, who abandoned her daughter, and so on, and so on, right up to you.

Themes may emerge. It is not uncommon for maternal lines to have a history of calling their daughters liars, especially on the topic of sexual abuse. With the paternal line, a habit of skipping out after the baby comes can often be tracked back for multiple generations.

Understanding why your mother behaves the way she does starts with an understanding of what happened to her in a step-by-step chronological order – in other words, with a timeline.

How to start?

First, pull your own legal documents and look at them like you’ve never seen them before. Review your own birth certificate and look at everything like Sherlock Holmes would. Who was the doctor? What city and county sealed the document? Look for the tiny boxes, where the mother indicates the order of her children. Where there children before you of which you were unaware, growing up? What are your mother’s parent’s legal names? Where did they live? What was the address that they took you home to? If you don’t have your own birth certificate, get it.

Public documents, which include birth certificates and marriage and divorce records, are a good place to continue your research. If you live near your mother, or where she grew up, you can go down to the Office of the Registrar in the city or county government center and request these documents for a low fee. They will include and confirm the name of her parents, if she had been married or had children previously and may refer you to divorce decrees, lawsuits, or family obituaries. You have a right to this material. If anyone asks, the simplest answer to why you need it is: family history.

Once you have confirmed your mother’s birthdate and birth city, you can move forward at your own pace, collecting information that may reveal unknown siblings (or siblings put up for adoption before you were born), and the identities of extended family.

Most people are born; go to grammar school, high school, a trade school or college. Follow that line. You can go to the high school and look at the yearbook for your mother’s class year. I don’t care how old she is, the school keeps them in the library.

A pregnancy lasts 39 weeks. Look at the marriage license and compare it to your own birth certificate. There is no shame in a quick marriage based on the blessing of a baby, but was this a pattern with your mother? Did she marry only to divorce quickly thereafter? Without judgment, you deserve to know the facts.

In general, most young women marry before 30; generally, they have jobs, careers, and may change marital partners along the way. By their 50’s, they are losing elder relatives and may benefit from wills or trusts (all public documents).

If your mother was born or lives in another country, you may be able to request documents, or you may need to talk to old friends of hers or elder relatives. You may never want to miss a family funeral again!

Creating a timeline overrides all the secrets your toxic mother had assumed she could enforce. And it’s an important part of taking ownership of your life story. It’s an important part of your own healing.

Toxic Mom Toolkit on Boundaries: If Any Other Adult…

10 Oct


If any other adult treated you the way your Toxic Mother treats you,

what would you do?

Think of the office colleague who rolls her eyes at your suggestions in meetings, but later re-presents them to praise from management — how do you behave socially with that person?

The gym rat who asks you about your weight and diet and then snickers a little when you say you are focusing on your overall health — how much interaction do you really want?

The ex-spouse or former in-laws who are tracking you for slip-ups, who are constantly checking with mutual friends to pick up any sort of dirt about your life – when do you need to spend time near or with them?

If another adult treated you in such a way that you sought private psychological therapy to recover your emotional equilibrium and sense of personal power — would you still take their calls?

A reasonable person would consider limiting contact with anyone who demonstrates that they don’t value you as a person. If they have undermined, lied, cheated, spread gossip or have generally tried to hurt you, chances are you’d think, “I really need to limit my contact with him/her.”

On a personal, romantic or family level, another adult who lied, cheated, and gossiped about you wouldn’t be surprised if you needed a break from the drama, or even decided to break it off completely.

If the neighbors called the cops, because you were suffering as a victim of domestic violence, the doctors, cops, and counselors you met would give you tons of information on hotlines, therapists and safe houses. They would support you in making a break while protecting your children.

And yet, when your own mother is hurtful, vindictive, manipulative, a liar, thief, or creator of super high drama and emotional chaos, to the point of you questioning your own sanity, value and future, there is often a thoughtful period of wondering what to do about it.

If we reach out to friends who don’t know our mothers very well, there can be an unspoken assumption that underneath all the bad behavior, our mothers truly love us. To someone who has never witnessed the wrath of a toxic mother, the handholding often includes suggestions of talking it out or forgiving her.

Often, there is a prolonged period of investigation trying to figure out if our mother’s behavior can be linked to her own childhood. We wonder if they have suffered trauma, have emotional or mental issues. Could her own health or use of medications be making her behave so badly, even and up to causing many sleepless nights wondering if there is an unknowable period of time when others are just allowed to behave badly?

Could her cruelty towards you just be a SIDE ISSUE related to her:

Recent divorce;

Job stress;

Money issues;

Loss of a loved one;

Fears over aging;

Caring for an aging parent;

Caring for children or grandchildren;


Drug use; or

Religious beliefs?

A great deal of time can be wasted trying to sort the why of it out. Sometimes it’s safer to wait and wonder, instead of protecting yourself.

It’s funny what happens when you change your perspective.

c2e26070c580a328b02de6ee9228f064Let’s say, your toxic mother drove to your house when you weren’t there and left you a gift, a seasonal potted plant, on the front porch. While she was there, she went through the mail sitting in your mailbox, circled the house looking in all the windows, and tried all exterior doors and sliders to see if maybe one was open.

She might have looked through a window to check and see if your sink was clean or your carpets were vacuumed. Maybe she sat on your stoop or patio furniture for a while, smoking, and left a few butts on the ground. Or perhaps she spoke to your neighbors, asking them what time you left and when might you be home again?

Let’s say all that happened one day, but instead of your mother, let’s say a co-worker did that. Or the lady from the gym. How would you feel about it then?

And let’s take it a step further.

What if someone did all that and your home security caught it all on video. Or your neighbors told you they watched it and thought about calling the police, but didn’t want to get involved or get someone you knew in trouble.

You get home and learn of this visit, discover the potted plant, sweep up the cigarette butts off the patio and you don’t like it, but really, is it a big deal? Maybe it’s not such a big deal of your mom did that? But it would be a little creepy if a co-worker or gym friend or neighbor did that.

Then you notice that your home phone has recorded messages. What if there were more than ten multiple angry messages asking where you where, when would you be home and why you hadn’t made time to thank the visitor for the lovely plant?

In an angrier and angrier voice the person describes how he/she went to a store, picked out a plant, drove it over to your house, was concerned that you weren’t home, couldn’t get into your home and had to sit outside (in the cold) and now, you haven’t even found a minute to call and thank them?

* * *

Why make excuses when your toxic mother does stuff like that?

If any other adult did something like that, you’d probably tell them off, warn them if they ever did something like that again, you’ll call the police and then have no qualms about following through, wouldn’t you?

So why does your mother get a pass, year after year? If any other adult treated you that way, you wouldn’t waste any time agonizing over what was going on in their life, in their head, you’d just figure out how to keep them away from them.

And one last thing.

What if while you were gone and your toxic mom was snooping around your house, your 11-year-old daughter was upstairs doing her homework with ear buds in her ears? What would you tell your daughter to do if she called and said Granny was outside, knocking on the kitchen window?

The next time your Toxic Mom invades your space without warning and says or does things that are hurtful, upsetting or frightening, ask yourself, if any other adult acted this way, what would I do?

Then do that.

Toxic Mom Toolkit: The Final Plan

26 Sep

photoI found the dove feather on the ground in front of my house. For a month or more it was in a cup holder in my car. I looked at it at stop lights and found it utterly calming.

Is it a coincidence that the calming feather was just the thing I needed when I decided today that I would move forward with a Toxic Mom Toolkit companion workbook focusing on going No Contact?

I have a habit of designing a book cover before I embark on a real writing project. I do it to focus. I do it for luck. I do it because other authors I admire say they do it. It is a way of making a writing project real.

I had been struggling with the possibility that I could write about going No Contact and possibly convince a reader that they “should” end their relationship with their mother. What bothered me was the thought that I could influence someone in a very personal decision that could be the best or worst decision of their life. Not to mention, it is a huge decision with lifelong repercussions.

Weighing those thoughts against the years-long pleas from readers of Toxic Mom Toolkit I came to understand that those who are going No Contact anyway could be helped by things I’ve learned and stories I’ve heard over many years. I do know some things you should ask yourself, some things you should brace yourself for, and some things you have to expect in response to ending your toxic mother/daughter/son relationship.

It’s tricky and I know a few tricks.

So, today is the official first day of writing Toxic Mom Toolkit: The Final Plan workbook. If you know me, you know I’m neck-deep in vintage decor. I grabbed some Anagram tiles from the 1920’s and centered the words on my marble coffee table. But it needed something; something else; something soft from nature.

The dove feather!

For me, the pale grey feather is a tangible reminder to be as kind as possible to everyone including toxic mothers. It is in extending kindness (and understanding) to people who hurt us that we rise above our painful histories. With 20 years of No Contact with the mother who raised me, I know how important kindness is, now that she has died. The kindness I’ve extended, the neutral state when we did speak, and the care I took to treat her as I would any other senior adult that I did not want in my life, was the key to my own peace.

I dropped the feather and captured an image that will be my light on the horizon as I continue to help others struggling with toxic mothers.



Toxic Mom Toolkit: A House Full of Love

13 Aug

7fd54531baa5ee8ab3ab0eda39cb8df1Driving through San Francisco on my way to the 2015 Catamaran writers conference in Pebble Beach, I had a sudden impulse to drive by the two-story house I grew up in. It was only a few blocks over and I had plenty of time. As I parked, I looked up to see new paint samples on the facade and there were other signs of home care.

In 2010, I visited the flat and was flabbergasted to learn that a wonderful lady had bought the building. She lived upstairs and in the lower flat, the apartment I grew up in, she ran a Tibetan Healing Center. Literally, my parent’s old bedroom, was set up with comfortable chairs for group therapy sessions! There was another private therapeutic office set up in my little bedroom, which once had yellow gingham and daisy wallpaper and light wooden shutters on the only window — the window I used to crawl out of. I was amazed that a venue of such intense sadness for me, had morphed into a healing resource for others.

Anyway, I cut the engine and looked up and thought, I’m going to leave my book at the house. So I wrote an inscription to 864-XXth Avenue and tucked my card in the book and drove off.

The universe is a wonderful place – full of unexpected blessings – including the note I just received from the current tenant of lower flat of 864. She even included an amazing photo of her gorgeous little boy. I’ve altered her note a bit to protect her privacy. What a generous and loving soul.

She wrote:

Dear Rayne,

Thank you for the thoughtful gift of your book.  I came home late last night from a trip to Bali and found it on the doorstep.  I was so tired from the long journey that I brought it inside and didn’t look at it until today.  I honestly thought it was something that a religious group had dropped-off at my door as they sometimes do.  

First off – congratulations on your book!  What an accomplishment.  

I haven’t had time to read a lot of it as I have a 10-month old little boy and spare time is not always easily found.  I read enough today to understand that your childhood in this house wasn’t always a happy one and that made me quite sad.  I’m sorry that you had to go through what you did here.  And I’m sad that energy was once here in this space.  

I hope that it provides some comfort and healing to know that my beautiful son is being raised here with a lot of love.  The house has been completely remodeled so I suspect you wouldn’t recognize it.  For instance, the hall closet that still gives you bad memories is now the laundry room.  When I bought this house as a single woman when I was 34, it was my favorite room because I had never had my own place with a washer and dryer.  I went out and bought the nicest washer and dryer that I could find and I painted the room a light, ballet slipper pink.  It’s also a favorite room of (the baby) as he likes to crawl in there and watch the clothes spin in the washer and dryer.  If he’s a bit fussy from teething or something else, I sometimes sit on the floor in front of the machines and he sits in my lap and watches them.  The baby’s nursery is in the sun room and it’s quite cheerful.  I was sad to add blackout shades as I loved all of the sunlight but I quickly learned that if day napping was going to be successful, I needed to forgo the light in that room.  (The baby) is so happy here.

Before I bought the house it was owned by Gary and Jane Bell.  Jane ran a healing center out of this unit for many years and they lived in the upstairs unit.  The house and my unit had been blessed and cleansed many times and I have had a shaman do a cleansing here myself.

If you ever want to come by and visit the house, please let me know.  I can even take a walk with the baby to give you some personal time here.  

Thank you again for your thoughtful gift.  I promise to continue to fill the house with light and love!


Don’t forget to Pack Your Paddle: 2015 Catamaran Writers Conference at Pebble Beach

11 Aug

stevensonschool9I have long adored Frances Lefkowitz, author of To Have Not, her memoir of growing up poor in 1970’s San Francisco. It’s a wonderful memoir and it rang particularly true for me, as I had walked the same foggy streets. In her book, Frances treats her mother sympathetically. It’s a book full of life lessons for everyone.

Recently, I noted that Frances would be one of the instructors at a writer’s gathering in Petaluma, where we both live. I went and was finally able to blather to her personally about how much I admire her as a writer. We spent some time in a circle of chairs with our knees bumping as the tiny group soaked up her wonderful (and generous) ideas on writing. In the days that followed I was emboldened to “like” her on Facebook.

So it’s all my fault that I’m now packing my paddle for the Catamaran Writer’s Conference at Pebble Beach, which kicks off this Wednesday.

Because when Frances posted on her Facebook page that there were still a few spots left at the gathering and that she’s be teaching, I decided to plunge in.

Hosted by the Catamaran literary journal, it is a gathering of amazing teachers, publishers, poets and writers all focused on a 4-day sleep-away camp focused on THE WORK. Held at the (very fancy private) Stevenson School, attendees will live in dorm rooms, (no fridges for beer; I asked) take classes, listen to lectures, and share their works in progress. I’m signed up to follow Frances around like a loyal little terrier, as a member of the non-fiction cohort. Each participant submitted up to 10 pages of work in progress.

The group leader then posts all the submissions within each group, you know, so you can read everyone else’s stuff and they can read YOUR STUFF. That’s where it got scary for me, because it looks like a couple of my fellow writer’s are college professors and others have fabulous books I could never write and as I wonder how to sneak beer on campus, I also imagine them busy organizing Power Point presentations about their next opus to share during breaks.

So what am I working on?

I’m finally going to tackle a companion book to Toxic Mom Toolkit that lays out how to go No Contact. My submission to the Catamaran Conference was a Frankenstein-ing-ly-rough cut of a minor chapter entitled, Dead Toxic Mothers: Why Breaking Up Is So Hard To Do.

I feel like a buck-toothed 5th grader, deciding what dress to wear on the first day of 6th grade. I keep wondering what the other writers made of that chapter.  I also wonder if I’ve been terribly spoiled by the toxic mom community, who laugh at all my jokes and totally get the entire Toxic Mom vocabulary and viewpoint. Wish me luck!


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Especially With a Dead Toxic Mother

4 Aug

797734b77a8d26ebe0685a1afbf3414aMy toxic mother died in April 2009. By August, I had left a good newspaper job to write Toxic Mom Toolkit, which I published in December of 2013. I have since watched a global support community spring up around my memoir. It has been a continuous learning curve for me. Along the way I shared my experiences including how to go No Contact with a toxic mom. I’ve always warned that it is not a step to be taken lightly and I’ve mostly recommended taking it a day, a week, a month, and a year at a time. There is no formula for going No Contact; no right or wrong way. Because each relationship is so complicated, the process of breaking away is an individual and unique event.

Walking away from a toxic mother can be incredibly painful. But here’s what I’ve learned lately: breaking it off with a deceased toxic mother can be just as difficult.

My multi-decade disconnect from my living Toxic Mother was totally organic. I just felt that I would die (or my soul would die) if I kept in contact with her. I made it up as I went along.  I don’t recommend totally winging it like I did.

Today, when asked, I suggest that people sit down and make some notes, some lists, to pre-plan how to handle typical life events. Ask yourself: If a grandparent dies will you go to the funeral? When a baby is born, will you notify your mother? Family relations are complex and sometimes your fear of your toxic mother is tempered with love for your father, siblings or love for a related community. Some decisions are not absolute. You can grant yourself flexibility. You can allow yourself to keep an open mind. Variables are part of the calculus of No Contact.

While I was writing my memoir, I realized there was still work to do. I needed to stop listening to my deceased toxic mother.

If your deceased mother is still a source of sadness, fear, instability, emotional limitations, phobias, shame, self-loathing, self-medicating, over or under eating, isolation, or grief, consider this: Dead People are only as powerful as you allow them to be.

When it comes to your deceased mother’s voice, I’ve decided the main survival skill is to replace a negative with a positive.

When you hear your mother’s negative voice you can:

  • Take a moment to understand that her voice is nothing more than lingering trauma, which you are working on to overcome.
  • Tell her (out loud) she is wrong and to be quiet. (Don’t worry. Other drivers will think you are on speakerphone.)
  • Write down the words you hear and decide if those words are true or not. Many times, labels from childhood are completely false and meaningless, yet they haunt us.
  • Reach for the Happy List you created, which includes all those things of which you are most proud. For example: If you have a good job, have put your kids through college, volunteer, help your neighbors, or bake great brownies, put it on your list. Keep your list in your purse or on your phone, where it is easy to see. Feel free to include things that simply please you and make you happy in the doing, like: I keep the hummingbird feeders clean and always say a blessing for young mothers pushing strollers. (I also bless men with trucks, checking their tie-downs on the side of the road.) Simply wishing others well probably puts you WAY ahead of your Toxic Mother. Relish what makes you a nice person and refer to it whenever your thoughts turn to your experiences as the adult child of a toxic parent.
  • Call a friend and express positive thoughts, even if it’s just checking in. Develop a habit of being a good listener and be a supportive friend.
  • Turn to a favorite activity, hobby or method of self-care. Instead of listening to negative thoughts, (and granting them power), decide to walk your dog instead, do an art project, clean or organize something, or even take a short nap or bath. Keep something you enjoy, like a special tube of hand lotion nearby to moisturize your hands for a few minutes. Grant yourself a few minutes in a bookstore. Listen to a positive or funny Podcast.

You have worked too hard to build a happy and peaceful life despite all the negativity associated with growing up with a toxic mom. Each time you hear your deceased mother’s voice and substitute a positive experience for old negative thoughts, tell yourself, I deserve to be treated lovingly and with respect.

Toxic Mom Toolkit Book Review: Amy Eden’s “The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion”

21 Jun

photoHave you ever thought, “I need therapy.”

But, then your next thought, “I don’t have insurance right now…” stops you in your tracks?  Or, you wonder, “Can I really deal with this now?” And, my favorite, “It’s too overwhelming, the thought of finding a therapist and taking months and months to get that person up to speed on all that has happened in my life.”

Well, my friend, author, Amy Eden has an answer for everything that is keeping you stuck when it comes to addressing your deep, dark and highly personal issues. Her new book, The Kind Self-Healing Book, is an amazing work-book for anybody ready to tackle lifelong emotional issues that are hurtful or limiting.

Page by page; chapter by chapter, she gently leads you through very do-able exercises that are highly meaningful. (By meaningful, I mean that by page 18, I was crying. Not that I didn’t need to cry along with my inner child!)

Here’s how Amy describes her book: If you grew up within a chaotic family environment caused by chronic inconsistency, stress, and emotional or physical abandonment or abuse-whether due to addictions, political unrest, war, or a parent’s mental health issues — The Kind Self-Healing Book is for you. If you are prone to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, people-pleasing, or decision-making influenced by fear, or if you want to free yourself of the coping behaviors that worked in a disordered childhood but don’t serve you in adulthood, The Kind Self-Healing Book is for you. 

I am really loving this book, and taking my time with it. While I’ve been reading and doing the exercises, and getting in touch with my Inner Child, I’ve been remembering so many things. Like how much I loved making things with paper. My grandfather, dad and uncle owned a print shop, so I was always elbow deep in wonderful card stock and velum and ink. My father and I used to make doll houses and furniture with doors that opened and drawers that pulled in and out. (Not that I loved dolls, just building with paper!)

So it wasn’t a complete surprise that while reading The Kind Self-Healing Book I wondered if I could make a little paper boat like the little drawing Amy uses at the bottom of each page. So, I Xeroxed two copies of the cover and placed them back to back and folded them, like I make a paper boat every day. And then it needed a flag, so I used a vintage dictionary page and pasted it on a toothpick mast. And rope is always good, so I rolled some twine. And a paper boat really needs a big anchor, in this case, a rusty old hammer-head.

The strange part was, for the hour it took me to make this little construction, so I would have a fun image to go along with this blog post, I was completely at peace and content. Sort of like a child without worries.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 622 other followers