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Response from Sara’s mother: Falling in love with her angry daughter again

Last week’s post was about a familly session with Sara, a 9-year-old suffering from deep-rooted anger, and her mother. In  Herstory of Hanukkah: masterful storytelling and mother-daughter bond, I shared that Sara, always very resistant until then, surprised both her mother and me when she participated enthusiastically in a mastery building activity in which I prompted her to recount the story of Hanukkah in her own words.

Mastery building is one of my favorite therapeutic and parenting techniques. In its simplest application, this Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill requires that, at one point during the session, I invite my patient to describe, explain, and narrate something that is dear, fun, exciting, and mind-engaging to him/her. Mastery building puts the patient in a teacher position and it gives him/her a chance to build trust in others and confidence in themselves by demonstrating how things they find meaningful are fun to teach.

Sara became intently mind-engaged the moment she started telling the story of the Mattathias clan’s rebellion against Antiochus, the story behind the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, the eight-day burning of oil in the menorah. I was blown away by the beauty of a mindful moment that captured the hope of a day when Sara would no longer hurt in anger: she was completely connected with her mother.

MATERNAL BONDING: For eight powerful minutes–mindfully engaged minutes, far, far, far away from the the darkness of anger–she locked eye contact with her loving mom. She was attached to mom. Through her gaze. Through the story telling of a powerful cultural tradition. She was reconnecting the attachment bond on her own terms, with her own spoken words, her own expressive body language. As the oil of time burned for eight minutes, beautiful to witness, little Sara was one with her mom. Anger was replaced with the need to tell a story to mom, through mom. On her own terms, with her own words, she masterfully (re)built that supreme attachment that is the essence of family: maternal love!


Here is an incredible email I received last week from Sara’s mother. Her name is Rebecca Wynne Levan Burton and she authorized me to share her name and the testimony because she wants to encourage mothers who, at times and for good reasons, struggle to love their children:

Falling in love with my daughter again was difficult. It took a concerted, sustained effort on both our parts. My little girl had spent so much time and effort fighting against me, defying me, lying to me, and simply trying to wrest control of the household and everyone in it, that I didn’t quite realize I was falling out of love with her until after it had already happened. One act of defiance at a time, one tantrum, one intentional deceit, one display of utter lack of kindness or empathy at a time, day after day, for years on end. I’d be overcome by anger and bewilderment. Always after coming to believe we’d made some progress or some kind of break-through, my hopes would be dashed, again and again. I tried to believe it would get better, but time wore that belief away like a river carving out a canyon. It just wasn’t going to happen.

People (including my husband) were quick to chalk it up to poor or inconsistent parenting. And even though I knew on some level it wasn’t about that, it was her disregulated brain, I started to doubt myself more and more. I came to doubt every thought, every choice, every word. Every interaction would get replayed in my brain, over and over, as I interrogated myself over my responses. As I was left to all the decision-making about her health and emotional care, I was constantly recalculating, reassessing, always looking for the  piece of the puzzle I’d been missing, frantic for something to occur that would allow some healing to begin, any small hope for a life of normalcy at some ethereal point in the future.
There were times when she was in the midst of meltdowns and screaming she just wanted to die as I held her tight to keep her (and others) safe – I was often a human straight-jacket for 60 or 90 minutes at a time, however long it took for the fit to pass – that I wondered to myself, “should I keep stopping her? What if I just let her do it? What if I just let go. Could anything be worse than this prison we are both in? Could it possibly be more painful?”
There aren’t words to explain the degree of guilt that would then overwhelm me after these thoughts had flitted into my head. When the tantrums subsided and I was holding my weeping, pitiful child, and utterly grief-stricken, myself, I would be thoroughly consumed with guilt: I’m. Her. Mother. What kind of a mother thinks such things? But even as I was chastising myself with, “how can I even think that?” I still knew that the idea wasn’t going away.
So the days continued seemingly endlessly. Therapy appointments, psychiatry appointments, doctor visits. The pharmacists all know my name and know me by sight, and know by the prescriptions I fill and refill and tweak and change that things are rough at home. Mercifully, they are so warm and kind, and never seem to judge, even when my own prescriptions are added, tweaked, refilled.
Sometimes it was clear that the therapist was overwhelmed by my child, and sometimes I was sure he’d like to stop seeing her.  Who could blame him? This thought would send me into a panic, because the one thing I absolutely knew without any shadow of doubt is that I cannot do this alone. SOMEone HAS to help me!
Days go on. Some things get better. Some things get worse. Then on other days, the previously worse gets better and the previously better gets worse. We are spending a fortune on co-pays and hospital bills, and I’m working solely to slow the steady draining of our finances. It affects my health, my marriage, my psyche, all my friendships, until eventually I realize I’m completely numb. I really just don’t care. I am driven on only by some vague sense of responsibility, owing to the fact that these are the results of my own personal decision to procreate, but I’m also a hypocrite as my husband and I float the idea of turning the kids over to the state and just accepting our punishment. I know now that I lied to myself and to my child every time I told her – all those many times – that my love is unconditional. Turns out, it’s really not. Turns out, your kids can break your soul.
So after I tried and failed to leave my family permanently, I woke up and started to accept that it was my lot in life to deal with the consequences of my own decisions. Ironically, I had to relearn this lesson that was one of the things I’d never been able to get my child to understand. Actions have consequences, and you cannot escape that reality. I *chose* to marry. I *chose* to have a child, and I *chose* (even argued for years) to have another. This was my own doing, and I was going to have to live with it, whether I wanted to or not. Nobody was going to save me from my own choices, anymore than anyone could save my daughter from hers. Something in my brain (and this I attribute to my father’s absolute and unyielding stance on personal responsibility) told me I had to not only keep trying to live with her, but I had to force myself to try to love her again.
I can’t really explain how that process worked. Taking down walls is a very slow, subtle process. It started with faking smiles, forcing myself to hug her back when she reached out to me, forcing out the words of love and support that I know, intellectually, every child needs to hear from her mother.  But I didn’t believe any of my own words, at first. In fact, not for quite a while. Days went on. At some point, humor occasionally began to pop up in between the anger and tears. Lots of reassurance by the TE (Therapist Extraordinaire, who did, in fact, keep working with us) that we were both progressing. With much encouragement, I started to see and identify small signs of improvement, tiny victories. He pointed out connections that still existed between my child and me, and eventually I began to point them out to myself, to TE, to my daughter. And one day I noticed I was reaching out for a hug first, instead of just responding to her open arms. Another day I kissed her face, and was surprised that I meant it. There were still those times that I considered infanticide, but I continued to think the better of it.
I decided that to heal myself, I needed to take some time off and I took travel temp work, far away from home, for several months. This gave us all the opportunity to experience life apart and eventually appreciate the joys of life together. Without me there, the girls (and, dare I say, my husband) did a lot of maturing. Rather rapidly.
It’s been the better part of six months that I’ve been traveling and working hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Most of the medical bills have been paid for, and I think that my days of wandering may soon end. I’ve gained psychological and emotional strength, and my kids and husband have built a stronger appreciation of me, and I of them. Through the wonders of modern technology, I have seen and spoken to them nearly every day, and thus allowed the continuation of our relationship-building in spite of the miles between us. And finally, when I went home for the week of Thanksgiving last month, for the first time, I really didn’t want to leave again. So, yes, I have genuinely, honestly, whole-heartedly fallen in love with my daughter once again. And as I return home from this assignment, possibly for the last time, I know there may be much more work ahead of us, but we’ll be working together, on each other’s side, with love intact. Again.

Thank you Rebecca, thank you very much.



MOTHERHOOD SERIES: Herstory of Hanukkah: masterful storytelling and mother-daughter bondMother-daughter bond with one gaze: mindful parenting from poet Wendy Chin-TannerThe origin of Humanity: birth and motherhood, the simple answer


Therapist, Author: Michel Bordeau ~ Librarian, Editor: Jami Ingledue




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