Just Ask Me: Letter from a worried mother who worries me

Children "learn" what we model for them.

Dear Bruised Muse readers, I’m posting this email series between me and “T,” because, although I found her response to some of my recent writing kind of lovely and sweet (if somewhat misguided), I also found our exchange quite thought provoking and worrying.  In my anger management classes, I’ve heard people express similar “spare the rod, spoil the child” ideas.  “T” has given me permission to post this anonymously, and I hope readers will find it interesting too.  

Dear Ms. Dorf,

I have no idea how I started reading about you, but somehow I stumbled across two posts written by you in one day. One was on McSweeney’s site (Open Letter to the Radio Lady) and one was on your own site about bereavement. As I write this, I sit here with a gigantic lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I cannot breathe. Nothing I can say about the loss of your son can sound anything other than trite and simplistic. I cannot offer you condolences that mean anything, I do not know you, I did not know your son. Please bear with me. I am aware that what I am about to write is not entirely appropriate and may even stray over the border-line of “this woman needs help.”

I have a son. I remember waiting, almost with baited breath, until he turned seven months old. For me, at that time, that was the magic number. Once he was seven months old, nothing could possibly happen to him. Of course, as soon as he turned seven months old the magic number became 12 months. And then 15 months. And so on… He is now 26 months old. I cannot imagine my life without him. I do not want to. The thing is, ever since I became a mother, stories about children, ANY children, affect me almost as if they were my own. Happy stories make me tear up in joy, and think of ways I could somehow transfer that joy to my son’s life. Sad stories make me cry to the point of depression, and then I just want to encase him in a bubble and protect him forever. I do not know if this is ‘normal’. I know that this is MY ‘normal’.

My own childhood was complicated and abusive. I spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analysing, terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing my son.

I wanted to write to you because I want to give you a hug. I really do. I want to give Michael a hug and tell him he has an amazing mom. Who, even after spending 21 years in a cycle of grief that I cannot even begin to comprehend, managed to reach out over hundreds and thousands of miles to a complete stranger and touch her life, and maybe even save it.  

I don’t know what it is about your story about Michael and dealing with the tragedy that has prompted this email to you. I know that even on the worst of my days, what I go through is nothing compared to what you deal with on a daily basis. And that puts a lot of things into perspective for me.

I apologize if any of this has offended you. If nothing else, please re-read the part in bold and delete the rest. I’m not the best at explaining what’s going on in my head and heart.

Thank you for sharing your story.

BIG hugs,

T

* * *

Dear T.

Thanks for reaching out.  I’m so glad you find me, and my resilience, and my writing inspiring.  I’m glad you feel I’ve been able to touch your life, although I would deny that a stranger (or anyone) can “save” it.  Only you can do that.

I think you may misunderstand my writing to some degree, perhaps because I’m sometimes able to take on the “voice” of bereavement, which only means it’s effective writing, not that I’m still suffering and need condolence, although I certainly thank you anyway.  Let me assure you I haven’t spent 21 years in a “cycle of grief.”  (Or even 17 years, since my son died when he was three and a half in 1994.)  Even though my loss is always with me, one way or another, I have a full, rich, happy life.  Much of my healing has been and remains in my writing.  I have found some sort of meaning in the loss, partly by starting (with my husband) a program for toddlers with special needs in memory of our son, partly by becoming a more compassionate person, and partly by studying, training, and making myself available to help others look at their pain, trauma, whatever they struggle with. One of my special gifts is to be able to help people articulate their story through writing, although I use other techniques as well, like more traditional talk therapy.

I’m not offended by your letter, but I am worried about you and your son.  I do see that you may be suffering. Of course you want to protect your son.  Every mother does.  But it does sounds to me as if you have a whole lot of debilitating fear and anxiety around your son’s safety and well-being that may come from some childhood issues you haven’t dealt with.  How difficult for you to “spend every day caught in a tailspin of endless second-guessing, analyzing, and being terrified of somehow unknowingly abusing your son.”

Here are two options:

1. With your permission, I can post your letter on my blog anonymously, maybe give a little fuller answer.  That would be interesting for my blog, maybe for you too.  However, no quick answer could possibly tackle what you’ve described.

2. Much more importantly, have you ever talked to a therapist or other counselor?   Or perhaps, if you like to write, we could figure out a way for me to help you articulate your story in writing, which might help you work through some of your pain, anxiety, and issues related to the trauma of growing up in an abusive home.  Or perhaps there’s someone in your area? Really, I recommend you do some sort of therapeutic work.

Best,

Fran Dorf

*******

Hi Ms. Dorf,

Thank you for replying to my email. To be honest, my email may have sounded a tad dramatic. A little background – my hubby has been out of town for the past couple of weeks on work, I’m exhausted with looking after my son and trying to work from home (I’m a web designer) and the day I read your posts I was just wrecked. I was extremely affected by your writing, and the loss of your son upset me greatly. Your writing moved me – and I am amazed by your strength and resilience. And to build on that by being a therapist and helping others  is truly inspiring.

Of course you can post my letter on your blog, but please do remove my son’s name as well as my own.

I think maybe I did misunderstand your post. I was thinking about the closure one, how someone who has lost a child cannot really get closure, but I think you were saying that it is possible to move on without HAVING to have closure? Is this closer to the mark?

I saw a psychologist when I was younger, (I think I was fifteen or so) and because of the way I was then, I basically manipulated her into thinking I was okay with the abuse (also because I wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t sharing everything with my mom). My issues stem from my mother, with whom I have a very complicated relationship – I love her to bits but am so incredibly angry with her for what she did to me and my brother during our childhood. I cannot confront her about this, because she has blacked it out (she was on a cocktail of pills at the time) and because she had her own issues. I come from an Indian background where going against your parents is sort of out of the question, let alone confronting them on any level. The abuse we endured was physical (beatings) and emotional (she would sometimes make us hit her or say things like, ‘if you do this it means you don’t love me’ – this being stupid things like walking on cracks in the sidewalk).

I’ve seen a counselor more recently which has helped quite a bit. My husband and I started seeing him after I found some emails that indicated that my husband was having an emotional relationship with another woman. This started a year or so after our son was born and devastated me – I was already quite depressed from PPS, and my husband and I decided to see a counselor together. I also sought help in single sessions for my anger management (I lash out verbally when I’m angry, which is part of the problem between my hubby and I). I would have liked to have continued with these sessions but we moved to a different city. There is no English-speaking counsellor here, and the psychiatrists/psychologists all charge upwards of 150 euros an hour which I cannot afford. We live in Germany by the way. My husband is Irish and I’m Indian.

About the tailspin: I make it a point to not hit my son in anger, EVER. If I get that mad or frustrated I leave the room for a bit. When he does get smacked he gets smacked on the hand, and it’s usually the third strike rule. However, at the end of the day, I find myself analysing and picking apart my behaviour to make sure I haven’t abused him. Of course, I may well be doing it all wrong (God knows, my mom probably thought she was doing the right thing at the time) and not knowing it. What keeps me sane is my son’s behaviour. He is a cheerful, adventurous and gentle little boy, and his caregivers at the play group he goes to just love him to bits. So I take that as encouragement that I’m on the right track. I try not to let my anxiety spill over into his life.

Good grief, I really have rambled on, haven’t I? In short, I have good days and bad days, on the bad days I think of people like you, and a couple of other writers and it snaps me out of my funk. In essence, that is what I wanted to tell you.

Thank you again for your kind words.

All the best,

T.

******

Dear T.

You do sound as if you’ve had a lot to deal with in your life. I’m very glad you got some counseling and feel that it has helped.  I’m very sorry you feel counseling is too expensive now; perhaps there’s a public clinic that would cost less but still provide you with the treatment and support you may need.  Or maybe you can find a good clinician who’s willing to take a reduced fee.

It’s great that you walk away from your son when you’re feeling angry.  This is what we call taking a “timeout,” and it’s a great practice for anger control.

Now obviously there are cultural differences in the world around child rearing, but I can’t let this go without saying that I do not believe in spanking children no matter what they do, either hitting them on the buttocks, the face, the arm, the hands, or any other way.   Here are a few other of many reasons.  (Much of this is taken from here (www.naturalchild.org/) and here (http://www.askdrsears.com):

1. Children learn what parents model for them. Dr. Sears tells the  classic story about the mother who believed in spanking as a necessary part of discipline until one day she observed her three- year-old daughter hitting her one-year-old son. When confronted, her daughter said, “I’m just playing mommy.” This mother never spanked another child. Hitting children teaches them to become hitters themselves. Witness your own situation. Your mother beat you and now you hit your child and worry about abusing him.

2. Spanking demonstrates that it’s all right for people to hit people, and especially for big people to hit little people, and stronger people to hit weaker people, and you solve a problem with a good swat. A child whose behavior is controlled by spanking is likely to carry on this mode of interaction into other relationships with siblings and peers, and eventually a spouse and offspring.

3. Research supports a direct correlation between corporal punishment in childhood and aggressive or violent behavior in the teenage and adult years. Virtually all of the most dangerous criminals were regularly threatened and punished in childhood. It is nature’s plan that children learn attitudes and behaviors through observation and imitation of their parents’ actions, for good or ill. Thus it is the responsibility of parents to set an example of empathy and wisdom.

4. Punishment distracts children from learning how to resolve conflict in an effective and humane way.  A punished child becomes preoccupied with feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge, and is thus deprived of the opportunity to learn more effective methods of solving the problem at hand. Thus, a punished child learns little about how to handle or prevent similar situations in the future.

5. Punishment disrupts the parent and child bond, as it is not human nature to feel loving toward someone who hurts us. The true spirit of cooperation which every parent desires can arise only through a strong bond based on mutual feelings of love and respect. Punishment, even when it appears to work, can produce only superficially good behavior based on fear, which can only take place until the child is old enough to resist. In contrast, cooperation based on respect will last permanently, bringing many years of mutual happiness as the child and parent grow older.

6. Many parents never learned in their own childhood that there are positive ways of relating to children. When punishment does not accomplish the desired goals, and if the parent is unaware of alternative methods, punishment can escalate to more frequent and dangerous actions against the child.

7. Anger and frustration which cannot be safely expressed by a child become stored inside; angry teenagers do not fall from the sky. Anger that has been accumulating for many years can come as a shock to parents whose child now feels strong enough to express this rage. Punishment may appear to produce “good behavior” in the early years, but always at a high price, paid by parents and by society as a whole, as the child enters adolescence and early adulthood.

On hitting a child’s hand, Dr. Sears says: How tempting it is to slap those daring little hands! Many parents do it without thinking, but consider the consequences. Maria Montessori, one of the earliest opponents of slapping children’s hands, believed that children’s hands are tools for exploring, an extension of the child’s natural curiosity. Slapping them sends a powerful negative message.  Psychologists studied a group of sixteen fourteen-month-olds playing with their mothers. When one group of toddlers tried to grab a forbidden object, they received a slap on the hand; the other group of toddlers did not receive physical punishment. In follow-up studies of these children seven months later, the punished babies were found to be less skilled at exploring their environment. Better to separate the child from the object or supervise his exploration and leave little hands unhurt.

And furthermore, Dr. Sears says, Hitting Devalues the parent: Parents who spank-control or otherwise abusively punish their children often feel devalued themselves because deep down they don’t feel right about their way of discipline. Often they spank (or yell) in desperation because they don’t know what else to do, but afterward feel more powerless when they find it doesn’t work. As one mother who dropped spanking from her correction list put it, “I won the battle, but lost the war. My child now fears me, and I feel I’ve lost something precious.”

“T,” I’m sure you have a wonderful son, but it seems to me that you and your son both would be much better off if you made a serious effort to figure out the ways your childhood is still affecting you, emotionally disengage your childhood trauma from your current life, and learn other, more effective, less putative or damaging methods to deal with your son.

On the matter of closure, I think you’re much closer to accuracy with the statement that we can move on WITHOUT having to find closure.  Closer still would be the statement that instead of looking for “closure” on a loss, we can try to find meaning in the loss.  This however, does not mean that we should go around telling the seriously bereaved that they should find meaning, which could well be offensive to them.  Rather, we should allow people the space and time to take their own journey and discover what they need to discover.  We can see the proof that people do eventually find, or try to find meaning in loss in the way they so often take up causes related to the lost one, find ways to honor the lost one.  For example, Candy Lightner creates the organization MADD. (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.)  The Dorfs start a program for toddlers with special needs called Jumpstart in memory of their son.  Another family plants a tree, or starts a local giveaway of bicycle helmets in memory of their son who was fatally injured when he fell off his bicycle.

Thank you again for sharing your story, T, and I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said about learning other ways than hitting to deal with your son. Do it for your son, in memory of my son. While I don’t think I’d call hand-slapping “abusive,” I think there are much better ways to deal with your beautiful little boy.  How about a timeout for him?  Or a system of positive reinforcement.  So, for example, if he listens to mommy three times he gets a star, if he gets three stars, he gets something (little) he wants.

I wish you both the best, and I stand by my original suggestion that you get some counseling, individual rather than couple.

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2 thoughts on “Just Ask Me: Letter from a worried mother who worries me

  1. My heart goes out to T; she certainly has a lot going on, and it’s difficult to read about such pain. Still, I’m betting a lot of readers see bits of themselves in her letters. I agree with Fran that counseling might offer T insights and coping skills to improve her life and that of her son. Thanks, Fran, for posting this emotion-laden piece.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Terri. I struggled with whether to put this on my blog, but in the end I decided to do so because I think reading about another person’s pain can help us understand our own. This isn’t necessarily true if we look on that other person in pain as the “other,” but the non- judgmental, humanistic, even generous spirit of your comment speaks to your compassionate reading. Yes, I think we can probably all see bits of ourselves in “T’s” pain, if we’re open to seeing it. I also think it’s helpful to articulate our feelings in written form, an activity that brings logic and reason to the chaos of emotion. And thanks to “T.”

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