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 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT