Perils of Divorced Pauline

The Names Have Been Changed, But the Story Is True


April 05
World-class gnarly divorce survivor. Custody Battle blogger with a sense of humor. Mom. Wife. Cat-Lover. Visit me at or on Twitter @divorcedpauline.


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FEBRUARY 7, 2012 12:57AM

Mother Blame, and the Special Needs Child

Rate: 26 Flag


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.


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Yes, yes, and yes. Great post.
"Mothers are just the crap-catchers." That sure is true; I know it firsthand. The notion that you're to blame for Luca's problems when you've been there for him every step of the way and bent over backwards for him is crazy (okay, so you didn't do the boy cave thing - that's just nonsense and really grasping in my opinion, because the therapist had nothing else to offer). You're right, pointing fingers is worthless. And sometimes understanding and empathy aren't enough either although they're nice. You want results and answers you may never get. You're actually doing so much more for him than a lot of parents would be willing or financially able to do. At some point I think you just have to have faith it'll be enough and hope for the best. No one would blame the parent if her kid had cancer, and you wouldn't blame yourself either. It's not that different. You are an exceptional mother and unfortunately, I think the better the mother, the more she tends to blame herself.

Having said that, I also read Gwartney's book after hearing her on This American Life and I have to say, I had some problems with it. I won't go into the details but I felt she made some very bad, deliberate decisions after her divorce and they contributed to what happened. In her case, the word that came to my mind was "selfish."
Oh, God, as a Master's level counselor and a dad, I have been embarrassed by the field more times than I can count. We are adept at giving advice and blaming by implication. Far too many of us are not as good as simply listening and helping the parent come to his/her own understanding and course to pursue.
I stopped blaming my mother for all my flaws the minute I became a mother myself. It's amazing mothers make it through the first week, much less their children's lifetimes.

And for all the talk of "father's rights" (and father's rights are indeed important), there is still a long way to go before "father's responsibilities" catch up. And any parent who finds themselves having to parent under the watchful eye of the mental health police, the judiciary or even the public eye had better be ready to meet impossible standards, with mothers being the scapegoat every time. Thank you for such a thoughtful, brave and honest post.

I can only imagine what it is like for you as a parent under these circumstance, but I do understand somewhat since I used to teach children with differing abilities in preschool and kindergarten.

The methods I used myself to soothe children who were having challenging behavior are all sensory activities. Look to the research. It bears it out that these are the most effective.

When I say sensory activities, something as simple as having your child play in the sink while the water is running over both hands is very effective at calming a child who even may be in the throes of very challenging behavior.

Also, having your child play in the sensory table in the classroom, particularly with sand is also very effective at calming a child.

Obviously these are things you cannot do while you are out with your child in public. But something like always keeping Play-doh, clay, or silly putty in your purse can really help your child. This is why I am such a huge fan of Play-doh myself. We used to make our own in the ESPED classrooms where I taught, and put tons of it in the sensory table too at least once a week with all sort of toys to mold and shape it. The children love it, and I do too.

I hope some of this helps a bit.

Great post! Sounds to me more like you ROCK as a mother!
Brilliantly written, as always. I know you must comfort and help so many parents by sharing your experiences. I don't have children yet, but reading this, I felt so indignant that moms are always blamed - and at the same time, sadly, I'm not surprised. Women so often get the short end of the stick.
Wow. Your writing is so straight-forward and great on this difficult subject. I don't have kids, and I had a tough childhood. I never blamed my mom and I don't remember anyone else doing that. Helps that my father was off-the-rails nuts I guess. Anyway, I'm pulling for you and your kids.
If things go well, the mother did well; if things went badly, the mother did poorly. Isn't that sick? There are so many variables which make a child/person. I do know a few really abusive or neglectful moms who harmed but didn't totally shape their kids. I know many more great moms who have children with problems. They're human, which means not perfect, just doing the best they can with what they've got. Keep trying.
I thought this was well written. I can really feel the author's frustration with trying really hard and getting all this blame. I was reminded of that part in the "Temple Grandin" movie when Temple's mom takes her to boarding school that can help her. The mom is worrying outloud about her child's difficulties, when the teacher says something like "you seem to think you've done something wrong, when it's clear you've everything right for your child." It's such a breath of fresh air. And it reflects the experience many of us with challenging children wish we would have.
Thanks for writing this. My beautiful son has developmental delays, and I can relate to some of this.
All relationship have a feedback mechanism. The kid acts, you react, he reacts to your reaction. When you have a difficult kid, it's really hard to know the right way to react. And with some people, maybe there is no right way.

I think therapy should be based on reality and examining that sort of feedback mechanism, but that takes a lot of observation of interaction and no one wants to pay for it. The result is the instant diagnosis.

My son didn't learn to talk without speech therapy. When I was observed playing with him, the observers noted I didn't talk to him. Aha! The cause of his delayed speech was me! I was non-plussed and then I realized that I'd talked to my daughter, because she babbled back to me. I didn't talk to my son because he never responded. Yes, I needed to change my reaction to his silence, but my not talking to him was the result, not the cause.

He learned to produce 90% of the sounds in the English language in speech therapy and now we can't get him to shut up.
Amazing post. Wish I had read it sooner! I'm going to share with a friend whose son has autism. I can so relate to the issue of blaming mom for everything. It's a form of insidious sexism, and people having trouble psychologically separating from their own mothers, and cutting the umbilical cord. (Not to sound like psycho babble). The photo of Freud glaring made me LOL!!!
You nailed this. Been there, done all of that, heard it all too. It is a hard place for parents to be, even harder for the child.
I'm not a parent, but I wonder if the increasing isolation these kids face causes even more problems? If parents don't want to invite them over, how do they learn to interact with others and problem solve?

Fascinating post. Rated.
Great piece! Very personal.
Wow. Just wow.

And more incontrovertible proof that I made the right decision not to have kids so I wouldn't so fuck up their psyches as to send them to a shrink's couch permanently. I know myself too well, and I'd have drowned them...
Single mom for last 12 years, I was where you are. Kids in therapy, my girl very depressed and a cutter for several years. Everyone knew more than me how to parent my kids. Guilt city! Remember you know your kids better than anyone else! Be there for them and love them, and let your instincts guide you. Thats all I got.
Beautiful writing. And thank you for the ending. In my experience, people line up to bring casseroles to those battling cancer, but in families where there is a child with a disability, the freezers remain empty.
Terrific, smart and thoughtful post, Pauline. As a psychotherapist, I feel like I'm fighting an uphill battle against parent-blaming, not just with my clients but also with colleagues who confuse finding fault with a mother or father with understanding psychodynamic patterns.

Children develop ways of being with others -- positive and negative -- in early relationships. As adults we can perpetuate old, not always useful patterns in new situations, so it can be helpful to look for those patterns and assess them from an adult point of view.

But that's really different from Mother Blame. You might find my blog on Psychology Today about this issue of some interest. . I've also written about it and talked about it in courses and workshops for professionals.

But you really hit the nail on the head here. If you don't mind, I'd love to use this blog as a handout in my next class!
You are wonderful. My wife and I have separated, and one of the things that put distance between us was our children being atypical. One had sensory integration issues that were addressed with a lot of therapy, and the other needed near constant physical therapy. I watched my wife for years feel, wrongly I might add, that it was all somehow her doing or fault. Our kids blamed us because it was safe. They knew they were loved and we would not abandon them. They are still trouble at times, but not the same degree of trouble.
You are a great mother and woman. You have worked diligently to provide your children with safety. You will be rewarded. Unfortunately it will be years yet before you receive the accolades from your children that you so richly deserve. Thank you.
I really messed up my children's lives, but they did the same to mine. In an expected parent-child relationship that eventually means everyone gets together for Sunday dinner, over wine, and laughs. When it comes to serious problems -- God. All I know for certain is that my parents raised twins in the same environment, and one is now happy, healthy, college-educated with children of her own, and the other experienced a long battle with alcoholism, manic-depression and eventually died of that. I'd blame my mother but we're having dinner together tomorrow night (we'll prepare it together) and that would make things very awkward.
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.

Bell, I love this line and I posted it on my FB page:

"I really messed up my children's lives, but they did the same to mine." That cracked me up. Thank you.
{Chuckling} That Bell always cracks me up!

Pauline, I have only been the mother of one child who was thankfully free of the challenges that come under the heading of "special needs." That was difficult enough, so I cannot imagine how it feels to be someone in your shoes. You have explained it here with top-notch writing and a still intact sense of humor. We all need to be less judgmental and more inclined to give the mother the benefit of the doubt.

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So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit
So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit
So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit
So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit
So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit
So totally have been are doing great! Wonderful post. I think we're cybertwins....I write about similar topics. Take a visit