Being The Scapegoat

I have at least started to learn some healthy boundaries.  One of them is to call out someone who mistreats you.  Hello, Joe & Susan!

For about a dozen years, I tried to “just get over” all this, as instructed.  I was told this is my problem, and I needed therapy to find a way for me to deal with it.

Well, I went to therapy, and learned a lot of things.  Most of the stuff I am writing about here stems from those sessions.

We got to narcissism very quickly:  on my second visit, after I had been asked to think about what beliefs operate in my family of origin, I said to my therapist, “Susan is never wrong, and Mom is never to blame.  Are those two the same thing?”  She got this huge, genuine, happy smile across her face, as though I had done something really clever.  (I might add, I immediately had a very strong urge to do whatever I could to see another smile like that.  This probably tells a lot about how little approval and smiling I got from the people around me, growing up.)

Another thing I learned about was scapegoating.  Mine was relatively (ha!) subtle in some ways — until our parents died.  While my father lived, he prevented the continuation of the old pattern as best he could.  When he died, it came back with a vengeance.

This article and this one describe the phenomenon clearly.

How to Tell if You Have Been Scapegoated:

  1. You are held responsible for family problems, conflicts or challenges, even if they have nothing to do with you.  Other people blame you for their actions.  You may end up feeling a lot of shame for being ‘the bad guy’, and/or anger for being blamed for negative family dynamics.
  2. You are attacked and disbelieved if you tell the truth and ‘blow the whistle’ on negative and/or inappropriate family dynamics.
  3. There has been a history of one or more family members being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you.  Other family members seem to accept or look the other way when you are bullied or aggressed against like this.  You may feel like the ‘black sheep’ of the family.
  4. You find yourself repeatedly being accused of behavior the scapegoater is engaged in. For example, a family member repeatedly yells at you, and then accuses you of being abusive, or being thoughtful and then told “all you care about is yourself”.
  5. You act out the negative ‘expectations’ of scapegoating such as not living up to your potential, or getting into relationships with abusive people because your self esteem is has been damaged.
  6. Being the mentally healthiest family member, but being accused of being sick, bad, etc.
  7. Occupying the role of family outcast, and being treated with disdain or disgust by family or yourself.
  8. Your achievements are belittled, minimized, criticized and rejected.
 Ta-da!    Seven out of eight.

Those two articles, as well as this one, point out that the scapegoat is likely to be the healthiest one in the family, the one who goes looking for answers.  And I found some.

If you are the scapegoat, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you are the one most likely to go searching for answers – and find them. That is because you are the one in the most pain from carrying the burden of blame for the family. The scapegoats are also usually the truly strong ones in the family, as well as being the truth tellers.

I guess you know the bad news. You are blamed for everything. The scapegoats are the ones who allow the rest of the family to appear to be “normal,” purged of their wrongs. Narcissistic personality disordered mothers chronically scapegoat. If everything is the scapegoat’s fault (and it’s not), then the rest of the family can continue to avoid the real issue. The narcissistic mother can keep pretending to be “normal,” since you are supposedly the problem. “While they [malignant narcissists] seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense.” The People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, M.D.

The very existence of a scapegoat in the family signals a problem, because a scapegoat is only required in a family when someone consistently refuses to take responsibility for their own actions…

…Those same qualities of strength and emotional honesty or truth telling will greatly work in your favor in the healing process. If you are the scapegoat, you have the strength to escape, heal and lead a healthier life. As hard as it may be, try not to internalize all of the blaming and scapegoating. Realize you are dealing with a very sick parent. The truth hurts, but then it really does set you free.

So for the past couple of years, I have instead been trying the healthier alternative of calling out this mistreatment of me to the people involved (or, as in the case of my sister, studiously not involved).  I figured I ought to at least give them a chance to learn, to grow, to address the issues that have plagued our family for decades.

It has not gone over well.  My “family” have refused to hear any of this — probably because of their own unhealthy boundaries and behaviors.  It is much easier for everyone else if I remain the scapegoat, if we all pretend that what Joe and Susan did to me was perfectly OK, and it was not hateful behavior on their part, but an over-reaction on mine.  If we insist that me doing exactly the same thing as Susan did, three months later, is some sort of heinous crime the second time around.

Like I said, I tried that for a dozen years.  It didn’t work for me.  Another healthy personal boundary is to put one’s own needs first, and that is what I am now doing.

There may be some defensiveness and push-back from those involved… Be aware that some people in your life may fall away as a result of your outlook and demand for respect. But these aren’t people you want in your life anyway… Whatever you do, don’t compromise your values, integrity, and self-respect simply to keep someone in your life.

The History, Part 2 – Mom’s Death

So, after all this shit happened — believe it or not, 3 months later, my mother dies.

So we travel back to my home town, and are staying at my dad’s house, which hasn’t been sold yet.

I spent most of the the time clearing out my mom’s assisted living quarters by myself, and I avoided everyone else as much as I could.

But two important things happened during that time.

One was that right after Mom died, as we were walking along the hospital halls, I apparently said something about our mom that my youngest brother considered insensitive, and all hell broke loose.  While no one can remember what it actually was that I said, Joe later wrote that it was “disparaging and disrespectful” and “completely disregarding the feelings of others that had a better relationship.”

I have apologized to my youngest brother for whatever it was I said multiple times, and specifically for hurting his feelings with this mystery comment.

As far as I know, he still insists on believing that my motivation for making that remark was to “get back at everyone” for what happened at Dad’s death.

(Which is interesting, because it shows that on some level he recognizes that the two situations are in fact parallels.  But it simply isn’t true that I made my remark with intention for revenge — although ascribing such a nasty motive to me without any evidence is a completely normal thing to do to a scapegoat.  Scapegoats are guilty, even if they are proven innocent.  I also think that even if I had done it out of revenge, I’d think I might have some justification, after that horrible experience.)

Anyway, just to recap:

  • Susan had a jolly, laughing conversation with a hospice nurse shortly after Dad’s death (laughing while standing in the room with his body!).  I found that upsetting, and politely asked them to take it elsewhere. That is me overreacting, and I am the one at fault for that.
  • I said something shortly after Mom’s death, while walking down the hallway away from the hospital room.  My brother finds it upsetting.  But he is not overreacting. His angry, upset reaction is perfectly acceptable. I am at fault for that conflict, too.

The two events are basically equivalent.  But I am at fault in BOTH of these situations. Susan “did nothing wrong”.  I, on the other hand, was completely wrong.

This set of events is what led me down the road of wondering how this is possible.  From there I learned about narcissism and scapegoating.  Voilà.  It explains many things that are otherwise inexplicable.

The other thing that happened was bullying.  While my husband and I were staying in my Dad’s room, at one point my youngest brother decided he needed to shout at me for something (I am not sure if it was the above-mentioned remark, or what).

He came into our room to yell at me, he stood in my way so I couldn’t escape, and he refused to get out after I clearly and repeatedly told him to. Once again, no one came to my aid, other than my husband. No one told my brother that he was out of line to physically corner me in that room, and shout at me, and refuse to get out or let me leave.

No one found it unacceptable to let him bully me like that.

When I told my therapist about all this, she said, mystified, “You aren’t even allowed to defend yourself.”

This led me to the concept of healthy personal boundaries, as well as figuring out that I probably don’t have very good ones.

Boundaries are learned. If yours weren’t valued as a child, you didn’t learn you had them. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries… You may not believe you have any rights if yours weren’t respected growing up.

And guess who else doesn’t have healthy boundaries?  Probably just about everyone in this family, because the immediate reaction to conflict in this group is not to empathize, communicate, and resolve — but to shirk responsibility (my sister and my eldest brother) and to blame (Joe and Susan and my youngest brother).

… since you’re accountable for your feelings and actions, you don’t blame others.

Another article on boundaries has this to say:

…an enmeshed relationship between a parent and child may look like this… Mom is a narcissist, while the [child] is codependent, “the person who lives to give.” Mom knows that her [child] is the only one who will listen to her and help her. The [child] is afraid of standing up to Mom, and she exploits his caregiving.

I am instantly reminded of my sister’s words about testifying for our mother in the divorce hearing:  “… She had no one else.  NO ONE.”

Odd, that my sister could find it in her heart to stick up for my mother in those difficult circumstances, yet refuses to get involved with the current conflict.

Well, not so odd.  My sister was parentified by our mother worse than anyone else in the family, probably because she was a girl.

…parentification, where the parent leads the child to believe that they have to take care of their parents at all costs, be it financial, physical or emotional care. The child may have to be the parent’s therapist, or take one parent’s side against the other, lots of housework, paying the bills and so on.

And of course, if boundaries are learned, and our mother had lousy ones, then how would anyone else have learned anything healthy from her?

(click here for Part 3)

I miss my Dad

Attachment panic is the same thing that a baby feels when his mother looks at him with no expression, aka the Still Face Procedure. When the baby gets no emotional and visual feedback that his mother loves him and is attuned to him, he feels that the relationship is not secure, and this causes panic. Why? Because he is a mammal, and mammals need relationships to survive.

At Dad’s memorial service, I met one of his brothers, my uncle, for one of the very few times in my life.  He looked so much like my dad, it was startling.

But when I looked at his face, that familiar, loved face — there was no sign of recognition, no love, nothing.  I saw my father’s eyes, but with no love in them.

I still remember that as one of the very worst moments.  And I still miss my dad.

Dramatis Personae

Without using actual names*, the cast of this drama can be a little hard to follow.  Here is a guide.

  • My Dad
  • My Mom, a narcissist
  •  My sister, 17 years my senior, who “refuses to get involved”
  • My oldest brother, 16+, who thinks I need to “just get over it”
  • Next brother, 14+, Joe Henchal, who is married to Susan Henchal, an even worse narcissist

I refer to the three siblings above as “The Triumvirate”.  I suspect that my mother considered her family to be finished at this point.  They certainly are given to think that they are the ones whose opinions matter, who run things, who are in charge, and who get to tell us younger siblings how we should act.  I am 45, and as recently as within the past year, I have been reminded by one of them that “I used to change your diapers, you know.”  Because that gives him some kind of authority over me.  *eyeroll*

They also have a fierce loyalty to each other that does not extend to the rest of us.

(7 year gap – I assume my parents had no sex at all, probably because my mother felt her family was finished, and there’s no reason to have sex other than for having kids, right?)

  • Next brother, 7+
  • Last brother, 3+, who told me that there is no point in me “digging up the past like this” and that I am “tearing the family apart”.  (Guess what?  I’m not the one who started THAT project.  Although, just possibly I will finish it.)
  • Me

* I have deliberately left out names of everyone but two people:  the ones who treated me so horribly when my father died, and who have continued to maintain that they did nothing wrong.  Decide for yourself.

Me and My Dad

My dad and I were a lot alike.  I believe we thought in much the same way about many things.

I recently looked up the results of an old Meyers-Briggs test — possibly the first one I ever took, at my first job.  I was typed as an ESFJ.

Reading the description I found here made me think about whether Dad might not have been an ESFJ, too.  I’ll never know, of course, but it is kind of comforting to me to think so.

The bold remarks below are from the original; my observations are in italics.


Male ESFJs

As a type, ESFJs probably personify “motherhood”. Their gentle, caring nature, in its Extraverted way, takes them beyond their own needs to serve the world around them. As a result, they are the hosts and hostesses of the world. ESFJ males, who have less need to be “in charge” than to be concerned with others’ needs, may be torn between expressing the more conventionally masculine parts of their personalities and giving in to opposing tendencies. The male’s Sensing-Judging temperament, sometimes described as “stabilizer-traditionalist”, demands macho, objectively cool, yet aggressive behavior, while the Extraverted-Feeling preferences demands a warm or more caring and gentler role.

Certainly my father took on a traditionally female role when he took custody of his three youngest children.  If you read the testimony I gave our lawyer, it is clear that Dad’s idea of taking care of someone included service and concern with others’ needs.

This also makes sense if you ask why on earth this man would have chosen to — fought to! — take on the role of parenting three small children, one of them a 6YO girl, in an era when it was far more expected that he would cut and run.  (My siblings have various other explanations, from “he did it to hurt Mom” to “he fought for custody of the kids because whoever got the kids got the house.”  Yeah, right.  The house he sold in the fall of 1989, when I was in college, on my first co-op, and it became clear that I would never come to live at home again.  But maybe this acknowledges, in a twisted kind of way, that the HOME was important to him, as discussed below.)

This could also give a clue as to why my parents even got married — if Mom liked to be taken care of, and Dad did indeed take care of her — until there were children, at which point her job became to take care of them — well.  I just bet she’d resent that change in the arrangement.  And maybe for good reason, sort of.  “All conflict is caused by differing expectations” and if Mom somehow expected not to have to get her hands dirty once she had a house and kids to take care of, while Dad clearly expected exactly that — it’s a recipe for disaster.  It’s a mystery to me where she would have gotten that expectation, though.  Who thinks running a house by yourself all week and taking care of kids is an easy job?  She came from a big family of mostly girls, so maybe the older ones did most of the work?  I’ll never know.

Female ESFJs

If the ESFJ male is something of a fish out of water, the ESFJ female, in contrast, often represents the epitome of femininity. She always wears the right clothes, says the right words, and behaves the right way. ESFJ girls are the perfect children who never get dirty, and even as adults, never seem to get mussed. There’s something about an ESFJ — especially the female — that just reeks of appropriateness in all aspects of life.

I’m not too sure about this for myself, but I do know I have always been neat and tidy, even as a child.

Weak points

Don’t think that ESFJs have found perfection, however. As EJs, for example, they are given to quick, abrasive comments whenever their routines are interrupted. As SFs, however, they are critical of their own EJ behavior and compensate for their abrasiveness with extra sweetness. To paraphrase Isabel Briggs Myers, they have many “shoulds” and “should nots”, and they express them freely. They may especially overlook facts when they find a situation disagreeable or a criticism hurtful. As a result, they may sweep problems under the rug rather than seek solutions.

Dad hated it when dinner was late.  And I can remember there were certain things that happened every week, such as me cleaning out the refrigerator.

Routines weren’t always about chores, though.  The last summer I spent at home, we cooked a T-bone steak out on a little hibachi grill on the back steps every Sunday evening.

And perhaps this helps explain why my dad continued to work at a job that made him an absentee father for years, even as the marriage apparently deteriorated.

Home life

Photo.aspxThe ESFJ’s home is the center of his or her universe: it is the focus of family life, the place for entertainment, the bastion against the harshness of the outside world, the ultimate womb for all family members. The ESFJ’s home is generally neat and orderly, however much activity takes place there. It isn’t advisable to tell an ESFJ to relax as long as there are unmade beds or messy kitchens. Relaxation for the ESFJ comes both from doing such chores and from knowing that they are done. (As an EJ, they may complain about the mess and about how much work must be done, but they nevertheless are happiest in serving others in this way.) Like all Js, ESFJs schedule their relaxation whether it be reading a book or being with friends.

As a rule, home can be a place of fun, happiness, and affirmation for the ESFJ. These things must take place on schedule, however, and in an “appropriate” manner. Parties, for example, are great, but only when sufficiently planned; “spontaneous fun” is a contradiction in terms. “Appropriateness” extends to dress, decor, and behavior. ESFJs mete out assignments to family members and expect them to be done correctly and in timely fashion. They readily impose behavioral “shoulds” on other family members, and when disappointed in their expectations of others they become either hurt or upset.

In my younger adult days, I always had a difficult time leaving chores undone.  Over the two decades I have spent running my own home with my husband, I have learned to relax on this a bit.  But I still have a hard time, say, walking the dog after dinner before all the dishes are cleared away and the kitchen is spic and span.  I hate to come home to dirty dishes on the counter, whether we have been gone 5 minutes or two weeks.  When we travel, the house has to be neat and everything in its place before we leave.

This phrase is me all over:  “Parties, for example, are great, but only when sufficiently planned” — and “spontaneous fun is a contradiction in terms” could be tattooed on my forehead.

If Dad thought this way too, then when he came home from a long work week to find the home in disarray, it is not hard to imagine that he would find this a betrayal of how things were supposed to be.


This need for appropriateness also drives ESFJs’ parenting style. The child of an ESFJ parent probably feels loved and generally satisfied, albeit somewhat restricted by the “shoulds” and “oughts”, coupled with the constant need to put work (homework, housework, etc.) before play. ESFJs are generally very patient with children, although even patience can be subject to other demands and responsibilities. An ESFJ parent is likely to be looked upon as being somewhat strict, but still very loving and caring.

My older siblings have complained about how they never could have any fun on the weekends, when Dad was home, and of course this got blamed on Dad’s presence and his insistence on doing chores first before fun — chores that apparently didn’t get done while he was gone all week.  What gets left out is that if Mom had disciplined herself, and them, to do the chores during the week, there would have been opportunity to have fun on the weekend.


The same, in fact, may be said of ESFJs in relationships. They are very loyal, almost to a fault, often sacrificing their own needs in favor of the mates’. This, combined with with their drive for harmony, often puts their personal welfare low on the list of priorities and can result in their feeling more like hired help than lovers or mates. The paradox is that while it is difficult for them to acknowledge their own needs, they may resent those who take them for granted.

Growing up

ESFJ children bring the same graciousness, caring, and punctuality to their young lives. They tend to be neat and easy to be around. At school, ESFJs like teachers who stick to a lesson plan and generally “follow the rules”. They respond well in such situations with good work habits and punctually completed assignments. In one study, ESFJs were rated by teachers and school psychologists as the ideal type to have in the classroom. Many of the qualities desired by teachers come naturally to ESFJs: they are helpful, cooperative, and eager to please.

They are like that at home too. But difficulties may arise with ESFJs, as with all Js, if some of the demands placed on them conflict with strong inner needs. Bedtime, for example, can be difficult for the gregarious Extraverted child, whose social needs may conflict with the night’s hour and parents’ demands. Still, ESFJ children think “parents should be parents” and appreciate rules and regulations imposed by those in authority. Like their SJ adult counterparts, they may protest such authority, at the same time respecting and expecting it. Role clarity is important.

Hell, I still have a hard time going to bed at a decent hour.


ESFJs’ careers often lean toward those that serve humanity: nursing, public school teaching, clergy, and psychology. Sales and other public service-oriented jobs also have particular appeal. More impersonal tasks (related to computers, for example, or bookkeeping) and jobs that demand theory and speculation (such as college teaching, consulting, and especially investment brokering) can be particularly stressful to an ESFJ.

I have thought for a long time that I should have gone into psychology.  I am only partly joking when I quip that what I do now — teaching knitting — is about 1/3 therapy.

Late in life

In their later years, ESFJs may mellow somewhat, but they still are guided by the same values that shaped their earlier years. After a life devoted to meeting the needs of those around them, they may turn their attention to more abstract, universal concerns. Even in retirement, however, they tend to be driven by “shoulds” (and, perhaps, a few “shouldn’ts”), though the “shoulds” may be of a more leisurely kind, with perhaps less emphasis on service ideals — for example, learning a language, tending to neglected hobbies, or meeting some self-directed needs. In general, home, children, and grandchildren play central roles; they prefer to have family nearby and accessible, and may also enjoy the occasional unexpected visitor. For them, the ultimate symbol of security may be the continually replenished woodpile for the fireplace around which the family gathers.

Orange Juice

I was close to 30 before I began to realize just how manipulative my mother was.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By that time I was married, and we had a house in Dallas.  Mom was visiting us.

We were all in the kitchen having breakfast.  Mom was at the table, drinking orange juice.  I was at the stove, probably cooking eggs or pancakes or something — I know I had my hands full.  So I am not sure whether my husband was seated or standing.

I heard my mother say, “This orange juice is delicious.”  Either I heard her put down the empty glass, or I looked over to see.  Either way, I knew she had just finished the glass of juice that she had.

I heard my husband say, “I’m glad you like it.”

A few seconds’ pause.

Then, almost as if it were someone else speaking, I heard the words come out of my mouth, explaining to my husband, “That means she wants you to get her some more.”

Another few seconds’ pause, while he looked at me in surprise, then at my mother.  Finally he asked — in a tone that I recognized as one where he wasn’t sure what the rules were now, feeling his way, learning — “Would you like some more orange juice?”

My mother said, “Oh, yes, that would be nice,” as if I hadn’t spoken.

As if I hadn’t just begun training my own husband that what he was supposed to be doing all the time was to interpret her seemingly innocuous remarks, figure out what she wanted, and provide it.

In this case, she wanted to be waited on hand and foot.  She wanted someone else to take care of getting what she wanted.  It’s not like she wasn’t capable of getting her ass up from the table and walking the length of the kitchen to get to the refrigerator.  She just didn’t want to, BUT SHE STILL WANTED THAT JUICE.

And she couldn’t just ask for it:  “Would you mind getting me another glass of juice, please?”  Simple enough.  But that carries the risk of giving the other person agency, a choice in the matter, a decision about whether they will agree, or say “no”.

The solution?  Manipulate your daughter into doing it, or get her to start training her own husband to do it.

From healthy to toast…

See if you can guess where my family is on this continuum!

  • Something is broken, we know it’s broken, we can fix it right away and we’ll learn from it.
  • It’s broken, we know it’s broken, we fixed it, don’t worry, but we learned nothing, it will break again, I’m just doing my job.
  • It’s broken, we know it’s broken, but we don’t think we can afford to fix it.
  • It’s broken, but we don’t know it’s broken.
  • It’s not broken (it is, but we’re not willing to admit it).
  • It’s broken, we may or may not know it’s broken, but mostly, we don’t care enough to try to fix it, to learn how we could fix it better or even to accept help from people who care.

At one point we kind of did the second one: we “fixed” it (by writing a half-ass apology, by getting angry and writing nasty emails, telling me it was all my problem, etc).

Now things are solidly in the “toast” end.

Seth Godin writes about marketing, but I find his posts to be relevant to many more areas of life.  This list was brazenly copied from “Different Kinds of Broken Systems“.

Custody Battle?

Once upon a time, I spent a fortune for some clerk at the county courthouse to photocopy everything they had from my parents’ divorce and mail it to me.

At 50 cents a page. The stack is over an inch high. The worthwhile stuff is about a dozen pages out of all that. But it was worth it.

I believe I am the only kid in the family who has actually read these documents.  Everyone else “knows” what happened and has their own story all neatly packaged.  I chose to go after physical evidence.

There were three lawyers involved:  my parents each had one of course, and then they had a third one to represent us minor kids.  He interviewed us and we each were supposed to choose which parent we wanted to go live with.  Family lore says the older brother picked Dad, the younger brother picked Mom, and I picked Dad.

Thus I was the tiebreaker.  The unassailable hierarchy of age that exists in my FOO always puts me last.  And of course if you are looking for a place to put the blame, and already have a habit of doing so on a certain young child, whose fault it was that Mom got sick in the first place, whose birth was the “beginning” of all the bad things that happened later on — well, obviously it becomes my fault that Mom lost the kids.

In reality, it appears that younger brother couldn’t actually bring himself to make that choice.  NONE of us actually picked Mom.  What does that tell you?

My older siblings insist that there must be some nefarious reason that Mom lost the kids.  One believes that her lawyer was bribed to “throw the case”.   Another conspiracy theory is that Dad was so valuable to his employer — a family of some repute in that town — that one of them must have “had a word with the judge” to ensure that Dad didn’t lose custody and then simply leave town.

One of them quotes Mom’s lawyer as saying that “she wasn’t going out to the bar and leaving the kids in the car — THAT’S neglect.”  They believe that is what she’d have had to be doing in order to lose custody of her children.

“HER” children.

To me, this viewpoint has in it the very seeds of narcissism:  that “her” kids are something that she “owns” or has some kind of sovereign right to, and that she’d have to behave very badly indeed to have them taken out of her custody.  The idea that Dad has some similar right to his own children just isn’t even in there.

Fortunately for me, anyway, the lawyers and the judge were looking at it from the viewpoint of, “Which parent is best able to care for these children?”  I think the legally filed statements speak for themselves.

Respondent prefers to minimize her responsibilities in the rearing of the three minor children involved

The interview was devoid of any expressed desire to have custody beyond visitation rights

I find it particularly telling that Mom apparently found it more important to badmouth Dad, than to express any wish for custody.  Again, it is as if she assumes the children are hers by right — something she already “owns”.

The interviews with us:

Hockenbury_Interviews_1_comp Hockenbury_Interviews_2_comp Hockenbury_Interviews_3_comp


The interviews with our parents:


Hockenbury_Visit_1_comp Hockenbury_Visit_2_comp



Wake Up Call

I have wondered many times whether my parents would have stayed married if my mom had had a resource like Flylady to help her get her shit together.

Now I wonder what my mom would have made of this essay by Flylady!  LOL. No one in our family has ever dared tell it like this.  Holy shit, Mom can’t possibly be responsible for any of the problem!

I have used the phrase that, “my mother liked to be taken care of, rather than taking care of anyone else.”  Flylady uses the rather more straightforward and less delicate word, “coddling”.

My mother also was not good at solving her own problems.  Her idea of doing something about a problem was to pray about it.  It worked about as well as you might think it would.

At first when I came across this essay I found it sort of funny.  Now after a second or third reading, I am finding it rather sad.


“Anger has a way of eating at you and it really only scratches the surface toward the person you are angry with. If the truth be told and we never like to hear the truth; you are really angry with yourself and just trying to put the blame on your spouse or children. Now don’t email complaining that I have no clue how much they can mess up; because I have seen others deal with this problem and find success at setting the example for them and before you know it; they are picking up after themselves.

“So what is your problem? YOU ARE STILL PLAYING THE MARTYR ROLE! And no one loves a martyr! Even you!  I am not about to hold your hand and say there there! It will be OK, because it is not! unless you get off your Franny and do something to get rid of your martyrdom and anger toward your family!

“Yes I am tough! I have never pretended to be anything else! But I am this way because you need an attitude adjustment! Your anger is pushing your family further and further away from you and if you don’t stop this behavior you are going to be a bitter old person with no one! And do you want to know something else! YOUR HOME WILL STILL BE MESSY! All because you never learned the most important lesson I am trying to teach you!

“You should bless your home for you! Not for your kids, husband or wife! But YOU! You deserve to live in a home that is comfortable and inviting! NO WHINING HERE EITHER!

“You married your husband or wife because you loved him/her! You did not have your babies to be slaves in your home! Hold your horses here! NO WHINING ALLOWED! Finish reading this before you blast off an email! It is your responsibility to teach your children respect and love; if they see none of this from you, how are they ever going to learn it!

“Just look at the example you have been setting for them; whiny, anger, ugly hurtful words. No wonder no one wants to be around you! You have become an ogre. Your family is walking on eggshells around you and they run to keep from making you mad! Is this any way to live and treat your family! Do you want to know why you are doing this?

“It is all because you don’t love yourself enough to stop! YOU are constantly blaming others and not taking responsibilities for your own actions! If you will look around the room you will see your stuff every where too! I can hear the words coming out of your mouth now, “but I am going to get back to that in a bit!” So how long has it been there anyway! 6 months! A year! When we don’t pick up after ourselves we tell the rest of the family that it is OK to leave things lying around! Mom doesn’t mind she does it all the time. You may not say the words, but they are coming through loud and clear! It is only when you set the example and quit trying to preach what you are not practicing that your family will begin to take notice and start helping!


I have tried every way in the world to get this across to you! Holding your hand just doesn’t do it! Because you will continue to refocus the blame! It is up to you! I didn’t make the rules either! As women we may not like it, but guess what we wouldn’t want it any other way either! So accept your responsibility for setting the tone in your home and just quit whining about it! NO SULKING or POUTING either! That is whining without spoken words.

“In the south we say, “If momma ain’t happy; ain’t nobody happy!” and I am going to add something new to this phrase! I am the only one that can truly make ME Happy! When you realize this you will be FLYing!

“Bless your home for you! Quit blaming others and set the example in love you will see a remarkable change in your attitude and the attitudes of everyone in your home!

“I love you all, but I won’t coddle you!”


Mr. Clean Married Mrs. Messy

Years ago, I came across an essay, probably on Flylady, about how SAHMs need to change their thinking about doing their jobs.  The basic idea was, being a SAHM IS YOUR JOB, and when he goes off to work all day and earn the money, your job is to take care of the kids and the home.  When he comes home and sees dirty dishes and a mess everywhere, he feels like you aren’t keeping up your part of the deal.  Biblical principles were invoked.

When I read that essay a light bulb went on in my head and I realized this is probably how my parents’ marriage started to fall apart.  I believe their two big issues were over cleaning and sex, and if you spend any time googling and reading mommy blogs, you’ll quickly find that these are two of the big issues for a LOT of marriages.

Now, I’m not a SAHM.   I get that the job is a tough one — as many jobs are.  And to me personally, the above biblical-based wifey thing sounds pretty old-fashioned.  But apparently there are a lot of people who still think this way even today — there are plenty of articles and sermons out there, written well after the 1950’s, that take an extremely dim view of the woman who does not keep her side of the bargain.

For example, this one, based entirely on Proverbs, calls it “lazy”.

My parents were married in 1948, and my mom was nothing if not traditional and religious.  So, it is a pretty reasonable assumption to think that these were the expectations on both sides.

The social contract of the 1950’s + traditional religious views = a woman’s job is to raise the kids and keep the home.

What makes absolutely no sense to me at all is that that whole biblical view of how a wife should be OUGHT to have been my uber-religious mother’s guideline.  And I say “ought” meaning that being religious was her choice — so if she was going to be consistent, she should have stuck with the whole program, right?  You don’t get to pick and choose which bits you follow and which bits you don’t!

For another example:

Here’s the thing, though: when you married, you promised that you would now be “one flesh”. That doesn’t mean that you cease to exist, but it does mean that what he wants needs to be important to you now, too. And we are called to consider others interests ahead of our own (Philippians 2:4). We are even called to submit.

So if your husband isn’t happy with the home, that should matter to you, because HE should matter to you.

I agree with that last concept, although I have to say I don’t need a 2,000YO book to tell me that.  That’s just what love is.  My father’s definition, which has always served me well:

Love is caring more about the other person than you care about yourself.

But, as far as I have ever known, my mom never lived up to her job.  She was a lousy housekeeper and a terrible cook.  As long as I ever knew her, she lived among piles of newspapers and stacks of magazines.  A fair share of the time I spent at her apartment throughout junior high and high school was spent doing her dishes, cleaning her bathroom, or clearing off her kitchen table “so we could have a cup of tea”.  I vacuumed, I tidied.  I dusted, I stacked books neatly.  I cleaned out the moldy food from her fridge, and took out her garbage.  She was a master at getting other people to do housework for her, and for sure that included my sister, who I once compared to an unpaid au pair.

Mom once told me a story about my oldest brother, that when he was an astonishing 2 or 3, he made his own bed, and was very proud to show her that he could do so.  Mom said, “So from then on, it became his job.”  She seemed rather pleased with herself when she said it.  She did not see the incongruity of dumping her responsibilities on a 3YO.  One of her lifelong excuses was that she had 6 kids, so she didn’t have time for housework.  Well, at that stage she only had 2 kids, so I fail to see what the time crunch was, that she couldn’t make her kids’ beds.  I could see LETTING him make his bed when he wanted to “show off” to her, but making it his job from that day forward?  Just not right.

My dad came from a home that was neat and clean whenever I saw it (granted, at that time there were no little kids in it), and from that home he went into the Coast Guard.  There is a reason for the term “ship shape”.  You just don’t have a messy ship, especially in the service.  I had a friend in high school tell me once, “Your home looks like no one lives in it.”  I admit, I have inherited or learned the “neat freak” side of my dad.  I like a neat home, and a messy one makes me uncomfortable, to the point where I would rather clean it up than spend any time “relaxing” in it while it is messy.

Come to think of it, this trait is probably what my mom used, consciously or unconsciously, to get me to do her housework.  She knew on some level that if the place was a mess when I came over, I’d be compelled to clean it for my own comfort.  Wow.  Now there’s a loving, thoughtful manipulative mother for you.  A mother who actually cared about her child more than about herself would realize this, and instead of letting it happen time after time, year after year, she would do something about it.  She would decide that it was more important to do some cleaning up beforehand, so that her child wouldn’t end up doing it, and they would be able to sit down to that cup of tea right away and spend some time together, instead of it being too late for the tea by the time I got the dishes done and the table cleared.  But hey, it was no skin off her nose to wait and see if I would do it.

At one point she was capable of this kind of empathetic, maternal thinking and action.  She once told me a story about a vase that I had never seen before — my best guess is that this happened when I was unpacking her stuff at the assisted living place.  She told me that there were once a pair of these vases, and she really, really loved them.  One day my sister broke one.  Of course my mother was upset.  And of course that upset my sister.  My mom said she saw what that did to my sister, and she told me, “So I decided that I wouldn’t let things be that important to me any more.”  In other words, she made a choice to care more about my sister than about herself.  Something obviously changed by the time I knew her.

I have looked for that original Flylady “light bulb” essay several times since then, but have never found it.  Instead, I found this reader question on another blog which expresses some of the same ideas.

I have a really hard time cleaning, I hate it and my definition of clean is more like tidy. Even that, though, is a stretch for me. When I was living at home I used to fight so hard with my dad because my room was always a disaster and many times it trailed out with me. Even at work, I am messy as I go about my business but I clean everything up at the end of the day.

Once my husband and I were married, I would pick up after both of us. I was constantly picking up his dishes and socks. So many socks. Doing our laundry, cooking our dinners… Everything that I figured would make him think I could be a good house wife.  But that’s not me. So when my husband would travel on business, I began living in my house the way I normally would. It never really got to the point that I thought was terrible but when my husband would come home on the weekends I would make a mad dash on Friday to clean the house because I knew he would freak out. With my limited time however, it never really got “his clean”.

Now we are having it out because he is home and gets to see that my daily routine doesn’t really include cleaning. He’s really upset by this and wants me to clean more, but I don’t feel like that’s me. And we can’t seem to come to a compromise. I think it’s my house, too, and I need to be allowed to set some of the standards. What should we do to get past our conflict over housework?

What’s especially pertinent about this woman’s situation is that for most of their marriage, my dad traveled for business a lot.  While I don’t know for sure — because none of my siblings will discuss it rationally — my sister has gone so far as to say, “I wouldn’t call it [the way we lived] ‘haphazard’, but…”

You have to understand that even this faint criticism of my mother is extremely unusual for my sister — so coming from her, it probably translates as “it was pure chaos.”

My dad would leave on Monday, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how the end of the week probably went.  Between her aversion to housework and her habit of blaming, I can easily picture my mother saying something to the kids like,

“Well, now we have to do all this work to clean up because your father’s coming home.

Not, “because I don’t want to do it myself” or even “because we all live here and we all need to pitch in and make it nice for everyone”.

Because your father’s coming home.

I know for a fact that she would keep track of all the punishments the boys earned during the week, and make my father administer them when he came home on Friday.  So many swats with the belt for this, so many swats for that.  I personally saw this happen with my two younger brothers, so I am fairly certain it happened with the older ones as well.

Is it any wonder that my oldest brother stated frankly,

“We hated to see him come home on Friday, and we were relieved to see him go on Monday.”

He says this in a recorded conversation, as though this is the most normal thing in the world.  It is clear they have no idea just how utterly fucked-up that sounds.  They hated to see their father come home at the end of the week — but they never asked themselves why, never asked themselves where that idea came from, who put it into their heads.

It’s called “parental alienation” and it usually happens AFTER a divorce, not before:

Children instinctively love both parents and identify with both as part of themselves. They feel immense stress when that love is threatened. Therefore, when a child is told that one of their parents is bad, they feel as though they themselves are bad. This arouses in them feelings of shame, uncertainty, fear and guilt.

It is critical to a child’s sense of security and self-esteem that they be allowed to love both of their biological parents. This doesn’t mean you have to condone bad behavior. It does mean though that you have to allow the child to love who they love and feel what they feel without shame or punishment or control or manipulation.

 It’s also common for people with Personality Disorders to launch distortion campaigns about the other parent and involve the children either directly or indirectly. This is toxic and highly destructive.

It is a stunning testament to the effectiveness of subtle blame-mongering over a lifetime that my nominally-genius-level sister can write to me,

“If you had a bad relationship with Mom, please think about the fact that Dad certainly colored your opinion — and as a 6-,7-, or 8- year old, you would not have even been aware of it”.

Yet she seems completely unaware that the reverse was also true — and to a far, far greater extent.