Dear Prudence

Surviving Mommie Dearest

My abusive mother haunts my dreams. How can I move on?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Dear Prudence,
My mother was violent, scary, and abusive. My childhood, and that of my siblings, was a nightmare of abject poverty and fear—of my mother and the sex partners she brought into the house. As a child I believed my mother was the victim of a hard life, as she fancies herself. I went to college but lived at home and used my financial aid to support her. I started realizing her prescription drug habit, relationship hopping, and verbal abuse weren’t normal. But even after therapy, the support of my amazing husband, and several years of no contact with my mother, I still can’t get over my self-loathing about being her daughter. Sometimes I see my mother in my features, particularly my hands, and it kills me. Sometimes I sense my mouth is smiling like hers and I have to abort my happy face. Because I have her genes and am still in touch with some of my siblings who see her, I feel I’m never going to be able to separate myself from the pain of my childhood. I have frequent nightmares in which I dream she’s having more children or I’m screaming at her. It’s like I’m the daughter of the anti-Christ. Is there any help for this?

—Stuck in My Head

Dear Stuck,
Your mother is no anti-Christ; she’s just a sad, sick woman who’s hurt her children and made a hash of her life. Sure, she was a scarily overwhelming figure in your childhood, but a good step toward releasing her hold is to recognize how much you inflate this pathetic flyspeck of a person. Accept that she has no power over you anymore and that you can consciously work on diminishing her place in your psyche. When you were a girl, she and her boyfriends made your nights a real misery. But even if she’s still in your dreams, remember she’s no longer lurking down the hall. You emerged from this maelstrom of abuse and became a loving, productive person. Many are shattered by such a start in life, but through hard work, self-insight, and resilience, you made it. Start working at being nicer to yourself. It might help to recognize that some credit, too, must go to your lucky draw in the genetics department. Perhaps you have siblings who were more fragile than you and broke under your mother’s “care.” You were fortunate to be made of tougher stuff, so celebrate those good genes. Then acknowledge that no matter how much you may physically resemble your mother, she doesn’t inhabit you. Those are your hands, that’s your smile. Take steps to reclaim them. Sign up for a pottery or painting class and watch something beautiful emerge from your hands. Buy yourself a ring that gives you pleasure. Go to a department store cosmetics counter and get a makeover. Not to hide your face, but to bring out what’s unique about your own looks. Reconsider therapy, even if only for a short-term tune up. Tell potential therapists you aren’t seeking an open-ended discussion about your childhood, but want to work on practical ways to diminish the thoughts about your mother. After a bad dream comes, when you open your eyes, savor the realization that you’re a grown woman, in your own bed, next to your darling husband, and you’re free.


Dear Prudence: Fallen for My Ex’s Sister

Dear Prudence,
Five years ago I went from working for myself to working for a Fortune 500 company. I acted like a spoiled child and did everything I could to push the envelope. I wore ripped jeans or other inappropriate clothing, wrote just-short-of-actionable comments in emails, treated working hours as flexible, and saw office rules as a challenge. I’m amazed I still have a job. However, this year I took a long look in the mirror and changed my behavior—having a baby on the way helped. For the past six months I’ve been doing everything I can think of to be the employee I know my colleagues want me to be, and nobody recognizes it. The only feedback I get is humorous: “Like this is going to last!” Is there anything I should do that will make people realize that I’ve changed? Or should I just go somewhere else if I want different treatment?

—Trying To Start Over

Dear Trying,
You’re the employee I get so much email about! Your co-workers have been filling my inbox with complaints about your behavior and the fact that management hasn’t done anything to toss you and your ripped jeans out the door. I also wonder how people like you hang on to their jobs. Nonetheless, your enlightenment has come at a propitious time, given your impending fatherhood and the continuing economic slide. But you still have some work to do on your attitude. For five years you’ve been figuratively bashing your co-workers over the head, and now you expect some kind of reward because you’ve stopped for the past six months. Their skepticism about you is well-earned, and it’s going to take quite a while to gain their trust. It would be helpful to stop thinking you deserve a cake for simply starting to act like a normal employee. You might consider addressing your new attitude with a low-key apology tour. When you volunteer to stay late, you can add: “I know how many times the rest of you have had to put in long hours. It’s my turn.” When someone thanks you for a helpful response, you can say: “I appreciate that. I’ve discovered life’s better when I don’t sound like a jerk.” When they comment on your new attire, you can say, “I’ve decided to dress for work, not band rehearsal.” If the lack of appreciation for being like everyone else makes you want to switch jobs, then go ahead. But just think about who your potential employers are going to call as references.


Dear Prudence,
I’m a man who was taught by my father always to build an environment of honesty and trust with my significant other. I have recently found the perfect woman for me, and we literally tell each other everything. Sometimes, however, that means my girlfriend will tell me something that makes me feel uncomfortable. When we were in bed last night, she told me that sometimes she just is not attracted to me. I thought she was joking, but she was serious and did not seem to think she was insulting me. I let it go, but today she made the same remark, and I called her out on it. She apologized and said she just feels comfortable enough to tell me silly thoughts that come to her head. Is my philosophy of a fully open and honest relationship unrealistic?

—Young and Naive

Dear Young,
One of the fortunate things about humans having the organ of verbal communication encased in a skull is that it helps keep all the stuff that’s buzzing in there private. It’s great to be able to talk in a respectful way with your partner about myriad sensitive things, from what you would like to do in bed to how the relationship can be improved. But honesty does not require voicing every disparaging thought. It’s better not to say, “I’d prefer you had a bigger [fill in the body part].” If one person realizes that an uncomfortable thought about their partner goes to the heart of the relationship, speaking up is necessary. If your girlfriend truly is not attracted to you, it’s better to know, move on, and find someone who is. But if she is just discovering the amazing fact that one is not sexually aroused by one’s otherwise attractive partner every second, then she should file this under, “Insights I keep to myself.” Since she’s mentioned it twice, you need to find out what she’s really telling you. If it’s that she simply has no verbal filter, then explain that besides honesty, not hurting each other’s feelings unnecessarily is a virtue you both need to practice.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I disagree about what would happen to our young children in the event of our untimely deaths. I argue that they should go to one of their loving sets of grandparents, who are in their 60s and 70s now. They are financially stable, healthy, and involved in our children’s lives. He argues that given their ages the children should go to his sister and her husband, our kids’ only aunt and uncle. My husband asked them via email whether they would be the guardians, and they accepted. They are young, financially stable, and healthy, but live far away and visit only once a year. I don’t think they plan to have children, and they seem nice but cold. I can’t fathom sending my kids to live with people who won’t even spend their time and money being more involved in our children’s lives. It all just makes me sad, and I wish things were different.

—Distraught Domestic

Dear Distraught,
You don’t wish things were different; you wish them to stay as they are. That is, that you and your husband don’t meet an untimely end, and you both survive long enough to fight about guardianship until your children go off to college. That’s by far the likeliest scenario. But bad things do sometimes happen, so you’re right to have a plan. But whatever you decide, you can revisit, say, every five years. Perhaps choose a set of grandparents now, then as time goes on, reconsider the aunt and uncle. Family is not the only solution. Some people bestow this honor on dear friends in their hometown who they feel would provide love and continuity for their children. So make a choice, then stop letting thoughts of death cast a pall over the happy, healthy life you are living now.


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