Bad Mothers

I’m reading a book about addiction that Max read last year. He told me I might like it. I also remember him writing to his girlfriend that the book caused him to review his childhood, which he always thought was “pretty normal.”

The book, by Gabor Maté, a physician and psychiatrist, is extremely compassionate toward the addict. In fact, he explains at great length why the addict never really had a chance: Improper bonding during infancy harms the infant’s brain and sets him up for addiction.

Maté recounts study after study to underscore his thesis. When rats are removed from their mother for only one hour a day, their brains show damage. In human babies, this faulty bonding fucks everything up. The child is forever doomed to suffering and attempts to extinguish the suffering.

I can’t read too much of this book. Someone needs to do a study on my brain, to show how much harm the book has done.

Maté  ends the long chapter about the origins of the addict’s malformed brain by assuring us that he’s not saying it’s hopeless! People can be healed, he says, through the  indomitable Spirit that lives within all of us.

Meanwhile, I am compelled to look back in time and question everything. I remember loving my baby at first sight. I remember adoring his every expression, every gesture, every hair on his head. I remember nursing him for 14 months. I remember friends coming over just to admire him. I remember dressing him in his little outfits, reading to him, cuddling him, singing to him.

But I was a depressed mother. Depressed mothers ruin the brain as well. I forgot to say that. The baby picks up on the mother’s depression and is  irreparably  fucked.

I wish I could talk to Max about this. I want to know if he blames me. Or rather, if he forgives me.

His addiction must have been a nightmare for him. So much worse then the nightmare it was for us. It was such a long struggle. I never really felt it was my fault, until now.

My own mother hated me and told me so, but I didn’t want to become a drug addict. There was no comfort anywhere, from anyone, when I was a child. I have my problems but I never wanted to stick a needle in my arm. If everyone with an imperfect or depressed mother needs to escape their pain through opiates, who’s left?

I’m caught in this argument.   Depressed people don’t all become addicts. But my son did, and it’s my fault.

I wish it was nobody’s fault. I wish it was a wrong turn that led to more wrong turns. I wish he had been able to overcome his addiction and the pain that caused it. I wish I could comfort him and convince him that he was loved and he was perfect, addicted or not.

Mothers and children, what are your thoughts?

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75 Responses to Bad Mothers

  1. patni says:

    You are such a brave lady Sister Wolf. Max sounds like he was a wonderful man. Life is very hard for sensitive souls, but they are the most wonderful people to know. He was lucky to have such a strong mother behind him. He knew you loved him, and i bet it was a source of strength in his life.

    Doctors love to blame mothers, medicine is a bitter patriarchal profession, well removed from healing. As Wendy B says, they like to blame all their problems on their mothers, it used to be schizophrenia and autism, now it is addiction and what ever else bothers people. It is bullshit.

    No one is a perfect parent, and no child is a perfect either. We are all pretty broken and do the best with what we have. Maybe the perfect part is the love, and from what I can see you and Max have that in spades.

    My mother was given allllll kinds of grief when i was born premie. Her damn hippy friends told her that because i was born by c section and taken to a hospital nursery and bottle fed i would never bond with her. At 50 years old i still talk to her every day, email and make jokes. We understand each other, and love each other. Friends I guess. She still makes me madder than any one else ever has.
    The other stuff is bullshit. You loved him and he loved you. It sounds like he had a difficult time in life, and you did everything in your power you could to make it better. You supported him, loved him and liked him. What the hell else could anyone ask for?

  2. daisy says:

    as the mother of an addict all i can say is that according to the american medical association, addiction is a disease. i didn’t cause it, i can’t control it and i cannot cure it. unfortunately, the stigma attached to addiction is so strong that most people still believe it is a choice or the result of bad parenting. i know that i was a good mom, the best i could be and my son by all standards had a wonderful childhood with his two brothers in an intact family. i used to feel like a complete failure and beat myself up continuously until one day i realized that now his disease was destroying me and the rest of my family. i couldn’t stand that idea. i joined a support group that has literally saved my life. i can only hope that you find some peace, some solace from the torture of misdirected blame. i know in my heart that your son would not want you to torture yourself.
    peace to you.

  3. Jenny says:

    I’m not sure if words from a stranger can help ease your anguish, but I want to tell you that it is not your fault! Your love for Max is palpable and I’m sure has always been. You know this. Don’t let the words of a so-called expert take that away. Even when we know in our hearts that we are ‘good’ mothers, when we understand that we can’t be responsible for, and fix the problems of our children, we are so vulnerable to suggestions to the contrary. It’s cruel, wrong, and it’s patriarchal bullshit. Much love to you.

  4. lisa says:

    I find it so upsetting that this book has been published at all. coming from a grown man who clearly has issues and is blaming his mother rather than searching himself for a better truth for his own feelings of insecurity.
    I also find it upsetting that its ALWAYS the mother that gets blamed for these issues. what happened to the fathers involvement or the extended family. why is it that if you are a mother you are either too selfish, too over protective, too demanding, too everything rather than understanding that everyones mother is a person too with failing and frailties just like everyone else.
    It makes me so proud that i have such a wonderful mother who has always shown me love and respect, even though i could if i really wanted to blame her for several issues i have now as an adult, but i don’t, because i love her and the issues i have are my own and as an adult it is my responsibility to find the help i need to resolve them. Blaming her would only in the long run hurt our relationship. Respect is a two way street. and i only hope that one day when i have children that i have as much patience love and respect that my mother had when she raised me.
    Please throw away that book, it is just the opinion of one hurt and lonely man trying to explain away his feelings and responsibilities as an adult. Much love x

  5. Hammie says:

    I have 3 sisters and we all coped with our mother’s depression in different ways. You are who you are. The day you stop blaming what someone else made you is the day you learn to live. Max had a great Mum for many more years than most – you were close as adults and you nurtured and supported him throughout his life. But where he went was somewhere you could not follow- so you couldn’t catch him and bring him back that day. I’m sorry xx

  6. Sister Wolf says:

    BethUK – Thank you, it helps to hear your story, xo

    Patni – Thank you, this made me tearful but in a good way. I’m so happy that you have this relationship with your mom xo

    daisy – I never cared about the stigma, but I know the kind of pain you are dealing with. I hope with all my heart that your son decides to get clean. xo

    Jenny -Thank you so much, you’re right. It’s so easy to take the blame for everything and so hard to just be present with the loss. Patriarchal bullshit has a nice ring to it!

    Lisa – You will be a wonderful mom. Thank you for commenting.

    Hammie – xoxoxo

  7. Liz says:

    I disagree that a bad childhood is the main reason for addiction in adulthood but of course it could be a contributing factor. My childhood was a complete nightmare and my mother is one of the most cold hearted, aggressive and twisted women I have ever come across. That being said both myself and my brother grew up to be much better people than she ever could be. Neither of us ended up addicted to drugs. I will say that having a very bad childhood does colour the way you view life in later years. If you were shown no love as a child you do tend to spend your time seeking it and often in the wrong places, I guess possibly that could be from the bottle or needle, but that’s more about escapism. I think the results of a loveless childhood show themselves more in relationship problems and gravitating toward people who treat you badly.
    Addiction is the need to feel good whatever harm it does to your body, mind or health. Everybody wants to feel good it’s just that some people need it more than others for varied reasons. This author is a man and men always try to blame the women. We still live in a patriarchal society. What about the father being absent or distant as is true in many more cases I’m sure? Why does this not affect the addict also?
    Don’t take what this guy said to heart. It’s blatantly obvious that you loved your son more than life itself and I’m sure if I can feel it thousands of miles away over the internet then he could feel it when he was wrapped in your arms and cared for by you over the years. L x

  8. Consuela says:

    It’s not your fault. Every mother does the best they can. x

  9. Juri says:

    What a Fucking Cunt (TM) with a Ph.D. in easy answers! I thought blaming the mother went out of vogue around the same time as singing whales, magic chrystals and Sting traveling around with 60 cm tall Brazilian jungle people.

    Maté can kiss my well-formed addict’s ass. I suppose the orthodox term would be “recovering addict”, as I quit drugs 18 years ago, but my malformed addict’s brain finds the term ill-fitting because of the fact that I, after 11 years of teetotal sobriety, gradually slipped 5 years ago into being the high-functioning alcoholic with a decent job and a hepatitis C impaired liver that I am today.

    I grew up wishing my parents would die but it never occured to me to blame them for any of the idiotic choices I made as a stupid kid or a not-much-smarter grown-up.

    From what I’ve read it’s obvious that you and Max had a great relationship. There’s no way he would have blamed you for his troubles. You shouldn’t blame yourself either.

  10. kate says:

    as the kid of an addict and a friend to many addicts (of drugs, alcohol or sex) all i know is that ALL addicts are running away from something. they all have major emotional pain that can’t be eradicated, but it can be forgotten while high. personally, i define this as weakness (because who among us has no emotional pain to extinguish?) but i don’t mean to insult an addict by calling them weak.
    i didn’t have a great childhood. i was a pretty unhappy kid. but i don’t have an addictive personality. i’ve dabbled in lots of “activities” and nothing really sticks. so it can’t be a black-and-white issue of unhappy kids=addicts.
    as far as a parent’s role, i’m sorry to say it IS your fault your kid is unhappy, but it’s EVERY parent’s fault their kid is unhappy. forgiving/understanding/cutting all ties with your parents is one of those things that most rational adults go through, and sometimes it isn’t until they become parents themselves.
    in the end, taking responsibility for your own actions is the only way to grow up. if you blame your unhappy childhood for everything you’ll be a whiny victim your whole life. i don’t think your son was a whiny victim, s.w. i think he forgave you.

  11. Juri says:

    In this world, there are countless factors beside a parent ot two that contribute to a kid becoming “unhappy.” Parent’s don’t have a monopoly to pain and pain is not a valid explanation to addiction(s).

  12. laurisija says:

    My father was addictive and committed suicide when I was ten. I still battle addictions to food, alco..a lot of things…at the same time I know ppl who have alcoholic parents and they don’t drink at all. They just hate it, because they see what harm it has done in their parents life. So I assume its not just we “make babies”. They are personalities from beginning. + and- we give for sure in life, but kids have their own life how much as we struggle and want to control it. Its not just parents. Its friends, books, school etc….

    p.s I hated my dad and still hate him for as he is dead now… person…cant fight against dead one…they have made their statement and remain silent…,however, are left struggling, questioning, suffering….

    p.s2 I remember reading about daughter who adopted her brothers and sisters when she was 18. Parents were alcoholic. She, in her mind, did not have any doubts about what was right or wrong. She gave up her future and just worked any jobs available to keep all other siblings fed and go to school.I suppose she was focusing on REALITY and WHAT you can do NOW. Going back into past and thinking what could I have different does not make any change.

    You can just choose to suffer and drown in memories and remorse. But then again, ts easier said then done……

    p.s3 i have a 10 months old son. I feel stressed often and I feel I do not spend as much time with him or his development as I would think is “perfect”, yet, still he is developing amazingly, is very social, happy etc…..I suppose we have to sometimes live with understanding that a person that “comes out from us” is not necessarily us. they are human beings beyond our control (partly).

  13. Sister Wolf says:

    Liz – A mother like yours will leave you with low self-esteem and the stuff you do to feel lovable can be pretty stupid. I know from experience. Thank you for your support. xo

    Conseula – Thank you dear. How is the cleaning going?

    Juri – I keep going back to your well-formed ass…..

    Kate – It IS every parent’s fault if their kid is unhappy? Wow. That’s quite a statement.

    Juri – Right. She must have meant something else – I hope.

    laurisija – I hate my dad too because he’s a selfish cunt.

  14. Suebob says:

    I say this with all the kindness in my heart – shut up! People become addicts for a zillion different reasons, most of which we don’t understand the slightest thing about or how to fix. I suspect the tendency to blame yourself is comforting in the same way cutting is comforting – if you can keep yourself in controlled pain, the uncontrolled pain won’t consume you…But I don’t buy it. I think you might want to try loving yourself as much as you loved Max. Or if that is too much for now, try and stop being an asshole to yourself for a half hour a day. You deserve at least that much.

  15. There is so much to be said on this subject but it is mainly to say it is a load of fucking bollocks. Actually more to the point is the fact the pattern was set by the grandparents. Your genes are more likely to be skipped. Excuse me but I’m actually really rubbish at the scientific way to say this but to get type 1 diabetes it gets handed down from the grand parent. Allergies run through the maternal line, as does baldness. The paternal line delivers heaps of things that I can’t recall right now but I can say your post natal depression may have been post traumatic stress caused by your mother saying she hated you! And her dna was given to Max. No matter how much love you gave him, no matter if you did it by the book (which book I say) the dna was there and that my friend is the reality.

    I have my horrid varicose vein being operated on in a few weeks and I got it from my grandma (fact). My surgeon who is Greek (I’m filling the box with unnecessary detail now!) told me that crossing your legs, standing on your feet all day or any number of things people say re varicose veins is a ton of rubbish. Fact is I inherited the vein gthing from my lovely grandmother on the paternal side. It was a 50/50 time bomb and it delivered.


  16. Edie says:

    it makes me sad to think of you reading this book, like you needed that…You loved your son and he knew that, what else can you do as a parent then to make sure they know you love them, no matter what….If in their darkest, loneliest moments our children don’t need to wonder if they are loved, then we have done all we can, the rest is up to them…

  17. nobody can really explain addiction. am sorry for max. SW you are a good mother.

    i am a new mom to a nine month old baby. and i love him to death. sometimes it is hard. this whole motherhood thing but i love it.

    this blogging is good too, one day when my son hates me ill show him my blog. hahaha.

  18. tartandtreacly says:

    I don’t know. Maybe. I know I’m a manic-depressive and my mother is an (undiagnosed) manic-depressive, and in my worst moments I have blamed her, and then was ashamed to have done so.

    I don’t know. But I do know I wish I could hug you until the stuffing fell out.

  19. Nomi says:

    Why would Max tell you to read this? I suppose he was having a bad day and wanted to throw some guilt your direction (I think he inherited a bit of defiance and a desire to stir the pot from his mother.) But many of us have gotten to that point of confrontation with our parents, usually in our early 20’s, when we try to find a concrete reason for being the fucked up people we’ve become. Then later, in our 30’s, we witness first hand the actual difficulty of being a parent/spouse/person of employ. This is when everything about our perception of childhood becomes so much clearer. For years I tried to blame my mother’s anger/depression/shitty attitude for my “psychological problems.” But then I had children. I began to understand, while clinging to the brink of my own sanity, that my mother was merely a human being burdened by crazy hormones, an unhappy marriage, a full-time job, and children.
    Forget that he read this book. He was hoping to find a single source of his problems. Parents, even the good one’s, make excellent scapegoats. He wanted answers but I don’t think he actually found any in this book. He was in pain. He was an addict. He was depressed. He was disabled and perhaps simply unable to “rise up and overcome.” I don’t mean to sound as if I know all the details of his life but I myself, a clinical alcoholic, a mother of two young children, the spouse of an often absent but very well paid partner, have had my share of “they’d be better off without me” moments. The children keep me from leaving. Shame prevents me from killing myself. When all is right with the world my brain can still somehow sink those tangible sources of happiness. It’s in the wiring. The brain. You can’t change how your children are wired. What appears to be an act of senselessness to one person may be perfectly rational to others. You weren’t the cause of his death. If anything he thought he was saving you from himself.

  20. moi aussi says:


    Your response made me cry. My mother wasn’t depressed but she was messed up and twisted. She did a huge number on my head on my wedding day and then I found myself depressed and pregnant some months later. My poor son. He’s anxious, like me and artistic. I will always lament that he did not get my husband’s naturally sunny, confident personality. My daughter, born five years later, did.

    My son is eight and I pray for him every day. That he’ll be all right.

    Sister Wolf. This blog is so precious and beautiful, like a jewel. You take such care to answer everyone. I’m so sorry about your son.

    Moi Aussi

  21. Sister Wolf says:

    Nomi – moi aussi is right, your comment is so eloquent and insightful, Thank you so much. Wishing you strength, xoxoxo

    moi aussi – Yep, they come into the world with a personality. Your daughter is blessed but your son has the good luck of a mother who is sensitive to his wiring. You can keep an eye on him and seek early intervention if you think he is clinically depressed. I wish I had done that for Max, who looks way too solemn in his childhood pictures. You are a vigilant mom and that is the best one can ask for. xo

  22. Seb says:

    This is an interesting point that could probably be debated forever. We are the sum of our experiences and choices we have made. So because of this blame or credit cannot be placed at any one single persons feet for our failings/problems or our assets respectively. My mother suffered with severe depression and psychosis when I was growing up and still does. I know that she always did her best for me, however if her condition did not exist I do not doubt that I would of had a very different childhood experience. As an adult I have suffered with depression and addiction. Would this have still been the case if my mother was well, we’ll never know but I do believe that your formative years lay the foundations for the rest of your life. I understand that what happened to me during my childhood was not done intentionally or with mallice it just happened through nobodies fault. It did however happen and i think it does have a part to play in how my life turned out. Saying this the choices of friends I had, the situations I put myself in etc etc all have played thier part aswell. When I saw the title of your post about the book it immediately caught my eye and I wanted to know more, I imagine when your son found the book he felt the same. Regardless of anything I think it is part of the human condition to look for answers. If you have addiction issues you will want answers as how to solve them and where they may of come from, much in the same way someone may look for reasons as to why they are academic. I think that being a parent is one of the biggest responsibilities anyone can face and that you will always question whether you did a good job. No matter what you cannot control the things that will come face to face with your children and sadly some make unwise decisions. Should of, could of, would of are inevitable questions in life but if you know in your heart that you did your best with the information you have at the time then that is the most that anyone can ask. I have never blamed my mother I have accepted that it was something that happened. Ultimately we are all accountable for our own actions and choices and you will not change your behaviour until you are ready, regardless of what others may do to try and help. Obviously I can only speak from my own experience and I have not read the book so cannot comment on what Gabor Mate had to say but I thought another perspective is always useful.

  23. Just a Girl says:

    I believe we’re all wired differently and that’s all it is. I know someone who is an identical twin. The two both grew up in the same shitty household with abuse, addiction, and chaos all around them. One of them turned to drugs, and became an addict. The other is in college.

    What we end up doing, the choices we make, and the ways we comfort ourselves are all in our wiring. Nature? Nurture? Who the hell knows? What makes one person have a couple drinks socially, and another not be able to stop drinking until they’re passed out and puking?

    You could make yourself crazy trying to figure it all out. Don’t.

  24. Moo-lissa says:

    Dear Sister,

    Well, I’m unemployed and depressed and this is my 15th day sober. It sucks and it’s great at the same time. Mostly, it sucks…I’ve made a real mess of my life.

    Mate’s book sounds like one worth reading. I definitely come from a whacked out family, although I am 42 now and I love my mom unconditionally, the same way I’ll bet Max loved you.

    I had a bad day today. Felt like I couldn’t leave the house. So I stayed in and I’ve read about 30 of your blog entries. Let me tell you, I know you were a great mom.

    Peace, hugs, and lots of love from Chicago

  25. Monica says:

    Admittedly, I blame my mom for all of it. ALL of it. And it is her fault. It really is. I was completely dependent upon her for guidance and my very basic needs. And she blew it. But I still love her, I still try to maintain a relationship and I still see the positive parts of my childhood. I don’t need her to acknowledge the depth of wrongs done to me, and there were many. That is mine to figure out how to tolerate.

    I have chosen not to have children, mostly because I am too lazy to take care of one (which, admittedly, doesn’t stop many), but also because I have such limited access to any life skills of my own, how would I teach another human basic things like how to get a driver’s license before you’re 34, or how you’d even begin to enroll in College, and why you would want to consider such a thing. Actually, having said that, I would have been able to explain the hell outta those two concepts!

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