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No One is as Bad as The Worst Thing They Have Ever Done

By Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D

“I’m wondering if you can help me?” I met with 66-year-old Adrienne (a pseudonym) on Zoom.

Her 38-year-old daughter was refusing to see or have any contact with her.  “Our relationship is over, mother dear,” were Helena, her daughter’s words when she stormed out of Adrienne’s home a week earlier. Since then, Helena had refused to answer Adrienne’s calls, emails or texts.

As Adrienne’s story unfolded, I learned Helena was born a year after Adrienne suffered two profound losses.  First, Adrienne lost Adam, her first born, infant to crib death. Then, while Helena was pregnant with Adrienne, without warning, she lost her 58-year-old mother to a fatal brain aneurysm.

Adrienne described how she’d been enveloped by depression after these losses “I must have been a terrible mother,” she admitted, realizing she had spent most of Helena’s first two years of life in bed while a series of short-lived babysitters cared for Helena. “I know that my depression impacted my daughter big time and now I am paying the price.”

After our session, Adrienne sent her daughter a letter inviting her to a therapy session. “I’m eager to work on myself and our relationship, and I know how badly I’ve hurt you,” she wrote. To her surprise, Helena accepted her invitation.

Parental estrangement is a now a major social epidemic: Children of every age are making decisions to relieve themselves from what were once deemed mandatory family obligations. Parents and grandparents are now being simply cancelled out of adult children’s’ lives.

In anticipating this mother-daughter session, I thought about how I could be most helpful.  As a daughter, a mother and a therapist, I know all relationships are imperfect.  Most of us have done things we regret and often, don’t even understand. And yet, none of us are as bad as the worst thing we have ever done.  Luckily, sometimes life gives us a second chance. Would Adrienne be able apologize in a way that would feel sincere and heartfelt to her daughter? Would Helena accept her mother’s apology?  These are the questions that lingered in my heart as I awaited our next session…

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Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway

Writing has always been a personally enriching experience for me, whether I’m journal writing or putting together a short article, a chapter, or a book. Joining up with She Writes Press, the publisher of my latest book,  The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother offered me an unexpected gift: Besides publishing my book, they connected me to an inspiring community authors.

Just yesterday Kim Fairley published a new memoir, Swimming for My Life, documenting her traumas in the ultra competitive world of swimming, in the midst of daunting struggles at home. While childhood neglect and trauma are not a new story,  one thing that pulled me into conversation with Kim was the topic of immature parenting – this was a familiar experience to both of us. And what pulled both of us to Julie McGue, author of the adoption memoir,  Twice a Daughter: A Search for Family, Identity, and Belonging was that all of us believe that storytelling helps us make peace with what is…not what was and not what could be.

Kim, Julie and I will be presenting a panel at book fairs: Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway. From three different daughter vantage points, each of suffered. Each of us felt neglected, by our mothers, either concretely or emotionally, generally unintentionally.  But all three of us had an impulse to make pace with our mothers, anyway. Hence the title, Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway.  If you’re interested in bringing our panel to your community/mental health center, for a day of learning, training or fun, please email me for details.

A Long Bright Future (available here)

Swimming for My Life (available here)

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R.A.I.N

Many of us get stuck on previous hurts and wounds. We review old pain, often endlessly. I  am very familiar with this syndrome: in fact, looking back at old, unresolved pain was my motivation in writing my last book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. 

In my many years of writing and coming to terms with my own wounds, I was aware of The Negativity Bias, a concept from Neuroscience psychology: we are wired to remember the negative rather than the positive. While this Negativity Bias was a survival strategy for primitive humans (what would enhance a rabbit’s life: remembering the beautiful flowers at the river’s edge or the lion lurking in the forest? ) it is no longer essential for us, yet alas, it remains although we no longer live in the forest or the jungle. Unfortunately, this primitive wiring remains. This is simply the way, we humans, are wired.

To come to terms with old wounds, here’s an exercise that may help (it’s one of my favorites, you may recognize it from a previous newsletter):

Take a pause. Bring to mind an old or new painful experience.

Recognize what is going on, and just be with it

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is

Investigate with interest and self care

Nurture yourself with compassion

You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps whenever challenging feelings arise.

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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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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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