I’m not sure why I never thought about her before. After all, I had preserved the crumbled paperwork from my adopted mothers underwear drawer, with scribbled notes on feeding and weight; likes and dislikes. I knew that from birth until I was three-weeks-old, I was in someone’s care. But it wasn’t until this dream about my foster mother, who I couldn’t possibly have any memory of, that I considered the input of a caring stranger and how that might have contributed to how I am emotionally wired today.
Growing up, I never knew what exactly was wrong with my home life, yet I always felt deeply that something was very wrong. How can that be? How can a child with no perspective or life experience, living a very cloistered life, know that their mother is not quite what a mother should be?
Is it possible that a kind woman, willing to take unwanted children into her home for the few weeks it took for legal paperwork to be drawn up, home visits to be scheduled, cribs to be bought and assembled, could imprint an infant with selfless, pure love? So much so, that the child would be able to feel it in her bones when someone else was unloving?
My foster mother’s inked notes included instructions on every single like and dislike, gathered by close observations. In those days, in addition to daily baths, a common thought and practice was that infants benefitted from daily sun “baths.” She wrote: “Sally is happiest when her skin is warm. She relaxes completely if you smooth her eyebrows.”
I’ll always wonder if the woman who took me for those three weeks had a spirit that was so kind and loving that she gave me a standard to know – deep in my bones – when my adopted mother was cruel, neglectful. Was it her loving spirit, like a dove cooing in the distance, that kept me calm and centered during most of my childhood?
People are often fascinated that I have three mothers: my birth, adoptive and step-mother and are curious about what I learned from each woman. But maybe those facts need to be edited to include my foster mother.
The dream I had about her reminds me that in my life, I have had many mothers including numerous spiritual mothers. It is an interesting thought that an anonymous woman, willing to take in a baby for a short time, possibly imprinted that child with a gold standard for loving treatment.
I suspect her contribution was indeed great.
I was talking to my friend, Vicki, about this weird sort of malaise, I’ve been feeling lately. At first it was hard to put my finger on the source of my sadness, but eventually I recognized it for what it was: grief.
At this time of year in the U.S. we are bombarded with television, film, magazine, and social media images of big happy families gathering to celebrate the holidays together. Everyone is hugging. Everyone is laughing. Everyone is getting along and thrilled to be together, it seems.
But what if you don’t have a huge, loving family? What if it’s just you, or just you and a very small circle of family and friends? What if your dog just died or someone you love is far away? I find myself further isolated from these images due to elder loss over the past few years. I was saying to my friend that I miss the fun of trying to find something really special for my stepmother Robbie. And I can cry when I think of the trouble she went to, to wrap up the craziest things for my husband and me, including the computer mouse with the tarantula frozen inside, or her constant additions to my fashion passion, anything cashmere.
For many reasons, including my husband being on cop call, we celebrated Thanksgiving solo this year. We created a fun day, starting with delivering pies to my husband’s law enforcement briefing room and then we took a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on a breathtakingly beautiful day. I was actually taking the advice I often give to others; that when you are a little blue, stay busy and think of others.
I confessed to my friend on the phone that one of the things I’m really going to miss this year is literally just the fun of wrapping up presents. I’m really good at it and I enjoy it — maybe too much. I have so much wrapping paper stored in closets and crawl spaces, I could open a store. During the year I search for little vintage toppers and I have so much fun customizing the gift wrap.
And what my friend said next, confirmed what I should already know; that talking about our negative feelings to others is an important part of overall mental health. First my friend, acknowledged the feelings I was expressing; then she told me that she sort of felt that way too. Then she made a suggestion. What if we set up a table downtown and wrapped presents for donations to our local animal shelter?
Instantly we swore a pact to do it! And now I’m excited about Christmas because I found a way to turn off sad feelings and turn on happy feelings. All we have to do is find a spot, pick a date and wrap up the holiday blues.
I have been having so much fun with a new website called http://www.recitethis.com.
It’s a very simple, FREE method for creating, crisp, clean, poster-style images, perfect for getting the word out about Toxic Mom Toolkit.
I was 12, going on 13. I had left the dinky grammar school and all the friends I’d known since Tiny Tots and I was in a huge San Francisco junior high and I didn’t know anyone. I got lost a lot, shaming myself by walking into the wrong classrooms and slinking out again.
Somehow I made two nice friends who lived within a block of each other in Sea Cliff, one of the oldest, richest and prettiest neighborhoods in the city. I could walk to their houses from the flat my parents rented until they divorced, which had happened as I changed schools.
We three girls were at one of the girl’s homes and we were reading an older sisters stack of 17 magazines. It was a lazy Sunday and the mother had served us a plate homemade donuts with powdered sugar on top. We flipped pages lazily, commenting on eye make-up and skirt lengths. I was also peeking through my own eyelashes at this HOUSE with Oriental carpets and needlepoint pillows and everything clean and lusciously decorated.
I wish I could find this magazine and the article that my friends were so intrigued by to see it with my adult eyes. It was a profile of twin sisters who lived in Marin County. The largest photograph was of one of them doing yoga on an outdoor deck with a rug on the planks providing a colorful backdrop to her pose. Both sisters were tall and slim with long brunette ponytails. Both were into ballet.
“That’s not for me,” I thought instantly slamming closed a million doors in my future life because of the underlying thought that I wasn’t the type of girl who got to do that. No shady decks, no yoga poses, no pink ballet slippers and healthy fruit drinks to make my skin glow.
That life? That perfect, investing in yourself because you deserve it, kind of life? My friends could have that life, but not me. I was a little nobody kid. My parents weren’t much. My mother was sort of nuts. My father had just left us and I wasn’t getting ballet lessons or time at beauty salons or even a tiny bottle of seashell pink nail polish.
It didn’t help that I had been watching a bunch of “back-door romance” movies in which a slatternly girl from a poor family conducts a secret love affair with a young doctor or lawyer, but only in the shadows. She is always dropped for a “good girl” from a “good family.” I was fascinated that there were girls that boys were ashamed to be seen with and I thought I would probably be one of those girls.
These types of thoughts that we think when we are young, with little perspective or life experience, seep into our bones. They are a slow-leak raft that never quite gets us to shore. That image of the pretty girl on the leafy Marin County deck still flashes in my brain unbidden at least once a week. I have fought back against that image and the wrong thinking it inspired that limited my view of my world for so long.
Every time we bought a house, I thought I wouldn’t “get” it. That I wouldn’t find the car I wanted, or if I did it would be quickly dented. I developed a cute mania for “little” things, anything reproduced in a smaller than actual size. Collecting tiny objects fit into my thesis of not deserving wonderful things.
The thought that I was somehow “less than” because of everything that happened to me as a child has been vanquished. But like a monster that arises every full moon, I am never truly free of niggling doubts about what I get to do, have, experience. It is therapeutic to understand it. Too bad understanding it doesn’t end it.
If I’m very lucky, in the writing it down, this will be the last time I think of it.
For such a long time I thought I hated Mrs. Long. Who did she think she was anyway? Mrs. Long was a neighbor of ours. She had two daughters near my age and we used to play dolls at her house if it was cold or rainy. The Longs were very nice, balanced people. So kind and calm, their house always felt a little bit like walking into a church.
There was no yelling at the Longs. No meanness. No tears.
I was about 8 years old when one day, our morning playtime extended into the noon hour and Mrs. Long asked me to stay for lunch. As her daughters washed their hands at the sink (standing on a child’s step stool) I sat at their formica kitchen table picking at a placemat, hungry for lunch.
Mrs. Long took my hand and asked me to please come into the hallway bathroom with her. As she helped me up onto a little step stool in front of the sink and turned on the hot and cold taps, checking the temperature with her hand, she began speaking to me in a low, very kind voice. She was cradling me in her arms and speaking very softly into my ear.
“Let me help you wash your hands, dear. We’ll wait until the water is just right and then we’ll take this bar of soap and we will make it spin in your hands… See how you can make it go over and over? Let’s drop the soap while you put your hands under the water and then let’s do it again,” she said.
My hands must have been very dirty. My fingernails were usually black under the edges.
After we washed and dried our hands, she put a little hand lotion on the tops of my hands and she showed me how to cup my hands and pass them over each other in a way that smoothed the lotion around my skin surface.
Instead of melting into this kindness, my dander was rising the entire time. I distinctly remember thinking, “Who does she think she is, showing me how to wash my hands? My MOTHER has shown me how to wash my hands…”
And my mother had, but she rarely enforced hand washing before meals as a ritual habit. I never took any pleasure from removing dirt and sitting down to the table with clean hands.
After that day I never liked Mrs. Long. When she came over for bridge or parties I avoided and ignored her. I felt she thought she was better than my mother.
Mrs. Long was a soft-spoken, very kind lady, who decided to take a few minutes to show a scruffy neighborhood kid how people live. She included me in her family’s day and exhibited only loving kindness towards me.
Of course, she pissed me off.
Fast forward to my time as a police chaplain. One of the things they teach you when you go out on a death call is to say your goodbyes and then wash your hands at the kitchen sink as a ritual cleansing of the event. As you roll your hands in soapy suds and rinse them under the water you think, I am done here. And you pat your hands dry and you leave. It is a wonderful ritual that is very freeing.
Lately, so often when I wash my hands I am reminded of that day with Mrs. Long and I smile. It is the perfect example of how something seen through child’s eyes is very difficult to re-see as an adult.
I’m so sorry that I didn’t understand Mrs. Long’s kind heart at the time. I certainly do now.
First one and then the other started telling me how great Toxic Mom Toolkit was, how it helped them and will help so many people.
“Not only are you a good writer. Not only have you captured something that nobody else has. But you did it in such a way that it invites the reader who has spent a long time being hurt and confused to focus on what happened to them. Then you give them a path to a better way of living,” one friend said adding. “And that’s pretty amazing.
If you know me, you know I was slumped down in my chair with my hands over my face.
If you’ve read my book, you know a fear or inability to accept compliments is a classic sign of someone raised by a drunk. Compliments fly when a drunk is getting his or her drunk on. The flip side is being torn down in a drunken rage.
And despite all my work and thoughts and experience on growing up with a toxic parent and knowing I should listen with an open heart and take in some compliments for once, it nearly killed me to listen. Had I heard my step-father (who has been dead for eons) laughing his evil crowing laugh, that wouldn’t have upset me. THAT would have felt normal to me.
“You’re a good writer but it takes a really special person who grew up in this sort of situation to go back and relive it and then put it all on a page for others. And what I loved about it was that some writers write up here…” she said holding her hand up high, communicating a level of intensity. “And other writers write down here,” she said holding her hand down low, indicating and sad and slow style of writing. “But you write the way life is, like waves. We go up and down and we want to ride it out with you. After your book, we are brave enough to ride it out ourselves.”
When you grew up with a toxic mother, compliments are really hard to hear. You’re waiting for the negative verbal slap or the other shoe to drop. But at some point you have to decide to sit up and warm up to others who are offering you encouragement for something that is a big, important part of your life.
All of which I heard. I promise, I heard it.