Mother Blame, and the Special Needs Child

One afternoon several years ago my normally happy-camper daughter had a meltdown of epic proportions at preschool. One minute she was fine, and the next minute she was possessed by the devil. Shrieking till she was red in the face at an unholy decible level. Shaking, flailing, back-arching, freaky gutteral noises.

Not quite three, she was unable to tell me why she was so upset, plus she was practically hyperventilating. I held her in my lap while the teacher, a child psychologist, explained to the other children, who were saucer-eyed and frozen, “Franny is having a hard time. She’s going through something, but her mother is holding her and she’s going to be okay.”

It was just a year after my ex-husband and I had separated. My son Luca, then seven, was regularly exploding at home and at school. My ex-husband was also regularly exploding. Both of them blamed me for the problems Luca was having and I had come to believe them, that I was, as Prince opined in bold font with lots of exclamation marks in his daily e-mail tirades, “an unfit mother!!!!”

Except when it came to Franny. Franny was a resilient, joie-de-vivre kind of kid, generally easy to soothe after standard-issue toddler upsets. I was not an unfit mother when it came to Franny, I convinced myself.

Until that day when she needed an exorcism.

I started babbling to the teacher about the divorce, and her brother, and how maybe I hadn’t recognized that she too was irrevocably damaged. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me. Something about divorce trauma. He trained at a therapeutic preschool, he said, where he had seen “this kind of thing” all the time. He was going to stay with me and help me “support Franny,” he said. He had a very somber look on his face. This is bad, I thought.

He said puzzles were good for helping kids calm down and suggested I do one with her. This did not strike me as a puzzle moment, but he had a PhD and I didn’t so I figured he must know what to do. I put a puzzle in front of Franny. She hurled the pieces at the wall. The teacher’s aide promptly removed the other children from the room.

*          *         *

A half hour later, Franny was her old self. I stood on the playground watching her chat up a preschool homie in the sandbox. I, on the other hand, felt like a wrung-out dishtowel. I turned to the co-director of the preschool, a stout, unflappable woman who was not a child psychologist but who had been working with kids for about ninety years.

I told her what had happened. I rambled on about the divorce trauma, and how my son was a mess, and now maybe Franny was going to be a mess too. Neither kid seemed to get upset with their dad, I said, because this is what he told me. I asked her why she thought this was. She paused. I waited for her to give me an in-depth explanation of my parental failings, complete with sobering statistics and references to Alice Miller.

Finally, she shrugged and said: “Mothers are just the crap-catchers. I don’t know why that is, but it always seems to be that way. My kids blamed everything on me too.”

*          *          *

Now, seven years later, Franny’s meltdown is just an inexplicable sepia-toned blip in the development of a 99% of the time easy-to-parent kid.

Her brother’s meltdowns, however, never subsided. As is the case with many special-needs kids, the meltdowns were particularly spectacular in situations where we were on a tight schedule (driving to school) or in public places (grocery stores, social gatherings, movie theaters).

The mothering experience I had envisioned — cheering with other moms on the sidelines at soccer games; carpooling; arranging playdates and hosting birthday parties — was something I watched slip further away the older Luca got and the more his reputation grew into the “problem kid.” I became that mother from whom other mothers kept a polite distance on the schoolyard. Calls for playdates went unanswered. Birthday parties were canceled because everyone was “busy.”

Once when Luca was in 3rd grade, his dad told me “Jonah” wanted him to come over. I approached Jonah’s mom at school and relayed Prince’s message, that Jonah really wanted a playdate with Luca. She eyed me with something that seemed very much like contempt and replied, “No Luca’s dad asked if Luca could have a playdate with Jonah. So I said okay. Sure,” she said, dripping with insincerity, “he can come over.”

I did not take her up on her invitation.

*          *          *

I think it was the fourth therapist we took Luca to who blamed my son’s problems on the fact that he was not “securely attached” to me. He did not seem to feel that the relentless bad-mouthing of me by his father had anything to do with that. No, he said, after inspecting Luca’s bedroom during a home visit, it was because Luca’s bedroom was upstairs, too far away from me.

“You have him upstairs, where it’s Father-Sky. He is not ready to be Father-Sky, he needs to be next to Mother-Earth.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You need to build a room for him outside your bedroom door.”

Mind, you, we lived in a tiny house and outside the bedroom door was the living room. When you entered the house, you stepped directly into the living room, which the therapist was now suggesting should no longer be a living room, but a boy-cave.

“Drape a canopy over a couple of bookshelves, line the floor with cushions, and let him sleep in there. This is how he’ll form an attachment to you.”

I protested. I said I did not believe Luca’s behavioral problems would be solved by setting up a metaphorical womb outside my bedroom. I also wanted to know why the therapist had not visited my ex-husband’s home as he had visited mine. This seemed, I said, rather biased.

The therapist said nothing, but sighed, resigned, at the news that I would not be building a shrine for my son outside my bedroom door. He didn’t have to say it, I could tell by the look on his face.

I was to blame for Luca’s problems.

*          *          *

“Refrigerator Mother” was a term used in the 1950s to describe mothers of children with autism and schizophrenia. Psychologists believed that children suffering from these disorders did so because their mothers were cold and distant. Never mind how cold and distant the father might be. Never mind Aunt Jane who never spoke or Grandpa Bob who heard voices. Nope. A child became autistic or schizophrenic solely because his mother was aloof.

Since the era of the Refrigerator Mother, we have developed space travel, eradicated many deadly diseases through vaccination, and created social media so powerful that millions of protesters can effect healthcare change in a matter of days.

Yet having a special needs child still is too often perceived as a shameful thing, and mothers still are too often blamed for their children’s issues.

When I flew to wilderness camp to visit Luca, I sat glued to my seat, unable to put down my iBook copy of Live Through This, a brutally honest memoir written by a divorced mother whose two daughters derailed during adolescence, leaving their middle-class home to become drug-addicted runaways.

Debra Gwartney‘s account of her daughters’ spiral into mental illness felt freakishly like my own. She was a single mother whose every effort to help her children proved fruitless (now in their 20s, her daughters did indeed live through this and are fine). Her description of isolating herself during school functions because she felt such intense shame about her home life was an experience I had lived for years, but hadn’t realized was shared by other moms.

I e-mailed Debra and asked her about her own experience with Mother Blame. This is what she wrote:

“This idea that there are some who are intent on blaming mothers for pretty much all the ills of society struck me after my daughters and I appeared on a segment for This American Life. Most of the letters about the program were inquisitive, positive, supportive, but there were a few people who were determined to make our problems all about the bad mother. And with such vehemence! I was amazed at the vitriol in those postage messages–and later, after the book came out, on other internet sites that mentioned the book or ran an interview. Of course they’re all anonymous, as such attacks seem possible only under the cloak of anonymity. I also noted that most of these people admitted they hadn’t read the book, whipped up into a fury merely at the mention of a mother writing about the troubles in her family.”

Blogger Gabi Coatsworth, who writes about her sons’ struggles with bipolar disorder, said Mother Blame “made me think for many years that my sons’ mental health issues were because of the way I’d raised them. And so it delayed a proper diagnosis and treatment, and made their lives a lot harder. My daughter (now diagnosed as ADHD) was doing badly in High school (aptly named) and wanted to go to a boarding school. The counselor we hired to help place her told me I was a lousy mother and that’s why she was out of control. And we PAID him! Actually, my second (and current) husband more or less agreed with the counselor.”

Missy Boyter, co-founder of LAMomsDig, a blog with a section featuring resources for L.A.-area special needs kids, has two children on the autism spectrum. She says she feels less blamed by others, and more by  herself — and on occasion her husband:

“Most everything we’ve done has been wonderful and the kids have made HUGE progress. Maybe I’m lucky, but I haven’t ever been blamed for their delays – at least not to my face. The issue that my husband and I deal with is more of a self blame thing. We ask ourselves what did we do wrong? Or was it our ‘faulty’ genes that are to blame? Who knows.

I do resent my husband pointing the blame finger at me. It makes me feel like I’m slacking when it comes to taking care of my kids. We argue about it and I usually tell him to stuff it and then he quits – until we have a new obstacle to overcome.”

*          *          *

After Luca, now 14, went to live with his dad full-time and went completely off the rails, after umpteen diagnoses and medication trials and more ineffectual therapists, after I relented and let Prince make all decisions for Luca, after Prince sent Luca to wilderness camp and a residential treatment center, prompting my son to beg me to get custody back because now I was suddenly the Good Parent — after all this, I finally stopped blaming myself for all of Luca’s problems.

There are too many factors that go into making up a Special Needs Child — psychiatric conditions; developmental delays; unforeseen situational circumstances; co-parenting conflicts — to point the finger at any one culprit.

Pointing fingers never helps. Understanding does. So does empathy.

So the next time you pass that mother trying to scoop her tantrumming child from the floor of the cereal aisle, consider that the problem may not be her indulgence, but her child’s sensory integration deficits, or generalized anxiety disorder, or clinical depression masquerading as brattiness.

And if you notice the mom of “that out-of-control kid” hanging out on the margins of the Third Grade Parent Mixer, go stand next to her. Find something positive to say about her child. Ask her if she’d like to set up a playdate.

And know that there but for the grace of having a neurotypical child, you’d be the target of Mother Blame too.


About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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26 Responses to Mother Blame, and the Special Needs Child

  1. I have a thing or two to say about those therapists you saw…are you kidding me? Super unprofessional and not helpful. As for mother blame….I’m just glad you got to the other side. It’s so not your fault, or Luca’s. It just is.

  2. Sometimes I think we accept the blame too easily, because of guilt – in a society that seems expert at guilt (and finger pointing). And when we’re divorced? We take that guilt and blame on even more readily.

    That comment that mothers are the crap catchers? It couldn’t be more true – in this culture. We need to just say no. Seriously.


  3. Lori Day says:

    I’ve been the divorced mother of a teenage daughter who reserved all of her backtalk and acting out for me, and was easygoing during her brief amounts of time with her father. I’ve also been the psychologist explaining this phenomenon to countless mothers–single or married–who all seemed to be the parent that the children “felt safe” unloading on. And I’ve given myself my own advice on this matter. The bottom line is that yes, it’s common, but it still sucks!

  4. What an excellent piece. Having myself experienced some of what you and Luca have been through, my heart goes out to both of you. Prince sounds like the one who is insecurely attached.
    Best of luck to you and your kids.

  5. Your post caught my eye in… and I’m glad I stopped in to read it! I’ve got two kids on the neuro-psych spectrum and it nearly drove me to print cards that said “if you have issues with my parenting, please visit the Child/Adolescent Bipolar Foundation’s website.” 🙂 My question for you is this: how did you vent the resentment toward people who assumed (or straight-out accused) Luca’s issues were your fault? I’m writing my first book on that and it sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot. I’d love to hear your ideas!

    • Hi Laurie: Your card idea sounds great. How did I vent my resentment, you ask? Via blogging! That and connecting with other parents of challenging kids. Now I just pay attention to the people who “get” it, but it took me a long time to get there.

  6. Missy says:

    Great post. It really helps to hear about other moms struggling to deal with difficult situations with their children. You don’t feel as alone when you hear that other peoples’ kids have massive, uncontrollable outbursts in public places too. It’s never easy and you do feel very isolated a lot of the time. The only people who really understand my feelings are my friends with special needs kids themselves. They get it and it helps to talk with them and let it all out. They are my lunch therapy sessions!

  7. Nodumbunny says:

    I have a son with ADHD and while I wasn’t blamed by my husband, I was blamed by my mother. We’ve worked it out after one time I cut off all contact with her over a comment and my husband and dad played peacemakers. But that was fun.

  8. Great piece of writing, as always. Don’t you wish sometimes people would give mothers a little credit for not giving up?

  9. I have always found it troubling that mothers are both blamed for anything that goes awry with a child, and at the same time, given little or no credit when things come out well. Also, as mothers, we too frequently contribute to our own oppression by feeding into the guilt, by indulging in “if only I had…” thinking. That lovely Eleanor Roosevelt quote seems apt here: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  10. Pennie Heath says:

    I am a therapist and worked for 14 years with children. Most of it I spent telling the children’s mothers to give themselves a break. I have never heard the ‘mothers are crap-catchers’ things, but IMO truer words for never spoken. Kuddos to the old pre-school director. I think children have lower expectations for their dads. Or maybe they just clue in as infants that they can get us by the short hairs because we are programmed to feel guilty.

  11. Pingback: Posts to share. « Punky Mama

  12. shawn says:

    My friend JoAnn (Punky Mama) shared this. It was really so spot-on.
    My best to you.

  13. I am not divorced or single. In fact I don’t have any more stress than any more working a full time job. My kids are in school from 7:30-6, but that is about it as far as stress goes. But my oldest child, now 4, is the out of control kid. He is the kid that sucks the other boys into being defiant. W e are starting to see behavior problems at school. And since schools cannot discuss what is happening with other children in the school, you as a parent can’t get a sense of whether the behavior is started by him, the group, or if there is another ring leader among them. In fact, without the proper context often I feel that I cannot discipline effectively.

    But your comments about being ashamed for your child’s actions hits home. I don’t want to go for playdates with other kids. I dread the phone call I seem to get from the school everyday. I am so embarrassed walking into the school every night for pick up. It is so easy to feel like the only one going through this.

    And since he does well in terms of developmental milestones, reads early, etc, has no other related health problems, what do I do? Bring him to a psychiatrist and say “He is tough to manage and he doesn’t care to follows rules?” He isn’t hitting and injuring other kids. He isn’t running into traffic. He is just ‘a tough disruptive kid’, which is a distinction I am uncomfortable making. The only conclusion I can come to is that I am a failure as a mother. If I could only come up with the right punishment, present the rules the right way, if only I could unlock the key of what matters to him, maybe then I could get him to follow in line like his little brother.

    There are days when I am so tired from managing him….It was really good to read this and know that others are going through something similar too.

    • God, I know what it feels like to be ashamed walking into school. And, yeah, having that blood pressure spike when the phone rings. Have you read The Explosive Child? The author writes with a lot of empathy for our kind of kid, looks at the defiance as a kind of learning disability. Hang in there. You’re not alone.

  14. Al Rogat says:

    My friend JoAnn (Punky Mama) shared this. You should check her Punky Mama blog, as she has had similar issues, other than the husband things.
    I for quite a few years, raised my daughters myself. Jo-Ann (Punky Mama) was one of my older daughter’s best friends in H.S., and we have stayed in touch since. She was almost like a 3rd daughter to me.
    Believe me when I tell you that all, or most of what you’ve dealt with, I dealt with with my daughters in my custody, less the extreme tantrums in public. Unfortunately, as you and others have this blogging outlet, I, and most other fathers with custody have never had this opportunity.

  15. Joan says:

    It is so alienating to be the mother of “that” kid, thanks for your post.

  16. Kitty says:

    I find myself very grateful for my NT children. I feel they are the proof that my son’s issues are not my fault. I am not a shitty mother. See – those two children over there – I raised them too!

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