Breaking The Cycle Of Toxic Motherhood
My mother and I never got along when I was young. Early on, I began to resent her for her toxic parenting methods, which included spanking, slapping, emotional manipulation, fault-finding, and bribery.
Before I reached the age of about 25, I felt little love and a great deal of anger toward her. I often said, during arguments, that I hated her, and there were many times I truly felt that way. What I couldn’t forgive was the perverse satisfaction she seemed to derive from setting me up to fail and then punishing me.
I didn’t understand at the time that my mother’s toxic parenting was, in fact, the product of her sincere effort to avoid succumbing to alcoholism. This disease had plagued her father and seriously marred her own childhood. The unintended result of this noble effort was that my mother slid into a different, but no less corrosive, form of addiction. Instead of alcohol, she became addicted to rage.
I remember my mother only as one of two ways throughout my childhood: angry or sad. Today, we know that depression manifests in both of these forms—outward and inward-turning. When my mother’s depression turned outward, she was angry at me; when it turned inward, she was sad. Of the two conditions, she preferred to be angry and often seemed to seek pretexts for that anger. At least when she was angry, she could be productive. When she was sad, everything stopped.
When I was 10 years old, another mother figure entered my life.
My father introduced me to his new girlfriend, a kind and beautiful red-haired woman. She was the first person he’d dated since getting divorced from my mother. I’d never met anyone like her. She was soft-spoken, patient, an amazing listener, and never rude to anyone, no matter how badly they behaved—myself very much included.
My stepmother’s mother—another positive force in my life—once said of me, “That’s the naughtiest child I’ve ever seen.” It speaks to my stepmother’s strength of character that this remark never made it back to me until many years later when I was old and wise enough to laugh about it.
In her first years with my dad, I remember my stepmother implementing a sticker-based system of rewarding desired behavior—washing dishes, cleaning up after myself, using good manners, etc. While it didn’t exactly transform me from a fridge-emptying, banister-sliding, potted plant-overturning menace overnight, it certainly taught me the value of positive reinforcement. Later in life, I would call upon this lesson in my own parenting.
Before I reached my late twenties, I didn’t know if I’d ever want a child of my own.
Despite the loving, supportive example my stepmother had set, I believed my mother’s negativity had poisoned me, made me (probably) incapable of raising another human being without damaging it. I feared that all her toxic parenting methods would re-emerge in me.
I couldn’t stand being around small children then—I found them noisy, needy, bothersome. I saw them as parasitic little creatures that drained your energy kept you from doing what you wanted.
Then suddenly, one night, I had a dream. A dream of a beautiful, smiling baby and a feeling of boundless, unconditional love. When I awoke from that dream, I knew I was ready. I had my first child, a daughter, about a year later. I’ve never regretted my choice.
I don’t remember when I decided to start calling my stepmother “mom.” I think it was in my late teens or early twenties before I married or had kids. I remember asking her, on a phone call, if it was OK for me to call her “mom,” and she said, of course, and we both cried.
When she found out about it, my mother was not pleased. To this day, it upsets her, which is unfortunate but understandable. I think I, too, would feel a twinge if one of my children decided to have me share the “mom” title with another woman. If that ever happens, though, I’ll respect the choice, having once made the same one myself.
But there’s something else. A secret between my stepmother and me which, if I ever told my mother, would upset her terribly.
Not long after my first child was born, I shared an important revelation with my stepmother: that I would never have dared become a mother without her influence in my life because I would’ve lacked any conception of what positive mothering could look like.
Even when I was unsure of whether or not I wanted kids, I knew I never wanted to become the bitter, abusive kind of mother that, before the age of 10, was the only kind I’d ever known. My stepmother, in other words, was the one who unlocked the well of maternal love inside me. For that, I am forever grateful to her, and I’m glad I told her—she deserved to know.
It saddens me that my stepmother and I must carry this secret between us. But to reveal it to my mother would, I think, be cruel and self-serving. My mother knows she made mistakes raising me, and I (with the benefit of hindsight) know those mistakes were unintentional. My mother was herself a victim, perpetuating the effects of intergenerational trauma, despite her best efforts to the contrary.
In recent years, my mother and I have become quite close.
We talk on the phone almost daily. She shares my sense of humor, taste in literature, and delight in beautiful things. In truth, there’s a great deal of my mother in me, and most of it is good stuff. I still find it hard to share a living space with her. In-person visits usually sour after a day or two. But I also find it hard to go even a few days without hearing her voice.
I feel fortunate to have lived long enough to appreciate my mother as I do now. She’s much more than just the woman who gave birth to me. She’s a complex and interesting person. She’s funny, generous, a talented artist, and a great cook. She’s one of my best friends. And I know she loves me. More importantly, I know she always did love me, even if she didn’t know how to show it. She wasn’t taught how to show it. But over time, I think she’s learning.