Archive | January, 2012

Toxic Mom Toolkit: Who Stood Up For You?

28 Jan

As part of our ongoing journal project, here is our next question.

Question #4

Looking back at your childhood, who in your extended family could have helped you?

Why do you think they did or didn’t?

They say children survive abuse and neglect because they have no perspective.

If you were abused or neglected or treated badly as a child, certainly, some adult in your family circle — a neighbor, or a teacher — must have suspected.  So, why didn’t anyone call bull-dinky on your mother? Or call CPS?

My early childhood was fine, considering we were poor, my parents didn’t get along and we were nearly always unsupervised. But I don’t think that was much different for most kids in the ‘60’s.

I can think of a neighbor (several, actually), and a grandmother who indicated through their actions that they didn’t think my mother was taking care of me very well.

What did they do?

One neighbor included me in many activities with her kids and always invited me to their country cabin for the weekend, the site of many happy memories. Other block moms doled out Band-Aids and hugs.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, did a few things equal to pointing to her own eyes with two fingers and then turning your hand to point at someone else’s eyes — as if to communicate “I see what you’re doing.” My grandmother was no dummy. My grandmother knew my mother had bad tendencies. (My parents had lived with my grandparents when they were new marrieds.) My grandmother even went so far as to kidnap me one afternoon to see if anyone would notice. They didn’t.

Factoring in “the times,” I’m grateful that even a few people put themselves in uncomfortable situations with my mother with my welfare in mind. Could they have done more?

I don’t think so.  There was no family farm to send me to for a summer. No one  we knew “did” boarding school because no one could afford it. At that time you didn’t butt in. I think you just tried to be nice to the kid if you could.

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The Voices in Your Head: They’re part of you but not you

21 Jan

As part of our ongoing journal project, here is our next question.

Every mother has sayings that are repeated over and over. What did your mom say over and over? As an adult, what do you think of that line or those phrases? What do they say about your mom?

Most people fear growing up and sounding just like their parents. They cringe when they blurt out – “Because I said so, that’s why!” or “I’ll give you something to cry about!” to their own children, the exact same way their parents did.

In a way it’s unavoidable. The child becomes the adult with adult concerns for their children.  But for children of toxic parents those messages, those sayings, can have more meaning than the typical scold not to run at the pool.

My mother, who schemed her way up in life through men and marriage, had a few lines that float through my head despite my best efforts to erase them.

She always said “Because Frank Sinatra might be in the parking lot,” whenever we complained about the length of time she took to put on her make-up. No sweats for my mom. No day complete without red lipstick and eyeliner. The world outside our house was a mysterious place and she had a beautiful part to play. She could park her car next to anyone – even Frank Sinatra. She had to be ready.

With little more than an eighth grade education she wanted to appear sophisticated. She never went to night school or travelled to learn a language and yet she tried to pretend that she could speak Spanish AND French by always saying “Uno momento – s’il vous plaît!” – “Wait a moment, if you please!” like Sophia Loren being manhandled by adoring fans at Cannes.

“Uno momento – s’il vous plaît!” is what I say when I’m in a hurry, stressed, often in the moments before I’m leaving my home for a trip. I have to be flustered to feel it forming in my mouth. But once I do, it trips out naturally, as if I am the very clever person who thought it up. As if I summer in Italy and winter in Mexico City – for the museums. As if I had nannies or tutors or can speak French to girlfriends in crowded cafes so others won’t be able to eavesdrop. (I wish!)

I know what this expression means to me now. It’s part of me through decades of repetition. When I say it, I’m not my mother, I’m me. I view the words spoken by my mother as  a sad attempt by a sad woman to appear sophisticated. I say it as often I say “bull-dinky!” like my dad did instead of swearing in front of us.

Don’t we all have a lot of voices from our childhoods in our head? It doesn’t make us them. These familiar expressions don’t define us. We can take them or leave them. But it is interesting to look back and study them a little bit.

In doing so, I’m reminded of my Aunt Rhea, who used to always say the opposite of what she meant.

“Come ov-ah he-ah you rotten kid!” she’d growl like Eartha Kitt before tucking you into a headlock and kissing you till you squirmed away.

I have a hard time expressing affection. Yet, I’m laughing and feeling happy when I call my husband rotten, my dogs “rotini’s,” even my friends, rotter’s. They know it’s my way of expressing my deep affection for them.

It’s funny that the neighbor we treated like an aunt, the neighbor who was kind enough to take me along with her kids on many weekends up to the country, sparing me from my deteriorating home life, probably also had a problem expressing affection. Half a century later, Rhea’s rough love carries over into my life on nearly a daily basis. She’s a good voice in my head.

I know now that my aunt was in a tough spot trying to help the neglected children of a good friend. She did what she could and I’ll always be grateful. I should probably call her and tell her so.

“What a rotten thing to say!” she’ll say. I know before I even look up her number.

 

 

 

Finding Comfort as a Daughter of a Toxic Mom

14 Jan

As part of our ongoing journal project, here is our next journal question.

Question #2:  When you were a little girl how did you comfort yourself when you were sad or confused? How do you self-comfort yourself now that you’re an adult?

I used all the normal coping mechanisms that come naturally to kids and then some. I played games (board and street), organized strange kid clubs of short, intense duration, spied on adults, and made prank phone calls usually to teen-aged girls with crushes on my big brother. I’d tell them that he loved them setting who-knows-what into motion.

I spent entire days racing around on white roller skates with metal wheels that I wore down to tin foil on fire.

As a neglected and abused child it never occurred to me to speak to an adult about my home life.

Our childhood experiences echo through our adult lives. I still find it most difficult to ask for any sort of help.

When I was a young woman I used to just observe and compare: This is how this family does Thanksgiving, which is very different from what I remember. Hmmmmm….

I was secretive and ashamed about my unhealthy relationship with my mother. As I matured my odd, hurtful, intense ways of coping morphed into more open, sane – and even happy – forms of coping.

I’ve always had food issues. I was never fed properly, so I yearned for generous portions and forbidden foods. I am overweight mainly due to anxious eating and continue to work with a nutritionist to improve my food choices and eating habits.

As I’ve matured, I’ve coped with the lifelong fall-out of toxic parenting by speaking frankly about my experiences with my husband and close friends. I benefitted from time with a therapist. I was a newspaper reporter when I began writing about toxic moms and how to survive them.

I’m not dashing away from my problems like a confused child. I’ve chosen focus, frankness and a willingness to open my heart. I believe in embracing and owning my life story.

I still wait too long to ask for help or a hug, but I’m getting better. My life is a marathon, not a sprint. Along the way I hope by example I can help other children of toxic moms who choose to lead happy and sane lives.

Let the Journals Begin!

6 Jan

Toxic Mom Toolkit Journal Project

Question #1:

When you were a little girl, what did you dream about growing up and becoming?

As much as our lives change as we mature, often, our dreams stay the same. In my case, the grade school student who carried leather bound classics to and from school every day hoping teachers would view her as smart, actually did eventually become a New York Times journalist.

But not before my high school counselor told me I should consider a career in retail and an extended period of working in the secretarial pools in brokerage houses up and down San Francisco’s Montgomery Street.

What we dreamed of doing tells our adult selves volumes of how we saw ourselves and how we thought our family saw us. Were we discouraged or encouraged by our mothers? Were we helped or hindered?  Think back and connect the dots from that very first job (in my case as a file clerk at the Pacific Stock Exchange) to where we are now. How far have we come? How far can we go? And what role did our mother play in our journey?

The best writing advice I ever got was to just write like you talk.

Give yourself 15 to 20 minutes of free writing – meaning – just write like you’re unloading to a good friend. Just let it go. It doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s no grade. It’s just for you.

And don’t forget to let me know what you think about the first question at Toxic Mom Toolkit on Facebook