Simple Truths About Toxic Mothers I Wish I Knew Growing Up

“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with people that are reckless with yours.” ~Mary Schmich

After Mom passed away two years ago, I returned home to take care of the remnants of her earthly life.

Clothes and shoes, books with her notes in the margins, old cookware and medication leftovers. Tableware, sewing utensils, knitting needles and thread. And at the very end, the most private part of Mom’s life, something I’d been avoiding for as long as I could: photographs, letters, diaries, and notes. These deeply personal belongings took me on an emotional roller coaster ride a few months long.

Sweet notes penned by my dad at age twenty-one to Mom at the hospital, where she was recovering after a complicated delivery of their only child … me. Written in his clumsy, dear handwriting, and Mom’s short replies underneath, her handwriting as neat as always.

Letters from Mom’s ex-boyfriends, before my father’s time (why did I always assume that she didn’t have any?). And emotional messages from me, sent from a summer camp to the address I knew by heart since I was three. My letters to Mozambique, where my parents worked in the early 1980s, and postcards from my travels. A few envelopes from my son, whom Mom loved deeply, in a way she could never love me. Or so I thought.

She kept them all.

Seventy years of Mom’s memories written on paper she didn’t even remember she had. And even if she’d known, she wouldn’t be able to read them because of her illness.

But the most profound emotional moment of all was still waiting to come: letters from Mom to a younger me. Letters she wrote but never sent—I will never know why. What was she afraid of?

I read these letters with tears streaming down my cheeks like two spring creeks down the hill. The letters were imbued with love, like a forest glade with sunshine on a hot summer day. They were full of compassion I didn’t realize Mom possessed.

She kept these letters because they were vital to her. And I know now that she loved me. Always.

But for a significant part of my life, I wasn’t even sure that Mom wanted me. When I was little, she treated me like her property, as if she owned me—my body, my thoughts, and my feelings. When I grew older, we fought and struggled, hurting one another in an attempt to protect the scared and lonely little girl inside each of us.

It took me decades to heal and forgive Mom. It took a debilitating illness for her to tear down the mighty walls she’d built around her soul and embrace the love that had always smouldered in her heart

I’ve lived long enough to learn a great deal about human psychology; I even made it my profession. And I see that history repeats itself: Women like my mom pass on their family’s legacy of abuse. Why? Because they either don’t know how to change it, don’t dare to, or lack the necessary resources and support to break the pattern.

As a result, new generations of kids grow up suffering, feeling unloved. And trauma celebrates its new victory on their account.

But it doesn’t have to continue, because today we know so much more.

We no longer stigmatize people with emotional problems and mental illnesses. We understand that children, too, suffer from anxiety and depression—something that in my “happy” childhood was unthinkable to suggest. We didn’t have psychologists in schools to help us make sense out of the distorted reality of our homes.

We were alone with our pain.

Sometimes I wish I could meet a younger me and tell her what I know today. To help her and other youth quietly suffering in their dysfunctional families to see the truth, relieve their pain, and encourage them to enjoy their lives more.

What would I tell to a younger me if I could meet her today?

Here it is:

You are not alone.

The worst memory of my childhood and young adulthood was feeling lonely. I was unable to tell anyone about my family life because mothers were believed to be made of pure gold. In fact, I even thought that my life was quite normal.

I wish I’d known back then that not all mothers are good. Some are sick and fighting their own demons. Below the surface, they don’t love themselves, and they don’t know how to love their children. Children who suffer in silence, just like me … and just like you.

There’s nothing wrong with you.

For decades I felt confused when Mom told me I was the one with a problem. According to her, I couldn’t do anything right, not even remember things the way they really happened. She told me I had a “lively imagination” or even called me a “little liar” because what I remembered had never taken place. And I believed her—no wonder all of my all senses were disorganized.

So let me tell you this: It’s not you with the problem, it’s your mother, and she’s unable to admit it. She gaslights you using toxic “amnesia” to confuse your senses and create doubt. No matter how much you try to be the best in school, cook dinner for the family, and be there to support your mom’s emotional needs, it’s not going to change her perception of you.

Don’t bother trying to impress her. The only person you need to impress is you. Be yourself.

You are good enough as you are.

Do you desperately want to be loved and cherished by your mom? Do you long for her approval, like I did? Do you try your hardest, but no matter what you do, it’s never good enough?

I have good and bad news. The bad news is that it probably will never change. And the good news is, you are good enough already, so stop working so hard trying to prove it to your mother. There’s no need.

Protect yourself.

I was vulnerable to Mom’s intermittent reinforcements for most of my adult life. As soon as she acted cordially, I would do anything for her. I believed she’d changed, only to be disappointed again and again.

So when your mother suddenly becomes lovely and cheerful with you, and you feel like your life has finally turned around, remember that it hasn’t. Not for long, anyway.

Don’t start immediately sharing your deepest secrets and feelings with her, because they will almost certainly be turned against you a few hours later. Enjoy the moment, but stay on guard.

Don’t try to change your mom.

I tried to reason with Mom and explain to her what her behavior was doing to me. But every time, she would feel wronged, react angrily, and start a fight. Eventually, she did change her behavior, but not until much later and at the most unexpected time ever.

Will your mother ever change? Probably not, so don’t waste your life waiting for that. It’s your mother’s life and responsibility, not yours. Focus on improving your own behavior and live a joyful, fulfilling life of your own. This is the only chance that your mother might follow your lead.

Worry less and appreciate your life.

It’s okay to be happy, no matter what your mother tells you. Life isn’t meant to be 24/7 hard work and suffering in the process, as my mother sadly believed.

There’s a place for fun and joy every day—always remember that.

Here are my favorite activities to cope with worries and help to de-stress:

  • Keep busy doing what you love to do.
  • Stay physically active—go to the gym, take a walk or go hiking, play games outside, swim or run. Pick your favorite and start moving.
  • Play and sing a favorite song.
  • Play a musical instrument if you can.
  • Solve a puzzle.
  • Use the tapping technique, together with anti-stress and anti-worry affirmations.
  • Plan your next day.
  • Limit your presence on social media and the Internet.
  • Don’t watch the news.
  • Use your creative powers or enjoy the creations of others.

Think for yourself.

Growing up with difficult, critical mothers, we have trouble trusting ourselves. But trust can be learned.

Remind yourself that you’re good enough the way you are—just as good (and as bad) as anyone else! Care less about what others might think or say. Love and trust yourself to make your own decisions. Don’t be afraid to be confident and appreciate your life.

Have a goal and work hard to make it happen.

Ask yourself, what do you want your life to be like five years from now? Do you want to work with animals, help people, or be a rocket scientist? Find out what you like, what makes you excited and gives you a sense of purpose.

Then, get an education or find a job in that field, and don’t allow others to interfere with your plans. Start investing in your future.

Distance yourself emotionally from your mother.

Distancing yourself will protect you from feeling hurt and help you to learn more about your mom. You’ll begin to see that she projects her own insecurities, worries, and fears on you because she doesn’t know better. To be honest, she never really grew up. That little unloved, lonely girl inside her still steers her life.

Distancing yourself helps you avoid enmeshing with your mom’s feelings and stops her from influencing yours.

Learn to trust other people.

Because if you don’t trust anyone, you will be lonely. Start inviting people into your life—there are many good men and women out there.

That said, choose your friends (and partners) with care. Don’t strive to be part of the popular crowd but instead look for honesty and kindness in others. Look for someone who has the potential to genuinely care about you. A therapist may be one of these people.

Some people are lucky enough to have mature parents who know how to love their kids, and some are not. Some of us have better health, and some have more money than others. There are many things in life we can’t control or change. We have what we have, and it’s probably for a reason—after all, who would we be if we didn’t have challenges to overcome? If everything we wished for came served on a golden plate?

We would never grow and develop as humans. We’d be living the lives of plankton forever, feeding and being eaten.

So by definition, life is not easy or fair. And when the little girl inside me feels scared, I hug her and say, “Don’t worry so much, love. You will be alright, and your life will be full. You will turn challenges into adventures, weaknesses into strengths, and learn to find joy even in difficult times. You’re a great kid! Stay cheerful, curious and kind as you are. Take care of yourself.”

What do you say to your inner child?


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