He never said goodbye

When I was a young girl, I was not very happy. Aside from all of the other issues little girls have, I also had a mother who was a perfectionist. It seemed to me that there was nothing I could do to please her. She would find something wrong with me each and every time she was near me. My dress was wrinkled, there was a stain on my skirt, a button was missing, I sat funny, I shouldn’t shake or swing my leg when I was sitting, I shouldn’t touch the fabric on the chair, my button was missing, my shoe was scuffed, I was a “klutz,” etc. etc.

Because she convinced me that I was a failure as a human being, it was a given fact that everyone knew it and therefore I had no friends because I knew the other little girls were judging me and I was found wanting.

When I entered junior high school, I sat in the auditorium where the principal explained to us that unlike elementary school, here we would have to work hard and do our homework and study. I spent much of my time in the library taking one book after another off the shelf that had books about people who had suffered. Among others, I read about Tomy Keitlin and how she lost her sight. I read “Miracle at Carville,” a book about lepers. I read, “My Left Foot” about a boy who was paralyzed. And I read “Death Be Not Proud” where the writer’s son dies. I read these books because at least these people were suffering more than I was, and somehow, it made my suffering more manageable.

But at some point something the principal had said set off a spark in me. He said that if we were having problems, there were counselors who would help us.

I didn’t know how to get the counselor to help me. No one said what to do if you were having trouble. So, I looked for a reason to see a counselor. One day, in cooking class, the twins (two girls whose names I’ve long forgotten) did something that annoyed me. I don’t remember what it was, but it seemed to me that it was a good reason to go to the counselor.

I went to see the counselor. I don’t remember anything about that meeting except that it didn’t end with his telling me that I didn’t have to go back home to my mother.

One day, a week or so later, though, my mother came and picked me up early from school. She told me that she was taking me to see someone I could talk to who would really understand me. I think at that point she was admitting that she had not a clue.

Apparently the school had called my mother and told her that I was seeking help. We went to the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic. There I was seen by a therapist and my mother was seen by a social worker and the plan was that they would coordinate with each other.

I was young and didn’t understand much. What I understood was that this somewhat shy and self-effacing man sat in a room with me and listened. I do remember that he told me that my mother was the way she was because of how her mother had treated her and that he hoped that we could work to stop that cycle. One thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want to be the same kind of mother to my children that my mother was to me.

My times with him were quiet and calm. I remember there being toys in the room, but he never suggested I play with them and I never quite knew what I should say.

Once (or maybe more) I felt so terrible between sessions that I wrote him a letter that I sealed in an envelope for him to read at the next session.

Once, when I told him that things at home were, if anything, getting worse, he told me that that meant that I was getting better and that my mother was unable to deal with it. I didn’t understand, but the words comforted me.

After about two years, I stopped seeing him on a regular basis and my mother would call him to consult or to see either me or my sister or her in times of crisis. My sister and I called him her “Prime Minister.”

When at 18 I became engaged, my mother sent me and my fiance to see him. He saw us and explained to us that it would be better for us not to live in the same city as my mother as she wouldn’t let us have a normal married life. She was simply too intrusive.

My fiance decided not to marry me. He thought I was going to end up being like my mother. I was devastated. I finally had plans to leave home and they were shattered.

A year later, my husband, who by my design never really got to know my mother, and I were married.

Ten years later, my former therapist (who had been in touch with my mother over this period) send me a short note and some educational materials he’d produced. By that time, I had 4 children. I was living in Wiesbaden, Germany. He wrote, “My wife was born in Wiesbaden; Good vibes!!”

Ten years later, I was presenting a workshop for family therapists at a conference in Dallas. He was presenting something in Dallas on the same weekend. I wrote him and mentioned the coincidence. He invited me to join him for breakfast on Sunday morning.

We sat and talked, this time as colleagues– about my childhood, about my husband and children, about my professional life and the work I was doing on therapeutic metaphor, and even about his interaction with my ex-fiance. He said, “I just didn’t think he was good for you.”

A couple more times over the next 20 years, we exchanged notes and once along with my sister, I met up with him in Tel Aviv, where he was living at the time.

A few days ago, I came across his obituary. He passed away at age 85. He was a gentle presence in my life. Dr. Sol Gordon will be missed. Goodbye dear friend.

Training parents– Part 1

Well, since you asked….

Many people have the same concern: Why can’t my/my spouse’s parents understand that we are adults who are caring for our own children? Why do they think we can’t make healthy decisions on our own? Why do they think they have to tell us what to do?

The simple answer is that for some reason, these grandparents/ parents of adults forgot that their children grew up. They don’t know how to offer support without imposing control. The tighter they attempt to hold on to control, the stronger the adult child’s need to put some distance between him/herself and the parent.

Often, this creates friction in the younger couple. In general, people want to be kind and loving toward their parents, but the parents’ actions can make that difficult.

Let’s take David and Donna, two fictional people who we are meeting for the first time today. David’s parents live at a great distance from them, but they maintain telephone contact and most of the time the interactions with them are pleasant, if not extremely close. Donna, on the other hand, lives only a few blocks away from her parents. Donna’s mother calls her several times a day. She asks her what she is feeding her children for each meal, what clothing size the baby is, how much weight Donna has lost since the baby’s birth. In addition, Donna’s father needs to know how much money Donna and David are putting into savings each month and whether David has found a good financial analyst. He also asks Donna questions about David’s work that even she doesn’t know the answers to. On their frequent, unplanned visits, Donna’s mother checks out the amount of dust under the sofa and comments on the dirty dishes in the sink. Donna’s father suggests that the houseplants need to be fertilized and they are being under-watered.

Is it any wonder that David blows his top after every interaction with Donna’s parents? He resents not only their interference in his life, but also their interference in Donna’s. Donna too resents her parents badgering, but she feels angry when David points it out. She even sometimes says things like, “Oh, so your parents are so perfect– like if we all died they wouldn’t know until a week from Tuesday when they get around to calling again.” David, of course, then responds with something like, “Well at least they aren’t always in my face; your parents are suffocating me!” Donna, feeling defensive then responds with something like, “Well, at least they care!”

And so on.

The truth is that the problem is not with David and Donna. It is that Donna’s parents have not yet figured out that she grew up. She no longer asks them for money and she has made good decisions. But somehow, they haven’t gotten it that she grew up! Perhaps they are so used to being in control that they don’t know how to give it up. Perhaps they don’t know another way to be close to their adult daughter. And perhaps their life lacks other sources of connection and satisfaction.

Think of it… It take a lot of energy to be controlling. When would one have time to have fun?

Clearly, Donna’s parents are not going to change on their own. The change in the relationship has to come from both David and Donna. They need to redefine the problem as inappropriate boundaries. Simply put, Donna’s parents have been breaching the marital fence that David and Donna have constructed. Somehow or other, the “no trespassing” signs have not been seen or taken seriously. David and Donna need to strengthen that fence. Depending on the types of intrusion, there are several strategies.

Today let’s start with time boundaries


There should be clear “call” and “no call” hours. Donna’s parents should be informed that because of their family activities and Donna’s need for things like sleep and a shower and feeding the baby and cleaning and straightening and cooking, it is not a good idea to call before x hour in the morning or after x hour at night. If a phone call does come in at those hours, then David or Donna needs to politely say, “I’m sorry, this isn’t a good time; can you call me at [and supply a time within the call hours]?” If they persist, say, “I really do want to hear what you have to say, but I need to put down the phone now. ‘Talk to you later. Goodbye.”

I know it sounds harsh, but it is necessary to be clear and consistent. Hints won’t make it! They need to know that there is no talking or listening outside of normal talk/listening hours.

Next time: Visiting time boundaries