Judy Rabinor

Mother Knows Best

my mother’s college graduation, 1981- she is 63

My six-year-old daughter, Rachel and I were shopping for a gift for my mother’s sixty-third birthday.
Rachel spotted a small velvet throw pillow trimmed in royal blue.

“Do you think Grandma would like that?”

Royal blue is my mother’s favorite color, but it’s the words stitched in pale blue wool that stand out:

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I am my mother after all.”

I’d vowed to mother my own children differently from the way I’d been mothered, unaware that we are unconsciously wired by our early childhood experiences. It would take me a long time to understand that even with hard work on ourselves, we are all prisoners prone to repeat the past. I had no way of knowing I would inadvertently follow in my mother’s footsteps, more than once.

***

Four years earlier, it had been a hot and humid August day on Long Island, and I was sitting on the beach with my mother and Rachel, who was two, when my old college friend Barbara arrived, escaping the heat wave suffocating Manhattan. Sheltered by a huge umbrella, Rachel was engrossed, digging in the sand. Barbara was recently divorced, and I hadn’t seen her in almost a year. I was itching for a few moments of privacy to catch up and hear how life was unfolding for her. When Barbara suggested the two of us take a walk on the beach my mother agreed to watch Rachel.

“Just sneak away when she’s busy,” she whispered. “If you tell her you’re leaving, she’ll probably have a tantrum. If you just take off, she’ll never even know you’re gone.”

Something inside me rumbled. I should have listened to my body, but instead of following my gut, I stood up quietly and snuck off with Barbara. I couldn’t have been more than fifty feet away when I looked back to see how Rachel was doing. There she was, sitting on my mother’s lap, screaming. Leaving Barbara at the water’s edge, I turned and raced back to my daughter. As I neared, she spotted me and flew out of my mother’s arms and into mine.

“Mommy,” she wailed, as we sat on the scorching sand, “where were you? Why didn’t you tell me you were going away?” I hugged my screaming girl, dried her tears, and settled her down. Then I looked over at my mother.

“I shouldn’t have walked away without telling her where I was going.” I added, “That’s not the right thing to do, Ma.”

“Don’t worry,” my mother said. “She’ll get over it. You used to scream bloody murder when I left you.”

It took me a minute to absorb what she had said. “I screamed bloody murder when you left me,” I repeated. “So, if you knew she’d be so upset, why did you tell me to sneak away?”

My mother shrugged. “I knew you wanted to take a walk with Barbara, and I knew she’d get over it. She’ll get over it, dear; we get over everything, dear. You certainly did. Don’t worry so much. She’ll be fine.”

My mother had capped off her speech with her signature lines: “She’ll get over it. We all get over everything. She’ll be fine.” Sitting there, glaring at my mother and rocking my daughter, I bit my lip so as not to explode. What kind of horrible advice had I gotten from my mother, once again? But not only was I angry with her, I was livid at myself, critical and ashamed of my poor judgment. By the time I left Rachel on the beach that sticky August day, I was already familiar with my mother’s cavalier child-rearing philosophy. Years of my own psychoanalysis had unearthed the childhood roots of my insecurities. I had even come to understand that my mother had never meant to be harmful.

She’d done the best she could, and, as she described it, she was simply a product—or a victim—of her generation. But my frustration ran deeper than my anger at my mother. In addition to ignoring what I’d learned from my own therapy, I was now a graduate student studying psychology, drenched in child-development theories, which across the board stressed the importance of parents’ creating a secure attachment as a prerequisite for healthy growth. Nonetheless, I had ignored my instincts and listened to my mother. In essence, although I’d sworn never to be like her, I had blithely and blindly followed in her footsteps.

While my life work as a therapist certainly supports my belief that growth and change are always possible, two caveats should be noted. Without hard work on ourselves, we are doomed to repeat the past, and, even when we do our difficult inner work, the road to reconstructing oneself is bumpy, filled with unexpected potholes. It’s taken me decades to understand the limitations of psychological insight and to respect the fact that insight can be hijacked so easily by our early programming. And my early programming—true for most of us—is not what I learned in my twenties as a psychotherapy patient or in my thirties as a graduate student, but rather what I learned as a small child who yearned for my mother’s love and approval. Driven to please her, I absorbed and internalized her essence. Unconsciously, a part of me was still devoted to the voice in my head whispering,

“Mother knows best.”

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Remembering My Mother: “Is There Any Way I Can Help?”

Title of post. Line drawing of mother delicately holding young child.Join me last Friday morning. I’m sitting in the early morning sunlight, looking out at the evergreens, pondering my conversation with my friend Beth.  I’ve spent 20 minutes listening to her challenges caring for her ornery, mean-spirited ninety-five-year-old mother.  Although my mother had not been mean-spirited, our relationship had been complex. Although it had been a decade since I’d lost my mother, my friend Beth’s pain had triggered my difficulties watching my ninety-three-year-old mother lose her battle with Parkinson’s and dementia. 

No longer alive but never far off my radar.

“If there’s any way I can help, let me know,” I tell Beth as we say goodbye.

My words hang in the silence — they come from me but echo from a faraway place. And suddenly I remember:

It is a sweltering hot June day, 1978. I’d left the Catholic Charities Mental Health Center in Glendale Queens, my internship placement, and was driving into Manhattan to attend a meeting when, sitting in my blue Oldsmobile, stuck in traffic at the Brooklyn Bridge, I hear a splutter.  “Oh no,” I think, I wouldn’t want to stall out here. To avoid draining the battery, I turn off the air conditioner and, with a push of a button, my car windows open automatically. 

“Lady,” calls a voice from out my window, “You know which direction 22 Water Street is?” Looking out, about to respond to the speaker, I gaze into the dark brown eyes of a tall, husky young man; his colorful bandana catches my eye when… suddenly I hear a swoosh.  I turn my head only to realize a hand has entered the open window on the passenger side of the car, grabbed my pocketbook nested on the seat beside me, and now….. 

I see the two young men running off to my horror, slipping between the cars ahead of me lined up in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

I don’t really remember how I coped—this was the era before cell phones.  I can only imagine I was in shock; my first reaction might have been to freeze in terror. I imagine it didn’t take long before I realize that I’d escaped a fate worse than losing my pocketbook. How long could it have been until I was awash in relief –at least those two hadn’t gotten into my car!

 I remember eventually getting to my meeting, calling my babysitter, warning her to double lock the doors, feeling terrified these young thieves would have gotten into my pocketbook, found my keys, and could have gotten into my home—which fortunately was not the case. 

 After finally getting home that evening and putting my two small children to sleep, I remember calling my mother and telling her about my harrowing experience. After rejoicing that I hadn’t been accosted, assaulted, raped, or victimized in any way, my mother was filled with advice. “You have to replace everything- your driver’s license, registration, credit cards—and don’t forget to change the locks—call a locksmith.” She paused. “And can I help?”

“Can I help? Let me know if I can help… .”

Sitting in the early morning sunlight, I am struck with the power of memory. I haven’t thought about being accosted at the Brooklyn Bridge in years, and whenever I did remember it, I was filled with fear. Now, in this very moment, I am watching how memories shift.  I am flooded with a different part of the story, and I am reminded of what I miss about my mother and her legacy:  Her goodwill. Her generosity. Her care and concern. Her willingness to help. Her stabilizing presence. A warmth spreads, resonating through my body. Although I have often described my mother as generous and helpful, now, this memory magnifies these qualities that for so much of my life I took for granted, unaware how she had invisibly, silently scaffolded me. As I soak in what has been lingering all along in the recesses of my mind, I am reminded of the  mystery of memory and the opening words of my new book, The Girl In the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother:

  “On the windowsill in my psychotherapy office sits a sand- art picture, a simple black frame filled with colored sand. Each time you shake the frame, the sand shifts seamlessly into a new design.
I keep it there for my patients. When they notice it, I ask them if they’d like to examine it. “Shake it,” I suggest. Then I tell them why I keep it in my office. 

“Our minds are like sand dunes, filled with hidden treasures, your stories,” I say. “Every story you have ever lived or imagined is buried inside you, waiting to be revealed as the grains of sand shift and open up new possibilities.”

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What I Learned at the Zoo

Illustrated tiger. "What I Learned at the Zoo."Once upon a time, there was a beautiful but dilapidated zoo in a large metropolitan city. It was in a state of despair, in dire need of renovation. The cages were rusted, the habitats for each species were too small. Animal advocates rallied for help.

Eventually, one of the wealthiest philanthropist families in the city decided to contribute the necessary funds needed for reconstruction. To complete the renovation, all the animals — tigers, lions, monkeys, and elephants — would have to be taken out of their habitats and housed in newly constructed, small cages.

Construction of the new zoo began and, slowly but surely, it was completed and a grand opening took place. The animals were introduced to their new habitats — way more spacious than their previous homes. Each cage was brought into its new space as the animals were carefully integrated into their new habitat. Slowly, each section of the zoo opened and everything began moving along.

But there was one exception — Charlie — a young tiger who was born in the cage. The four walls of steel were all he had ever known.

When the tiger cage was placed in its new habitat and the gates were sprung open, the three adult tigers leaped out — they energetically jumped over the bubbling streams and delighted to have rocks to climb on.

Charlie, though, cowered in fear of his new environment. Despite the others’ eagerness to explore their new small world, he remained in his cage, staring out past the gates. There he sat for days on end, unwilling to venture past the four walls of the cage.

The zookeepers — who were talented at dealing with animals — were mystified. How could they coax Charlie out into the new habitat?

They tried everything — first, they placed his food and water at a distance. Charlie ignored whatever was outside the immediate surroundings of his cage. Although he was eventually able to venture out to eat and drink, his discomfort with the new habitat was obvious — he would immediately retreat. It was clear that his home remained in the cage.

The zookeepers tried everything, but eventually, they made peace with Charlie — it was clear he was content to stay where he was. Finally, they gave up.

Of course, this story has an obvious lesson: We develop enduring patterns when we are young — and changing them sometimes feels impossible. Think about any habits you may have developed that no longer serve you.

What do you need to do to create change?

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There Are No Mistakes

Mother knows best quote against floral backgroundAfter I finished writing The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother, I was urged to write a blog. Something inside me pulled back. I made excuses. I procrastinated. I resisted — big time. I kept wondering what would inspire me to write a blog… UNTIL:
I accidentally sent my friend June an email containing an excerpt from my new book discussing the concept of “mother knows best.”

OOPS!

I emailed June explaining I had sent it to the wrong person, and within minutes, she wrote back, referencing both the excerpt and our shared technological blunders,
“Sometimes I think the more we try not to be like our mothers, the more we become like them!”
This quote aptly summarized her reaction to the excerpt, which featured the following quote:
“I’d vowed to mother my own children differently from the way I’d been mothered, unaware that we are unconsciously wired by our early childhood experiences. It would take me a long time to understand that even with hard work on ourselves, we are all prisoners prone to repeat the past. I had no way of knowing I would inadvertently follow in my mother’s footsteps, more than once.”
As I’ve often said, I began writing this book two years after my mother’s passing as a method of coping with my grief. However, as I delved into some of the haunting moments of our relationship, I realized that our experience was more nuanced than I once thought. In order to “make peace with my mother,” as the subtitle of my new memoir suggests, I had to dig deeper. That was the richest part of my writing experience:  not only did I come to forgive her for her missteps but to forgive myself, as well. And by the way, I came to appreciate the ways we were more alike than I’d once cared to admit.
June’s words have stayed with me. And, there’s more. Ironically, this “mistake” gave shape to this blog I want to write.  Life is filled with tiny moments and endless opportunities. Situations that appear one way can and do profoundly transform. Mysteries are continuously unfolding. All it takes is the intention to uncover what is hidden, the capacity to risk failure, and the stamina to start over.
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Humor as a Pathway into – and out of – Pain.

Humor as a Pathway into – and out of – Pain.

(Article originally published in Perspectives: A Professional Journal of The Renfrew Center Foundation, 2019 Edition)


What did we learn from Freud? If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.
– Robin Williams

What on earth went on in your group tonight?” my husband asks.

We are having dinner and he is referring to my binge-eating group that’s met for sixteen years on Tuesday nights at 5:30 pm. “It sounded like you were having a hilarious time,” he said. “What was so funny?

My office is in our Manhattan apartment and, although two closed doors separate my therapy office from our living space, his curiosity was piqued by what he described as “raucous laughter.” He was correct. Notwithstanding the fact that the group had initially coalesced that evening around a dark and dreary theme, we had ended a somber group with everyone laughing. It was a humorous quip I made that flipped the mood.

The therapeutic use of humor is not a new idea. Sigmund Freud saw humor as a means of expressing unconscious desires and fears. Viktor Frankel, a holocaust survivor, suggested that humor has the capacity to lift the human experience above suffering. An old supervisor of mine recommended I help clients see their life through the eyes of a cartoon character to bring levity to life’s hardships.

So join me in my office as we examine the healing power of humor.

Back in 2002 when our binge-eating group began, we focused, for the most part, on over-eating. What were the emotional issues that triggered binge eating? As members became less symptomatic and developed deeper levels of self-awareness, trust and intimacy, triggers and self-regulation strategies held less of a center stage.

This group session had begun with Marie, age 75, talking about her husband Jack’s deteriorating health. Jack, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease had suffered a terrible fall. A broken shoulder and long rehab followed his hospitalization. Marie was already worn out. Now, he faced Alzheimer’s. “How are you managing as a caregiver?” I asked Marie, shifting the focus from Jack back to her. She shook her long blond hair. “Often I’m kind and gentle but sometimes, when I’ve had it, I become a bitch—or even worse— a witch.

Group members offered words of empathy: care-taking family members was a familiar theme. Three of the six people present that Tuesday evening had lost parents during the sixteen years we had met and one had a chronically ill spouse. I had shared some of my own trials as a caregiver to my mother, who had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for a decade before her death, six years prior to the present meeting.

Next, Eloise, a tall brunette also in her mid-seventies, gave an update on her cancer treatment. She was drained and exhausted from the chemo. Thankfully she wasn’t binging. Cancer was another topic familiar to the group. Sam, a 67- year-old beloved group member had died a decade earlier from metastasized lung cancer.

76-year-old Ben spoke next about the retirement package he’d been offered by his accounting firm. “The package isn’t bad but retirement? I don’t have a lot of hobbies, except over-eating,” he said. The group laughed. “Really, work has consumed me for decades. I’m going to have to revamp my life,” he said grimly.
Being useless has never been my M.O.” He sighed. “Now what?

Minutes before the group was to end, Marie spoke up again. “I don’t know what I’d do without you guys. You are all dear to me, and our group is so special.” Her remark triggered others to articulate the support they got from one another.

Sixteen years… a lot of history,” I commented after listening to the others. The group had journeyed from being composed of mostly 50-year-olds to, now, a group mainly of 70-somethings. Four of the six members present had been in the group since our first meeting sixteen years earlier. “We are moving through life together,” I added.

I’m 85! —The oldest one here,” said Bonnie. “I think I’m doing pretty well except— I am continually losing names. I run into people I’ve known for years and I remember them, but can’t always remember their names! My memory is fading and it’s scary!” Everyone began speaking at once, sharing memory loss moments- cell phones, eyeglasses, keys, birthdays of loved ones, library books. The group was abuzz.

This happens to me, too! And I’m only 76!

Me too and I’m not even 70”!

Age is just a number. 85 are the new 65.” More laughter.

Beth, the youngest person in the group spoke up. “Seriously, I hope my mind is like yours when I’m 85,” she told Bonnie. “How many 85-year-olds can drive 300 miles” Ben said, jumping in and referencing Bonnie’s lengthy weekend drives to her daughter’s Vermont home. More supportive endorsements of how well Bonnie was aging followed:

And you still do you own taxes!

You are my role model!

Bonnie persisted. “You are all so kind, but truly, I hate losing names. It’s embarrassing!” she paused. “And I’m terrified: what’s happening to my mind?

Then the group was silent.

I paused. Took a deep breath. Then, I gave myself permission to follow my spontaneous urge.

With a straight face, I turned to Bonnie. Then I gazed at the group members, slowly. I made eye contact with everyone. “I’m going to make a promise,” I said seriously. “It’s a commitment. If we are all still here and still meeting ten years from now, I’ll supply the name tags so none of us will be embarrassed when we can’t remember each other’s names.

Peals of laughter broke out. Of course, I laughed too. When the laughter died down, I said: “What’s in a name, anyway? Maybe it won’t even matter if we remember each other’s names—as long as we can remember each other’s stories. After all, it’s our stories that bind us together.

Writing this article has offered me the opportunity to reflect on the role of humor in our group. Most of us are aware that laughter releases endorphins, the feel good hormone which reduces tension and stress. Joking with patients and allowing them to feel a kinship can offer a remedy to long-standing frustration, pain and isolation, the issues most people with eating disorders struggle with. Our work is serious, but when we, as therapists, are able to laugh at ourselves and accept the absurdities and unknowable aspect of life, we offer our clients a unique gift.

My humorous quip had its positives: it was certainly a bonding moment. As a group leader, I generally disclose my feelings about what happens in the group, yet, I rarely disclose my personal experiences outside the group. This quip was an unusual “me, too” moment. It leveled the playing field. “Life is tough, aging is hard and unpredictable, and we are all in this together” was my message.

Second, I communicated that it’s ok to verbalize our unknown fears, i.e., what will I be like when I’m a decade older? I normalized the fear of aging.

Third, I communicated that, although aging will inevitably take its toll, we can survive, and thrive. My message was “We will adapt. I will be here for you. At least I will try. I am an anchor.

In writing this article, I was pushed to question my own motivation. Why did I spontaneously come up with a funny line at the moment I did? What would have happened had I stayed with Bonnie’s concern about memory loss? Did she or others feel dismissed? Upstaged? Did I abandon Bonnie’s concern because the topic personally scares me? Perhaps I had an unconscious need to step away from the dread of deterioration, frailty and uselessness—the topics raised.

As my own questions multiplied I noticed a pit in my stomach, for aging is a topic rarely off my radar. My inbox too often carries the subject line “sad news” and, frequently, I find myself mourning a deceased friend or colleague, perhaps even younger than I am. Conversations with friends are increasingly filled with medical concerns. One good friend typically ends phone conversations with the line, “Don’t buy green bananas.” Another has incorporated a telling phrase as part of her email signature, “The road ahead is shorter than the road behind.” On a more personal note, my husband has been coping with a painful backache and we have been educated by innumerable medical experts to face the truth: back pain, like an assortment of other medical maladies, is increasingly prevalent and predictable as we age. Acceptance is key.

I wondered: did I make a humorous remark as a way of avoiding my own feelings of grief, anxiety and frustration around aging? Was my quip a mistake?

Fortunately in life and in therapy, mistakes are always opportunities for exploration and repair.

The following group session offered me an easy segue for investigation. Marie had arrived wearing a heart monitor. A “scary incident” had sent her to her cardiologist. Once again, we were plunged into the world of aging anxieties.

I had an opening and I took it.

I asked if there was more that needed to be said about Bonnie’s concern with memory loss. When no one spoke up, I made a confession: I might have unconsciously sidestepped this daunting topic. While no one admitted to feeling slighted or put off, I was glad to have planted a seed: therapists, as well as patients, often have a hard time sitting with what is truly painful and frightening.

Until recently, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the value of humor in healing. Writing this article pushed me to think about my work through a new lens. One principle that has guided my work forever is a quote from Psalms, “Joy shared, twice the gain, sorrow shared, half the pain”. Humor is a pathway into pain. It allows us to share it all. A joke well told can lighten the load, facilitate bonding and humanize us as therapists. It can communicate, as Sullivan taught, “We are all simply human.


 
(Article originally published in Perspectives: A Professional Journal of The Renfrew Center Foundation, 2019 Edition)
 


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Helping Your Children Survive Divorce

Helping Your Children Survive Divorce

When it comes to discussing divorce with your children, you may be overwhelmed on where to begin. Plan the conversation ahead of time, thinking of questions the children may have and how you could answer them truthfully. It’s best if both parents could be present when talking to your children about divorce. A child will find security in that, although their home life will be changing, both parents are still going to be actively involved in the child’s activities and day-to-day life.

It likely goes without saying that this discussion is not the time for any snide remarks about the other parent. There are feeling of hurt and/or anger with every divorce, but it’s important to present a united front of the children. Starting off with the children knowing that mom and dad may not want to be married anymore, but your love for them has not changed. Continue reading →

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3 Benefits of Co-Parenting

Co-parenting is not always easy, but as parents you need to keep the children as a top priority. Most divorces involve communication issues and hurt feelings, but effective communication is key to a solid co-parenting relationship. The co-parenting relationship can directly affect your child’s self-esteem. As hard as it may be to put aside differences (at least in front of your children), maintaining continuity with schedules, and consistency with discipline and family rules will help children have a deeper sense of security. Even with the major lifestyle changes involved in divorce, it’s important to assure children both parents will continue to be an equal part of the their life and most importantly, that their love for their children has not changed. Continue reading →

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Going To Bat For Your Ex? Why?


Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever

Recently I was on a radio talk show speaking about my new book, Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex. Someone called in and in an irate voice asked: “Befriend your ex? Why? What if you hate your ex? What if your ex hates you? What if you were betrayed and cheated on? What if your ex was verbally abusive to you?”

I paused. I took a deep breath. And I wondered what to say. Continue reading →

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10 Secrets To a Friendly Divorce

By Dr. Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D.

 

Fifty-two year old Rona arrived distraught and tearful to a recent therapy group I run. Her 31-year-old son Joey was getting married. Although he and his father were distant since the divorce decades earlier, and his father had lived across the country for years, Joey had decided he wanted to include his father in the wedding. Rona had been looking forward to this big day, but now she was filled with dread, anticipating feeling awkward, sad and alone.

Rona had been a devoted single parent. Now, she was conflicted. On the one hand, she knew her son’s desire to reunite with his father came from a deep longing. She wanted to honor his request. On the other hand, she hadn’t seen or spoken to her ex since Joey’s college graduation. Warren had left when Joey was young and only rarely and irregularly sent financial support. And now, he was remarried and Rona was not. Continue reading →

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When Divorce Expands a Family

Divorced families are often described as disconnected, diminished and cut off, but last week I met an old friend, Brandy, who reminded me that this stereotype is often unfair and inaccurate. Brandy’s story offers the opposite lesson: that while divorce brings with it many losses, it can expand and enrich a family, sometimes in incredible ways.

Twenty years ago, when Brandy married Joel, his active, energetic two year-old son Brian came to live with them.  One morning, late to work and racing to get out of the house, Brandy burst into tears trying to get Brian’s sneakers tied to get him to daycare.  Working full time and juggling their new domestic lives, she and Joel had quickly moved from the romantic stage of their relationship to “Did-ya-dump-the garbage-and-what-are-we-having -for dinner?” How had her life become so overwhelming? Continue reading →

Posted by Judy Rabinor in Befriending After Divorce, 0 comments