Becoming a sane parent after growing up in

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Not Like My Mother

Becoming a sane parent after growing up in
a CRAZY family


Irene Tomkinson, MSW

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2011 Irene Tomkinson

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

AuthorHouse (TM)

1663 Liberty Drive, Suite 200

Bloomington, IN 47403

Phone: 1-800-839-8640

This book is a work of non-fiction. Unless otherwise noted, the author and the publisher make no explicit guarantees as to the accuracy of the information contained in this book and in some cases, names of people and places have been altered to protect their privacy.

Cover design by David Random,

Cover photo by Shawn Tomkinson,


To my Mom and John...for all of their love...

To my sisters, Dorothy and Jackie...for all of our history... T

o my sister-of-the-heart, Bev...for all of her trust...

To my daughters, Lynn and Shawn for being my greatest teachers...

To my first grandchild, Julia...for showing me the future...

And most importantly to my husband, David...

for all of our “Harvest Moons”

From my Essence,


In Gratitude

Writing this gratitude page has been one of the most difficult parts of the whole writing process. I know I have not been able to remember everyone who held out a hand to me along this journey. Please know that my heart remembers even if this 61-year-old brain of mine can’t. I was naive when I began this book. I had no idea how long the process would take and how many people would generously give me their time, support, encouragement, wisdom and even money.

How do I thank my wonderful circle of friends and family, my earth angels, who held my dream for me until I could hold it for myself – until it was a reality?

I thank each of you with a heart filled with awe and wonder...
a heart flowing with gratitude
and a heart flying with hope.
To each of you I say ... Namaste.

Special Appreciation and Acknowledgement to

Nancy Eichhorn - Everett Moitoza – Elizabeth Hall-Moitoza -

Carrie Carr -Beth Gilmore –William Gilmore - David Random

With deep gratitude to

Nancy Aronie

Dan Brown

Diane Cirincione

Karen Fitzgerald

Gerry G. Jampolsky,

M.D Jennifer Michaud

Marty Random

Judith Ryan

Leslie Smith

Jackie Watson

P.J. Campbell

Dot Farnsworth

Lauren Hidden

Barbara Knapp

Linda Parker

Kate Portrie

Sareen Sarna

Tom Stubbs

Donna Witham

and of course the “Snerdettes”




Chapter 1 : Parenting—When Is the Job Done?

Our Christmas letter would have looked like a script for the Jerry Springer show!

Chapter 2: How A Family Gets To Be Crazy?

People run away from their painful feelings.

Chapter 3 : Identities Out Of Childhood Experience

Shame doesn’t say we did something wrong … shame says we are something wrong.

-John Bradshaw

Chapter 4 : Stepfather and Feelings

Anger is always on top of fear, sadness, hurt or all three.

Chapter 5 : Prelude to Marriage

Doing what we always do, getting what we always get— one generation to the next, traditions and insanity are hard to separate.

Chapter 6: The Broken Dream

Just put on a happy face.

Chapter 7: Leaving the Broken Dream

Rage often dresses a lot like determination.

Chapter 8: New Life

The trick question for all relationships … How do you show up for others without losing yourself?

Chapter 9: The Children and Me

We don’t see things as they are … We see things as we are. -Anais Nin


Chapter 10: Crazy Families and Feelings

Why do we want to run from feelings, if feelings are the language of our experience? Why do we want to avoid this information?

Chapter 11: Our War on Painful Feelings

Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”-Source Unknown

Chapter 12: Denial Comes in Four Flavors

When I can label my behavior, I own my behavior and then my behavior stops owning me.

Chapter 13: Waking Up and Beginning Again

I didn’t know what I didn’t know.


Chapter 14: The Good Parent Rules

I wanted to be the Waltons … only with better appliances.

Chapter 15: Growing, Growing, Grown

Just a minute, I’m not ready yet.” -That would be me.

Chapter 16: Not Just a Glass of Wine

Miracles are merely the translation of denial into truth. -A Course in Miracles

Chapter 17: Keeping the Children Safe

We swore we would not make the same mistakes our parents made ... And for the most part we didn’t. We created new ones.

Chapter 18: Crisis Means Turning Point

Be still and know that I am... -Psalms 46:10

Chapter 19 : Healing Happens

Do the next right thing ... one step at a time—one day at a time.

Chapter 20: A Daughter’s Life

It’s the journey … not the destination.



I wrote this book to give you freedom. I want you to have freedom from the grip of your crazy or painful childhood. I found freedom for myself. I have helped others find it. And now I want you to have it.

This book is my journey of identifying, healing, and moving on from the legacy of a crazy family.

It is my story of being raised in a crazy family. Then it is my story of becoming a crazy parent. And finally, it is my story of breaking the cycle.

As a mom I struggled in my relationships with my daughters; as a therapist, I have had the opportunity to see my own story reflected back to me in many of the lives of my clients. A graduate school research project launched me into finding a path out of the generational craziness that was my legacy.

I share with you the healing that I have experienced. I want you to know the healing that is possible for you and your family. I want to help you to stop family craziness for the next generation.

Were you like me? Did you promise that you would be a different kind of parent than your mom and dad? I’ll show you how those promises are actually keeping you stuck in your painful childhood. Are you feeling disappointment and frustration with yourself as well as with your own kids? I’ve been there, too. I’ll help you see how your childhood experiences are feeding your frustrations, how your parents’ childhood impacted the way they parented you and how your childhood impacts the way you parent your children.

You will recognize how the behaviors you used as a kid to keep yourself safe and sane are the same behaviors that are blocking your relationships today. Because your family environment, for whatever reason, was not able to meet your needs, you were left with a void—an injury. That injury needs to be healed.

In this book, we are going to look at our relationships with our children. But as you will see, all of our relationships have been impacted by our crazy childhoods. Most importantly, our childhood has shaped our relationship with ourselves.

You were drawn to the title of this book for a reason. You are reading this preface for a reason. Know that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. You are ready, that is why you picked up my book. Let Not Like My Mother be your teacher.


Irene Tomkinson, MSW

February 18, 2007


Chapter 1:

Parenting—When Is the Job Done?

Our Christmas letter would have looked like a script for the Jerry Springer show!

I was 51 years old and in my last year of graduate school. As a final research project, my professor suggested to the class that we research a question that personally challenged us. “What are you always asking yourself?” he queried. My silent response was immediate: Parenting— when is the job done? Just as automatic was my answer … never! At the time my daughters were 31 and 32.

I thought I was joking. But the more I examined the question, the more I knew I was serious. I wanted the answer. Ok. I didn’t expect the “job” to be done. But when would it be easy or fun again? Why had parenting become such a frustrating experience for me? It was fun when the girls were young. I did feel successful then. However, after they reached adolescence, all bets were off. What happened? I used to be their hero. Now we had difficulty being in the same car for a trip to the mall.

I was a woman who knew success. I was confident in a variety of areas of my life, both professional and personal. Yet, in my relationships with my daughters, I seldom felt competent. The one thing in life I wanted to do perfectly, I feared I was ultimately blowing. Maybe I hadn’t completely blown it, but I never arrived at any sustained sense of “Yes, Irene—job well done!”

I continually saw any pain or struggle experienced by my daughters, Lynn and Shawn Mary, as evidence of my failure. I felt frustration and guilt. I was convinced that if I had done my job right, they would be happy.

I easily became frustrated and irritated with each of them and they with me. Somewhere between playing with LEGOs and blowing out their thirteen birthday candles, we went from “Mommy, I’m never going to leave you,” to “Mom, I can’t wait to move out and never have to listen to you again.” I often had a hard time hearing them because I was screaming something loving like, “Puhleeze let me help you pack!”

I was sick and tired of the dance we danced. How was this happening? I aggravated them the way my mom aggravated me. They hated my “nagging” the way I hated my mom’s “preaching.” And I was seeing their choices as clearly self-destructive and self-sabotaging. If they used their heads, I would not have to lose my temper. I could sleep at night. Whenever they were faced with a life challenge and I felt they made a poor choice, I would turn the situation into “I didn’t do the mother job right”! I had worked so hard for things to be different from my adolescence. And now they are adults and we are still fighting. How could it be going so wrong, so often, and for so long?

Sometimes I secretly wondered if the frustration and disappointment I felt meant I didn’t love my daughters. I didn’t buy that. Sure I wanted to kill them, but hey, I always loved them. I loved their talents and intelligence. I loved their creativity and sense of humor. I loved their hearts, each different, yet each beautiful. I respected their honesty and their wonderful sense of adventure.

I just yearned to be free from judgment and friction. I didn’t want any more conflict. I wanted to be lovingly detached...not be so involved or easily upset. My mothering needed a tad more Mother Theresa and a lot less Lizzy Borden. I also did not want one more argument with my husband about the girls or my interactions with them. There had to be a better way than the way our family was communicating. I wanted the damn manual. Please God, let me stop being jealous of anyone who chose not to have children. The bad news was my desperation. The good news was the willingness and motivation my desperation gave me. I would do whatever I needed to do. I wanted to know what other parents were doing right. What did they know that I didn’t?

So who knew? Who could tell me what sane relationships between parents and grown children should look like and how could I learn to bring some of that health into my family?

For years I hated Christmas letters. The truth is I hated and liked them at the same time. I liked catching up on the lives of friends I might only hear from once a year. What I hated was the contrast I noted between the perfect lives portrayed in those letters and the way my family was trudging along.

I read those photocopied holiday letters as if they were job performance reviews from the successful parents. They were the parents who were doing the job right! I figured the folks who sent those letters were making a public announcement on snowflake-trimmed paper that they were in the “good parents club.” Yearly they listed their offspring’s accomplishments in print. Their kids finished high school with awards and scholarships, graduated college in four years, acquired high paying jobs with good benefits, and, of course, were involved in meaningful volunteer work. (What, no cures for cancer? No one nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize?) From where I sat, those letters arrived like an annual indictment clearly stating—Irene, you didn’t do it right.

Meanwhile, back at our house, my girls had struggled with adolescent rebellion and substance abuse. They dropped in and out and back into college. And like many of their peers, they found it difficult to make ends meet financially.

As a family, poor communication skills and a demanding genetic pool challenged us all. Alcoholism and its many DNA cousins reached back in my family and my ex-husband, Kevin’s family as far as the twinkle in our blarney-filled Irish eyes could see. If I had sent a family Christmas letter, it would have looked like a script for The Jerry Springer Show.

What did these Christmas-letter-parents know that I didn’t? I had all the best intentions. I wanted as much for my kids as anyone else. What were my second husband, David and I doing wrong? How come we were sooo not a Christmas-letter-family? What was missing? Those damn letters were the final push. I was going to find a better way.

I was on a mission. My plan was to use my graduate school research project as an excuse to interview 100 parents with grown children between the ages of 16-85 plus. It all seemed quite simple to me. I would ask each of the 100 parents to share with me what they thought worked well in their relationships with their grown children. Basically, I was collecting how-to recipes for getting along with your grown kids.

I figured by the end of the semester I would not only have finished the class requirement but, as an added bonus, I would have unlocked the secrets of the “good parents.” I likened it to when Lynn and Shawn Mary were little and I went to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book for answers. I was excited to begin.

I was ready to record the great gems, pass my project with flying colors, and, best of all, have a workable game plan for my own family.

Well, as most things in life go, it wasn’t that simple. I asked, but these parents didn’t know. Over and over again, parents would answer my inquiry with, “Hmmmm, what works well in my relationship with my kids? I could better tell you what doesn’t work.” Few could tell me what worked and those that tried were vague. Many of the people I interviewed felt the same sense of disappointment I felt. In a matter of minutes, parents opened up as if they had been waiting with heavy luggage for a shuttle bus or porter. They were looking for some relief from their burden. They very much needed to unload. I was surprised, and truth be told—validated. They felt much like I did.

People shared painful family arguments that had left tension and wounds between themselves and their children. They shared how they worried about their grown children’s choices and lifestyles. These parents fretted over what they could do to help. Others described tiptoeing around their kids so as not to rock the relationship boat. Parents talked about money issues they had with their kids and how often that led to arguments with their spouses—“You give the kids too much money,” or “When do we say no?” or “Why are you so cheap?” or “We need to help them.” It went on and on.

Many of these volunteer research participants complained that their kids only called when they wanted something. They also struggled with their kids’ lifestyles and the way grandchildren were being raised. They unanimously felt some responsibility for any pain or unhappiness they perceived their adult children were experiencing. And everyone at some time or another felt guilt for the way they had parented. No one described easy, flowing, comfortable relationships with their kids.

What was going on? This couldn’t be the story for everyone. I was sure someone somewhere was having an easy go of it. Someone must be enjoying the ride. Who was writing those Christmas letters?

Then it happened. While reading Steven Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, a light went on that illuminated my dilemma. Steven referred to his childhood and how much he had wanted to give his own children the same experience he had growing up. He admired and wanted to emulate his mom and dad. Some of his frustrations were with the state of the world and how it differs from when he was a boy. He felt it was much more challenging, given today’s world, to be an effective parent. He believed that his parents lived in an easier time.

There it was! Bingo! Double whammy! I lived in the same turbulent time as Steven, but I did not have a good model for parenting. So that was how he got the instruction manual! His parents gave it to him. I did not want to parent the way I was parented. I wanted just the opposite of what I experienced as a child. I parented from a determination that my daughters would not have the same family experience I had.

If you are like Steven Covey, pleased with the way you were raised by your parents, you modeled your parenting after your own childhood experience. (And you are probably not reading this book.)

On the other hand, if you did not agree with the way you were parented, if you felt that your parents didn’t meet your needs as a kid, then you either committed to not having children or to parent the opposite of your parents. Your reference point for parenting was your own childhood, your history. Your eyes were on the past. This is not a bad thing if the past gives you a good example. But if your past was filled with the hurt and pain of unmet childhood needs and you were determined to “do it differently,” then therein lies the problem— knowing what you don’t want to do was not a plan and still isn’t.

Can you imagine trying to build a house and the only instructions you have for the contractor is a list of what you don’t want? The list may offer a bit of help but certainly is incomplete at best. And, ladies and gentlemen, that was my parenting agenda in a nutshell. I wanted my kids to have a completely different childhood experience than I had. I did not want their family experience to be like mine. I was well-versed in what I did not want for my kids.

Interviewing parents further showed me I was not alone. The majority of parents I spoke with felt the same way. (Note: Many of the people I used in my research project readily identified themselves as growing up in family environments that they described as crazy or dysfunctional). You grew up in a crazy family if you had a family environment that did not feel safe; a family that, for whatever reason, was not able to give you the physical or emotional support that you needed to thrive and flourish.

I didn’t write this book to convince you that you did or didn’t grow up in a crazy family. But if you identify with the idea of growing up in a crazy family, a family that was not able to meet your needs as a kid, then know it or not, you have an agenda you are looking for your kids to fulfill. The voids left from our unmet childhood needs set impossible unspoken agendas for us as adults. These old wounds continue to hold us hostage and make many decisions for us in all our relationships without our acknowledgement or permission. This phenomenon is particularly true as we parent.

When our kids don’t fulfill our agendas (and they won’t because it is an impossible task, and also it is not their job), then we feel incomplete, frustrated, and inadequate. We know something is wrong. We can’t define it. In the meantime, we make do. We try to live with it. We wiggle and squirm in it. But we don’t know what the it is. Is it us? Is it them? We say things we don’t want to say. We react and spin dramas and crises reminiscent of our own childhoods while the circumstances appear completely different.

We swing from blaming our kids for the craziness, to ourselves, to God, to sugarcoated cereals and the damn television. All the while our relentless self-critic convinces us we aren’t doing the parenting job right. Many of us figured it was just a matter of doing the job differently than our parents. But we can’t do anything from what we don’t want. We can’t order dinner in a restaurant, we can’t buy clothes, we can’t find friends, we can’t build a house, we can’t move forward. What we don’t want is not a plan. It is not a blueprint or a model. It is a setup for staying stuck in our history. It keeps us focused on our past. It keeps us stalled in the childhood we wanted to escape.

Through my research, my workshops, and, of course, by making lots of mistakes with my kids, I have learned the importance of separating “my childhood story” from my parenting. It is in our childhoods where our “crazy” agendas are set. I didn’t know I had an agenda left over from my childhood that I was looking for my kids to fulfill. I sincerely thought I wanted them to be or do anything they could possibly imagine. If that were true, then what agenda did I have for them?

To acknowledge the agenda I had for my kids, I needed to meet my own story. I had to collect my own history. I could not just cut back the dead overgrowth. I had to dig up the roots and turn the soil. Until we own our history, until we recognize how our childhood experience landed on us, we cannot know ourselves. We can’t know what we did with our experiences; we cannot be present to effectively participate in any of our relationships, especially our relationships with our children.

I had enough frustration and pain to make me willing to learn whatever I needed to learn, in order that I might understand what I was doing wrong. Eventually, the “Idea Angels” got through my thick defenses. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. I became the student, and teachers in many forms did indeed appear. My research had boiled down to a case study and I was the patient.

I did answer the question, “Parenting—when is the job done?” But more than when, I answered the question—how. This book is the answer. With the help and trust of many wonderful and courageous workshop participants, clients, family, friends, twelve-step recovery programs, and the grace of the healing energy of the Universe, I found a path for healing. I found a path for confidence. I am no longer up to my ankles in the mud of insecurity. I am standing on dry, solid ground in my relationships with each of my grown daughters and their spouses. David (who adopted Lynn and Shawn Mary when they were 6 and 7) and I are no longer arguing about my interactions with the girls. Along the way, the process graced me with the bonus and blessing of a permanent healing of my own childhood wounds.

I didn’t find the cure for aging or the quick way to miracle weight loss. What I found was a way out of my history and into the present. The journey took me from my head—through my fear—to my heart. As Anne Lamott in her book Plan B says, “It is not a journey of descent but a journey of ascent.” On the way, I cleared a lot of dead brush and weeds, making a clearing that has opened up room for me.

My parenting future has been opened wide to the light of today. I am now able to take up space in my own life as never before. I have found peace. I will always be my daughters’ mother. What has changed is that I am a mother I like being, no longer a mother in yesterday, but rather a mother in today. Not the mother I needed, I am the mother they need. Along the way, I found me.

Authors’ Note

I have put a question at the end of each chapter for you to contemplate. Good therapists, like good consultants, don’t have the right answers—they have the right questions. You have your own answers. You only need to be willing to sit with the questions.

Questions that are the most uncomfortable for us to sit with are usually questions that are forcing us to step out of our comfort zone. Human beings dislike change. We will go towards what is familiar before we will go towards joy.

A question for reflection …

How much pain do you need before you will change?

If you are inclined, write about it.

A recommendation:

Write on unlined paper because, without limitations, much more will be revealed to you.

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Becoming a sane parent after growing up in iconKeep this handbook in a safe place! You will need to refer back to it during this school year. It will also be on the website if needed. Remember, choices marked with a require a parent signature/note to me

Becoming a sane parent after growing up in icon@ref: Aanen, D. K., P. Eggleton, C. Rouland-Lefevre, T. Guldberg-Froslev, S. Rosendahl, and J. J. Boomsma. 2002. The evolution of fungus-growing termites and

Becoming a sane parent after growing up in iconParents involved in community schools, petitioner V. Seattle school district no. 1 Et al.; Crystal d. Meredith, custodial parent and next friend of joshua ryan mcdonald, petitioner V. Jefferson county board of education et al

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