This blog is written for every boy and girl, man and woman, and for every human being who:
1. Did not have a mother;
2. Was abandoned by their mother;
3. Never met their mother;
4. Was verbally, emotionally, sexually and/or physically abused by their mother;
5. Was neglected by their mother;
6. Was teased, bullied or competed with by their mother;
7. Was parentified or emotionally incested by their mother;
8. Experienced trauma as a result of their mother.
A Tough but Important Topic
I realize that this is a tough topic for many people. We are socialized to revere and respect our mothers. For those of us who had hurtful or traumatic relationships with our mothers, we are often told to "forgive and forget", or reminded that, "she did her best."
These chastisements often come from well meaning people who have (or had) a wonderful relationship with their mother. If that is you, I celebrate how fortunate you are to have (or to have had) a good relationship with a healthy, loving mother.
However, there are a great many of us who did not have this gift. We stuffed our voices as children. We learned to hide the abuse. We did this as a matter of survival. Abused children are the family secret keepers and the symptom bearers of those secrets.
For example, you may look at the above photo of me with my favorite toy talking horse that I named "Blaze" and see a little girl with a smile, clean clothing and braided hair. This is what most people saw, including other extended family members and friends of my family. What you do not see is my mother raging out a few minutes later when she noticed that my books had not been taken off of the sofa and put back on the bookshelf.
My punishment? A beating, no dinner, and most painful of all, was her taking my beloved Blaze to the church classroom the following Sunday with instructions that I was not allowed to ride Blaze. Each Sunday I watched as my sweet horse friend was beat up a little more. A mean boy kicked a hole in his head, a little girl yanked out his talking string, and by the end of the summer, the janitor dumped sweet old Blaze into the alley trashcan.
Not every woman deserves the title of "Mother"
I will celebrate my 55th birthday this summer never having met my biological "mother" Wanda. In fact, I only learned her name in my mid-30s. I have no memory of her, and my understanding is that I was removed from Wanda's home in 1964, when I was 2 years old due to neglect and abuse. I was then placed in the foster care system for the next few years. I had several different women who looked after me within this system, often referred to as foster "moms."
Some of these women were kind. Some...not so much.
Eventually I was adopted by an older couple. I was a shy child, compliant and quiet. And I was very thankful to have a home and a family. Thankful until the adoption was final and the social workers all disappeared. And then the abuse began. Abuse of every kind, on a daily basis, that went on for 9 years. I left that house of horrors at the age of 16, traumatized, shy, and angry....yet determined to forge a better life for myself.
I never returned, nor did I have contact with them for the next seven years, and only then, very sporadically through out my adult life.
We "Win" for Scariest Mommy
In my early 20s, after a hurtful break up from an unhealthy relationship, while struggling to create a life and financial security for myself, a movie was released by the name of, "Mommy Dearest." This film was based on a best selling book written by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of the late 1940s movie star Joan Crawford. The book and the movie outline Christina's account of the alleged abuses she and her brother suffered at the hands of their mother Joan.
Though my mother was not a movie star, she was beautiful when she was young. She was also spoiled, raised in Hollywood, held a master's degree from a top university, was quite brilliant, and had been called, "The most photographed child who ever lived" by her relatives. She and her husband (my adopted "father") adopted my sister and I when they were in their late 30s.
Friends (and sadly, parents of friends) who had been witness to my mother's daily abuses began to contact me after seeing the movie sharing, "Mari, you and your sister have to go see this movie, it is totally your mother!" My response, "I lived it, I don't need to see a movie about it."
However, after the fourth or fifth call, I steeled myself, bought a ticket to a matinee, and went to see Mommy Dearest. I was 23 years old, and had just started doing my trauma healing work. I recall feeling afraid that the movie might stir something up in me, more anger, more pain. I was worried that I might be shocked, appalled, or horrified given what I had heard about the movie. Instead, as I watched, I felt a deep sadness and empathy for Christina and her brother. I walked out of that movie, went home, and called my sister stating, "What they went through was a walk in the park compared to what you and I went through."
If you have ever seen Mommy Dearest, this will give you some idea of what my sister and I endured.
These days, when I reflect back on that movie, beyond compassion for her story, the saddest part that remains for me is the doubt that has been stabbed at Christina and her brother over the years by critics and fans of Joan - many who likely have/had lovely relationships with their own mothers, or at the very least, have not experienced this level of maternal abuse. These naysayers hurl accusations that she is lying about the abuse citing all of the reasons why her story could not possibly be true.
In some ways, I understand their denial. For many people, it is nearly impossible to imagine that a woman that they held in such high regard could be capable of such horrific acts. It is easier to deny. To shame. To demand silence. I can only imagine that this must create a secondary traumatic experience for Christina and her brother. Thankfully I had witnesses that validated my reality. As a survivor of abuse, there are some experiences that are all too familiar when you read, witness, or hear another human being's account of their own traumatic upbringing.
I did not, and do not doubt her story for one single moment.
The Untreated Mentally Ill Parent
As an adult, on one of the rare occasions I met with my adopted mother, I asked her what her reason was for adopting my sister and I. Her breezy answer, "Oh, I should never have been a mother! It was not for me after all. I disliked every minute of it. You girls were as good as could be, but I was glad when you left. I detested every part of it. I was never a maternal person. I suppose, in retrospect, I wanted to keep up with my girlfriends who had children. I remember one day while I was out shopping with a friend from church, I saw a little girl with the cutest red shoes. So, I went home and insisted that we get two girls. Dumbest decision I ever made!"
While it was troubling to hear this, it was even more troubling to have zero explanation or the slightest idea why she felt this way. The answer arrived many years later, shortly after her death when I discovered that my adopted mother and my adopted father had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in their 40s. As a therapist, part of my role is as an advocate to end the stigma of mental illness. There is no shame in being treated for a condition like bi-polar disorder. However, during that time, this would have likely been shaming news. Thus they held this secret to their graves.
Tragically, both of my adoptive parents had refused to seek on going treatment or comply with recommended medication support. Instead, they struggled along with their untreated mental illness, and my sister and I bore the consequences of this. Sadly, neither of these individuals ever took ownership or offered an apology for the abuses they perpetrated on us.
For those who may want to caution me not to speak ill of the dead, my response is this: I do not write this with any ill will. I write this from a healed place of peace. And I will not be silent. Instead, I will continue to share my truth clearly and with dignity until the day I die. When we share our stories, and when we own the dark as well as the light parts of our journey, we then help other people find their voice. When we dig deep and find the courage to heal and move forward, when we create healing spaces for others to tell their truth, we help other hurting people heal their trauma so that they can move forward as well.
As I look back at those short years of hell, I feel extremely grateful for my resilience and determination to take the pain I endured, and with the support of others, and help of God, to have taken those hurts and spun them into gold. Today I use these experiences as a point of empathy and understanding in order to help other courageous people heal their own trauma.
Happy Mother's Day to the Mothers I celebrate
And once again Mother's Day is right around the corner. My adopted "parents" have been deceased for several years now. I have done my healing work, my forgiveness work, and my trauma work. I have forgiven them as a gift to me. A gift I will continue to give myself for the rest of my life. It wasn't easy, but it was necessary.
I lived with that couple for nearly a decade of my young life, a lifetime ago. No matter what the adoption paper work states, they were not my parents. And they were never a mother and father. I have been on my own for nearly four decades now, and I rarely think of them, except when barraged with mother's day and father's day reminders, or when I am reminded to forgive.
This Mother's Day, rather than dwelling in sadness or anger for what I did not have, instead, I choose to celebrate Mother's Day by honoring the following women:
~ To each and every woman who invested care and love to me as a teen girl on her own, thank you.
~ To every mother of every friend or boyfriend, who provided love to me, thank you. And especially to Kathleen and Blanca who are like mothers to me. And to Janet and Geri as well.
~ To every friend who has birthed, or adopted, or fostered, or provided mothering to children with loving kindness, thank you.
~ For every mother who struggles with a mental illness, and then has the courage to seek support through counseling, parenting classes and/or medical attention, thank you.
~ For every mother who is trying her best to put food on the table, to juggle a thousand tasks, and who falls short now and then, and picks herself up again, and again, thank you.
~ For every mother who has lashed out at her child, and then returned to the child with an apology and a willingness to heal, grow and do better, thank you.
~ For every mother who was abusive and traumatized her children, but went on to heal, to take ownership, and to then make a sincere amends to your adult children (even if the apology was not accepted), thank you.
~ For every woman who honored that she did not wish to be a mother, in spite of outside pressure to do so, and instead, decided to use her nurturing gifts in other ways, thank you.
~ For every woman who has wanted to have a child, and for whatever reason (due to fertility issues, or trauma issues), has not been able to have a child, I send you peace and love. And I thank those women who have "shared" their children with those of us who are "childless" and allowed us to take part in the joys of mothering in big and small ways.
~ For every woman who has had the benefit of a loving mother, and in turn, shared your mother with those of us who did not, or offered nurturing and support, I thank you (and my girlfriends of 10, 20 and 30 + years who are reading this right now, you know who you are, and a special thank you to Dahuit).
~ For every loving single mother, married mother, widowed mother, abandoned mother, divorced mother, physically challenged mother, straight mother, gay mother, foster mother, recovering addict mother, non binary mother, former trauma victim mother, God mother, grandmother, to every kind and devoted mother, no matter your ethnicity, orientation, faith or education....thank you.
One of the best gifts I gave myself early in my life was working with a therapist. I was resistant at first due to trust issues, but knew that until I healed the past, the past would live unhealed within me and inform my choices and color my relationships. If you are not able to afford a therapist please look in to free or nearly free family agencies in your area. Additionally there are free therapy directories that list therapists by zip code, Psychology Today is a popular directory.
I was very fortunate to have dodged the addiction bullet, but for many adults who were abused as children, soothing with alcohol, drugs, sex or food is part of their coping mechanism. If you are struggling with addiction, I encourage you to seek treatment as well as look into free 12 step programs.
There are 12 step meetings that cover nearly everything these days from AA to NA (narcotics anonymous) to SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) to OA (Overeaters Anonymous), Al-anon and S-Anon (support for loved ones of addicts), and CODA. There is no need to struggle alone. Take a deep breath, and reach out to others who can provide support in a safe community.
Self Care is a Priority in Healing
One of the challenges that I dealt with was co-dependency. It is not unusual for children of abuse to grow up and struggle with wanting to save the world, sometimes to their own detriment. I often attracted female "energy vampires" who did not respect boundaries, or women who were chronically self absorbed (like my mother) who neglected our friendship, or women who were critical and competitive and only focused on their needs in the friendship.
I was also drawn to unhealthy male love relationships, the "stray dogs" who I felt I could "save", or successful but highly narcissistic men who would take and take without the ability to give in return. Or if the man was kind and supportive, I would find ways of rejecting him. It took many years of hard work and self care to learn why I re-enacted my early trauma in relationships like these.
And I continue to learn and grow and to figure things out on my journey. I am an imperfect work in progress. As I often share with the courageous patients I am honored to support in therapy, no perfect people allowed. We are all learning and evolving.
I am grateful that I gave myself the opportunity to heal my co-dependency, learn how to know, name and maintain boundaries in love relationships and friendships, and accepted that putting my needs first is not selfish or self centered. Instead, taking care of myself and taking time to fill my own cup is really one of the best gifts I can give to myself and those I love.
We who have survived abuse sometimes struggle with self care; I know I did for many years. If you are a woman who tends to put other people's needs first and/or can relate to some of what I have shared here, I hope you will join us this fall 2017 for the Shine Women's Retreat, September 29 - October 1, 2017 in Laguna Beach, CA. Every woman is welcome to attend, no matter if you have a great relationship with your mother or not. Women of every age, size, shape, ethnicity, introvert, extrovert - is warmly welcomed for a weekend of restoration, connection and fun. The women who join us are kind, authentic and inclusive, and the weekend is a combination of uplifting and inspiring workshops, fun activities, and plenty of time for self care and relaxation.
We keep the Shine Retreat weekend small to encourage connection, and it is first come first served so that my co-facilitator (also a therapist who loves supporting women) and I can spend time with each woman. Here is the link if you would like to join us: http://www.shineretreatforwomen.com
The books that have helped me and other women along the healing journey are:
- The Artist's Way - Julia Cameron
- Mother's Who Can't Love - Susan Forward
- Ready to Heal: Breaking Free of Addictive Relationships - Kelly McDaniel
- Children of the Self Absorbed - Nina W. Brown
- Trapped in the Mirror - Elan Golomb
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough - Karyl McBride
- The Dance of Anger - Harriet Lerner
- Boundaries - Townsend & Cloud
- I Thought it was Just Me but it Isn't - Brene Brown
- Daring Greatly - Brene Brown
- Co-Dependent No More - Melody Beattie
In closing, I know this blog post may have stirred up difficult emotions within you - especially if you also struggled with an abusive mother. If so, please reach out and seek support. You deserve to heal so that you can move forward and create a healthy and authentic life and relationships.
And for those of you who have had a difficult relationship with your father, this is a blog that I wrote as a support.
I am so grateful to have been one of the fortunate who made it through the abuse to not only survive, but am honored to now work with women (and men) in helping them heal.
Is Mother's Day a struggle for you? If so, you are welcome to share in the comment section below.
Kindly and in support,
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S
(Therapist, sister, friend, partner, and God mother to some really funny and pretty amazing kids, and a "mom" to 3 furry rescue kitties).