Uncle Ed: ASD in the Family Tree

Uncle Ed: ASD in the Family Tree

Quiet Uncle Ed was autistic.

My Uncle Ed was a cowboy. Truly! He wore a cowboy hat, western boots, those plaid shirts with fancy snap closures, and one of those impossibly big belt buckles. He smelled like leather mixed with the scent of aftershave. At least as a child that is how he smelled to me, when he would drop in for a surprise visit. I can still see his immaculate yellow and white ’55 Chevy sedan parked in front of my childhood home. He always kept it in pristine condition, even the white sidewalls.

Edwin was the antithesis of John Wayne, however. He was short and stocky and wore a pencil-thin mustache. He rarely talked, but I do remember his smile. He seemed happy with his life. In fact, I often remember that smile when I walked into the kitchen where he was sitting at the table, drinking coffee with my mother Irene (his baby sister). The conversation always stopped when I walked into the room, but not because it was anything private or profound. Uncle Ed would look at me, smile a broad warm smile and say the same thing he always said when he visited.

“You have your Grandmother’s hair. Did you know that? It’s the exact same color.”

I wasn’t sure this was a compliment. It felt more like an observation. Mom never said anything either. She gave no indication that she was pleased with my uncle’s observation. So, I just accepted it as a sort of odd Uncle Ed greeting, and quickly found a way to exit the room.

Uncle Ed was an itinerant farm mechanic, who made his living travelling between the ranches of eastern Oregon and Washington. Behind that ’55 Chevy, he towed everything he owned in his little travel trailer. It was a simple life. Ed would park his trailer at the ranch and start to work repairing whatever the farmer needed. When his work was completed, he’d move on to the next ranch. 

Sometimes he’d stay for a week at one ranch, sometimes longer. Between gigs, he would drop in on our family. I suppose that’s why he smelled like aftershave. When he came to town, he’d clean up, wash his car and trailer, and arrive on our doorstep to visit. He never called ahead but in those days no one did. You just showed up for a visit. 

Uncle Ed was always gone before I knew it too. I don’t remember him ever saying “Goodbye.” Nor did he bring gifts for my mother or either my sister or me. He just showed up, sat and talked quietly with my mother over a cup of coffee.

Many years later when he passed away, my Uncle Phil (another of Mom’s brothers) went to Wenatchee to close down his meager estate. Uncle Ed had “retired” and parked his trailer on a small lot he purchased near Lake Wenatchee. In the process of cleaning out his trailer, Uncle Phil found something he thought I might want to have. Sitting atop his TV set, Uncle Ed had placed three tiny photos in a folding golden metal frame — all photos were of me as a child. There were no other decorations or photos in his travel trailer, just pictures of me that my mother must have given him long ago.

I never realized I was important to my uncle, other than having hair color that he treasured. He never brought me a birthday present or even gave me a hug. Like my mother he must have been autistic. He kept to himself and kept his feelings quiet too. But now that I look back, I realize that he must have loved me and didn’t know how to tell me. All he could do was drop in for a visit, sit at the table conversing with my mother, and admire me from a distance.

Discovering Autism in my family tree.

Many NeuroTypicals who are married to someone with High Functioning Autism soon recognize the autism in our own family trees. First, I realized that my adopted daughter Bianca is autistic. Then I could see it in my mother, Irene. Slowly I awoke to the traits that were obvious in my ex-husband Howard Marshack. Eventually, I started waking up to the many relatives who are on the Autism Spectrum. Howard’s father Irving is classic. Also, there are several of my cousins, especially on my mother’s side of the family.

Soon I could see it in other relatives such as my Uncle R– and a couple of his children. Uncle R– married my father’s sister, so there is no genetic relationship to me. But that got me to thinking, why did my father and his sister marry people with High Functioning Autism?

Maybe that is the wrong question anyway. “Why” is the booby prize if you think about it. Besides autism is much more common than you think. When I first started to study this developmental disorder (autism) about 20 years ago, the estimate then was that one in 100-150 children were born on the Autism Spectrum. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 36 children are born with autism.

Researchers suggest the numbers are growing because of better and earlier diagnosis, not because there is an epidemic. In fact, retrospective studies show that the number of autistic individuals in the population has remained very stable over hundreds of years. While we didn’t have the modern diagnosis until only the last few decades, we know that autistic people were mistakenly diagnosed with other disorders long before they could be properly identified.

So, it makes sense that my father and his sister, both of whom were outgoing and intelligent themselves, would each marry a smart, yet aloof Autist. Like my Uncle Ed, my mother and my Uncle R– were reserved “Aspies” who led quiet lives, spent long hours on their special interests, and left the rest of family life to their NeuroTypical spouses to tend to.

Getting past family resistance to the diagnosis.

That last sentence ought to hook you. How do you raise children in a NeuroDivergent home, when you have had nothing but convoluted NeuroDivergent family relationships for generations? How do you clear up the mysteries? How do you help family members come to know who they really are if they have memories that confound them?

Shortly after my mother died I had a dream about her. I saw her walking through the dining room at the home of my Uncle R– and his wife Aunt P– (my father’s sister). Even in my dream state, I knew my mother was dead, but I was puzzled about what the dream was about. I wanted to talk with her, but she didn’t look in my direction. She said nothing. She just walked past everyone silently. I saw her but apparently no one else did, in the dream.

I was only 25 when my mother died, but there was a message in that dream, a message meant for me.  As she walked past my uncle and his wife and their four children, I now realize what we had in common. Autism. Another message in the dream is that no one, but me could see my mother’s message — only me. Many years later that premonition would bear out, tragically.

Last summer, my cousin’s wife K– leaned across the picnic table and asked me if I had any recommendations for her granddaughter. Apparently the young woman was reluctant to return to college because she suspected she was on the Autism Spectrum, and she was fearful of failure. She confided in her grandmother and asked for guidance. I was surprised she asked but was happy to help and referred her to some books that might appeal to a college age young person. Of course, I also suggested to K– that she ask her granddaughter to seek professional psychotherapy back home on the east coast where services are abundant.

I had been visiting my cousins on a wine tour in California at the time and we were having lunch in the backyard of K—‘s brother (who fortunately lives in California wine country). I was surprised when K– asked me for help since the family was very reluctant to consider the diagnosis in the past (and had actually been quite hostile to the subject). But I guess worry for the welfare of her dear granddaughter got her to be more open — and perhaps the recent hospitalization of her husband’s sibling.

I was hopeful that this new interest might lead to more openness in my family. It had been a real struggle getting them to reach out and help one of their own. Five years before the picnic I had suggested that one of Uncle R–’s children was on the Autism Spectrum, OCD and morbidly obese. I urged the siblings to talk among themselves and plan an intervention. However, I was summarily dismissed with some very unkind comments:


  • “Oh, you think everyone has a diagnosis just because you are a psychologist!”
  • “How dare you talk that way about one of our family! And behind their back too!”
  • “I don’t see any problem here at all. B– is smart and productive and doing just fine.”
  • “Just because you have problems in your own family, you want to find problems in ours!”
  • “I don’t want to get involved, frankly. B– has been a nuisance all of their life. I’d just as soon let them pay the price for their mistakes.”

So, I was ignored for five years. I found some old emails the other day in which I implored the family members to reconsider their attitude. I feared that this dear cousin of mine was in “grave danger,” and making some terrible life altering decisions. I spoke directly to this cousin too, but B– did not comprehend the severity of the problems they lived with. K–’s granddaughter is living in a more enlightened generation that is willing to look at the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. But my cousin, having grown up with no help and no awareness, faced tragic deterioration — all alone.

Facing the tragedy of untreated autism.

When I got the phone call, I was not surprised but I was horrified. My cousin was in the hospital in a coma. B– had been found huddled in a corner of their house, hallucinating amid the clutter and filth that accumulated over the years of their life as a hoarder. Near death with encephalitis,  they were rushed to the hospital.

The story is long and painful and I won’t go into the details. Thank God B– survived after many months in the hospital and a nursing home. But the home was so infested with vermin that it had to be stripped of everything, so my cousin lost all of their belongings, including family heirlooms that the siblings treasured. After the house was disinfected, it had to be sold to help pay for B–‘s medical care and living expenses — in an adult foster home.

You would think that this tragedy would help my cousins come to their senses, but this is a slow process. For many years they blamed their NeuroTypical mother for the problems. “She drank too much and was too controlling,” they would confide. Never once did they consider why their NeuroTypical mother drank too much. Why was she distressed in her marriage? Why was she a helicopter parent, fighting with every scrap of her being to manage her troubled family?

Time to rewrite your family legacy.

This is the legacy of undiagnosed and untreated autism in a family. I see it often. Anger and resentment divide a family so that they are unable to come together for one of their own. Even in my own nuclear family, it is tough for them to listen to me. If anyone knows about the dysfunction in untreated NeuroDivergent families, it would be me. But by the time I became aware of these problems as an adult and a psychologist, my family had been suffering for generations.

My own children blame me, their NeuroTypical mother, rather than taking a long hard look at the family system that produced these problems. When the worlds of NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse collide, it can literally destroy families. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are NeuroDivergent families charting a healthier course. But without guidance, it can be so confusing and painful that it is the sorrow that rules the day. 

It will take a lot of courage for my cousins to realize that they got it wrong. There is no blame. No one meant to do harm. But harm was done nonetheless — serious unalterable harm. Before more harm is done, I hope they can forgive themselves and reach out to each other to create a new healthier legacy for their children and grandchildren.

In fact, the other day one of them sent me a text asking for help for a colleague. He wanted to know how to help his colleague who is diagnosed with High Functioning Autism. Apparently she is being harassed at work, and my cousin wanted to know how to get protection for her. Of course, I responded right away with some tips on regulations that protect Americans with disabilities, as well as referral to mental health services. 

Ironically the dream I had so many years ago (when I was only 25) — and before I had professional training in the field of autism — when my deceased mother walked through the dining room of my autistic uncle — that dream was not just waking me up to autism in my family tree, but also a reminder that it would be a long journey before anyone would listen to me. 

My cousin dropped the ball with his sibling and allowed a tragedy to unfold. But if he can make a difference for someone else on the Autism Spectrum, who is struggling and frightened— well that’s a win for all of us. But deep in my heart, I hold out hope for my family too, that they can do even better than help a stranger. If our family can heal and come back together, that would be a terrific gift to give the world.

When Alcoholism Meets Autism: Healing the Chaos and Misunderstandings in NeuroDivergent Relationships

When Alcoholism Meets Autism: Healing the Chaos and Misunderstandings in NeuroDivergent Relationships

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. 

Anything is possible. ~ George Saunders

Adult Children of Alcoholics.

“All of us. . . cousins are adult children of alcoholics, and none of us have escaped the negative effects of that. . . I have keenly felt your distress. . .and I’m beginning to think it may not even matter that you are right  about what is going on, as I think you have often been.”

In this email my cousin was attempting to understand the convoluted family system we both had lived with our entire lives. His message actually wandered through many pages of text as he attempted to come to terms with my concern:  That his sibling is autistic and in “grave danger” due to their morbid obesity, OCD and hoarding — and that he and the other family members needed to pull together to protect them from a “life threatening situation” (as I put it in my email).

As my cousin fumbled for a way to throw me off track, I remembered my own similar attempts to understand and protect our dysfunctional extended family. Yes protect. That’s what many children try to do. It’s an impossible task of course in an alcoholic family. But it is extraordinarily insurmountable in an undiagnosed family of NeuroDivergence (NeuroTypical and NeuroDiverse family members). While the alcohol abuse is fairly easy to spot, the Empathy Dysfunction of High Functioning autistic parents (and other family members) is frustratingly covert. No wonder it has taken me decades (and generations of my family history) to ferret out that our problems are not due to being children of alcoholics, but of being children in NeuroDivergent family systems.

Read my dear cousin’s message again. At some deeper level, he knows that I am right but he wants to dismiss what I know (and what he inherently knows) because it is profoundly painful.

When survivor children marry.

My cousin’s mother and my father were siblings who grew up impoverished during the Great Depression. Their parents (our Grandparents) divorced when they were young children. The boys (Earl Jr., Eugene, Wilford, and Herman) went to live with their father. The girls Eileen and Patia stayed with their mother. It was a matter of survival.

I remember the stories of hardship such as the death of my father’s twin sister, Wilma Pauline. Or the story of the boys riding the train from the Midwest to Oregon to be with their father. They were all alone and frightened. But their mother was poor so that all she could do was pin notes inside their jackets to make sure they had directions to their father’s house.

But there were joyful stories too, like the pride my father took in earning his Eagle Scout award or playing first chair clarinet in the high school band. I suppose he was driven to achieve because he came from a “broken” family. He also shared the honor of serving his country in World War II with four of his siblings. Earl Jr. was a Marine. Eugene a Paratrooper in the Army. Wilford Paul (my father) was a Navy Signalman. Herman followed his older brother into the  Navy at age 16 (lying about his age). Patia, the baby and youngest daughter was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps.

I could tell you more, but alcoholism doesn’t really play a part — exactly. Yes my aunt and my father drank and sometimes too much. But now that I realize they both married High Functioning Autistic partners, there may be another explanation. Rather than my cousin’s description that we are “Adult Children of Alcoholics” a better description is that we are “Adult Children of NeuroDivergent Parents,” — and worse, undiagnosed NeuroDivergent parents.

I have written extensively about my mother’s undiagnosed autism. My uncle (my cousin’s father) on the other hand is a relatively new realization. As I recognized the autism of my cousin (and another of their siblings) and traced it back to my Uncle Ray it is obvious. He wore the same clothes day after day. He engaged his special interests by disappearing into his shop for hours. He prepared meals for the family but never sat down with us at the dinner table. He was sweet and kind in many ways, but never made any time to get to know me. He was brilliant but aloof.

I remember one particularly sad moment with my uncle, after my aunt had passed away (at the young age in her 50s). I guess he realized that I might know something about psychology and mental health and grieving. As he talked about his wife, he said, “I don’t think I handled things the way I should have with Pat.” He looked at me with a rather flat expression (so autistic), but I surmised there was sadness. I tried to be comforting, “I am sure she knew you loved her.” At least I hoped that was true, but in NeuroDivergent relationships it is debatable that my NeuroTypical aunt knew she was loved.

Now that I have a different perspective I know that my father and my aunt were remarkable people, intelligent, good looking, vivacious, curious, capable and they married two Autists because they were so empathic and giving that they could accept the oddness in their partners. Plus of course  there was the insecurity of their impoverished childhood that drove them to take care of others, as they couldn’t their parents and siblings. This is the legacy for me and my cousins too.

Parenting is about creating memories.

How could my cousins and I have gotten it so wrong? We were children at the time we experienced our parents for the first time, so of course we couldn’t possibly understand the entire convoluted dynamic of a NeuroDivergent family (especially a multigenerational NeuroDivergent family). The subtle gas lighting, and microaggressions, and social missteps of our NeuroDiverse parents were overshadowed by the drunken frustrations of our binge drinking parents. 

I always knew my autistic mother was “different” and “difficult.” We never laughed together or had warm moments baking cookies, for example. My home was not the place the neighborhood kids gathered because we were usually locked out of the house so Mom could have her “solitude” as she used to say. She was stern and aloof and one to be avoided.

My father on the other hand was playful. He noticed me. He talked with me. We went for walks when the weather was good. I especially liked walking to Sam & Jean’s Market for pecan pie on a summer evening. When we watched our favorite television programs Dad made our special snack of mayonnaise on saltines. It was because my father wanted my sister and I to know more about the world we lived in, that we spent almost every school break traveling to some state or national park. We crisscrossed the country on those marvelous road trips.

In fact, some of my fondest memories come from those trips in our 1953 Buick Deluxe (Aqua Azure). Dad let me sit up front, while my mother and sister slept in the back seat. In those days there were no seat belts and children could sit up front, even though it wasn’t safe, but we didn’t know that. Dad and I would sing songs and tell jokes and laugh so hard we both cried. 

When I was about eight or nine and could read well, Dad would put me in charge of reading the paper map on these trips. He would help me unfold the map and then refold it into a square for the section we were driving. He’d show me the route we would take. It was my job to add up the mileage on the map to figure out how far we were from the next stop. Often I would notice the “scenic” spots notated on the map. Dad always said, “If there’s something we should stop and see, please let me know.” He trusted me like that.

Often I would find something intriguing, like the “World’s largest Frying Pan.” Dad never said no — never. He’d say, “That sounds perfect. Let’s go. Give me directions.” So, we would turn down some old country road, while I guided Dad with my map. We’d bump through a few potholes, past the Grange or a field of sunflowers, and eventually come to stop in front of an old oak tree with a huge cast iron frying pan hanging from a tree limb. Mom would wake up at this point to be shocked that we were “off the track.” She would scold us, “What the h— Paul! Where are we?” But Dad and I didn’t care. We were out of the car — Dad with his Kodak in hand, already taking a picture of me in front of the “World’s largest Frying Pan.”

I had no idea how adventurous we were then until I researched some of our old travel photos. Wow! Dad steered us to Yellowstone Park in the days before they had paved roads. My sister and I are photographed on the Teacup ride at Disneyland, during their Grand Opening in 1955 (yes he took us there for the opening!). I have lots of photos with family too, like the time a “passle” of us  cousins visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. On another occasion we stood in awe at the edge of Niagara Falls. So, so many memories . . . all because my father was the type of person who believed the purpose of parenting was to create memories with his children — show us our world — and help us to grow into big hearted adventurous Souls, just like he was.

What about the drinking?

My parents and their siblings grew up during the Great Depression. They came of age during World War II. They were part of that marvelous generation that were scrappy and innovative and built our modern society from their blood, sweat and tears so that their children could have everything they didn’t have when they were kids. I have a wonderful life as a result. I am in their debt.

For this generation social life centered around drinking and smoking cigarettes and playing cards. They’d hang out at local bars and shoot darts. At least that is what my parents did. They weren’t part of the elite. They were among ordinary factory workers, and mechanics, and cocktail waitresses, who wanted more for their children — and they gave it to us.  

I can’t be certain that my father and my aunt wouldn’t have become alcoholic regardless of who they married. My aunt loved to drink mixed alcoholic beverages. My father preferred beer. All I know is that my father occasionally got drunk on the weekend, but he always got up to go to work on Monday morning. He would sometimes be belligerent when he was drunk, but mostly he would just go to sleep.

It never occurred to me as a child that he drank to cope with my mother. But I suspect that is true. I know that they argued. I know that he got increasingly anxious over the years. And when my mother died from lung cancer at age 49 (mostly likely due to her chain smoking) my father was bereft. He never remarried. He was lost and sad. 

Once I recognized my mother’s autism, long after my father had passed, I finally understood my father’s loneliness. This incredible loving man was crushed under the weight of my mother’s undiagnosed autism and Empathy Dysfunction Disorder. All I have are my childhood memories so I don’t remember the truth as an adult would know it. But I can guess that my father and mother were sweethearts once. It was long gone by the time I could notice them with the eyes of a teenager (not quite adult perspective). I believe their love was destroyed by undiagnosed NeuroDivergence.

When a NeuroTypical parent is not enough.

I know only too well what it is like to parent an autistic child with an autistic coparent, and yet have no idea what I am doing. Neither Howard, nor Bianca were diagnosed before I had thoroughly wrapped myself into codependency — just like my father Paul and my Aunt Patty. I was anxious. I was scared. I was dancing as fast as I could to keep up with the impossible mishigas of an undiagnosed NeuroDivergent family. And yes, I drank to cope.

When my cousins remember their mother, they discuss all of the ways she let them down. According to them she drank too much. She yelled too much. She expected too much, especially of her eldest child — the child who is autistic. My cousins felt sorry for their eldest sibling and blame their mother to this day for the terrible outcome that befell their sib this year (when they had a frightening meltdown, amid their infested hoarding, and was rushed to the hospital with encephalitis and near death).

Unfortunately, I can relate to my aunt, not only the despair of a mother trying to parent an undiagnosed autistic child, but also the indescribable pain of being blamed for not being a good enough mother. For example, I watched in despair as my Bianca got more bewildered by the social world, even though I worked so hard to help her learn interpersonal skills. Her hygiene was awful too, but she fought me to take a shower, or brush her teeth, or even to use toilet paper. My aunt and I were both NeuroTypical mothers with autistic children, coparenting with an emotionally absent NeuroDiverse partner. The result? We both are maligned.

When my cousins rail about their mother’s shortcomings, I ask them, “Who was the primary parent in your home? Was your father ever around?” Often I get a blank look and then a nod, “Well Mom was the primary parent and Dad was never there — but you know she was mentally ill and too harsh!”

Letting go of that belief that their NeuroTypical parent is to blame for all of the chaos and misunderstanding in their childhood — seems next to impossible in NeuroDivergent families. My own children believe this of me too. Odd isn’t it? That the parent most responsible for loving them and being there for them through all of their childhood ups and downs — is also blamed for the problems that emerge in a NeuroDivergent family.

I hope someday my cousins forgive their mother — and I hope my children forgive me too — for not knowing what I didn’t know at the time, and that I made terrible mistakes that hurt them, but that I tried with all of my heart. I hope they finally recognize that it is not alcoholism that destroyed our family, but that it was undiagnosed and untreated autism.

Get a diagnosis to free your family. 

Autism is a primary disorder and needs to be diagnosed in order to save relationships, children and families. As I have mentioned in other blogs and podcasts, autism is not the problem per se. It is the collision of the worlds of NeuroDiverse and NeuroTypical that lead to the problems in these  relationships. When you don’t understand this dynamic, then it is all too easy to blame and wreak havoc in families. 

A diagnosis levels the playing field, so to speak. It gives you information and tools to work with. I often hear people disparage the diagnosis and say foolish things like, “I don’t need a label.” Autism is far more than a label. A diagnosis can be a lifesaver. My family is a heartbreaking example of what can happen when there is no diagnosis. 

When I say that autism is a primary disorder I mean that it is important to identify the autism first, and early on. Families need to know what they are dealing with as soon as possible. It is important to guide the Autist to find a constructive way to develop their authentic self. But it is also important to help the NeuroTypical family members (spouses, partners, children, siblings, etc.) to discover who they are  too. 

Chaos, misunderstanding, chemical dependency, and yes, even child abuse, are the tragic result of denying the autism in a family. I understand my father and his sister because I lived this life too of a NeuroTypical going through an existential crisis within my NeuroDivergent household. Is it any wonder that all three of us turned to alcohol to cope?

Of course, I am not blaming my mother, or my dear Uncle Ray. I am being open with you because I can only hope that other NeuroDivergent couples and families will learn from our family misery. 

When you look for simple answers alcoholism makes sense. But if you are willing to dig a lot deeper, you might find that autism explains more about your family mystery. Armed with a proper diagnosis and treatment you might find a way back to sanity for all of you in a NeuroDivergent family.

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”
~ Excerpt from Gloria’s monologue in the Barbie movie (2023)

For mothers who are targeted for parental alienation.

Any parent, male or female who is a target of parental alienation carries an enormous burden, usually for the rest of their lives. However, in this column I want to describe the unique hardship imposed on women who are victims of this form of cruel abuse.

There is something insidious about going after a mother with nothing more to target her than that she is a woman. When I saw the Barbie movie I was reminded of this harsh fact and how it played out in my life. As Gloria says,

It is literally impossible to be a woman. . . You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

Gloria’s words proved to be true for me time and time again for many years and resulted in the loss of my children. I remember the day I sat in Judge John Nichols’ courtroom, once again defending myself against frivolous accusations by neighbors that my ex-spouse encouraged to sue and harass me. Fortunately for me the judge was able to see through the craziness and found in my favor. But he turned to me after making his ruling and said something chilling.

“Dr. Marshack, I am warning you. You are a target. Make sure you protect yourself at all times.”

I was stunned, but I knew that he knew I was in danger. I only wish I had known how to protect myself better. How do you protect yourself (and your daughters) when the accusations are nothing more than that you are failing to meet some womanly standards established by others? To this day the best Howard can do is complain that I am “just too much,” whatever that means.

In the following pages I will describe to you what I went through, and still endure emotionally, as the target of parental alienation by my former spouse, Howard Marshack. It’s taken me a long time to understand what I went through. If you are in this situation I want you to know how to better care for yourself than I did. You may not be able to stop the abuser, but you certainly can have a better handle on how to deal with this type of family destruction — and hopefully find a way to carry on your life.

I escaped without my children.

Probably the most important step to date, toward real healing for me is to let go of protecting my daughters. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you think about the role of a mother it makes sense. If I don’t let them go — to discover who they are, outside of my immense shadow — then they will forever by trapped by their one-sided anger/terror. My role as a mother of grown daughters is clear.

My daughters are grown women in their thirties, roughly the ages that I became a mother, first to Bianca and three years later to Phoebe. If they are ever going to heal from the parental alienation that their father started twenty years ago, they need to face their complicity in this family tragedy. Continuing to reinforce the fiction that I am somehow to blame for everything that has gone wrong in their lives — or that I am a heinous mother to be avoided at all costs — is not just ludicrous but damaging to everyone in our family — even those who have yet to be born. My daughters need to step up and take on the problem without me covering for them any longer — or they will never know they can be strong, capable, forgiving women.

Parental alienation is a trauma for all involved, even the abuser. Howard has handicapped his own personal and spiritual development by destroying the relationship between his daughters and their mother. He has made it impossible for our girls to be at peace with their lives, forcing them to choose him and his irrational belief system over what they surely know to be the truth. Good grief, Phoebe is a mother herself. Is this how she wants her own children to behave?

Furthermore, Howard has set up his current wife, Susan, to support the alienation in order to justify their marriage. How does she explain to her children and her grandchildren that destroying a mother is the way to handle divorce? Poor Susan, she even went so far as to file an annulment petition with her church (Catholic) demanding an annulment for Howard on the grounds that I am a diagnosed mentally unfit parent. Absurd.

Time to Let My Grown Daughters Go

It really is time for me to stop protecting my daughters. I do understand how they got manipulated and dragged into Howard’s horrifying game. They were just teenagers when he started his vendetta. I was terrified when they were younger because I couldn’t figure out how to protect them. But I was simply no match for the narcissism of my ex-husband. He spread malicious lies. He enlisted the aid of powerful people (Vancouver City Attorneys, the Mayor’s office, the owner of the local newspaper, the Chief of Police). He even encouraged neighbors to come after me (see the libelous photo for which this HOA paid me $25,000 in damages).

He complained to my professional licensing boards. He even went so far as to spread lies among family members. He strangled me financially because he refused to pay for the girl’s care (especially painful since Bianca is autistic). I was dancing as fast as I could to protect us, but always on the defensive and terrified — so I wore down.

I made plenty of mistakes during this time, as you can imagine. Almost everything I tried to do was used against me. Howard rejected my offers of therapy for the children, and reconciliation services for all of us. But my biggest mistake was to feel guilty for what was going on. I suppose that is a mother’s mistake. I kept thinking that our problems could be fixed if I just tried harder. I cried. I pleaded with Howard to stop the abuse. I asked the Courts and the police for protection. I implored my father-in-law to help protect his grandchildren. All that happened is that Howard ratcheted up the alienation.

I got deeper in debt as I attempted to protect us and keep our lives on an even keel. It took almost a decade and a half and over half a million dollars to escape the abuse. I did escape, but not with my children. By then they fully embraced the alienation.

Don’t ask why or how parental alienation happens.

So how does something like parental alienation take hold, when there is not a shred of evidence against the targeted parent? This is probably the wrong question. The reality is that people believe lies and there are lots of folks out there to help spread malicious gossip. For example, one time when Phoebe was on the run (and refusing to answer my phone calls and texts), I called everyone I could think of looking for her. I called her boyfriend’s house numerous times, but no one called back. After several panicky days, I messaged Joyce Glaser, the boyfriend’s mother. She hadn’t responded before but this time she answered me on Facebook Messenger. She confirmed that Phoebe was staying at her house with her son Jared Glaser. I pleaded with Joyce to have Phoebe contact me but she refused. She said, “I always knew you were a horrid person, so why should I help you?” I hardly knew Joyce, but apparently it suited her purpose to despise me.

There may be other people who aren’t so quick to judge you, but most people don’t want to really dig into the situation. Over and over again I got the message from “friends” that they “didn’t want to take sides.” How do I protect my family, as Judge Nichols suggested, when no one wanted to step up and help?

The harsh truth, as Gloria says in her Barbie monologue “. . . never forget that the system is rigged.” Howard was able to make me look bad to my daughters for a variety of complex reasons. The fact that I worked night and day to pay the bills cut into our time together as mother and daughters. The fact that I was inundated by a barrage of lawsuits that cost my energy and finances meant that it looked like I was the problem. The fact that he successfully had me arrested three times, all on frivolous charges which were later dismissed, but still made me look like I was a criminal in the eyes of my girls. The fact that I cried every night, into the wee hours of the morning, made me look emotionally unstable.

By the way Howard is a divorce attorney, so he also had a specialized knowledge of how to undermine people. He pulled out all the stops to take me down. Never once did he consider he was targeting his children too. They didn’t stand a chance to feel safe in that environment.

So, no it is not helpful to understand why people do these things or even how they will do it. The frightening reality is that if you are targeted by an unscrupulous narcissist you will inevitably be harmed — and you will be harmed mightily. You are simply no match for these malevolent people.

Step out of your fear and soar.

What you can do however, is to step out of your fear. Whether you are in the middle of being targeted, or it has passed and you have lost, fear is your enemy. If you are fearful, it is understandable, but if you show your fear you will lose more. As much as you want to acknowledge your fear, because it feels honest to do so, save it for your therapist or a really good friend who won’t be intimidated. But the reality is that human beings are animals and no animal likes the smell of fear. It frightens them too — and they react accordingly.

What do frightened animals do? Think about it. Even your dearest friend will turn on you if you show fear. And there is no doubt that the narcissist will revel in your fear and use it to harm you. As painful as it may seem, keep the fear to yourself and fight your battles smartly.

The ability to handle fear properly is the key to surviving the attacks of a narcissist, especially the pernicious attacker who targets a mother. You may not fear as much for yourself as you do your children. I know that fear and it is frightening to know that you can do nothing to help your child cope with an aggressive and abusive co-parent.

The best way to manage your fear is through mind calming therapies and God. Meditation or prayer steadies you. Knowing that there is a power greater than yourself that loves you and your children is a huge relief. You may still have to walk the path alone of being a targeted parent, but if you feel the presence of a powerful, all loving presence, it feels like you can do it.

I was reading about a young woman who was trapped in a bunker by the side of the road, where she and other Israelis had taken refuge from the Hamas terrorists, during the early hours of the war between Hamas and Israel (2023). Facing certain death, the small group began chanting a Hebrew prayer together. The young woman reported feeling like she left her body and came to be comforted by a loving presence. She heard and felt nothing, until she returned to her body. Then she saw the orange dust floating around her. She smelled the blood of the dead. The Hamas killers were gone, along with her boyfriend whom they kidnapped — but she had survived miraculously.

I felt this same peace when I was in the Clark County jail. I felt this peace when I was handcuffed and ankle chained to other prisoners and led to the courtroom for arraignment. I felt it again when I had to face trial on false charges. I know it seems odd but the fear left me for a time when I prayed and asked to be protected. It was obvious that I was outnumbered by the forces opposing me — but I felt comforted and safe just the same.

[Just to be clear, I have no criminal record. Any charges brought against me were dismissed. I won nearly every civil matter too. The only time I had to pay a fine is when I installed speed bumps in front of my house to prevent my neighbors from swerving across my lawn and frightening my daughter and our dog. I asked Judge Nichols if the fines collected against my neighbors ($5000), as well as mine could be donated to the SW Washington Autism Society, in recognition of the terrorizing my neighbors had leveled against my autistic daughter Bianca. He agreed.]

Be a proud mother.

What Gloria shows us is that being a mother is the greatest gift we can give our children — even in absentia. Be proud of your mothering, whether a target of alienation or not. Standing up against oppression, with a feminist spirit, and losing to the alienator is no shame. It is a demonstration of the power of your mothering to be there for your children no matter what.

At the end of the Barbie movie, Gloria asks the CEO of Mattel to create a doll that is just an ordinary woman with all of the quirks and flaws that make her human. At first the executive declines until someone mentions that the “ordinary Barbie” would be profitable. Why is that do you think? Do we need more women like Gloria who confronted her fears and fought for her daughter and rescued Barbie from her shame and rebuilt the Sisterhood of Barbie World— and discovered a new life of feminist joy?

One of the toughest things for me to get over is that my daughters caved to the oppression of their father’s alienation and ignored the strength in the Sisterhood. I taught them about the power of feminism to heal by bringing us all together (female and male). This principle infuses my work and life to this day. I pray that they wake up and once again rediscover that power. They deserve to have a better life. But they will have to earn it just as I have.

Yes it is time for me to let my grown daughters go, but deep in my mother’s heart, where I will love them forever, I hope Bianca and Phoebe know that I believe in them, just as Gloria believed in Barbie.

My Dog is a Buddhist: He Taught Me the Middle Way

My Dog is a Buddhist

“Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control”
~ Jack Kornfield

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

When I worry about the fate of the human race (and who doesn’t?), I remind myself of the lessons I have learned from my dog Kokomo. In Kokomo’s world, extremes of any kind are not relevant. He prefers the Middle Way. This philosophy has served both of us very well, especially me, since I have a tendency to ride the roller coaster of life from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. Through Kokomo’s teachings, I have learned to be more moderate in the demands I make upon myself, and others.

We humans have made a mess of things in so many ways, but we have also made incredible contributions too. There is art and architecture, literature and religion. We are exploring the galaxy and beyond. We have cured polio and created marvelous life-saving medicines for many other maladies. I just installed solar panels on my roof and ride an e-bike to cut back on my carbon footprint.

I could regale you with all that is wrong in the world, but you already know that stuff, and probably worry about it too. Looking at what’s wrong is not the solution anyway. I also think it is not terribly helpful to only look at what’s right in the world, like some Pollyanna. Solutions require looking at the bad and the good. My personal motto is “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” I think Kokomo would agree.

Kokomo’s Middle Way of Peace.

My motto may seem incongruous for the Buddhist philosophy of the “Middle Way,” but let me show you the “Middle Way,” through the eyes of my Golden Retriever (English Cream) Kokomo.

Lesson 1 – Be authentic.

My first lesson came when I adopted Kokomo, when he was six years old. He had just left the puppy mill, where he had one job . . . stud. Yes, he is a very good-looking dog. Everyone tells me so. People also give me credit for his sweet temperament and cooperative nature, but I always explain that this is just how he is. At age six when adopted, I can hardly be responsible for his personality. He was a stud on the farm because he has all of these desirable qualities inside and out. I like to think that coming to live with me may enhance these qualities, but then I am probably being egocentric. Rather Kokomo is the one who helped me find a way to calm my nervous energy by accepting who I am. Not everyone can be beautiful and smart like Kokomo, but we all have our gifts – and purpose.

Lesson 2 – Choose your friends wisely.

Being true to yourself is all well and good, but we also need to be surrounded by folks we get along well with, who are respectful, and love us beyond measure. There are very few people that Kokomo takes to right away. I think this is wise, don’t you? Why trust people just because they offer you a treat or a scratch behind your ears? I have learned to choose my friends wisely so that I don’t get drained by people who are just out of synch with themselves.

As for his favorite peeps, his pace quickens when he sees other dogs on our daily walks. But not just any dogs. He really can’t stand little dogs, especially those who have high pitched yips – and their Moms have them dressed in colorful baby clothes (so undignified). He pulls me in the other direction if he senses one of those encounters. On the other hand, he much prefers dogs of his size and temperament – unless they are aggressive or mean. When dogs bound up to him, eager to play, he stands very still – until both dogs have passed the sniff test. If they pass he happily races around us humans with his new “forever best friend.”

Lesson 3 – Don’t give bullies the time of day.

Kokomo has been attacked a couple of times on our walks. It really shocked me because each time he was just trotting along, sniffing his way along the path, stopping to examine a pine cone or bury his nose in a pile of leaves. Out of nowhere he was charged by a dog who attacked with such fierceness that most dog owners would expect a “dog fight.” Not Kokomo though. He falls to the ground with the first head butt, and lays there motionless. I have learned to step in, scream at the other dog (and sometimes the owner) and often I have to kick the offending dog — who then scuttles away.

The first time Kokomo was attacked, I was worried he had been injured and that he would be shaken emotionally. Nope. Once I kicked the offending dog, Kokomo got up off the ground and stood by unfazed – out of reach of the nasty dog – waiting for us to continue our walk.

Does he know that bullies want a fight, and that if you don’t fight back they cave? Or perhaps he figures I am his protector so he can relax and not worry? Or does he just accept that if you are a “stud” you might bring out the envy in other dogs – like it’s the price he pays to be the beautiful dog he is?

This is a darned good lesson for me. If I am going to be true to myself, take on my responsibilities, and live out my mission — I need to be brave enough to face the bullies but not fight back. Never give a bully the time of day, not one little bit of satisfaction for their attacks.

Lesson 4 – Don’t rush into anything.

If Kokomo determines that things just don’t feel right, or sound right, or look right, or smell right, I can’t get him to budge. He plants his little paws so firmly that I would have to pick up his full 62 pounds and carry him. What’s the fun in that, for either of us? I have learned to let him have his way when he feels this strongly about something. Who am I to contradict how he feels?

This is one of those complex lessons isn’t it? This lesson requires being respectful of the other person even when you can’t understand what’s going on with them. They have their reasons and that’s good enough. As for me, I have my reasons too and don’t need to explain them to anyone. I could be wrong, but if I don’t get the go ahead from my own inner knowing — I have learned to take my time.

Lesson 5 – Be charming and persistent.

My grandfather used to say “You get a lot more with honey, than you will with vinegar.” Watch this 30 second video of Kokomo and tell me if he doesn’t exude this principle. He is exceedingly charming, and just as exceedingly persistent toward accomplishing his goal of getting me to go for a walk.

But there’s more than just being charming or persistent here. Kokomo and I are a team. We belong to each other. We trust each other. We share the walk. He delights me with his cheerful doggy antics as we walk the neighborhood, or the beach. He accepts the limitations that I impose such as when he reaches the end of his 24-foot retractable leash. He stops and waits for me to signal that he can go on again. He waits patiently when I stop to talk to humans along the way. At the end of a long day, when my work is done, and dinner is cleared from the table – and we have had our evening stroll, Kokomo contentedly snuggles me while I read or watch TV. Charming.

Give up the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons I have learned from Kokomo over the last two years he has shared my life with me, but underlying all of them is to fully recognize that the only way to a peaceful life is give up the illusion of control. If you want to have abundant love and peace you don’t need that illusion anyway. All you need is to be:

  • Authentically you,
  • Surrounded by trusted friends,
  • Quietly ignoring bullies,
  • Respectful of your inner knowing, and others,’
  • Charmingly persistent toward your goals.

The Christmas Menorah: My New Year’s Wish For You

The Christmas Menorah: My New Year’s Wish For You

“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi, Samurai Warrior

Mash up of memories.

For many of you, the “holiday” season is not easy. For me neither. While those around us are planning a party, or a festive meal with all of the trimmings — or placing carefully wrapped presents under the tree, or taking the grandkids to a candlelight service — or singing Christmas carols in the car on their way to do last minute Christmas shopping — there are those of us who struggle with life’s tragedies — alone.

Unlike other proud grandmothers, when people ask me if I have grandchildren, I say “Yes,” but don’t elaborate. Nor do I pull out pictures to show the kind questioner. I have none. When people ask me if I am having a big crowd for Christmas, I say “No,” and leave it at that. When they ask me if I have finished my Christmas shopping, “ I say “Yes,” without any pride in the accomplishment, since I have no family for which to buy presents. After my blunt answers, they never ask more.

I still engage in a bit of holiday cheer though. Not like I used to when I could share the season with my children and grandson. I hang some decorations and light up my ceramic Christmas tree. This year I hosted a Chanukah party because I love this festival of the lights and it reminds me of our Christian/Jewish home that I once shared with my daughters and my ex-husband Howard. Yes, I listen to holiday music too. It’s not the same, but it helps me get through this sad time.

Memories also help me get through my tears. I remember my children when they were young and they delighted in the season. For example, years ago my daughter Phoebe was very excited to help out at her Montessori school, in preparation for the Christian worship. She was attending preschool at Aquinas Montessori in Camas Washington, which was housed on a Catholic campus. The children were taken to a room where they could polish the brass candelabras that would be used for Christmas. When she got home that day, she was filled with excitement. I asked her what made her so happy and she proudly exclaimed “Oh Mommy! I got to polish the Menorah!”

On another Christmas we attended a candlelight service at Unity Church in Vancouver, Washington. Reverent Bernadette looked beautiful in her red suit and long dark hair. As she shared her thoughts with us about the Christmas story, I felt the “presence.” When it was time to go to the front of the sanctuary to take our lighted candles and place them in the sand tray, the organist played “Silent Night” and I again felt the loving “presence” in my heart. I was carrying baby Phoebe on my hip, with her older sister Bianca by my side. After placing my candle in the sand tray, I waited for Bianca to join me — but I felt her disappear for a moment.

Behind me I heard Reverend Bernadette announce that the congregation would be honored by an impromptu solo by a young singer whose “. . .name is Bianca.” I turned around in astonishment as I heard Bianca sing “Silent Night” . . . in Japanese! My sweet autistic child was learning Japanese phrases at her preschool, and apparently had fully memorized this traditional Christmas Eve song.

The worried look on my face caught Rev. Bernadette’s eye, and she confidently waved me to my seat, so I moved on leaving Bianca on the stage. I sat and cried tears of joy, as I listened to my darling little girl. She was innocent then and filled with the spirit of the “presence.” The entire congregation was mesmerized too. At that moment, the Holy Spirit flowed through all of us.

I won’t ever totally heal from the parental alienation that my ex-spouse Howard and his wife Susan put me through. The hardest part has always been my guilt that I could not protect my daughters from Howard’s cruelty. However, with each passing year I am stronger and wiser — and have more to offer others who suffer. I know that I haven’t lived through this abuse to be nothing more than a victim or a survivor. I know I am more because God loves me and wants me to let others know that to do to protect themselves and their children.

In fact, I was speaking to one of my clients a couple of days ago who is facing something similar with her ASD spouse, from whom she is separated. She is terrified that her children will never recover from his alienating efforts. I gave her comfort and some tips on strategy. I learned the hard way that to do battle with a narcissist (who is hell-bent on destroying you), requires more than being tough. You must learn to be wily and strategic — yet always take the high road.

As we talked and she calmed down, she was comforted to know that she would not have to face parental alienation alone as I had. After our conversation she sent me this sweet text:

Thank you so much. There is a special place in heaven for people like you. ❤️

The New York Times helps me grieve.

I start almost every day reading the online version of the New York Times. It helps me with my personal grief, to read about tragedies around the world. Climate change, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, another mass shooting, the attack by Hamas on the Israeli kibbutzim near Gaza.

Does this sound odd to you? Not to me. My life is exceptionally blessed in comparison. I may never see my children or even know my grandchildren, but I live safely in an Oregon beach town. I have a beautiful home with an ocean view. I have plenty to eat, and work that fulfills me. I have invigorating walks with my dog Kokomo. Pampering my elderly kitty Trinity, and playing with her streetwise kitty sister Seven of Nine, give me a chance to “mother” my loved ones. Every day I count my blessings and thank the Lord for providing for me.

As I opened the email prompt from the New York Times this morning (December 23, 2023), and scrolled past the headlines, my eyes dropped to two articles that were listed as “Editor’s Picks.” I wasn’t emotionally ready for the first one, The Day Hamas Came1. So I started with the other one, The Joy of Communal Girlhood, the Anguish of Teenage Girls2.

Now I know what you are thinking. Both pieces are pretty intense for a holiday weekend, but for me these news stories inspire me to be a better person — to do all that I can and a bit more to make the world a better place.

I cried through the whole piece on girlhood. My choice to start with my personal loss reflects where my heart is at Christmas — with my daughters Bianca and Phoebe — who lost their girlhood through our divorce and the malevolence of their father’s parental alienation. As this “Year of the Girl” draws to a close I hope they are infused by the feminist spirit of the “Barbie” movie, and Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift – Times Person of the Year. As grown women, now in their 30s, I pray my girls listen to their unconscious memories of the mother who loved them and loves them still. It’s a mother’s love that can carry girls past those troubles of girlhood like the mother did in the “Barbie” movie. Unfortunately, Hollywood makes it look easy, but I haven’t given up.

It was a good place to start my morning reading — with my mother’s heartbreak — and to know that I will survive. The tears made it easier to read the next piece, “The Day Hamas Came.” Why was it easier? Because when you are devastated by irrational hatred for no reason — other than that you exist — which is the only explanation for Howard’s destruction of our family — I have a kind of resilience for the stories of others who are devastated by monstrous hatred.

I am not saying it was easy to read this second NYT piece. I watched the village surveillance footage showing Hamas terrorists storming the kibbutz, gunning down young people, throwing grenades into homes to burn families alive.

I was brought into the last moments of the lives of those who perished in the village of Be’eri on October 7th, as I read their anguished texts.

I read about a Jewish woman who had often helped her Palestinian neighbors by escorting them to medical facilities in Israel. During the siege she kept several neighbors safe in her home — until the Hamas terrorists exacted their horrific toll.

I read the texts of a social worker who was trapped in her burning “safe room” with her husband and sons. She made the decision to leave certain death from the fire to escape to the garden and try to hide beneath some trees. She even posted pictures of her last moments — before she and her family were shot to death.

It’s not that these horrors half way across the globe from me, make it easier to accept my personal sorrows. Rather, it is because of my personal sorrows that I have the courage to face what is going on in Israel, and Ukraine, and Sudan. That I am able to read a painful account of a mother’s last moments. That I can vow to do whatever I can to bring comfort to those who suffer. That maybe I might even find a way to effect peace.

The most precious Christmas story.

Perhaps because I am a mother, and a mother who has been crushed by hatred, I pay attention to stories of other mothers who are doing all they can to protect their children. For example, I loved the powerful speech of the mother in the “Barbie” movie, in which she described the impossible standards women are held to. I am sure she inspired many a mother and daughter. Hopefully her speech also softened hearts.

I was awestruck last year when First Lady Jill Biden made a secret trip on Mother’s Day to Ukraine to visit Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president. The two mothers met and talked and I can only assume shared stories of the hardship of motherhood under trying circumstances.

I shared texts with an American Jewish mother as she waited in the Tel Aviv airport on October 8-9. As soon as I heard about the attack, I texted her to find out if she was safe. She assured me she was and that she was getting flights for her family back home. First her husband flew out. Then her daughter and her grandchildren. This brave woman was the last to leave — not before her entire family was safe.

I don’t know much about the life of Rinat Even, the 44-year-old social worker who posted her last thoughts on social media before the Hamas terrorists murdered her and her family. Undoubtedly it took incredible courage to let the world know what was unfolding in her village, through social media, even though she and her children faced certain death. She is a hero.

Another mother has been watching over me for many years. I first met her when I was arrested and locked up in the Clark County jail during the long and torturous divorce process. I had a blazing headache and I was shivering cold as I tried to shake off the shock of what Howard was doing to our family. I was terrified for my children who were left alone at my house after I was arrested. I wrapped myself in the thin blanket I was issued when I was taken to my jail cell, and I sat there quietly waiting until I could be released. I noticed a tiny piece of paper wedged into a metal corner of a table in my cell. I worked the paper out of the corner and it turned out to be a pamphlet left by the Catholic Charities, “Mary’s Way of the Cross.”

Mary’s Way of the Cross

I had many feelings that night as I read Mary’s story, the story of watching her son Jesus as he carried the cross to Calvary where he was tortured and murdered. I can’t imagine her anguish, but her courage and love are undeniable. She was a remarkable mother who guides me to this day.

Even as I tell you of these mother’s stories, I am reminded of another story about my daughter Bianca when she was only five. At school the children were given the assignment of drawing pictures that represented Christmas. The teacher collected the drawings and created bundles of Christmas cards for each parent, using the children’s art. On the day of the Christmas party at school, the children surprised their parents with a gift of the bundled cards.

I remember thanking Bianca and giving her a hug. She was very pleased to have participated in creating this special gift for her parents. As I sorted through the cards looking for Bianca’s drawing, her teacher Donna approached. She said, “I asked all of the children to draw a picture of what Christmas meant to them.”

I said, “That is so sweet. Thank you, Donna.”

Donna smiled back and continued. “Yes, the children loved this project. They all drew fantastic pictures.”

I nodded in agreement, but wondered why she was continuing to emphasize this kindergarten accomplishment.

Donna said, “So you will notice that the children drew Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, and candy canes, and colorful wrapped presents.”

“Yes,” I said, as I shuffled through the children’s drawings again.

“But” she paused and looked me in the eye. “Bianca was the only one to draw a Nativity scene.” Then she pointed to Bianca’s card.

I lost my breath for a moment, astonished that my five-year-old had such a deep understanding of Christmas. Bianca noticed my reaction. I turned and looked at her with an inquisitive expression. “Bianca, your drawing is lovely but I am curious about why you choose this picture for your Christmas card?”

In her matter-of-fact way she said, “Donna asked us to draw a picture of the meaning of Christmas Mommy. And it’s when Jesus was born.” Of course, it is. Jesus’ birth is the meaning of Christmas.

The meaning of being a mother.

I became a mother when we adopted Bianca, my precious beautiful little girl. Phoebe came along three and half years later and helped me discover the joy of love again through her delightful smile. Both daughters have made my life so much richer than ever it would have been without them.

I miss them profoundly and I will never get over the loss. But I also know that my mother’s love is an important gift, even from afar. I am not perfect. It is not a mother’s perfection that children need. They need to know that even with all of her flaws and mistakes and regrets (and theirs) that they are loved beyond measure. Mothers are like that. We have hearts that are huge and go on loving forever.

It’s not being a mother per se that makes the difference is it? It’s the lessons from motherhood that make us resilient, stronger, and wiser. Never in life is anything as life altering as choosing to sacrifice for one’s children. And when a mother rises to the level of that kind of challenge, she is a powerful force for good in the world.

This is my wish for all of you for this New Year of 2024. Think deeply of the world and be a force for good in whatever way you can.

Sources and Links

1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/12/22/world/europe/beeri-massacre.html
2. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/22/opinion/girlhood-mental-health-taylor-swift.html

I Lost the War for My Children

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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