I Lost the War for My Children

“You are your best thing.” – Toni Morrison

When war breaks out, get busy.

On Saturday, October 7, 2023, I got busy. Busy is what I do when I am overwhelmed with shocking news. It is my first step – get busy and do something, anything to combat the fear.

The news that Hamas had launched an unspeakably horrific attack on Israel — killing men, women, children — families living at the border of Gaza — I burst into tears as I read the news.

But then I got busy. I texted all of my Hasidic clients, some of whom were in Israel for the holiday. I heard from all of them, even one mother who awaited evacuation of her family at the airport in Tel Aviv. Throughout the day I heard from all of them, and they reported that they were safe and holding their children and grandchildren tightly.

Next, I texted other clients and friends to make sure they were safe too — safe emotionally — safe to go through their day — knowing that another war had begun. A war that is far away from the Pacific Northwest where I live but seems like it is so personal — so close to my heart.

My personal war with parental alienation.

The past week has been a jumble of emotions and thoughts, as I process how this war is affecting me. I remain busy because it saves my sanity. I am busy taking care of my pets. Busy cleaning the house, doing laundry. Busy writing my next book. Between appointments, I am busy preparing food or reorganizing stuff. Busy helps.

But when I have a moment, I feel sad. My own personal sadness bleeds over into every news story. I think about the lives lost in Israel, and I wonder if I will ever see my own children again. I watch with amazement as government leaders struggle with what to do about this mess. Shouldn’t it be simple to do the right thing? But it’s not.

In my own personal war with parental alienation (many years ago), I fought for my daughters Bianca and Phoebe — but I lost. My ex-husband Howard came after me with a vengeance. I was besieged by law suits, and assaults, and threats to the children. He filed complaints against me every chance he could get. I worked night and day to pay the $550,000 in legal debt that mounted.

I was so off balance emotionally that it literally affected my health. I fell down the stairs more than once and occasionally broke my bones. I backed my car into utility poles and ran out of gas on the freeway. I was indeed busy with survival — and there was little time for my daughters. There were few moments when we could relax and just be there for each other.

Eventually our frightening life got the best of the girls and they both conspired with their father to disown me. After many years of sending presents and cards and emails, all unanswered, I stopped trying to reach them. They never reached back and it has been decades.

Haunted by my decisions.

I have waited year after year for my daughters to forgive me for not doing more to keep them safe. I have been haunted by the mistakes I made during those years of heartbreaking and terrifying parental alienation.

  • If only I had not asked Howard for a divorce in the first place.
  • If only I had understood how to assuage his anger toward me.
  • If only I had let him take everything I own — just leave the children alone.
  • If only I had quit working and gone into bankruptcy.
  • If only I had found a decent therapist for myself and the girls.
  • If only I had taken one more hour each day to be with my daughters and given them the love they wanted.
  • If only…

Instead, I kept busy — fighting for all of us in the only way I knew how. After this many years I know that there may have been other ways to extricate us from the terror of Howard’s efforts. But I didn’t know what to do then except to fight back, to keep busy, and to hope my love for my daughters would be enough to sustain them through it all. It wasn’t.

“You are your best thing.”

Just this morning, a quote popped into my newsfeed, from Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison — “You are your best thing.” I didn’t recognize the quote but I was intrigued and decided to read more about what she meant.

Apparently, the quote comes from Morrison’s novel, “Beloved,” which is set in post-Civil War America. It’s the story of a mother and enslaved woman who escaped the plantation where she was held captive. The woman struggled for many years with her perceived mistakes and worries — that she had lost the “best things” in her life.1

Eventually the former slave came to understand that she is her own best thing — that she is not defined by the role she plays in others lives. In other words, she came to know that she has inherent value regardless of the external circumstances (and people) she had to deal with.

It has taken me many years to recognize that I am my own best thing. The tragedy of Howard’s attempts to destroy the mother of his children and take the children along with his malevolent impulses — is not easy to endure. But I have endured and I have grown into a wise and beloved mentor to many.

Yes, I have battle scars and deep, unremitting grief for the children and grandchildren I may never see again. But I have some peace in knowing that I am enough — that I am whole just as I am — that doing my very best each day is a marvelous contribution to others, whether or not my children recognize my love.

Post Script.

I had a similar experience when I read the news story of First Lady Jill Biden on Mother’s Day 2022, when she quietly slipped into Ukraine to visit Olena Zelenska, the wife of the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky.

I was inspired when I read the story. I wept as I recognized the powerful gift of one mother to another. Jill Biden gifted Olena Zelenska with a bouquet of flowers on a day designated to honor our mothers for their selfless gift of love.

Zelenska was in hiding to keep her children safe during the bitter war with Russia. There are mothers in Israel doing the same.

I used to think that my love for Bianca and Phoebe wasn’t enough for them, but now I know differently. Because I love them, I am enough.


1. I am not saying my own story is as harrowing as the former slave in Morrison’s novel. Nor do I face the incredible hardship of war. But we all have to face hardship and the best way to do that is to embrace the lessons. And all lessons are for our good.

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