Hundreds of grateful mothers had told me I saved their families. If only I could have done the same for my own
I had spoken to Mrs. Roth on the phone for less than three minutes, but already I knew what the problem with her six-year-old daughter Shaindy was. It was classic: Shaindy was an oldest child who behaved perfectly in school but acted out at home. She fought with her siblings, refused to comply with even basic instructions, and exhibited symptoms of anxiety, such as nervous twitches and nighttime awakenings.
“She’s a bottomless pit,” Mrs. Roth complained. “No matter how much we give her, it’s never enough.”
“The good news is that your Shaindy doesn’t have a behavioral problem,” I told Mrs. Roth. “The issue is her relationship with you. And the better news is that it’s in your hands to fix the problem — Shaindy herself doesn’t need any professional help. You just need to learn how to connect with her as she is, which will translate into the acceptance and love she’s craving.”
“Really?” asked Mrs. Roth skeptically. “But how can you possibly know that from the few details I’ve given you?”
“I see this all the time,” I replied. “Usually, it’s the oldest child that the mother has trouble connecting with. And I know it’s a relationship issue because you say she has trouble only at home. That means she feels less secure at home than in school. If she had a true behavioral or social problem, we’d probably see it in school, too.”
“I hear you,” she said slowly. “So how do I learn to connect with her?”
“It’s a process,” I said, “but mostly a mindset shift. If you come in for coaching, I’ll give you some tools to improve your relationship with Shaindy, which will hopefully have a positive impact on her behavior.”
“I’ll think about it,” Mrs. Roth said.
“No problem,” I assured her. “I’m here if you need me.”
I had no doubt that I’d be hearing from Mrs. Roth again, probably within 24 hours, when she’d throw up her hands in despair after Shaindy’s next outburst. And I knew with certainty that after three or four sessions, she’d join the ranks of the hundreds of grateful mothers who had told me I had saved their families.
If only I could have done the same for my own family.
y mother was a respected psychologist who built a successful practice in the frum community back in the days when mental-health professionals were regarded with deep suspicion. Supremely efficient and capable, she managed to raise nine children, keep a well-run home, and work full-time. During the week, I never saw her sit down to rest or even catch her breath; she was always a blur of activity. Even on Shabbos morning, she was up early to go to shul.
Since she was out of the house all day, my siblings and I had to shoulder a great deal of responsibility from a young age. I, in particular, did whatever I could around the house in order to earn her approval.
But that approval was hard to come by. I remember being nine years old and home alone with my younger brother Shabbos morning — my older siblings had all gone to shul — and preparing the entire seudah myself, from setting the table to putting out fish and salads. Yet when my mother entered the house and surveyed the surprise I had made for her, she pursed her lips and murmured, “There’s no serving spoon in the salad, Devora.”
In her practice, apparently, my mother was patient, empathetic, and encouraging. But we children never saw that side of her. At home, she was always focused on what had to be done — and whatever I did was never good enough to earn her praise or affection. I never heard the words “I love you” cross her lips.
She did, however, know how to express her displeasure. “You kids are killing me!” she’d moan when we fought, nagged her, or otherwise misbehaved. “You make my life miserable!” Hearing these words was so painful that I felt as though I couldn’t be in my own body anymore, and I would see myself floating on the ceiling — a phenomenon I now recognize as dissociation.
And then there was the lack of touch. We never sat on my mother’s lap, and she never hugged, kissed, or caressed us.
My father, on the other hand, was warm and demonstrative, but he was rarely around; my mother considered it a failure on her part to have my father involved in caring for the house or the children, so she constantly urged him to go out — to work, to a shiur, to a parlor meeting. A gentle, passive person by nature, he always complied.
As a little girl, I used to wish that my mother would die and that my father would be the one to take care of us.
By nature, I was nothing like my mother. Even as a child, I was extremely maternal: I loved taking care of babies and young children, and I knew exactly what to do to keep them happy and out of trouble. I was an aunt by the time I was five, and I played the role to perfection, babysitting my nieces and nephews at every opportunity.
Then I got married and had children of my own, and something strange happened: I didn’t turn out to be the mother anyone had thought I would be. Oh, on the outside I did everything right, fussing over my kids and caring for them devotedly, but on the inside I felt totally disconnected from them. I went through the motions of being a good mother, and I had everyone fooled — except myself.
I knew it was all a fake.
Like many other frum girls, I had trained as a speech therapist, but what distinguished me from the legions of other speech therapists out there was my ability to connect with each child I worked with and intuit the real issues she was grappling with. I quickly discovered, back when I was newly married, that many of the issues my young clients presented with had little to do with speech, and everything to do with communication. Parents would send their child to me thinking the child had a language issue, when in reality there was a relationship issue impeding communication. And relationship issues usually boiled down to one thing — or, more accurately, one person: the mother.
For every session of speech therapy I gave a child, I found myself devoting at least as much time to talking to the mother. While these conversations usually started with me giving the mother exercises to help improve her child’s language skills, my instructions often segued into tips for improving her relationship with her child. By the time I was 28, not only did I have six years of experience as a speech therapist under my belt, I was also an unofficial parenting guru, the go-to address for many desperate mothers.
“I know you’re a speech therapist,” the mother would typically begin hesitantly, “and my child is not exactly suffering from a speech issue, but my neighbor told me you managed to work wonders with her son, and I’m hoping you can help me, too.”
After receiving dozens of requests like that, I finally made the career switch from speech-language pathology to parenting coach, working privately with mothers to help them better understand, accept, and connect with their kids.
But the more professionally successful I became, the more acutely aware I became that there was a critical piece missing in my own parenting. Although on the outside I was doing everything right — my mother-in-law would always tell me what a good mother I was — I was failing my kids emotionally.
This pattern had been established practically from day one. I had contracted a dangerous infection during the birth of my first baby, Chevy, which left me bedridden and on powerful antibiotics for a week. She and I missed out on the opportunity for early bonding, and by the time I recovered, Chevy refused to nurse.
I cannot describe the devastation I felt at that point. My own mother had propped bottles for all her babies, and I had always been determined that I would be different. I would nurse my babies. I would be a good mother. I would not be cold and distant like her.
But little Chevy seemed bent on turning me into a bad mother. As an infant, she showed no preference for me over anyone else. In fact, any time I was around other people, she would turn away from me and lunge in their direction, reserving her smiles and gurgles for her grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. I had always been the favorite aunt, the one who felt that special click with every niece, nephew, and client — and I was being rejected by my own baby.
She doesn’t need me, I thought dejectedly. I’m useless.
Unable to bond with Chevy, I found myself withdrawing from her. I held her, played with her, and read her books like every other first-time mother, but it was with a robotic, this-is-what-you’re-supposed-to-do kind of feeling, not with the feelings of fondness and warmth that I had experienced with other people’s children.
Although I had always vowed to myself that I would not be like my own mother, I realized, much to my dismay, that we had something fundamental in common: the ability to connect well with strangers, but not with our own progeny.
Another thing I had in common with my mother was efficiency. I knew how to get things done, and how to do them fast. I was always the one to organize the Chol Hamoed trips for all the cousins, to coordinate the family sheva brachos, to whip up an impromptu get-together. All my older siblings agreed that I was the geshikt one in the family, and they knew they could always rely on me to make things happen.
Chevy, from a very young age, was different. Already as a toddler, she moved slowly and deliberately, and had a hard time transitioning from one activity or setting to another. Lively and creative as I was, I was always offering her a different toy, a new book, an original activity, but she would refuse to engage in whatever it was I was offering, and if I persisted, she would start to tantrum.
The moment she started tantrumming, a voice in my head would begin to lambast me. You’re a bad mother. You see what a terrible mother you are?
As a preschooler, Chevy suffered from severe separation anxiety, and would cry and scream any time I left the house. Curiously, though, she loved going to friends’ houses, and when I came to pick her up, she would refuse to leave.
I felt like she was out to get me. Why doesn’t she want to come home? Why won’t she listen to me? Why is she making my life so difficult?
The irony was, had Chevy been anyone else’s kid I would have known exactly what to do with her. My instincts were laser-sharp when it came to my clients, but with my own daughter, I felt helpless and bewildered.
I signed up for various parenting courses and tried implementing the techniques the experts advocated. But in truth, I had no need for parenting courses. Between my professional know-how and my intuition, I could have easily given parenting courses myself — and indeed, my working hours were spent coaching mothers in how to connect with their children.
How many times a day did I tell mothers that all they had to do was work on their relationship with their child, and their child’s behavioral problem would disappear, because it wasn’t really a behavioral issue? I knew the same was true for my relationship with Chevy, but I felt powerless to change the situation.
No matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to get it right with her. One day, when she was seven years old, I sat with her and made shapes out of Play-Doh. But even as I helped her create the coolest shapes with the Play-Doh toys, she kept howling, “It’s not good! It didn’t come out right!”
Knowing that my job as a mother was to accept my daughter as she was — as any parenting coach worth her salt would have told me — I bit my tongue and did not say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just some Play-Doh!” Yet the feeling of exasperation hung in the air regardless. Yet another bonding opportunity gone sour, I thought miserably.
Chevy would constantly badger me for prizes and toys and more stuff, but whatever I gave her was never enough. Once, we went to a Krias Shema of a newborn baby and she received a small pekeleh containing potato chips and a lollipop. So disappointed was she with the size of the pekeleh that she refused to take it, and then, on the way home, she had a colossal meltdown.
When her younger brother Eli came home from school with a watch he had won as a prize, Chevy lashed out at him in a fury of envy.
What am I doing wrong? I berated myself. What is she missing in her life? Sibling rivalry and envy were normal — but the intensity of Chevy’s rage and jealousy was downright frightening.
She managed to drive me crazy in a million ways. Once, when she was nine, I handed her a dress on a hanger for her to change into. She took the dress off the hanger and then whined, “But what should I do with the hanger?”
Why are you asking me that? I thought crossly. When I was your age I was responsible for putting away mountains of laundry! Just hang it up! Why is everything an issue for you?
My second child, Eli, was calm and easygoing by nature, and neither he nor his younger siblings triggered me the way Chevy did. Still, I always felt like a nervous wreck around them. When they’d fling the door open as they trooped in after school, I’d feel my heart give a little flop and my body tense up. I’d dutifully kiss each child and ask how their day had been, but inside I’d feel like I belonged somewhere else.
Next on the homecoming to-do list was supper, so I’d shepherd the kids to the table, where I kept busy doling out food, wiping up spills, and darting back to the stove to putter with the pots. Each time the kids talked to me, my mind would start to race. What do I do now? What should I say? Where do I put myself?
Just focus on them! a voice in my head would holler. But my mind refused to cooperate.
Ah, the phone. A welcome respite from the tyranny of the supper table.
Usually, it was someone calling for my input — if not a client, then a neighbor asking for a recipe, or a sister-in-law calling for a favor. This, I was good at. Distracted by the phone call and soothed by the feeling of being needed in a way that was comfortable for me, I could go about the rest of the supper routine on auto-pilot and forget, for the moment, my utter ineptitude as a mother.
When Chevy was ten years old, she was still plagued by intense separation anxiety and would go hysterical any time I left the house at night, even if my husband was home.
This is not normal, I thought. She needs help.
But the advice I had given so many mothers in similar situations now came back to haunt me. Your child doesn’t need therapy. She needs you to be present for her. She needs to feel secure in your love and acceptance. If you work on yourself, her problems will melt away.
Chevy was doing beautifully in school, which, to my professional mind, was an indication that the problem was probably not her, but her mother.
With a feeling of dread, I dialed the number of a therapist.
The first time I sat down in her office, I made such a good impression that she remarked, “This isn’t therapy — this is growth. You just want to become a better parent.”
I so badly wanted her to be right. I didn’t want to dig deep inside and open a Pandora’s box of long-buried grievances. But I knew that if I wanted to move past the blockages in my mothering, I had no choice but to expose the demons lurking beneath the surface.
“I’m-I’m a bad mother,” I blurted out.
“When you hear a voice in your head telling you you’re a bad mother, whose voice is that?” the therapist inquired.
“My mother’s,” I whispered.
And then everything began to unravel. “I feel like a bunch of broken pieces.” I sobbed.
Having finally acknowledged the gaping void inside me, I began to grieve for the little girl inside me who had never felt loved, who had desperately tried to please her mother but had never earned the approval she craved.
Confronting the brokenness inside me actually proved to be the gateway toward healing. Because as long as I could not connect to that place of brokenness, I was disconnected from myself, and therefore disconnected from my own family.
All my life, I had been playing a role, proving to myself, and to the world, how capable and successful I was.
The only ones who weren’t fooled were my children — especially Chevy, my oldest.
Unable to accept imperfection or failure in myself, I could not abide failings in my children, and any challenging behavior on their part mirrored to me the gnawing sense of failure that I had spent my life trying to escape. Was it any wonder that I felt uptight around them and welcomed any excuse to shift back into the role of competency?
My problem wasn’t lack of knowledge — as a parenting coach, and as a naturally warm, loving person, I knew exactly how a mother should connect with her child. My problem was that I was running away from myself. And because my children brought me dangerously close to that hurting, unwanted child within me, I had to run away from them as well.
Which, presumably, is what my own mother had spent her life doing. In her decades of professional experience, she had amassed a roster of grateful clients — but had not managed to cultivate a meaningful relationship with any of her children.
Because to have a relationship with a child, you have to be real. And being real means acknowledging and accepting every part of who you are — even the parts you aren’t proud of.
I was blessed with an outstanding, supportive husband, who always had an encouraging word for me and was ready to help me in any way possible. But he, too, had become frustrated with the way I prioritized my work — and, in a rare candid moment, he admitted that he was pained by the fact that I was never fully present in our relationship.
He shared with me that he didn’t care if I was broken inside, or deeply flawed. “I just want you to be you,” he said. “Not to be the image of who you think you should be.”
That’s when I knew it was time for some drastic change.
I scaled back my work hours, canceled my voice mail, and drastically cut down on the number of “chesed” calls I took from desperate parents. I also began setting boundaries with my own family members, politely rebuffing requests to organize this one’s sheva brachos or that one’s yahrtzeit seudah.
Turning down all the noise in my life freed me — forced me, actually — to learn how to be truly present for my own family, and to remain present even when mounting stress made me feel desperate to escape.
When I went out in the evening to my weekly therapy appointments, Chevy — who was practically old enough to babysit herself — would beg me not to leave.
The old me would have felt frustrated with her for being so difficult, and angry with myself for being a bad mother. But the new me sat down, looked into Chevy’s eyes, and said, “Tell me what it feels like when Mommy goes out.”
We sat for a long, long time, talking about all sorts of tangential things, until she finally opened up.
“It feels like you’re not a good mother,” she blurted out. Then, she corrected herself. “I know it’s not true that a good mother never goes out and leaves the kids home with a babysitter, but that’s what it feels like.”
“It’s okay to feel that way,” I told her. “And because I know it’s hard for you when I go out at night, I’m going to make sure to be home every other night this week.”
From then on, I made a point of telling her in advance any time I had to be out at night. Once, when I told her I had a bar mitzvah the following night, she laughed and said, “It’s okay, Mommy, you don’t have to put a reminder in my calendar every time you need to go out.”
Was this the same child who, just a short while earlier, had begged me not to go out? Now, her anxiety was practically cured, simply because I had learned to accept her with that anxiety and respect her feelings and needs. Exactly as I always told my clients!
With time, her neediness and jealousy completely disappeared. Recently, at Eli’s bar mitzvah, she set up the entire kiddush almost single-handedly — and when I bought her a gift to show my appreciation, she said, “Oh, Ma, you didn’t have to. I did it because I wanted to!”
Back when Chevy was a baby, I had interpreted her every difficulty as a failure on my part, her every cry as a rejection of me as a mother. Wounded, I had withdrawn emotionally in response, which she apparently sensed even at that young age, causing her to feel anxious and insecure. Each time she had expressed that insecurity — by asking unnecessary questions, by lashing out at her siblings, by making a scene when I left the house — her feelings of anxiety had been intensified by my own reaction of self-loathing. With every thought of I’m a bad mother that flashed through my mind, I had unwittingly aggravated her existential hunger for a relationship. She had a hole in her heart, and no amount of giving on my part could fill that hole — until I learned to accept myself, be present in my own life, and consequently be able to connect with her, without feeling frustrated, impatient, or inadequate.
In the past, I had felt that Chevy’s every negative behavior reflected poorly on me as a mother, so I needed to put a stop to those behaviors in order to feel good about myself. That created a vicious cycle in which she sensed my internal negativity, felt anxious as a result, acted out because she was feeling anxious, and then acted out further when her behavior triggered further negativity in me. Only when I realized that my own negative feelings about myself were unconnected to her behavior, and I learned to accept her negative feelings without feeling bad about myself, was she able to calm down and feel that the hole inside her was filled. Then, she was able to become the same good child at home that she was in school, where her teachers didn’t feel threatened any time her voice took on a whiny tone.
Today, when I hear the accusing voice inside me telling me that I’m a bad mother, I mentally turn the dial to a different channel, where I hear my mother saying, “Devora, I want you to have a good life.” I really believe that she does want the best for me, and I know that somewhere deep inside her there’s a sad little girl who’s too scared to give to her own children what she gives to her clients every day.
As a young girl, I thought I was maternal because I loved kids and knew how to take care of them. But today, I define “maternal” differently. “Maternal” means that you put your child’s needs ahead of your own — not because you have to, but because you want to. When your own mother did that for you, you can do the same for your own children, regardless of whether you’re naturally inclined to wipe noses, bake cookies, or build skyscrapers out of Clics. But when you never felt that you came first, you can’t put your own kids first, because then you risk losing yourself completely — which is far too dangerous for any person to do. You can take care of other people’s kids, because that doesn’t threaten the core of your identity, but you can’t give selflessly to your own family.
Being a good mother, I’ve learned, has nothing to do with whether you’re naturally good with kids. It has to do with feeling good enough about yourself to transfer those positive feelings onto the people who mean more to you than your very self.
(Originally feature in Mishpacha, Issue 776)