Tuesday, June 29, 2010


"I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all."

- James Baldwin

My mother taught me what is not normal.

It’s not normal to bang pots and pans out the window and shout, “Happy New Year!” at midnight, making your child cringe when she realized nobody else was doing it.

It’s not normal to go to a party and collect all of the recyclables out of garbage bags to collect the nickels, becoming a family joke.

It’s not normal to watch soap operas from 11:30 am until 4:00 pm.

It’s not normal to need two cups of coffee before your children can open presents on Christmas morning.

It’s not normal to tell people you don’t like/can’t use the gifts they give you.

It’s not normal to have your “conversations” resemble monologues.

It’s not normal to fail to make eye contact when speaking to someone.

When I was fifteen, my family took a vacation. During this vacation we had an old fashioned picture taken at one of those storefronts. My mother, sister, and I wore off-the-shoulder gowns. We all had hats. It’s my favorite picture of our fractured family because it spoke volumes. My sister had a determined expression, which conveyed her stubborn streak. My father looked exactly like himself, although in atypical garb. I, for the first time, thought I might not be as ugly as previously believed, if perhaps I could have all of my pictures brown and white and serious, hiding my braces. But my mother’s picture was the most telling. She has a serene smile and is looking away, eyeballs tilted slightly upward.

For many years, I spent my time studying other mothers. In them, I looked for the mother I longed for. And the woman I wanted to be. And to some extent, the mother I hoped to someday be.

And so I strive to be a better acquaintance, friend, wife, and mother than my early “role model”. I remember in an argument to say specifically what I’m unhappy about instead of name-calling. I remember to listen when someone else is angry, instead of drowning out his words.

This means I can’t overreact the other way. Just because my mother made embarrassing calls to other mothers to say I’d be coming to the birthday party but because I was on a “pure food diet”, I’d bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to McDonalds doesn’t mean my children eat McDonalds every week. Just because I couldn’t have the birthday cake doesn’t mean my children have a steady diet of Twinkies. And just because my Easter basket was filled with carob and beet-dyed Easter eggs, doesn’t mean my children get to gorge themselves on chocolate and candy.

I learned a better relationship with food.

But some things have been harder...

Seeing my body as it really appears has been really hard. I have to remind myself just because it isn’t as small anymore doesn’t mean it’s big. And it doesn’t make it misshapen.

Seeing my face as it appears is difficult too. I resemble her, and one day I worry I’ll look in the mirror and see her reflected back. I remind myself I am my own person.

I hardly had an alcoholic drink until my 30s because I worried about alcoholism. At some point I believed I had control over this as in everything else, so a drink or two, here and there is okay.

Why am I writing this?

Because I’m home. I find it hard to go home sometimes. Doesn’t everyone?

Also because my relationship with my mother forms my first three manuscripts. In the first, the mother is distant. In the second, the mother is mean. In the third, the mother is an alcoholic who inappropriately confides in her daughter. I don’t so much borrow the scenarios I experienced, but more the feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and burdens I felt in my childhood.

Writing must’ve gone a long way towards healing because my mother’s presence comes up in my manuscripts less and less.

But my presence is in all of my manuscripts. And the protagonist often takes my same journey. The journey to find his voice. Because only in doing so can he confront his demons and move on.

Writing has been cathartic in more ways than I ever imagined when I began. It’s probably not a coincidence that I stopped looking for signs I was becoming my mother when I began writing. Part of it was because if it hadn’t happened then, it probably wouldn’t happen. But the other was writing revealed what made my mother and I different.

We are a product of the people who shaped us. But we are our own people. We decide the path we take.

How did your family shape you?

How have you shaped yourself?


  1. I think as you age, you realize the impact your family had on you as a person more and more... I recently realized that part of my feelings about food have to do with my brother... at dinner every night, he would always ask 'Are you going to eat that?' over and over and attempt to pick at my plate... consequently, I don't like to share my food and always eat fast and feel I need to finish everything on my plate...

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I'm still barely an adult and still living at home, and don't yet have the familial clarity to really say, for certainty, what part of me is shaped by myself and what part is shaped by my parents. I can definitely see them in myself (though a lot less than parents would like), but I know I'm not their replicas. We have our differences. And I'm sure, as their direct influence wanes, I'll be more responsible for shaping myself. :)

    "It’s not normal to watch soap operas from 11:30 am until 4:00 pm."

    I don't suppose it's normal to watch soap operas from 9 am to midnight, then? Because sometimes, that's all I do in my summer. ;)

  3. And you have been one of the warmest people I have met on the Internet.

    I think you have come far.

  4. We are all a product of our family and I agree writing helps us examine the ghosts in our past and exorcise them.
    It only would take a minute in you and your family's company to realise that you have more than overcome any negative influences in your past.

    As you said yourself:
    'We are a product of the people who shaped us. But we are our own people. We decide the path we take'.

  5. @ Halpey1, poor you. Someone picking off my plate would bother me too. Thanks for sharing.

    @ Sandy Shin, it's good you know that you need distance before you can figure out what exactly is you and what is influence.

    As I said in a separate e-mail (in case you didn't come back to read my comment), 1130-4 when I was a little kid, made boring days for me.

    I watch plenty of TV at night, especially if baseball or basketball is on.

    @ Ricochet, thank you. That's so sweet of you.

    @ Brigid, thanks. When we're teens, we're reactionary. When we're in our 20s, we're often underconfident. I think it gets easier to figure out how far we've come as we get older.

  6. I think one of the most complex, baffling, unnerving and incredible relationships we have are the ones we have with our parents. It never ceases to amaze me.

    I love your description of the family photo taken. Thank you for sharing such a personal and fraught and cathartic moment as when you look at that photo and realise how it speaks volumes!

    I think that you can proudly say for certian that you are not your mother and never will be - she is who she is. You on the otherhand have carved your soul yourself with your own tools to become the wonderful Theresa Milstein - writer, teacher and adored mum to two wonderful children.

    Take care

  7. This is so thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. @ Old Kitty, thanks for all the lovely words, as usual. I think most people have a complicated relationship with at least one parent.

    Now I think I have my gravestone:

    "Theresa Milstein - writer, teacher and adored mum to two wonderful children."

    Hopefully "grandchildren" will get added to that.

    @ aLmYbNeNr, thank you.

  9. I'm one of the lucky ones. My parents were kind, firm and sensible. We didn't have tons of money, but I never noticed. There was always enough for 1 piece of cool clothing, for lessons of what we enjoyed, for schooling.

    My kids are turning out great, so I think the lessons they've passed along have worked pretty well. :)

  10. Wow. What a post. You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself even though the examples in this post are a bit heartwrenching. x

  11. This gives you so much fuel for your writing.

    My family was awesome. I lived in a perfect pink bubble growing up with my unicorns and gummy bear episodes. Although my dad worked long and hard hours, my mom was a stay at home mom and she spent all of her time making us feel like princesses. She read me books and sang Disney songs. But this is not good for my writing. It's hard for me to write anything gritty, and my characters are oftentimes too perfect. Oh well.

  12. Ah, another example of a dark road survived. My instinct is to wish all that away from you, but, you've overcome and are better for it. I, too, refrain from name-calling, or giving free reign to the caustic words that come to my mind in an argument. Words can't ever be taken back. It's interesting to me that you wanted to have children. I knew before I was five that I didn't. For all sorts of reasons. (I did want kittens, though)Funny, I used to watch other families to learn how to interact with people. And I'm beginning to see more of my mom and my sister's face in the mirror and I don't know why that's so unsettling...BTW: you have a wonderful sense of humor, you're witty, you have compassion and kindness, and you look perfectly lovely in your profile picture...2nd question...books. Reading about depression, stepping back and examining my family (grandmother, mother, aunt, sister)the dynamics at work, gaining understanding, and lots of Isaiah and Jeremiah...lots.

  13. A very moving post Theresa. And perhaps some of the good that came from your background is that it brought you to the page, to words, to a wonderfully fulfilling form of communication. Kudos to you for being aware, and for living your life, in your style.

  14. @ Jemi, it's good to hear you had a good childhood and pass it on to your own children.

    @ Clutterbug, thank you very much.

    @ Aubrie, unicorns and gummi bear episodes? I don't think you need to have an unhappy childhood to write well. Your sentence proves it. As writers, we all have our weaknesses we work at.

    P.S. I wasn't allowed to eat gummy bears.

    @ The Words Crafter, if we learn from our pasts instead of repeating them, we break the cycle. Thank you for the compliment.

  15. @ Joanne, thank you for the thoughtful comment.

  16. Often the not being like someone can be as strong a draw as being like someone...I think a lot depends on your personality...and all of the role models around you, not just your immediate family. :)

    It appears to me you are a lovely young woman. :)

  17. I thought I was the only one in this world with family issues like this. This was a cathartic release reading this post because now I know I not alone in realizing that sometimes the people who brought you in this world are destructive and negative. You can't change where you came from, but you can change the negative behaviors. Thank you for posting this. Your words are so insightful on so many levels, not only here but in countless other posts. Please feel free to get in touch with me.

  18. My dad was an alcoholic. I hesitate to say that because he wasn't a mean drunk. He didn't yell or hit. But it was still tragic to see a great man destroyed by drink.

    I am careful not to drink too much or too often. I know I have an addictive personality and I am cautious about my addictions. Blogging/writing/internet is much safer for me than drinking/gambling/other vice.

  19. @ Sharon K. Mayhew, thank you. I try to strike a balance between not being like certain people and not being the polar opposite as a reaction. Self-chosen role models have been helpful, except when I've chosen the wrong ones!

    @ Hermoine329, that's very kind of you. Most of us have our demons. I try not to dwell on mine, so I was hesitant to write this post. I'm glad you found it cathartic. It makes me glad I wrote it.

    @ Vicki, it's sad to see people ruin their lives with alcohol. It's good you're aware of what your potential vices are and work around them.

  20. There's a lot to think about after reading this,I'm not going to address the questions you posted... (not until I've had a good think/write for myself!) Honesty like this is refreshing and thought provoking... it is, as you said, important to do more than just react by doing the exact opposite with our own children... Thanks Teresa

  21. A very honest post, Theresa.

    I am so lucky to have the family I have. I never appreciated it growing up; I just through everyone had a family like mine. I quickly realised not everyone did.

    That said, they gave me the freedom to shape myself. I've moved across the world, to different countries, married a man from another world, all with their complete support.

    Gosh, I'm going to start crying now!

  22. Thank you for having the courage to share this very moving, honest post. It's an inspiration to remember that we can, in spite of everything, choose to make ourselves, better, kinder, whatever we think we need to be. That's a gift.

  23. Both my mother and father came to visit for the first time last week. They have mellowed conciderably over the last few years and so have I. Strict views and opinions they had while I grew up are gone and replaced with new ones that counter the old ones.
    They are happy.
    My husband and I are happy and they came to see us and said that what we have and what we are is all they would ever want for us.
    My husband said I am just like my mother. Those would have been fighting words at one time but it made me smile.
    I know who I am and what I can do. I feel confident and my childhood no longer creeps up on me like a quiet thing in socks. Everyone makes mistakes...we forgave eachother long ago and moved on.
    How has my family shaped me? They shaped me for the good... because I decided it to be so.

  24. Hi Theresa, I left an award for you on my blog.

  25. My grandma used to bang pots and pans at midnight on New Years too! I had forgotten all about that time when I was in kindergarten and younger, and it's only now that I feel embarrassed at participating... Who came up with that, really? /:

    My childhood was not all puppies and roses by any means, but I got through it by shaping myself more than others doing the shaping. This happened because I was sick of the life that I had, and I had to do something about it sooner or later. That's not to say, though, that my mother didn't influence me. She did, in particular with helping me, as a kid, learn to socialize better and go after what I wanted. I just tended to do a lot on my own.

    I never knew my father, and for seven years, I was raised by a stepdad whom I hated. He was young and stupid and overly strict with us kids, forcing me out of a "normal" childhood. But then my mother and him divorced, and he's since changed his ways.

  26. @ Words A Day, I'm glad you found it thought provoking. Thanks for the feedback.

    @ Talli, everyone deserves support like you have. I think it's wonderful.

    @ Sarahjayne, thank you for the nice comment. It's better to move on (as best as we can help it) rather than repeating the mistakes.

  27. @ Barbra, good for you for pulling the good and forgiving the not-so-good. It sounds like you gained perspective from the distance.

    @ Ted, thanks for the award. I'll check it out.

    @ Amanda, good I'm not alone in that. Who DID come up with banging those pots and pans?

    Good for you for helping yourself. Anytime I've had a batch of students, I've always told them no matter what's going on at home, school is the way out. Don't use bad grades as an excuse. Get good grades to have more opportunities.

  28. Great post. I am tweeting this one out! I don't have anything epic to say about my own situation right now but man, can I relate!

  29. @ Rebecca, thank you. It's nice to know you can relate.

  30. This is deep. I am headed home to see my mom tomorrow. Always complicated.

    Thinking of you! (Great post by the way!)

  31. You are brave for writing this.
    I know my parents have shaped me, in a millions ways beyond just the inheritance of genes (which is itself a gigantic part). I act and react to them all the time. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad.

    I try to distance myself from the bad parts though, so I can see those negative interactions for what they really are. The emotions cloud everything.

    Sorry for being so vague, but it actually sums up a lot about me and my folks.

    Parents, man. Can't live with 'em, and couldn't be alive without 'em.

  32. Powerfully written Theresa--it sounds like a difficult relationship. The Mrs. and her mom have been battling it out for years over various things. My wife's primary goal with being a mom is not to repeat the same mistakes that she and her siblings suffered through for so many years--hurtful things that oddly still can be observed when watching my mother-in-law.

  33. @ Bossy Betty, thanks. Good luck seeing your mom.

    @ Lydia Kang, don't worry about being vague. That's how I usually am. It's probably smarter.

    The genes are harder to work against. Learned behavior is easier. It's good you can distance yourself from the bad parts.

    @ Slamdunk, your wife could relate to this post I'm sure. I find it difficult to spend time with my mother.

  34. ...That was a tremendous post!

    Perhaps adulthood is finding one's personal balance after one's parent have done their best and their worst.

    From what you write, it certainly sounds as if you're finding some balance. And many are those who don't have the objective vision or control to achieve that.

    My parents come from two very different cultural backgrounds... And had fairly different points of view on most things. As a result I owe my parents an openness to new things and the reflex to see more than one side to any issue.

    And because of their own open mindedness they let me take control and shape my personality at relatively early age.
    Though my mother said that I went from being a happy outgoing child to being an introverted, solemn "wet-blanket" adult, with little in between. ; j

  35. @ Alesa, I have things to thank my parents for as well. My father has a strong sense of right and wrong, and is very loyal. I have those qualities as well.

    As you demonstrate, we decide our own personalities. I see it with my two children, who have their own personalities, with quirks I didn't try to foster.

  36. What new traits have come up in your children, if you don't mind my asking?

  37. @ Alesa, my daughter is very sociable and enthusiastic. She'll try anything without fear. Neither my husband nor I are like that.

    My son never thinks he wants to do anything until he does it. My husband and I weren't like that either.

    Children come with their own personalities and you try to encourage the good parts and work around the parts that may need changing. And sometimes they do something I don't like, and I realize I do that too. So then I have to work on my behavior!