I was sitting in jail.
On the other side of the bullet-proof glass was a young woman facing a possible 30-year sentence. Incarcerated for two years while awaiting trial and facing a crucial court date, she agreed to talk to me about her toxic mother.
It was just another interview for the book I’m writing, “Confessions of an Undutiful Daughter” which focuses on surviving certifiably toxic moms. That’s why lately you can find me talking to women in coffee shops, rest homes and even jail, scribbling notes like mad.
The inmate’s mother came from a good family in Thailand, a rich family. She arrived in America with a much older husband and a passport that said she was 18 although she was actually 14. She was also eight months pregnant with her daughter, now 30, who prefers going by a typical high school cheerleader’s name, instead of her birth name.
Her story is an exhausting string of observations documenting her mom’s sudden arrivals and departures. With four children, two of them disabled, the mother left the family’s home when the youngest child was a baby. For a while it seemed like they’d never see her again. Then the mother returned with a boyfriend who moved right in and got comfortable. At regular intervals the maternal grandmother swooped in to help the children in various ways.
Instead of going to high school she joined her wandering mother in Texas. They made their home in the back of a strip mall massage parlor.
“I would watch the women at these mirrors, always putting on makeup and going through this door. My mother told me to never open that door,” she said.
Of course the daughter became a prostitute. Of course drug addiction followed.
In jail, she attends drug school and works toward her GED, dreaming of a normal life.
In jail, she works on improving her English vocabulary.
In jail she reads and re-reads poems her 13-year-old daughter writes.
“When I was pregnant I was thinking of nice things for my daughter. It was the first time I thought I could never do to her what my mother did to me,” she said.
Her mother taught her it was better to sleep with strangers and make money than to sleep with boys and be poor. By 15 she was wearing nice clothes, buying jewelry and driving a car from state to state to work.
She knew something wasn’t quite right.
“My mother would introduce me to her customers as her daughter and I’d say, Mom that sounds so bad. Say I’m your cousin.”
I looked at her through the glass with my jaw dropped open. She nodded, smiling.
I have heard from women of all ages whose stories on how to navigate relationships with their toxic moms astound me. For some, it’s a matter of avoiding sore subjects or refusing to be abused to maintain the relationship. For others, like me, the only reasonable path is to cut all contact.
A common lament in most interviews is the wish that a wise older woman had talked to them about toxic mothers when they were younger; before they wasted time, tears and energy on mothers who hurt them.
Nobody ever told this inmate that her mother was a bad influence. The only people she met as a ‘tweener and teen were customers and other sex workers, some even younger than she. Averaging three customers an hour, her breaks were spent watching videos of a popular Thai soap opera.
“I watched that show so long that the girls that were girls like me are the mothers in the show now,” she said with a smile.
I thought gathering these toxic mom stories would be a struggle. What I thought was the last taboo — saying that you have a dreadful mother out loud — is something a lot of women are willing to talk, cry and laugh about.
Who are these toxic moms? They are moms who didn’t hug, kiss, or say ‘I love you.’ Moms, who lied, cheated and stole. Moms who looked nice in public, but pinched, slapped and belittled in private. They were mystery moms, intoxicated moms, and emotional “mom bombs.”
For the woman awaiting trial, her mom was the one who asked “What’s the big deal if a guy wants to go without a condom?”
I have visited her twice. During each session, we laughed a lot about her mom and horse around with the subject of toxic mothers. She said telling her story made her feel good, feel “lighter.”
“How would you describe your mother’s parenting style?” I asked her with a grin.
She had a one word answer, which she delivered with a dramatic roll of her eyes.
Here’s what I’m hoping. These stories about toxic moms, as told by their daughters, will provide yardsticks against which other women struggling with guilt, remorse and frustration will be able to measure their own mother/daughter relationships.
And who knows, maybe one day this story will help someone stay out of jail.
* * *
Got a toxic mom? Your stories can help others. Click on this link to fill our questionnaire:
photo credit: Jonathan Taylor
Rayne Wolfe’s dream is to write her first book Confessions of an Undutiful Daughter by the end of 2011. She completed her dream journey May of 2011 on 8WD after a year living her dream. You can find her at Toxic Mom Toolkit on Facebook.