My last face-to-face encounter with Bernice Amatenstein before she died nine years ago was an argument.
She was at North Shore Hospital in Manhasset, her emaciated body hooked up to tubes. Three days earlier my 77-year-old mother, a holocaust survivor who lived to protect her daughters and granddaughters (two of each) from real and imaginary dangers, had endured an angioplasty. During our last face-to-face encounter, mom was insistent that when she returned home she would continue to rebuff her caretaker's nutritious cooking and subsist on oatmeal, bread, and the occasional egg.
I said, "For a smart woman, you are capable of doing stupid things and that's a stupid thing!" She responded, "You call your mother stupid?" "I said, "What you're doing is stupid!" She rebutted, "I'm smarter 'n you!" After a bit more of this, I flounced out.
A few hours later, tears and words of love flowing on both sides, we made up on the phone. Mom died two days later of a massive heart attack, moments after I arrived in the hospital room. Despite the desolating loss, I found comfort knowing we loved and respected one another.
Still, the painful memory of that divisive conversation caused me to delay -- and delay -- starting work on this piece. Being a therapist doesn't guarantee inoculation over the jagged emotional edges of one's inner life!
Once I plunged into this article I discovered the prevalence of midlife women still chained to the shadow of a toxic mother. When that woman spends years pecking at, rather than building her daughter's sense of security in the world, psychic scars result. Iris Krasnow, author of I Am My Mother's Daughter: Making Peace With Mom Before It's Too Late, elaborates, "This relationship affects how you work, play, love, and mother your own children."
Come adulthood, the decision to divorce oneself from a Mommie Dearest can be
healthy. Says *Paula Smith, "When I was a kid, mom kept telling me how expensive it was to have me. There's not a nurturing bone in her body." The 56-year-old Florida fashion designer explains, "My mother is 80. I'm not trying to punish her, but if she will upset me -- and she will -- I don't want her in my life."
Looking at your abusive mother as a wounded child
For other midlife women, the desire to reconcile with an estranged mother is omnipresent, a splinter under the skin. *Ellen Jasper, 52, recalls, "Growing up in Virginia, nothing I did was good enough. My life revolved around trying to please her, until she insisted I stay with my abusive husband because I'd 'never be able to support myself'. Mother pooh-poohed my dreams of a career in talk radio, saying I wasn't a good conversationalist. She offered to give me money so I wouldn't be broke when I got fired!"
That last indignity was the straw that finally caused Ellen to retreat. Literally. She moved to Los Angeles, remarried, had two sons, and became -- ta da -- a talk radio host. "For years I hardly saw or talked to my mother. I compartmentalized her."
Until four years ago when Ellen's mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tumultuous feelings about her mother, long suppressed, tumbled out. Only, Ellen now had the emotional distance and self-esteem necessary to view her parent through less needy eyes. She headed to Virginia. "In hospice mom was still cutting, still not affectionate. If I was dying my children would gather at my feet. But I didn't want to feel mad. I decided not to get triggered."
Ellen asked her father for stories about her mother's upbringing. She discovered the elder woman had dropped out of high school to help support four younger siblings, including the brother Ellen's parents had treated like the Messiah: "Girls didn't have power in mother's world. Maybe her pushing me to stay in a bad marriage was a way of making sure I was taken care of."
This knowledge led to a new perspective for Ellen. "Now I believe my longing to feel unconditionally loved long into my adulthood blinded me from seeing my mother's pain. Things shifted when I finally realized the hurt and self-doubt she carried inside limited her ability to show love."
During the dying woman's month-long stay in hospice, the mother and daughter never had the healing conversation Ellen had spent decades craving. It didn't matter. "I spent those weeks at my mother's bedside, willing her to feel unconditionally loved by me, aching to ease her pain."
Once Ellen viewed her imperfect parent as a separate person, she was (mostly) freed of a lifetime of anger and need. And free to love that imperfect parent for who she really was. "I regard that as a gift from my mother."
Rendering maternal abuse powerless
Gayle Kirschenbaum found a unique way to excavate her mother's past to find a way to forgive, if not forget, years of abusiveness. The 50-something filmmaker is in post-production on an autobiographical documentary co-starring 90-year-old Mildred Kirschenbaum, called Look At Us Now, Mother.
Gayle, who lives in New York City, recalls, "I grew up feeling angry and unloved. My mother would pull me apart -- my nose was too big; I was too skinny but if I gained a pound, suddenly I was fat... Several times she pulled me by my ponytail." One time Mildred emptied a glass of water over her daughter's head. Gayle's brothers were treated completely differently.
This abuse at the hands of the person who was supposed to keep her safe in the world drove Gayle to escape home at age 16. "I was so damaged, I thought if my mother died, I would be liberated."
Despite morphing into an Emmy-winning writer, producer and director, Gayle, who is single, remained consumed with the need to "find out what made my mom tick. After all, what could I possibly have done to become the target of such rage?"
Like Ellen, Gayle's quest to understand the root of her mother's anger resulted in the discovery of layers and layers of maternal pain: Mildred was seven when her sister died. Four years later, her father commenced the first of two unsuccessful suicide attempts. Mildred grew up fearing she'd discover her father dead on the floor. Gayle says, "Once I knew some of her skeletons I was able to see both of us as wounded children."
What really allowed Gayle to change the channel was her claiming power. "Instead of cringing or otherwise reacting negatively when mom is abusive, I blow it off. Once, when she was particularly awful, I said, 'Mom, I want to thank you for all the support you showed me today.' She knew she'd been a bitch so we laughed."
Laughter was at the heart of Gayle's first film co-starring her mother, 2007's My Nose -- a lighthearted short, depicting Mildred's ceaseless efforts to convince her daughter to get a nose job. Her current documentary, Look At Us Now, Mother, involves scenes of Gayle and Mildred arguing, laughing, traveling, and doing therapy sessions. It's a journey of healing and hope. Their current relationship is not perfect, but Gayle no longer feels victimized.
Iris Krasnow, author of I Am My Mother's Daughter: Making Peace With Mom - Before It's Too Late, explains, "The two of you can fight and it's OK once you know that the foundation of the relationship is love."
Even if your mother is not receptive to or capable of forging a healthier relationship, at least you'll know you didn't run from trying. You'll be able to find closure.
As Krasnow says, "You can't say, 'I'm sorry' at a funeral."
* Name changed