A Toast to All the Brave Kids Who Broke Up with Their Toxic Moms


You deserve recognition for completing the hardest break-up known to the human heart.

Whether it was because of an addiction, a compulsive need to put you down, an ex-communication, an inability to give and receive love, or just the turmoil of dealing with a broken woman, you did something that most people regard as taboo. And that takes courage.

There are those of you out there who a have found a middle ground, a place where you can avoid the excesses of a mother’s disfigured personality. This could be through tightly scheduled phone calls, no surprise visits, or some topics that agreed to never be discussed. This is not easy. Surely, it has caused you anguish and late-night fights with your significant other. You also deserve credit that you likely do not get enough of.

The power of motherhood is mystical in its ability to create and destroy. “Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies,” Adrienne Rich writes in her book about motherhood, “one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.” The failed mom’s power is no less indelible than a good mom’s power.

There is an entire social science essentially devoted to the issue of bad mothering. People often refer to Freud or to Harlow’s shivering monkeys for insight into the drama of a bad mother. But for me, Mary Ainsworth provides the most useful framework for understanding the relationship between a child and an inconsistent mother.

Working off the groundbreaking research conducted by John Bowlby, a pioneer in developmental psychology, Ainsworth studied the different ways mother and baby attach to each other. Particularly, Ainsworth was interested in the ways children behaved towards their mothers when they felt threatened, anxious or stressed. She created the “Strange Situation” scenario, wherein a mother and infant are placed in a room with toys. Gradually, elements of stress are introduced: a stranger entering the room and reading a magazine, the stranger talking to the mother, the mother’s departure, the mother’s return, the stranger leaving, and so on.

Ainsworth posited that infants need a “secure base” from which to explore the world in order to form healthy relationships to that world and the people who inhabit it. If the caregiver consistently meets the needs of infant—beyond just food and shelter; if she is able to provide stability, safety, affection, protection—then she provides the secure base from which the infant will be able to explore, have confidence, regulate their emotions, and form healthy bonds with the world at large.

On the other hand, if a caregiver is inconsistent or absent, the infant forms an insecure attachment and becomes incapable of exploring or regulating their feelings in moments of stress. Further, Ainsworth found that infants devise ways to get their needs met by their an inconsistent caregiver, such as acting inconsolable, passive, hostile, or ignoring the mother all together. This behavior, Ainsworth argues, is meant to spur the mother into action.

You can see the Strange Situation experiment in action here.

Though Ainsworth kept her focus on the behavioral patterns of infants, it’s clear to see how the dynamic between infant and caretakers plays itself out through the course of one’s life. When the element of basic trust in your mother is precarious, it can, and likely will, distort the expectations for all other relationships in your life.

But there is time—so much time—after infancy for a mother to become the secure base that a child needs to cope with the world. With each phase of life, from childhood to adolescence to early adulthood, the bad mother gets a new chance at grace. Yet how often can a person endure the type of disappointment inflicted by a bad mother? Susan Griffin writes in the last line of her poem “Bad Mother”: “she drives with all her magic down a different route to darkness.”

Some moms beat their kids and berate them. Others say things like, “Am I hurt that you’re still gay? Yes, because I feel responsible.” Others post on social media that they hate their kids, or think they’re ugly. There’s a long history of mothers exploiting their children for profit.

At some point, some among us say: screw ‘em and all their darkness. Spend this Mother’s Day with a maternal creature who gives you sustenance and safety. Or do whatever your big brave heart desires.

Image via Getty

Contact the author at [email protected].

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