My “Cool” Mom: Laura’s Story

Silver Mask

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Sybil Liberty.

Editorial note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Laura” is a pseudonym.

My mother’s friends think she’s awesome. I understand why. She throws fun parties, with tons of food and card games and music. She posts funny videos on Facebook, or funny things the kids who are still at home say. She wears cute clothes, and presents herself as the cool and hip mom. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s always ready to hit up a new crafting store or try a new sewing pattern or change things up in her flower garden.

But this public image is incomplete.

Her friends didn’t see her scream at my younger brother when he stopped wearing his purity ring when he was a teenager. They don’t know that she treated him so terribly that the first time he visited home after going away to college, he could only make himself stay a single hour.

They don’t know that she prevented my siblings from being in my wedding. I’d had roles all picked out for them, but because I was marrying against my parents’ wishes, those plans were scuttled. They don’t know how much that hurt, and still hurts today.

They didn’t see the guilt-ridden lecture my mother forced on my younger sister after she got a tattoo—a lecture that reduced my sister to a tearful mess.

They weren’t there to pick up the pieces.

I was. Me. And that’s where I’ve found myself, again and again, for years.

My mother’s friends don’t know that she sees my contact with my younger siblings as something to be negotiated, a concession and not a given. My parents’ first reaction to my “rebellion” was to worry about what kind of example I was setting for siblings. It was then that I realized I could lose them.

I could go on. I could talk about how my mother reacted when I put my children in public school rather than homeschooling them. I could talk about how my mother reacted when she found out that my husband and I do not spank our children. There were tears and angry lectures. I could talk about mother’s insistence to this day that I should have broken up with my now-husband when my father told me to, because my father’s timing was God’s timing, and my father’s will God’s will.

I could talk about all the phone calls and tears. I could talk about how even today, I have a visceral reaction to seeing a letter come in the mail with her name on it. She used those letters to hurt me enough times that they give me a flight or fight reaction—as does seeing her name on an incoming call on my phone. I could talk about my fear of being alone with her, of being trapped with her in a car while out on an errand and forced to listen to yet another lecture. I could talk about how along it has taken to gain the confidence to stand up to her, to talk back with boldness, and how very hard that still is.

When someone tells me that their parent is manipulative or controlling—or worse—I believe them, even if it stands in contrast to their parent’s public image.

I believe them because I know how easy it is to hide all that, to craft a public image that stands in stark contrast to one’s private actions.

And it hurts. It hurts to watch people pat my mother on the back for being such a wonderful mother and awesome person, without really knowing her. It’s like there’s a side of her only that her children ever see.

I sometimes think about commenting on my mother’s social media posts to let others know the pieces they’re missing. But if I did that, I would be the problem, publicly shaming my mother in front of her friends. It is incredibly difficult, in our society today, for adult children to speak up about being mistreated by their parents. We’re seen as ungrateful. We’re seen as sewing discord in our family. Our parents deny, deny, deny, and throw on the charm again for their friends and others. If our parents do admit they’ve made mistakes, they see it as a one-time thing—a quick confession, and then it’s over, and should never be mentioned again. But real life doesn’t work like that, and abusive patterns are not so easily ended.

Part of the problem has to do with how we think about abuse.

We have this stereotype of the abusive parent as a person so horrible and so thoroughly evil that surely they couldn’t accidentally befriend one.

Real life isn’t so simple. There are different forms of abuse, and different degrees. Perhaps the word itself has become so loaded as to be almost meaningless to real-world situations. Perhaps instead we should talk about parents who are controlling or manipulative. We need to move away from an assumption that the world is made up of black and white “abusive parents” and “good parents.” It’s not. It’s messier than that.

Take my mother, for instance. I have many, many, many wonderful memories with her. She was always ready to read books to us as children, always ready to make cookies or some other tasty treat. Her meals were delicious, and she kept the house clean and neat. She went all-in at holidays, making us homemade nightgowns and cocoa by the gallon. She took us to the park, or the zoo, and let us have adventures outside. When we were older, we would sit up with her watching old movies and folding laundry or eating ice cream. And yet, seeing her name on my phone’s caller ID gives me a fight or flight response.

Perhaps we need to move away from talking about abusive people and start talking about abusive patterns.

While there are certainly some parents who are unequivocally horrible people, there are many others who have good aspects combined with troubling patterns of manipulation and control. We need to find ways to communicate this that can break through the positive public facade these parents often create. We need to be able to say “I love you, and I cherish our positive memories, but this thing that you do—this specific pattern—it is wrong, and it is not okay.”

I’m not sure how we get there, exactly. I don’t have all the answers.

If nothing else, though, we need to remember that it is all too easy for manipulative and controlling parents to craft an all-too-shiny public image. 

10 comments

  • Yeah…I have lots of good memories of my mother, too, and I also have a fight or flight response when I see her on the caller ID, too. I get it!

  • I think the story you share is a very common one. How many abusive people are so proud of their damaged selves that they would go out in public and wear their horrid behaviour as a proud badge? Most reserve their dark selves for family, for those close. They unleash an anger and misery that they have carried in them for a long time and one that their belief system protects and confirms. ‘A soft answer turneth away wrath’ is applied strategically to shut others down while abusers can rage and harm. Children are not allowed to express their feelings while the parent does whatever they feel in the moment, shouting, blaming and shaming and all the while using scripture and the authority of God against their targets.
    I feel that your way, tellling the truth of it, is the foundation for freedom. I don’t think that ‘going public’ would benefit you because I have seen how the church community wants to deny such expressions as lacking humility and obedience but your ‘telling it like it is’ is essential.
    In my family, I began to say it out loud among us, in the family, to address it there first, after I had said it to myself, said the truth out loud. I met with the typical denial, shaming, the accusation that I was proud and somehow trying to puff myself up and look better. I got it all and still do because the damage is so profound in abusers that reglious belief does not clear it but only confirms it. The Bible can be used to support virtually any position… Listen to the young father and preacher, Stephen Anderson on YouTube: such venomous hatred toward those who do not fit his version of IFB trooth (sic). Imagine how that man is at home, out of the public view! Look at how Michael Pearl codifies torture for children in his writings and calls it God’s Way.
    Abusive parenting is passed on unless we are able to deal with our own, very personal harm and feel it through and through, putting those feelings where they belong (with the abuser). When you assign responsibility to your mother, you know in your heart that her actions are hers and that you have not forced her to be abusive, have not been an evil agent of the devil and taken away her joy. You know very simply that she cannot and does not wish to control herself decently, that she harms those nearby and she wishes to do so. This is her Christianity at work. It is wrong and not okay. I love my parents and they are wrong and not okay. I say it to them now but do not publish on Facebook or go to their church to ‘out’ them because I know what the church would do. Ask Natalie Greenfield. (In her case it was not parental abuse but abuse by a believer, church member.)
    I admire your courage in sharing the whole picture and not just allowing the lie to go on. Thank-you especially for not continuing your mother’s abuse in your own family, not hitting your children. If the church could begin to manage decency and respect, the kind you want in your own family, it might be a okay place to visit. Till then, let the pews stay cold.

  • It’s true. Not only parents, but professionals in various caregiving fields, such as teachers, therapists, psychiatrists, coaches, Scout leaders (all of whom are either in the closet or heterosexual; don’t blame gays for that), and, of course, priests and other church workers, will do that too. They will craft loving images and abuse their charges. Don’t get me wrong, I had a therapist who was truly caring and wonderful and totally disapproves of abuse, and I still get together with her as a friend sometimes. Same with a college professor who is very kind to me and all her charges (that was a surprise to me after my abusive special ed teachers had said that college professors hate students). However, some of these professionals, particularly those who work with people with disabilities, really do just craft a shining public image (made easier in the case of disability professionals) and abuse people either behind closed doors, or, in the case of abuse of disabled people, they may justify the abuse as a “therapeutic” technique even if they escalated situations so that they would “necessitate” such behavior, when other, non-abusive solutions could be implemented if they were trained to implement them.

  • Esta muy bueno tiene mucha informacion

  • Loura Shares A Story

    It would be very interesting to know the stats on homeschooling parents who are deemed manipulative or controlling. Maybe the lack of oversight laws or the idea of controlling every fact that comes into a child’s head, automatically attract these parents?

    On another note, I totally understand where you are coming from, and I am sorry. The ice-cold fear when you see that number pop up, or the dread when that person suddenly appears on your doorstep unannounced, or the “subtle” hints or prying questions that you end up answering without thinking, because that person knows you so well. I’ve learned to keep my distance, but it is very, very hard because of other family and siblings.

  • Some of the comments in this thread have been deleted for telling survivors what to do with their story, how to handle abuse, and pushing reporting. Homeschoolers Anonymous supports victims/survivors in their choices.

    For more information about our comment policy, please see:

    https://homeschoolersanonymous.org/forum/

  • The older I get, the more I realize that human beings are the messiest and most complicated of creatures. Very, very, very few (if any) of us are pure good , and very very few are pure evil. Like everything else in life, it’s not black and white; we’re just sort of muddying along in the many, many shades of gray. We are wonderful, and we are terrible. The people who have made some of the most beautiful and amazing music and art throughout history have also been the most tortured, troubled souls.

    I like to think that I’m basically a good person, but I know I have some terrible flaws; and it’s a good thing no one has developed mind-reading technology yet, because there’s some pretty scary stuff running around in my brain. I grew up in what many considered a “model” family, and I have some wonderful memories of my childhood, but I have some pretty terrible ones, too. I love my parents, but they made a lot of mistakes. And like you, I don’t know how to deal with it. Maybe it’s a matter of accepting that people aren’t inherenly bad, but their actions can be, and we need to separate the two. But sometines, I don’t think even that is possible.

  • This article brings me so much relief as I read it. I have had many years of trying to process and understand the difference between gratitude towards my parents for the good, and also allowing myself to look at the things that are dammaging and classify it as not ok. To allow myself anger and grief instead of feeling guilty about it.

  • Homeschooled Kid

    Thank you for posting your story. I know the “details” are probably quite different between every family story, but I still felt like you were telling my story, too. I have fairly good judgement and always knew/felt how wrong the treatment within my family was. But whenever I reached out for support in the Christian community (which was the only community I had), I was shamed and labeled as “rebellious” because my parents “aren’t that bad” and “only want what’s best for you.” I was always told I should submit to my parents instead and be a better Christian and daughter because that’s what God wanted. I received this sentiment from everyone, even my friends. No one in my life really started to believe me at all until I was around 17 or 18 years old, and then it was slow – a person here, a person there.

    The constant invalidating of my perception and feelings about my family really did a number on me. At nearly 30 years old, I still have a hard time assimilating feelings and information properly when I’m mistreated by others. It’s like a war going on inside me where I know and feel that I’ve been mistreated, but my feelings also question my surety and tell me that I’m wrong and it’s somehow my fault (harkening back to the “you are rebellious – it’s not all that bad” I was constantly told).

    Kudos to you for staying in contact with your parents. I maintained contact until my youngest sibling went to college, then I couldn’t take it anymore. I did it for her; they barely let me see her even though I maintained contact with them. Leading up to cutting them off I’d tried very hard to break through to them (counseling, meetings, letters, etc.) but had finally realized they choose to refuse to change and actually learn how to show love in favor of “being right” and staying in denial. I really tried to help them more than my other adult siblings have, and more than I think most people would have in a similar situation. I put myself through a lot of unnecessary pain in my prolonged attempt at a healthy relationship, but I think it was necessary for me to do what I did so that I could come out on the other side without feeling guilty like I should have been a better daughter. (I don’t feel the guilt was healthy guilt, but it was there from the fundamental, judgmental voices in my head.)

    Cutting them off has been what’s best for myself and my own family, but it was difficult, not a decision I made lightly, and I have received a lot of judgement from people in The Church and some family members. It’s been almost 5 years, and I don’t regret the decision at all. I love that MY family can live peacefully without having to deal with constant meltdowns after run-ins with my parents. I feel that it’s also making it easier to heal (without having wounds constantly torn open).

    Anyway, that was what it was like for me. Thanks again for sharing how things have been for you.

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