Mother's Who Can't Love by Susan Forward, Ph.D.

When I read Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward, it took me close to four months to go through the entire book. It was hard, and I still think on many of the things I learned in that book. Mother's Who Can't Love, also by Susan Forward, is very different and I read it in two days. It helps that I am very far removed from my mother. I bounce between the grief and anger stages, but cutting off my parents was one of the best things I have ever done. I wish I had acquired this book three years ago when I was really struggling.

One thing I noticed while reading is that certain chapters would relate back to my mother and others would related back to my father. And while this book is written about mothers, I couldn't help but to apply a lot of it to my father. As I have cut off both parents because of how toxic they can be, I decided to use the book to work through some emotions regarding both of them. While this is somewhat a review of the book, it is more so a reflection on my emotions and past. 

I couldn’t stand the guilt.
I wouldn’t bear the sadness.
I couldn’t stand the loss.
The frightened little child inside the adult woman says, “if you tell the truth, it could mean you don’t have a mother anymore.”

In my case that's exactly what happened, I lost a mother and a father. When I started placing boundaries, speaking up, and telling the truth. Those that it affected got angry and couldn't handle it. I was told to "forgive and forget". I was called selfish, unforgiving. I was, and am, made out to be insane because people shouldn't talk about their parents like that, they gave you life. In a lot of people's minds that gives them a free pass. Except it doesn't. Parents are there to protect us and guide us, not smother us or encompass us. 

Susan goes on to describe five types of mothers. These types can overlap at any point and a mother can be one and grow into another. 

  1. The Severely Narcissistic Mother.
  2. The Overly Enmeshed Mother.
  3. The Control Freak.
  4. Mothers Who Need Mothering.
  5. Mothers Who Neglect, Betray and Batter.  

My Mother

Drama, Deflection, and Denial.

The narcissists three D's. I don't remember a time where my mother wasn't full of drama. She tries hard to pretend she isn't. But if she's not bad mouthing her husband, she's talking about her mother. If those conversations are exhausted it's her knitting or sewing or whatever new thing she's found. Trying to talk about yourself is almost impossible and if you do get the chance, you can bet 100% that she'll hear a quarter of what you said and be back to knitting. 

I can name one time in my life where I truly felt like my mother listened to me. It was two or three months into my relationship with Kevin, and I had just gotten home from a two week long trip to see extended family with my family when I got my phone bill. It was an enormous $3000 bill, due to roaming charges texting Kevin during that trip. I called her freaking out, because her name was also on the bill and there was no way I could afford anything that high. At the time they didn't know I was dating anyone, so that spilled out. She listened, she gave advice to call the phone company and we hung up. Luckily, that call got the extra fees removed. It felt good, until my father showed up the next day. Her one time truly listening resulted in some serious consequences. 

Statements I absorbed over a lifetime of listening to my mother

In the book, Susan asks us to go through some statements she's collected from clients over the years of things their mothers have told them. She gives us a small list and than asks us to make our own. These are the messages from the book that I received from my mother:

My feelings are more important than yours.
You only think about yourself and never your family.
You're not allowed to be attractive, smart, accomplished, or desirable. 
We're so close we have to share everything; no secrets.
It's your job to protect the family secrets.
It's your job to obey me. 
It's your job to respect me, and that means doing things my way. 
Honor thy mother means you should never get upset with me.

Until reading through that list and adding some of my own. I'd never really thought about how compounding my mothers words were. It's very easy to hear it all in her voice. We like to justify those actions with follow up statements like "Even though she can be pretty mean to me, I know she has my best interests at heart. I am overreacting." But it's hard to see how she has my best interests at heart when I'm never allowed an opinion or to be truly heard. 

My Father

The Control Freak and the Neglector. 

For many years my father was just a working parent. I have good and bad memories of him.

Good - him coming home after a long day of work and collapsing on the floor so that my sister and I could walk all over him. Using his limbs to practice our balance. Him showing me how to make bullets, prepare for a hunt, go hunting, take the shot, and the resulting consequences of that kill. Bonding.

After my brother was born though, he was a loving father to him and him alone. The rest of us, became nothing. We were unimportant unless we were in trouble or he had an image to put on or needed someone to do chores.  

Bad - throwing textbooks across the room because I couldn't understand the math concept. Frustrated whenever we didn't show perfection when we went to church. The bad consequences I mentioned earlier was him coming over to yell at me about my decision to live with my boyfriend. He banished me from communicating with the rest of my family for months.

Statements I absorbed over a lifetime of listening to my father

It's your job to keep peace in the family by not rocking the boat or resisting what I want. 
It's your job to protect the family secrets.
It's your job to obey me.
It's your job to respect me, and that means doing things my way.
You have no right to challenge me or say anything bad about me.
You have no right to disagree.
It's your job to stay silent if I betray you.

Those statements weren't just casually absorbed though, they were constantly thrown in my face. Questions were forbidden. Rules were to be followed and don't you dare raise an eyebrow. "If only he'd realize how much he hurts me, he would be nicer to me." He was the man of the house, and with the support of the church, his rules meant we were saved for the future and that made all his behaviors okay. Except they were not. 

The lies followed by the truth

Susan also created a list of lies that we are told growing up and put truthful sentences beside, asking us to pick out what applied and create our own. I couldn't create my own because the four I'm showing you here were too loud to think of anything else. 

LIE - You owe me respect.
TRUTH - In a healthy relationship, respect is a two-way street. I respect my conscience and my integrity.
LIE - You should put my feelings first.
TRUTH - I did that for a long time, but now my personal obligations come first. 
LIE - You are not good enough to succeed.
TRUTH - I will succeed despite you and your attempts to tear me down. 
LIE - No one will ever love you the way I do
TRUTH - I sure hope not. 

Respect, feelings, success, love. I didn't know respect was a two way street for so long. I just knew how I felt didn't feel right. Children, no matter what age, deserve to be treated with respect. I struggle with how people treat children. If you wouldn't treat an adult that way, why would you think it's okay to treat a child like that? The last truth was huge for me, because I didn't realize I could have a different type of love. I didn't have to be loved in the messed up way they loved me. 

My behaviors to be unlearned

The urge to run, or to come out fighting, is a survival strategy that has served them so well, sometimes they hardly realize there are other ways to live.

Until we moved to Madison I never felt safe. I was always waiting for someone to jump around the corner. I refused to sit with my back to the room. I rejected social situations that didn't allow me to flee. I was always aware of where I was and how many different ways I could escape from that place. I had to control everything. A huge fear most people have is becoming like their mothers, especially if they don't have a good one. And for a time, I was really worried about becoming like mine. With a lot of self reflection and with the help of this book, I realized I have little in common with my mother and tend to follow more in my father's footsteps of control freak and neglect. I very much don't want that pattern to continue.

I have loosened up a lot since putting distance between my family and me. But I am still a control freak. My house must be a certain way or I tend to blow up, having reactions just like him. I also greatly fear being neglectful in my relationship with Kevin. Showing love and being a kind person to my partner is not easy. 

Exercises for healing

Many of our false beliefs have been our “truths” for so long that we don’t think to question them. They become our reality, and we don’t see them as filters that color our perceptions.
  1. Take the "lies" statements from above and write them on a piece of paper. Go somewhere safe and burn them. Take that ash and throw it away. Not at home, somewhere far away. They are lies and you have truth. Take that truth and buy a balloon. Go out somewhere and tie your truth to that balloon. Watch it float up and away from you into the universe. Remember your truths. 
    You can see this here.  
  2. Write letters, detailing and explaining. Follow the format. This isn't a letter that needs to be mailed. This is a letter that needs to be read out loud. To your partner, to your therapist. I have semi-written notes to them before, however they do not follow the format recommended by Susan and aren't detailed: To Him and Self Care (talking to her). This is a condensed version of what the letters would look like, if I followed the format.

The Format

a. This is what you did to me.
b. This is how I felt about it at the time. 
c. This is how it affected my life. 
d. This is what I want from you now. 

1. This is what you did to me. 

To Her - You left. We moved to the farm and you just disappeared. Leaving me with three kids, a house, and chores. 

To Him - I suddenly stopped being a priority unless you needed something done. Once your son was born, he was the only priority in your life. But if chores needed to be done. I was the one who was yelled at or dragged out of bed to get them done. 

2. This is how I felt at the time. 

To Her - Angry. So damn angry. Why me? Why did I have to clean the house, milk the cow, change all the diapers, make the buns? Why would you do that to a 12 year old kid?

To Him - Lonely. Where did you go? Why did you change? I needed the supportive person you were back in my life and he was absent.

3. This is how it affected my life. 

To Her - I got really good at doing it all. To the point that I was called out for it at church. My helping spirit, how great I was with kids. And then when I left you couldn't understand why I wanted none of those things in my life. Because I finally could be free and not have the chains of you. It made me never want to have children or get married or live close to any family. 

To Him - It made me never trust anyone. Men or women. They are all traitors. Even now, when I know Kevin would not just stop, there is a huge part of me that still thinks he will. 

4. This is what I want from you now. 

Acknowledge that your behavior isn't right. Seek professional help from outside your social circle. I don't want you back in my life, but I hope you do better for my siblings. 

Final Recap of the Book

I don't think I will ever stop wishing I had gotten this book years ago. It was good to read through it now and measure my anger. I have only recently entered the grief stage, and it's nice to have tools in my pocket to help support myself as I get stronger. I do highly recommend anyone struggling with their mother to read this.

Thank you for taking the time to read this very long post.