Scars Old and New

In a moment of pure exasperation and frustration yesterday, I texted Scott “I have had it with Parker.  This is not the kid who’s supposed to be bringing me to tears on a daily basis.”  But she is.  She has been so difficult lately – talking back to the point of nonsense at times “Well fine, I’m not going to wear pants at ALL and you can’t either!” (As an aside, I did end up wearing pants that day – all of my cute underwear was in the wash.) She has also been behaving erratically – overly hyper, followed by tears, followed by manic laughter.  I actually asked her psychologist yesterday – with complete seriousness – if there was a chance that Parker was bipolar.  She assured me that she wasn’t, added that Parker was going through a tough time and acknowledged that something needed to change.  This was after Parker had hit her repeatedly during their session and then pushed her as they walked down the last step from her office to the waiting room.

I half-joke that she’s bipolar, but that is a real fear for me.  It’s something I have grabbed onto and have had trouble letting go of.  Like when you’re having a great time waterskiing, but then you fall and you’re supposed to let go of the tow-rope or risk being dragged.  But when you’re there, when you feel yourself falling, you’re not sure which is worse – which is the bigger, more dangerous risk – letting go or being dragged.  That’s where I am now.  I feel myself falling and I am wondering where the greater risk of injury rests, where is the safer place to be when I feel the wind and the water both swirling around me?

Giving my children structure and boundaries is something that they desperately need – specifically with all of the issues they have both been wired with – Parker’s Sensory Processing Disorder means that she feels more comfortable in small places where she can feel the walls around her.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  She is still in her toddler bed – converted from her crib almost exactly three years ago, a few days after her second birthday.  I have gently asked her if she wanted to have a twin bed in her room (as she has seen that most of her friends do when she goes to their houses on play dates) not because I am in any rush to get her out of the bed she’s in, but to ensure that she doesn’t feel as if we won’t let her get a bigger bed, but she has said that she likes her bed the way it is.  Not only are there close quarters there, but she has surrounded herself with about twenty stuffed animals and dolls and sleeps under a weighted blanket.  She has cocooned herself into a warm, safe place.

In a more figurative sense, the best way I can explain it is to say that Parker feels the need to push against the walls around her in order to feel secure in the knowledge that they’re actually there.  It’s something like when you close the door behind you when leaving home and then jiggle the handle to ensure that the door is properly locked.  But I am not a door, and I am not a sturdy enough wall that I can be sure that I will not fall eventually if she continues to push against me.  I am not made of brick or stone or even sheetrock.  Maybe cardboard with a bunch of those foam peanuts stuck to it?  I can see now that I’ve taken this metaphor too far.

And here is the real problem – I am absolutely petrified to give Parker exactly what she needs from me – those walls and boundaries.

When she is hysterical, or disrespectful, or just testing me, I need to be firm with her and put up those walls for her to push against.  I need to be neutral and non-reactive to her outbursts.  I need to put my headphones in my ears and ignore her when she is having a meltdown until it passes and she is able to control herself.  And then I need to be stone-faced but fair as I calmly discuss her behavior with her and the consequences of her actions.  All of these things have been told to me repeatedly by people who are experts in their field – behaviorists and therapists and psychologists.

And all I want to do is hug her and cry with her and apologize for being so cold to her.  I want to pass on all of what feels to me like “mean mother” responsibility to someone who can more successfully dole it out – someone with more strength…and fewer scars.

Because every time I look in that rearview mirror and see her tear-stained face, I remember being that little girl.  I remember how it felt to be so close to my mother and yet feel the miles between us – a gap which I would never be able to close.  I have felt the emptiness that a loneliness you fear you may never be without can bring.  Sometimes I am still in that place even now.

I have spent the last decade of my life, more passionately since I became a mother myself, consciously attempting to be as far away from the mother and woman and person that my mother was to me and everyone around her.  I am sure that there is a happy medium between being a pushover without any discernible boundaries for her children and the behavior of a sociopath with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, I have not yet found what it feels like to live in the space between those two extreme swings of the pendulum, so it often feels like I am living at one end or the other – uncomfortable in both places.

How much our childhoods and experiences shape us as parents is breathtaking.  The shades of gray are numerous and overwhelming and it is a daunting task to sift through them.  How can I continue on my quest to ensure that the scars of my childhood are not inflicted on my children while still giving them what they need?  Am I being selfish in looking at how all of this makes me feel?

One of the things that I know sets me apart from my mother is our views on how we handle parenting. I am constantly questioning whether or not I’m doing a good enough job, wondering how I can do better, consulting therapists and books and teachers on how I can improve on this quest.  I am constantly doubting myself – whether I am doing right by my kids, whether or not I am doing too much of something, or not enough of another thing.  I want to continually evolve and get better.

My mother spent my entire childhood and adult life repeatedly telling me how lucky I was to have her as my mother, reminding me that any failures I had or any punishment she was so quick to dole out were well-deserved and appropriate for the actions or “crimes” she felt I had committed.  Like the time I was eight or nine and I complained about not getting something I wanted  – a shirt or a book or something of that nature – and so she screamed at me that I was unappreciative for what I had and how lucky I was.  In my opinion, this was not an inappropriate or overly harsh reaction to a kid whining about wanting more or not liking what she had.  It was when she put me in the car and drove me to Brownsville in Brooklyn the place where my grandmother and great grandmother had once lived in the tenements there in the 1930’s – and a place akin to Compton – and told me she was going to leave me there “to learn what it really felt like to not have what you wanted”.  I remember being petrified and crying hysterically with those great gasps and gulps that leave you out of breath with your chest heaving – begging her to take me home, that I would be “good” and not ask her for anything ever again and that I would appreciate what I had and how wrong I was (I always had to assure her of how wrong I was and how right she was).  She benevolently allowed me to come home that day, but wouldn’t let me out of the laundry room until the next morning.  I slept on the washing machine that night because the floor was too cold, and covered myself with a couple of the towels that had not yet been washed and used them as blankets.

The next day when she let me out to get dressed to go to school, I thanked her for teaching me a lesson.

I thanked her.  

While I can rationalize to myself that I will never go to those lengths of abuse or mistreatment of my children, how does a person recover from what is essentially Stockholm Syndrome of sorts and learn to recognize what is healthy, and reasonable, and necessary after that type of example is the only one ever known?

How do I know when the pendulum has swung too far?


  1. says

    This is a remarkable piece of writing. I’ve often reflected on the ways our families of origin (FOO!) shape us, in ways far more numerous than we can imagine. I also think what you write about providing boundaries for Parker is wise. I struggle with that sometimes too, in different ways. I don’t have any answers, but I’m here with you in the struggle. xoxo

    • says

      Thank you, Lindsey. Your words and your friendship mean so much to me. I love your FOO concept – so often we feel as though our foundation needs to be those that have been given to us through birth or marriage or blood, but we can choose to build our home and our families out of whomever we choose, based on the love we have been given and the love we choose to put out there… xoxo, J.

  2. says

    You are not your mom! Never feel that setting boundaries for Parker is crossing over to a place you don’t want to go. Your children have different needs then you had as a child. i think we all question whether what we are doing is the best by our children but, you are doing a great job and just asking the question of whether you are is what makes you different from your parents. I can def understand not wanting to make the same mistakes but, rest assured you won’t becuase if you seem like you are there are plenty of “old’ friends who would stop you in a hearbeat and I am 100% sure that will never happen. Hugs! PS. We have this bed tent for H that I didn’t end up likeing for him (for some H specific reasons) but, it goes over the bed to make them feel cocooned and its a twin size. When she’s ready you may want to consider it if she wants the closed in feeling. It doesn’t zip at the ends so you can still see their head and look in through the feet.

    • says

      Thank you, Al. Obviously, I know that you will always be there, as I know you know (or I certainly hope you do!), that I will always be there for you, too. We have both been through more than our “fair” share of challenges (I think “fair” needs to be used in quotations here) but have come through it – sometimes stronger, and sometimes bruised, but never broken. xoxo, J.

  3. Lauren says

    Your honesty, courage, strength and resiliency are to be applauded. By constantly assessing your “performance” as a mother you prove that you are, in fact, a good mother. No one will ever know what it feels like to walk in your shoes, but know we are here to listen, encourage and support you in your journey! xoxo 🙂

    • says

      Thank you so much, Lauren. I appreciate and am genuinely touched by every word of support and encouragement that I receive. I have to believe that while each of our histories are unique, they affect all of us on our path as adults in one way or another… J.

  4. Janet says

    You are so brave…as for your past, I can’t begin to contemplate what it must have been like for you. For what you have endured I would imagine you would never go to those extremes with your children. Like Alison said, YOU are NOT your mom…sounds like she is not worthy of the word. hugs…

    • says

      Thank you so much for this! You are indeed correct in that I would never go to the extremes that my mother did, Janet. The problem lies in the very low tolerance I have for seeing my daughter in distress and remembering what it felt like to be where she is now. I don’t know where the line is drawn between overly harsh and setting the boundaries necessary for her – because the line was so far past where it should have been in my own childhood that I never had a proper role model to go by. As for whether or not she is worthy of the word, that has been discussed around many people that are around me – don’t worry – there are plenty of other options that have been floated around…….. J.

  5. Beatriz says

    I’m so sorry you had to go through such a painful childhood. Your post really echoed with me, especially since I am reading a book about the exact same thing: how wanting to go as far as possible from our parents’ hurtful parenting style fills us with doubt, guilt and fear and leads us to the opposite extreme or feeling paralyzed, and how to find a balance. She’s a wonderful author and I’ve attended a couple of her conferences, however most of her books are not transalted into English yet. If you’re interested the author is Rosa Barocio, and you can find her book “Discipline with love” on some websites. She also has an entire book dedicated to overcoming guilt (the guilt we feel when imposing limits and boundaries in our children).

    • says

      Thank you so much for this recommendation, Beatriz! I will definitely look into it… It’s amazing how much our past not only resonates with our present and future, but can have the ability to dictate its path – IF we allow it to. Thank you so much for sharing this here… J.

  6. Lisa says

    I am so amazed by your honesty and bravery. I am completely humbled and inspired. This writing brought me to tears. Thank you for being a witness to a life I know alot about but never have the courage to discuss.

    • says

      Wow, Lisa. What an incredibly powerful statement here. I am sorry that you can relate so well to this, but I am so honored that you feel I have inspired you in some small way. Thank you for sharing here… J.

  7. says

    Wow, this is a beautiful post that was, I’m sure, incredibly difficult for you to write and put out there. Thank you for doing that.

    As for your question, you are so right that JUST ASKING THE QUESTION is hugely important. It means you are thinking and considering and PRESENT. I think you MUST TRUST that you know what those boundaries are that are totally unacceptable for a parent to cross (and which your mother did, regrettably). I, like you, tend towards the pushover variety of discipline, and it’s hard for me to be really hard on my child. I think that balance is difficult to find, but you are finding it. I know you are! xox

    • says

      Thank you, Rebecca! On an intellectual level, I know that asking the question already means that I am beyond that level – it’s my heart that tends to lead me to all of the doubt and regret that I feel. It’s work – hard, important work – that I need to do to bring one up to the level of understanding that the other has. So happy you’ve commented here, and SO excited to see where your new daily writing routine takes you! xoxo, J.

  8. says

    Tonight I read this post, and the following one that you’ve written…we may be worlds apart physically but it sounds like we could actually come from the same mother…My children are young adults now; despite their and my husbands reassurances, I have always and probably will always second guess myself as a mother. I know clearly what’s wrong and therefore what not to do, but if you’ve never been mothered correctly, how do you know what is right? I bumbled along with the help of a wonderful man (my kids father) and with the policy that whatever else I did wrong, my kids would never, ever doubt how much I loved them and would always be there for them. It seems to have been enough; we are still a very close & loving family & have a relationship that I could never dream of having with my own mother. Good luck, I have no answers to offer, only solidarity! xx

  9. says

    Thank you for your honesty. There are times I have had it with my kids too. They aren’t bad, but they know how to push boundaries. My oldest is five and has sensory processing disorder; he was also speech delayed. My youngest is almost three and has sensory issues too, as well as touches of OCD and ODD. He is such the opposite of his brother (or, how his brother was at this age), and it’s like dealing with a teenage attitude in a little kid’s body.

    My biggest fear upon coming a mother was to not be the kind of “mom” mine was. She was, no, is, narcissistic and I (and my husband) suspect bi-polar. She would scream and yell hateful things one day then treat me like royalty the next day. She snapped over seemingly nothing, and I was usually the brunt of her anger. I cut her out of my life when I wed seven years ago and she has never seen the boys, except in photos I gave my grandparents. I vowed not to be like her, but there are times I do lose my temper with the kids. I yell when I shouldn’t, and I feel so bad about it. I don’t know if it’s the stress of dealing with sensory sensitive kids or my “mom” (I use the mom loosely, and also in quotations because she was my adoptive mom and her rights were terminated when I was thirteen) coming out in me. It’s scary.

    I have a similar story to yours. I was, I don’t know, seven when I bit into a bag of skittles at a grocery store. My “mom” decided to teach me a lesson by hauling me down to the police station and having them show me a holding cell, saying if I did it again, she would have me arrested, I would be put in jail, and have nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. Thankfully I never have gone (nor do I plan to go) to that extreme with my kids!!!

  10. says

    Oh my, I can so relate to this. My daughter doesn’t have SPD (not that we know of), but she is hypersensitive. She has always done better in calm, quiet spaces. Even that bit about Parker’s bed — my daughter (6 yrs) has a twin bed with safety rails. Not too long ago, as I was changing her sheets, I decided to take them off — not thinking anything about it. She FREAKED. She also likes to be cocooned/cozy, but it’s a fine line as she shows signs of claustophobia. She also needs structure and boundaries to function, and will sometimes behave erratically or act overly hyper. My husband and I also thought for a time that maybe she was bipolar. I don’t think this now. I think she’s a girl whose emotions run so close to the surface that she has difficulty processing them sometimes. (If we tell her to go to her bookcase and pick out a book at bedtime, she will collapse on the floor in tears. It’s just too much to take in. And any level of tiredness just escalates it.) I’ve thought about altering her diet — going gluten-free or eliminating dyes (or both) — but again she’s so picky (texture is a big thing for her) that I don’t know how successful it would be (or if I have the energy to implement it).

    Confession: I’ve been lurking for a little while since finding you through Aidan but this is the first time I’ve commented. I love your honesty in your writing and in your mothering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *