Season 2 Intro: My Broken Mom

When I launched my show in May of 2018, I wanted it to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month as well as Mother's Day, and my goal, at that time, was to interview experts in the field of childhood trauma and parenting in order to collect anecdotes for a future book about the role of mothers in our society that I want to write.

However, as the show evolved over the course of the first season, the book content was an after-thought to building episode upon episode of candid, thoughtful conversations with experts as well as "regular people" about what growing up is like for many and the path forward to healing from those experiences.

And if you could see behind the scenes, you would have noted that the show was flowing as I was flowing – the topics were reflections of issues and struggles I was having in my own life, personally and with my kids.

I would find during the first season, that that while the show does touch on parenting, as many listeners know, "no children are required" in order to gain something from the episodes. And that is because what links us all together is not that we are parents but that we had or have parents.

And a year ago, when I started this personal journey, I had described myself as a woman that failed at motherhood. But then I realized it was the other way around. That in fact, this thing we call "motherhood" and "parenting" in our culture failed me. Because it was not like I was given all of the tools to be successful at mothering and I just didn't do it right. The truth was I wasn't given enough to begin with - I was handicapped from day one and I simply did the best I could with what I had.

And I always knew that I was not alone. That in fact my story is not terribly tragic or remarkable and in some ways, “ordinary” in our culture and society. And that is why its actually so important.

Like many people, I became a parent with genuine intention and optimism to do my best and to give my children a better life than I had known. But I had little understanding of the unconscious forces at work below the surface that were toxic and unstable that actually doomed me to repeat the sins of my mother. I experienced firsthand what passing down trauma, from generation to generation looked like.

Over the past year, I have had many people comment on the fact that I have been able to discuss openly my troubles and deficiencies while tip-toeing around the specifics of my childhood and respectfully not throwing my parents under the bus.

I did that for many reasons – the major one being that my parents did not choose for themselves to have their lives shared in such a public way and it wouldn’t be fair to them – since they are still here and, like all of the parents I talk about – they were doing the best they could with what they were given. And the point was never to talk about the specifics incidences of my life & childhood but really about changing the impact those things have on me today as a woman and a mother.

And so I have waffled regularly between wanting to share more about what it was in particular that had a tremendous impact on my young life and keeping that private – again – because I don’t want disapproving shame directed at a young mother who simply does not exist anymore.

A woman who has many times over the years, freely admitted that she was not prepared to be a mother herself and knows that she struggled with it. I know all too well that feeling.

You see, our lives are basically broken into two phases – the period of time when choices are made for us and then when we make them all on our own. And what’s really shitty about all of that is that how we make our own choices is based on the foundation of the period of time when all of our decisions were done for us by our parents.

And so it’s choices – good and bad – that punctuate our lives and the direction our paths will take. And how we arrive at choices we make as adults, can be spoiled by the results of the experiences we had when our choices were made for us.

So, unlike myself, who chose to become a mom, mine became one unintentionally – and routinely wondered what her life would have been like if she had not chosen to have me and to get married in her parent’s living room to her boyfriend at 19 years old, 3 months pregnant.

My mother would also be faced with a choice many of us will never know or understand – a cancer diagnosis at 24 years old and the decision to have one more child first or have a hysterectomy right away and never be able to have kids again. She chose the former – and it was another decision that she struggled with for years.

A young woman, unprepared and somewhat unwillingly led into motherhood. And today, given what I know of my family, I’m not sure but I don’t know if they were all really her choices after all because I have known my mother to be easily influenced by people around her.

Now, we are going to zip ahead in the timeline of my own life a little to a phase that I remember so much more richly than many other blocks of time in my life for some reason.

In 1977, I was beginning kindergarten and my brother was just a year old, and our family would move to Athens, Greece – where my birth father, an Air Force sergeant, would be transferred. Looking back, it is clear that this would be the beginning of the end for these reluctant young parents and their innocent children.

My mother and father both were uninclined to give up on their youth just because they were known a “Mom and Dad” to someone.

I would meet up with my mother after school at the base’s R&G (Rod and Gun club) and hang out there while she played darts, pool and hung out with her friends. To keep me occupied, I would be handed what seemed like an endless supply of change to feed into the jukebox, playing my favorite song over and over again until I could hear the other patrons complain to my mom.

Memories are strange because I still remember that song – it was “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” by Barbara Mandrell.

I also remember very vividly Yanna – the Greek woman who ran the daycare of choice for the American military families.

Now, Yanna’s daycare was not what you are accustomed to seeing today. All of us kids would be kept in large room with a hard bare floor, painted walls with cheerful images and some scant toys and books spread around.

Yanna, who spoke decent but still broken English, would sit in a chair at the doorway, with her feet up blocking the exit like a gatekeeper and watch TV. It looked more like an off-leash dog park than a place where young developing minds should be nurtured.

Sometimes I was left there for just a few hours. Sometimes my parents didn’t pick me up at all and I would be left to sleep overnight in a strange home in a strange bed in a strange country. And I remember sitting on the floor by the windows, crying many times while the other kids ran and played around me, because I missed my mom so much and I had no idea when she was coming to get me. And the place left me starved and lonely.

Yanna’s mother lived with her and originally, she terrified me. She old, pale and always wore black – as was the tradition for a widow when her husband passed. She reminded me of the grim reaper. However, I had become such a common figure there and sometimes the only child there, I was allowed out of the bare room and this old woman warmed me up to her by beginning to teach me Greek. Yanna and her mother also let me come into the kitchen and bake with them.

One winter, I helped prepare the Vasilopita – the traditional New Years cake that has a coin placed in the dough. And whoever ends up with the slice with the coin is blessed with good luck for the year. I Iearned the most about Greece and Greek customs inside that home.

Greece was about so many colorful and amazing things for my little life that I could continue to go on and on about. In fact, my present love of architecture and history was certainly inspired by it.

But Greece is also the chapter that holds the story of the night that broke me. The night in 1979 that I would come to realize forty years later was the place where unsteadiness and unhappiness began and the roots of the black, toxic pain to come.

Now, when we start to hunt for the experiences in our lives that we have to change, how do we know which ones are the memories that matter? Because they are the ones that still hurt and bring tears to our eyes when we recall them.

And this one hurt every time I replayed it all the way up to that fateful morning December 17, 2017 – forty years later when I was blinded by the words “childlike” and “powerless” while reading Wendy Behary’s book. That was the day my brain told me that in order to heal I needed to start with this night.

Before I begin, I have to say that my birth father’s own childhood story is not without its chapters of tragedy written in so I say this too, with an understanding that this young man trapped by parenthood and marriage, was acting exactly the way one would expect him to.

And what he would do many times while living in this foreign country, was leave my mother to be with their children while he partied on the base. A very good-looking man in his day, stories of his infidelities made their way into the home and to my mother’s ears. And his drinking was too much for all of us to handle.

So fighting in our home was not an uncommon occurrence.

On this night, I was put to bed before my father had come home. And was woke hours later by the yelling. My parents’ room was just down the hall and obviously my father had come home late again and woke her and she had some feelings about that.

Through the yelling at one another, I was able to piece together that my birth father had been drinking & driving and wrecked our only car and was late because he’d passed out in the front seat to sleep it off.

The head of my bed was next to the door to my room, which was cracked open to let the light from the hall in because I was a little girl who was afraid of the dark. And as it were, it gave me a chance to look down the hall in the direction of my parents room.

Laying there frozen in my bed with my head turned towards their room, I listened on and followed the argument and then I heard my mother say she was leaving. Not just him. But all of us.

What is important to know right now is that it does not matter what was going through my mother’s mind at that moment – why she felt the way she did and thought her only choice was to leave us all behind. That’s not how this trauma-healing works. What is important here is what was going through MY mind. And what my brain did with that experience.

Because in an instant, I went from my normal range of fear from listening to my parents fight again to my small body being flooded with the toxicity of sheer terror.

I knew the worst was about to come – abandonment – which small developing brains at the most primitive level equate with death. Mine and hers.

And my brain kicked into survival mode and engaged me to do whatever I needed to save my life and that meant I had to unlock myself from the frozen terror and do something. Anything.

I couldn’t get my body to move at all, so all I had the power to do was to speak up. To beg. To beg her to stay. I laid where I was, with my head turned toward the opening in the door, waiting for her to leave their room because I knew she’d have to pass by my door first before she could leave.

And when I saw her, I was able to make eye contact and I sobbed “Mommy please don’t go. Please don’t leave me.” And I got her to stop and our gazes were locked while I kept repeating over and over again “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t go.”

And for what seemed like an eternity, she just stood there and stared back at me with an angry and hurt expression on her face and didn’t say a word. But I could also see she was thinking about what to do.

It would be what happened next that was critical. Life-changing for sure.

Because instead of coming into my room, sitting on my bed, holding me in her arms and telling me she’d never let me go or leave me – my broken mom walked away.

And my birth father – well, to be honest – I never see him in my recollection of this memory. I only have his distant angry voice in the other room because he too never bothered to check in on me.

I was left alone in my dark bedroom, frozen in my bed, to swim in my fears and grief for hours and to cry at my loss.

The next morning, I’d find that my mom didn’t actually leave but went to sleep on the couch. And she would tell me that it was seeing my face and hearing me ask her to stay convinced her she couldn’t leave that night.

But my six-year-old brain learned from that experience two important things that would shape me for 40 years:

  1. My mother’s presence in my life was not a guarantee – it is shaky and unsteady and I have to be vigilant of that; and

  2. And even as a small child, I have the power to keep her around – as long as I don’t make her mad or angry with me and do what she wants me to do.

The timing of what happened next is a blur, but obviously, we couldn’t stay in Greece. So, my mother, my brother and I flew back to the State’s in between my first and second grade years, to the safety of my grandparents’ home in Hays Kansas.

But then after attending school for only the first few days of 2nd grade, I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Halstead, Kansas. I was told it was so my mother could get settled in Salina and then she’d come for me. It was supposed to be a good thing for me and a way to keep me away from the chaos my life had become.

And after some amount of time living my cousins and my aunt and uncle, I was finally retrieved and had to start again at another school for the third time in just a few months.

Now, I know better than to reflect on life and cherry-pick out only the experiences I had at the hands of my mother and say that those were the ones that affected me the most. That’s simply not fair to her or to the reality of life for anyone.

The truth is that my birth father’s experience with me is also pretty important to the story. And the overriding theme with him is that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I know that’s a harsh thing to say, and maybe if anyone asked him if this was true or not, he’d be defensive but the facts are the facts.

We may say things out loud and try to convince ourselves that our words are truths but the reality is that actions – what we do – is the only truth we have to judge by.

And the truth is he was avoidant. And his own mother – my grandmother did her part to keep a gap in their too. My paternal grandfather would reach years later and apologize for his son’s treatment of me. But that didn’t change the fact that I had to grow up as girl whose dad didn’t want her.

At some point in the 5 years that followed our return to Kansas, my mother re-married. But it too would not last long either.

It was sometime during December of my 5th or 6th grade year. My mother handed me a small candy cane to take with me to school as a treat in the morning after I had a nightmare and was reluctant about leaving. And as I was walking to school, I wasn’t even a block away when the candy cane slipped from my hands to the sidewalk and broke. I picked it up and began to cry. And then my body swelled with terror that this might the last thing my mother would ever give me and here, I had broke it.

So I ran home, crying uncontrollable and begging my mom to not make me go to school so that I could be there with her. I was afraid something was going to happen to her.

Clearly my mother was completely confused by my behavior. And could not figure out what was going on so she called the school to tell them what was happening. We did end up going to school, only it was straight into a counselor’s office.

What nobody had ever known was that since that night in Greece, I was having nightmares of my mom being killed and dying. Over and over again. I had become haunted by death and never said anything.

In Greece, after that terrifying night, I would have dreams about headless creatures dragging her out of our car in front of me and into the darkness. Here, 5 years later, I was dreaming of her fighting with my step-dad and falling down the stairs in our house and breaking her neck.

But what I didn’t know then but clearly sensed was that my mother’s marriage to my step-dad was rocky and problematic. And clearly, her shift in behavior and other dynamics in our house did not escape my brain from seeing it and processing it as a dangerous situation for me again.

At 11 years old, I was experiencing a nervous breakdown and with no tools to deal with it. That’s when I started to journal. I wrote and wrote like my life depended on it and processed in my own head my world and what was happening.

And through therapy, four decades later, it would be obvious that I was suffering from PTSD and had never received help for it.

And within a couple of years, my mother would marry again, for the third time, to the man I’d ultimately identify and accept as my father to this day. And with him brought two infant boys, making us a family of four children – me the oldest with three younger brothers.

And more children for the woman who had her conflicted relationship with motherhood.

As a child, living under the constant fear of loss and abandonment, coupled with the idea that I had the power to keep it from happening, meant I became compliant. Dutiful. And when I became older, this compliance was taken advantage of.

As teenager, I would not be allowed to go out and hang out with friends on weekends very often. And since I was forbidden to leave home, I was then forced to watch my brothers while my parents went out instead. I was captive. And, not being allowed to make my own choices for myself, which is normal to teenage years, I simply became angrier and angrier and held it inside.

But growing up was also really accented by emotions and interactions always being mixed up and confusing and always seemed inappropriate for the situation. Several of my guests on the show have talked about how sometimes people treat emotions like a bag of marbles – each on unconnected to the other, just jumbled together, banging around off one another. That was a metaphor I could identify with in my house.

When things were scary – they were treated as funny. When something wasn’t that serious – they were met with defensive yelling and needless intensity.

Opportunities to connect were cut short with conversation-ending statements like “You’d better be a goddamn virgin when you graduate from high school because I was!” – was literally the entirety of my “sex talk” at 14 years old as we pulled into the driveway one afternoon after my gynecologist appointment.

And if I made a normal mistake – I was teased for it. In fact, I was commonly the butt of the jokes and I was led to believe throughout high school by many people around me – not just family - that while I was “book smart” – I had zero common sense.