Skip to main content

Mothers who drag their daughters down

By Soledad O'Brien, CNN
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Tue March 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soledad O'Brien: Many young women struggle because mothers don't fulfill their role
  • She says it happens most often with substance abusers who fail their kids
  • When young women need help most, they wind up having to care for their moms, she says
  • O'Brien: Her foundation helps promising girls overcome obstacles

Editor's note: Soledad O'Brien is the anchor for CNN's "Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien" and special correspondent for CNN/U.S. This article originally appeared at the dailybeast.com

(CNN) -- Danielle Jackson still remembers the day she discovered her own mother could be her own worst enemy. She was paying for her lunch when her debit card got rejected in front of everyone. She ran back to the bank where she worked and pulled her records, only to discover a middle-of-the-night withdrawal from a bank near her mother's home. The night before, as she was sleeping, it looked like her own mother had nearly emptied her account.

"It was embarrassing. It was hurtful," said Danielle, who remembers thinking that her co-workers at the bank must wonder how a mother could steal her child's money. "It was only a small amount of money, but it hurt worse than anything she's done, because she took something from me."

I have met these Danielle Jacksons many times over, young women whose own mothers drag them down even as they already face terrible odds.

These are mothers who engage in a stunning role reversal at the very moment their children need them most, demanding their daughters become caregivers, bail them out of trouble, support them when they can barely support themselves.

Soledad O\'Brien
Soledad O'Brien

The first warning sign is neglect

This alarming role reversal begins with neglect. Each year, the Administration for Children and Families records 6 million cases of child abuse or neglect, 80% of them cases where parents, many of them mothers, put their own children at risk. What sometimes happens next, but you don't hear about as often, is that many of those mothers demand their children care for them, even after they stopped caring for their children.

"Those mothers can have many needs themselves, and the one person who can fulfill those needs is that child," says Alicia Salzer, a psychiatrist and the author of "Back to Life: Getting Past Your Past With Resilience, Strength, and Optimism," a book about how people can overcome trauma.

The problem is particularly acute among children of the poor and of substance abusers, children who already face obstacles getting ahead.

I know a young woman named Whitney who aspired to finish college and thought she might even count on her mother for some minimal help with the huge loans she needed to pay for school. Instead, she says, her mother used her Social Security number to rent an apartment. She left Whitney with unpaid bills and ruined credit.

Mia (not her real name) was raising her son by herself and trying to go to school. Even as she struggled to find baby-sitting and juggle her schoolwork, her mother treated her like a renter, expressing jealousy that Mia was getting to go to school.

Then there was Terry, a beautiful dark-eyed academic superstar, whose mother barely provided for her, even as she had so many unmet needs. One day when Terry was in high school, she came home to discover her mother had gone to live with her boyfriend. "She left," she told me. I could see everything in this young lady closing down as she said the words. "Did she tell you where she was going?" I asked. "No," she said. And we both began to cry.

No idea of normal

These are mothers who engage in a stunning role reversal at the very moment their children need them most.
Soledad O'Brien

"To these girls, normal is something that looks like a Disney film," says Salzer. "They have no idea what a normal mother-daughter relationship looks like. They get used to it being this way, so it just continues."

A common thread in such relationships, says Salzer, is substance abuse, because it gives the mother something in her life that overshadows her children, blurs judgment and creates need.

That's been the case for Danielle.

Her mother, Regina, was addicted to crack when she became pregnant. She was already having trouble raising two sons and had no job and no stable relationship. Regina is frank when she tells her side of the story:

"Being honest with you, I told Danielle I didn't want her even when I was pregnant, but I'm glad I didn't get rid of her. They had told me I couldn't have any more kids, and I went out on a drug spree. I was so surprised when I found out I was pregnant, I had to check into a mental institution for six months to get over it."

Danielle ended up living with her grandmother, where she thrived and became a good student. Her mother loomed over her like a dark shadow, entering and re-entering her life as she faced her addictions. Danielle went to college; her mother went to jail.

Her grandmother's diagnosis of cancer forced Danielle to make a heart-wrenching decision.

"My grandmother had taken care of me, and now I had to take care of her," Danielle recalls. She left college, a mountain of debt wasted, and began caring for her grandmother. Her mother seemed like she might rally and help her out, but once again, it wasn't to be. "I thought this would bring my mother and I together, but all she did was cry and cry," Danielle remembers.

As Danielle watched her grandmother succumb to cancer, her mother brought new problems.

Danielle bought her a car, and Regina got drunk and had an accident. The car was impounded. Danielle paid a fine. Regina's boyfriend was stopped on a DUI, which was another fine. Then a relative crashed the car, leading to hundreds of dollars in repairs.

Regina recalls how Danielle stood by her. "She took care of six or seven payday loans. She took care of me," she said. "She is a good person to lean on."

After Danielle's grandmother died, her mother leaned even harder, falling into debt by buying insurance policies for every family member. Danielle again had to step in and rescue her mother.

"I've struggled because I love her, and I was raised to respect her as my mom. She didn't give me up for adoption," said Danielle. "But it's a struggle."

Outside intervention

That is when our foundation stepped in. My husband and I started the Soledad O'Brien Brad Raymond Foundation two years ago to help promising girls who were future leaders.

We wanted to help them navigate around the people and things that become obstacles to their success. We also wanted to give them the funding that puts them within reach of a better life through education. We have adopted 23 scholars so far.

Our mentors aim to give our girls a taste of what a functional family looks like by helping them with simple things such as choosing clothes for an interview, shopping for textbooks or celebrating good grades.

We sent Danielle back to college and assigned a mentor to help her navigate her upside-down relationship with her mother. It was clear from the outset that Danielle couldn't let go of her mom easily.

"She needs me too much for me to move away. It's almost like she is trapped at the age she was when she started using drugs. Like she is a teenager, and at some point I moved past her and became an adult," said Danielle.

Salzer says it's naive for women such as Danielle to believe their moms will ever just go away, but they can learn to negotiate and set limits.

"The whole notion that they will just get rid of their mothers doesn't work so well, because I know very few people who can do that, just shed their family or their history. ... Their parent is really impaired. The best you can hope for is that they can stop having the expectation that this will turn into something normal."

Danielle says she knows her mother's behavior is a danger sign, not something she should readily accept.

She has cut off access to her passwords and no longer will give her money directly. She no longer trusts her, even thought she loves her.

"Who runs out in the middle of the night with someone else's debit card to get cash if they're not using drugs?" she asked. "I don't want to be helping her get in more trouble."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Soledad O'Brien.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT