In Part 1 of “The Long Game (& Mother Wounds),” my dear friend and seasoned mother of SEVEN (yes) who loves to swear, Kathie, offers a big-picture view of motherhood and wisdom about how we mess our kids up, mealtime struggles that span the ages, her most memorable moments of birth, and the effects of a deep mother wound.
Brandy: Hello, and thank you for joining us for today’s episode, where we will start to take a look at the long game of motherhood with my guest who knows how this thing pans out. I ask her all sorts of desperate questions about what she wished she knew as a young mother, and I discover two shocking things that I never knew about her. We also get into the unexpected topic of mother wounds and how they shape us as women, and also as mothers. Stay tuned for some deep adult conversation.
Brandy: Today I have one of my favorite people in the world with me, Kathie Neff.
Kathie: Hi there.
Brandy: There is a definite age gap between us. So I’m the age of many of your kids.
Kathie: That is true.
Brandy: But what I so appreciate about you is so many things, but one of them is your ability to swear like a sailor.
Kathie: I do.
Brandy: I love it. And I think a while back, one of your voice messages to me was something like, “Fucking Thanksgiving,” and I want to be friends with a person who sends messages like that. So I feel like, even though we have an age difference, we have this soul connection, and also you’re hilarious and relatable, and you represent the long view of motherhood to me. So as you know, I come to you with, “Was it like this for you?” And, “What is the end result of this?” So you’re sort of like my long view mentor. Kathie, what do you feel like the listeners need to know about you?
Kathie: As far as motherhood, I think the listeners need to know that I was married quite young. I think they need to know that I am the mother of seven children who I would not trade a single one. I think it’s important for the listeners to know that I am what I call a motherless child, that I grew up really without a mother, although technically there was a person there. There’s a lot of things that come with that when you’re talking about motherhood if you have not been mothered well.
Brandy: Yes, and we talk about that quite often, and I want to definitely get into that today because I know that there are other people out there, in varying degrees, who’ve experienced that and I feel like you look for meaning in life and you look further than just surface. That’s why I feel like you have a take on things that I don’t even think sometimes you know is brilliant, and you just drop these little things because you’ve done some hard work of looking at yourself, looking at your life and finding meaning. I just admire so many things about you, but that’s a specific one. So, I could have somebody else come on here who has a similar story about their mother and it would just be a surfacey thing. But I know with you, we always go deeper and there’s a meaning found.
Kathie: Yeah, it’s a lonely place sometimes because a lot of people don’t go there. But I feel like if I want to express one thing that has been constant in my life is that piece of a little bit feeling like the square peg in a round hole, really as long as I can remember. And yet, I think I’ve had to learn to be on my own side and not be critical of myself, but just to know that everybody has different vibes and that happens to be mine.
Brandy: I remember you saying sometimes you feel like an alien in this world, like you’re literally from another planet.
Kathie: Maybe I am.
Brandy: We have talked extensively about that as well, that perhaps you are. So one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about was this long game of parenting. You’re out of the trenches of motherhood. I know, okay. So you just gave me this look like, “I’m not really out of the trenches,” but you’re out of the trenches of the intensity of small children.
Brandy: So you have seen how this thing pans out in a variety of ways and with, holy crap, seven children. You’ve probably had all the different ways that it can be. That’s a pretty broad experience to draw from. Let’s just talk about having seven children. Tell me more about what that was like. How did you cope? Was it as hard as I’m imagining it to be? What is it like to be the mother of seven children?
Kathie: I’m lucky that I have a very strong child in me. I probably had it a little easier because I could meet them in that place and make things really fun for them without judging myself, I guess. In regard to laundry, it was the suckiest thing ever in the whole wide world. I feel like there was just always more clothes and I am a frustrated perfectionist, and so I have a certain way I like clothes folded.
Brandy: Folding was even a possibility?
Kathie: Once in a while.
Brandy: Can’t even imagine.
Kathie: It just feels like everything was always in transit with the laundry, which was actually kind of a place of a sort of a deep shame for me.
Brandy: Laundry shame.
Kathie: Yeah, laundry shame. The kids still remember the laundry.
Brandy: What did they remember about it?
Kathie: That there was always a lot of it. And very soon on, they were doing their own laundry and even-
Brandy: At what age?
Kathie: I want to say probably ten, something like that. For them, it was probably in self-defense. Like, “I might as well wash this because I’ll never see it again if I don’t.” My husband has for years now. Somewhere in that process, I said, “Do your own,” and he does. “But don’t touch mine,” because he can’t fold it correctly.
Kathie: So it was chaos, a managed chaos. Although I did have a strong child, I also had a very strong boundaried adult. And so I was actually sort of a disciplinarian. I like a certain amount of chaos, but I just remember we had the station wagon and two of the girls that were closest in age sat all the way in the back and the seat was facing toward the car behind us.
Brandy: Oh, yeah, station wagon. Yes.
Kathie: Yeah. They would get to giggling and I’m in the front, I’m trying to concentrate and they’re way in the back. I can’t touch them. I can’t-
Brandy: You can’t smack them.
Kathie: I can’t smack them. I can’t do anything and I’m trying to get my best voice on, “Stop it. Stop it.” And they’re laughing and laughing. They did the same thing sometimes at bedtime. And then there’s the more serious part, I guess, of trying to compare myself to other mothers, particularly with things like the laundry. And I didn’t really give myself a break saying, “They have less than half of what you have.”
Brandy: They have 30% of the children you have.
Kathie: Easy – or less! But I didn’t yet know how to be on my own side at that time and so I would have a big sort of negative conversation in my head about myself quite frequently, in regard to particularly the laundry. The cooking, now, that was pretty easy. I love to cook and I can’t … To this day, I cook too much. If everyone said, “Mom, we can’t bring anything for Thanksgiving,” I would not panic. I would know exactly what to do. I’d know exactly the timing.
Brandy: Talk to me about snacks with seven children because snacks with two children is just about ready to put me in a grave. I feel like back in the ’70s, did kids not eat snacks? Did parents not get the snacks for them? How did you handle snack management for seven children?
Kathie: I don’t remember them asking me for snacks.
Brandy: That’s not possible.
Kathie: I don’t remember that, I swear.
Brandy: It’s literally not possible.
Kathie: I swear.
Brandy: Are you telling me that human beings have devolved? I mean, that’s probably true, but …
Kathie: I was raised in a way that I felt like I wasn’t very empowered about many things. So I did the opposite of that with my children. So I would take them to the neighborhood grocery store, and it was a little mom and pop store. I’d park the car in the front and then I would say, “Okay, here’s some money. I want you to go in and get this and this,” because I wanted them to learn how to do it. So highly likely, they got their own snacks.
Brandy: Okay. So did you have bags of chips and pretzels and granola bars and all these sorts of things? String cheeses that our kids eat, it seems constantly, or did you just not manage it because they just knew early on, “If we’re hungry we just get this ourselves?”
Kathie: I remember this, my memory of those kinds of snacks is that unless we went to like Smart & Final (I don’t even know if they had Costco back then), those were treats and actually, we didn’t have treats every day because we had a kind of a limited budget. And so they might take a piece of bread, put in the toaster and put peanut butter on it, and that was their snack.
Kathie: But I’ll tell you, the only thing I have related to you about with food with children is the fact of getting little children to eat when they just don’t feel like it and how frustrating that can be to make food for them and they just turn their nose up at it and trying to figure out, “Do we sit here at the table until they eat it?” It seems like the generation before us, they made it into … They seem to act like if they said it strongly enough, you’d do it.
Kathie: But I remember my sister taking her mashed potatoes, wrapping them up in a napkin and dropping them behind the kitchen nook. And then when the kitchen nook was moved one day, there’s all these smelly, disgusting, old, moldy potatoes.
Brandy: That’s the lore of when we were growing up as well. If you didn’t want to eat it, then you didn’t get dinner. And so I think there’s so many things with modern parenting that are different, but I think we are supposed to parent in a way that is respectful of children and also setting boundaries, which is sometimes really, really tough. So many of us want to do that thing where we’re like, “Sorry, you eat this or you eat nothing,” but then modern parenting is like, “Well, no, you have to validate that they didn’t want the thing and give them choice and consent.” I mean, consent is a big thing, even with foods. So we’re all fucked up and none of us know how to do it. I vacillate every night. It’s like we have a new rule. How many times am I like, “This is your last call for dinner? If you don’t eat anything, you’re going to bed hungry and then you’re going to learn not to do this.” So they say, “Okay, I’m full.” And then a half hour later, she’s like, “I want something to eat.” And I know I’m going to hear about it for another hour if I don’t let her have something.
Kathie: My husband’s family, they had a rule that dinner was at six o’clock and if you not at the table at six o’clock, you got nothing to eat for the rest of the night.
Brandy: I love that. Can I institute that for my husband?
Kathie: I thought that was like barbaric.
Brandy: Yeah, that’s a little much. Although there is nothing like preparing a meal for a person and it’s warm and they’re like, “Oh, I need to go to the bathroom first,” and then they’re in there for 15 minutes while you see the steam slowing.
Kathie: We did have one thing that our kids could choose that they never had to eat and we would never give them an argument about it. So we would say, “You each get to choose one thing.” For one, it was macaroni and cheese. For another, it was green beans for. So it’s like, if I fixed that thing, they knew there was going to be no argument. They didn’t have to eat it.
Brandy: First of all, did you keep a spreadsheet? Because that’s times seven, right?
Kathie: No you would keep a spreadsheet, Brandy.
Brandy: Yeah. Sorry. That would be how I would have done it.
Kathie: That is still not me.
Brandy: Okay. Yes. So did you make them a second meal? Because I swear … Okay, so let’s say you have these meals, every night there was somebody who wasn’t going to eat your shit. So did you make a separate meal for that kid every night?
Brandy: So then what did they eat if you’re having mac and cheese night, and they didn’t want mac and cheese?
Kathie: We didn’t always have just mac and cheese.
Brandy: So they would just fill up on sides?
Kathie: We had meat and vegetable and starch. So if we had macaroni and cheese, it was the starch.
Brandy: Got it.
Kathie: So they eat the meat and the vegetable.
Kathie: That didn’t solve every problem. Don’t think it did.
Brandy: That’s good. Now there will be no more mealtime issues because Kathie has told us the secret.
Kathie: They were probably negotiating for more, “Could we have two?”
Brandy: Okay. So negotiation was still existing in the ’70s?
Kathie: Totally. Totally.
Brandy: Back then, did mothers judge other mothers? Did you have a group of women who are breastfeeding and there was a mom that was feeding formula and that was like a thing? Was there what we see now today where there’s sort of these two different camps sometimes, or people being judged for the choices that they’re making? I find it interesting that these days, it’s like everything, it’s, “Do you wear your baby or do you put them in a stroller?” There’s a division. All of these little choices, I feel like, I’m not sure, but I want to ask you. Back then, how were mothers judged or how did they judge each other or did they?
Kathie: I want to say two things. One, I want to say that I have often been naive about the judging because I assume the best of people and so it’s sort of been a hard lesson to learn that people will always judge. They just maybe don’t judge in front of you. That could have happened. However, at that time, there was not a push for breastfeeding, like there is now. And so if somebody was breastfeeding or if somebody wasn’t, it just wasn’t mentioned, really. You saw both and many people did both.
Kathie: And then as far as other things that set us apart, the thing that comes to mind, in a striking way, with my small group of is, I remember when they got to junior high was when the ways that we did things or things that we believed really came to the forefront. We were sharing a birthday party between two of our kids. I think they were in the eighth grade, and the dad of the other couple said, “So, we just want to let them have the house. We don’t want to be supervising them.” And we were like, “No.” It was a big deal between us because we never really had any kind of huge sort of gap in the way we thought things should go prior to that and so it didn’t occur to us, I guess, to talk about it in advance and I was shocked. I was like, “What?”
Brandy: Yeah, that their parenting could be so different and that they were okay with that.
Brandy: I want to ask you from where you sit as a grandmother, how many grandchildren do you have?
Brandy: Good god.
Kathie: I know.
Brandy: Amazing. What are your regrets? What are the things that you felt like were the most important? You see these articles go by all the time about, “Lady on her deathbed says the five things she regretted the most or that she would have done differently.” I click on those because I feel like she’s going to have some life-changing thing for me. And I feel like you, being at where you are with all of the children that you’ve raised, but you’re out of the intensity of the small kids, what wisdom do you have for us? What do you know that you wish you knew when you were in our shoes?
Kathie: Just be yourself.
Brandy: No. No, that’s not good enough. That doesn’t fix anything. Literally, that is the worst thing you can say.
Kathie: So what I wish that someone had said to me is that, “You’re going to fuck your kids up in some way, shape, or form, and it won’t be in the things that you think it was. It’ll be in the things that you were trying your very best to save them from, pain or harm.” The ironic thing is, this is a good example, because I grew up with a dad who swore like a sailor – so much so that it was a comfort to me when I would hear swear words because I-
Brandy: Ahhh, Daddy.
Kathie: It did. It felt like home to me and yet when I got children, because I was going to do better than my parents, I never said a swear word ever.
Brandy: How did you hold that in? Knowing you now, how did you hold that?
Kathie: It was a good deal of religiosity and judgments, I think, about how I was raised. And so there’s a little bit of superiority that comes when you separate from your and if you can live long enough to get past that, it makes you embarrassed a little because, in the end, everyone is going to do something to mess up their kid in a way that they never intended to because we’re humans. And so I never would have believed that. I probably would have clicked this radio show off right at this point, in the days when my kids were little.
Brandy: If somebody had said that?
Kathie: It was like, “No way, it’s you.”
Brandy: I’m not screwing them up.
Kathie: So the ways that I feel like I messed up my kids in the best intentions was to provide them with an overabundant amount of religious training that they all rejected. Well, not every single one and actually, it was in my intention to protect them from something I can never protect them from, and that is the world. Although I did not grow up or raise my children in a super conservative religion, it was pretty broad-based, even though I, myself, for a while was very over-the-top conservative because I was fearful.
Brandy: You were?
Brandy: I’m just learning this in this moment. You were conservative?
Kathie: Yeah, very, very fearful. If you make the world black and white, it seems less fearful, which is why when I began swearing, my kids could not believe it.
Brandy: I think it needs to be said too that you’re the person who’s at the Women’s Marches now.
Brandy: So you have kind of done, I wouldn’t necessarily … There’s so much nuance to everything. I wouldn’t say a 180, but you’re in a different place.
Kathie: My kids might say a 180 and I think that I brought some of the limitations of lack of communication from my childhood into my children’s lives, and that’s another thing as I look back that I feel like I could do better, but I’m pretty forgiving with myself. I finally have learned to be on my own side and it’s like, “Well, you do the best you can with what you know.”
Brandy: Where did you get that softness from, though? Because I feel like when you’re in it, it’s a little bit hard to feel that sometimes, especially like we can think, “I know that I’m doing the best I can, but it doesn’t feel like …?” – and I just speak for the being a mom in this era that sometimes that’s good enough. Did it take you a while to get to this soft place of knowing you were doing the best you can and that was enough?
Kathie: It came from my neurosis. I say that with a smile because I was so neurotic as a child and a young adult and a young mother. And so I just did what I knew how to do, which was I looked out in the world to figure out how to fix myself. And so I had a whole shelf for some years of self-help books. And I think it was Bernie Siegel, who was the one who made a huge impact on me because he was a surgeon who dealt with cancer. And he would have cancer patients saying, “My mother wants me to be a lawyer,” or my father, probably, “wants me to be a doctor, a lawyer, and now I have cancer. And they’re telling me that I have three months to live.” He said, “Why don’t you do what you want then? Why don’t you play the violin because that’s what you really want to do?” And the guy goes on to play the violin and he lives long past three months and he changes who he is. So Bernie Siegel was one … I would go and read the stories of the people who are suffering in his book and get some perspective on what I was suffering with and-
Brandy: At what era was this? Was this when you had little kids? Is this when they were more grown up?
Kathie: It’s kind of a blur, but up to my 30s.
Brandy: Okay. And you had children really young.
Kathie: I did. I did.
Brandy: How old were you when you had your first?
Kathie: I was a giant 17 years old. Your mouth is open because you’ve never heard that before.
Brandy: How is it possible that you and I, we’ve been on trips. We love road trips, like the more hours the better because just talk and talk. You were 17 and we’ve never talked about this?
Kathie: I was. We have never talked about it because-
Brandy: But you were married?
Kathie: I was married. Yeah.
Brandy: At what age did you get married?
Kathie: Seventeen also. Yeah, that’s where my husband would say in a smart ass way, “We’ve been married since we were 12.” But you know why we haven’t talked about that, Brandy, is because we’re always talking about the present moment and that’s what we have.
Brandy: We are?
Brandy: I feel like we go back. Damn.
Kathie: Yeah, we do sometimes.
Brandy: Okay. Now we have something to talk about on our next road trip but-
Kathie: There you go.
Brandy: … I want to ask, having a baby at 17, did you feel ready? Did you feel like you were an adult?
Kathie: So it’s very, very interesting. We’ve talked a little bit about this. Because I went from my parents’ home to the home that I shared with my husband, I did not have the same kind of ego consciousness that most healthy women have before they have children. And then the dysfunction in my family, as long as I can remember, always asked me to figure it out on my own without asking for help, and that was the rule. And so, of course, when I was pregnant, I needed to figure it out on my own.
Kathie: Having had an anxiety my whole life, it becomes like a way of life. And so it’s nothing that surprised me and probably it’s less anxiety than I see in a lot of the clients that I serve. It’s like it’s relative.
Brandy: And just for everybody, because nobody probably knows what Kathie does – Kathie and I met doing birth work. Kathie is a doula and childbirth educator, lactation educator, works with people who’ve had birth trauma. So that’s who you’re speaking to. I just wanted to clarify that.
Kathie: I did have a close girlfriend who helped me to navigate some of the practical pieces early on, but I have to say that whenever I think of my first birth, I think of two things. One, I think of right before I pushed my baby out that they put my feet in these straps and they strapped them in. There was like a little belt or something on it and literally, I couldn’t move my foot out of it. It was strapped down. So tethered.
Brandy: That’s interesting.
Kathie: And I still can remember the jolt of a little bit of terror that went through me in that moment, and then my release into it. You know how we ask sometimes, “How did you know to do that?” I don’t know, but I know that I felt the “No” physically almost of like a jolt of electricity and then I said yes.
Kathie: That is the most distinct memory I have about the birth itself. And then-
Brandy: Wait, go back to that for a second.
Brandy: The representation of that, what’s the meaning of that to you now?
Kathie: I’m not sure of the meaning, but I think of what I know about trauma in various ways that somehow that imprinted itself in my body enough that I remember it.
Brandy: And are you feeling like, in that moment, the surrender to it felt like a trauma moment or is this a memory that makes you feel sort of empowered because you surrendered to it, or do you feel like it was non-consensual?
Kathie: No, actually, I feel like the way they describe … I heard a description once that when a baby or a little one falls down and they hurt themselves, or somebody says something really mean to them and then their mom puts her arms around and kisses them, that the kiss is louder than the harm and that’s exactly what it was. The release, the yes was louder than that jolt that I felt.
Brandy: Holy shit, Kathie.
Kathie: I don’t know why. I’ve always said I feel like I was lucky in childbirth. The second moment was when I looked at my child and it was so amazing. It’s like, “How did this happen? How did this being happen?” And it was like I immediately wanted to get pregnant again. I did. It was just like, “This is the best thing ever.”
Brandy: Oh my gosh, meeting that new person.
Brandy: I would not do it again, but I remember those first moments. There’s is nothing better than meeting this person that is just yours and has … It’s like it just holds so much. Hope and possibility for love. It’s so fun to get to know your baby
Kathie: And so I was a person who never babysat. We had younger children and I knew how to change a diaper, but that was my sister’s pride and joy to be the one who did that. So I was off on my horse and I wasn’t home, and so everyone thought I would not know how to cook a meal for my husband. They thought I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with this baby, but I found it came very naturally from the love that I felt in meeting this child. And so it wasn’t that I babysat a lot. And people have stories, they say, “Oh, I always wanted to be a mother.” No, I never actually thought about being a mother.
Kathie: I sort of subliminally thought about it, as in the culture, but it wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a vision for myself. I played with dolls, but I also played with rocks and dirt and sort of loved those more.
Brandy: This seems like a good time to talk about your beginning and your relationship, or lack thereof, with your mother because what’s so amazing is what I know of you is you are a brilliant mother and part of that is because I see how nurturing you are to your kids, still. I just know who you are as a person, the clients you serve – you’re thoughtful, you know how to apologize, you’re very self-aware. What I find fascinating, and you’re sort of answering my question a little bit with the story you just told is, I find it fascinating that you did not grow up with the amount of love that you’re able to give to your children. How do you know to love the way that you know how to love without receiving that love?
Kathie: Actually, I received that love from my grandmother and my aunts, but it was broken up into visits. When my parents divorced, I went to live with my aunt. My sister went to live with another aunt and my brother was carted along with wherever my dad went. But my grandmother was very loving and my aunts, very loving, and so when we would have gatherings, that’s kind of where … I think if it were not for them, I probably wouldn’t be a very sane person really.
Kathie: But my mother left when I was 18 months old, and I had a stepmother come into my life when I was five. And so in between, at a pretty critical stage, I did have the constant love of my grandmother and my aunt. Our family was made of secrets and so I didn’t even know, until I was an adult, that my dad and my mom were both gone for about a year and that’s how long I lived with my aunt.
Brandy: And your mom never returned, correct?
Kathie: I met my mother for the first time when I was 19. My brother was … They thought he was dying of a kidney disease and we got a call from my dad, my sister and I, and said, “You’re going to meet your mother and I want you to behave in a way that will show her that you were raised well.”
Brandy: Oh shit. That’s like, no pressure.
Kathie: I was 19 and, and so she and I, I still remember this walking down this long sidewalk and we see this crowd of people, and in the center of it was our mother. We recognized from pictures and she had brought all her sisters and brothers and her mother and father because she thought my brother was dying. She came out of the woodwork. The three of us were interesting. My brother was like, “I’m yours forever because you showed up when I needed you.” My sister was like, “I hate you. You’ve never been here and I never want to see your face again and don’t even talk to me.” And I was in the middle kind of on the fence. It’s like I could go either way.
Brandy: What was the reasoning that she gave though? What was the story in your family?
Kathie: She never gave any story.
Brandy: So nobody ever gave you any sort of-?
Kathie: No. No. Not at all.
Brandy: And so you just grew up, just your mother wasn’t around and nobody talked about it and you never got any clarity on that?
Kathie: Mm-mm. No, because we were to be seen and not heard. So I didn’t ask questions for a long time and it’s funny because I try to strike up a relationship with my mother as an adult and she never … and this was over 30 years. This is a long time. It always feels embarrassing when I talk about this because I met her, and when I turned 30, I began to experience the loss on a different level.
Kathie: I think that we understand and feel and learn and discover and unwind our life when we’re ready. And so I brought home my daughter, Debbie, who’s number six and I’m, obviously, postpartum, but I’m looking down at her and all of the sudden, I just started to cry and my husband came in the room and he said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “How does anyone leave a baby? How does anyone do that?”
Kathie: When I was 30, that started my journey to try to reconnect with my mother and the ironic beautiful way life sort of does things on its own sometimes is that it was when I turned 60, when my daughter had her 30th birthday, that I cut off relations with trying to reconnect with her because I had asked her a question about my birth, and I had just started birth work a few years before that. We were at a point where we were having regular conversations by email. I had gone to stay at her house, she invited me stay at her house, but I didn’t want to. So I stayed at a hotel. She would never be alone in the room with me, which was startling to me because I’m a relationship person. I don’t understand that.
Brandy: And it’s your mother and there’s so much unspoken. I feel like she owes you a week’s worth of dialogue.
Kathie: Yeah, that I never-
Brandy: To have the opposite of that, which is-
Kathie: Opposite. Yeah, yeah.
Kathie: And so when I asked her, I don’t know, it just came to me one day and all the birth work we do. I was like, “I don’t even know how I was born. I don’t know if I was a Cesarean birth or vaginal birth. I suppose it says on my birth certificate, but I never looked or whatever.” So I asked her, I said, “What was it like?” Because I was the child that was born and 18 months later they were divorced.
Kathie: So I’m a logical person. I’m in relationship with a man, I know about marriage and I know about relationship, and she gets furious and said, “I birthed my babies the same way you did yours and I loved my babies as much as you love your own babies.”
Brandy: Oh, bullshit.
Kathie: Bullshit, yeah.
Brandy: What did you say?
Kathie: I forget my exact words, but it was something like, “As you wish” and then I never contact her again.
Brandy: Oh my goodness, the gall to say that.
Kathie: Because it had been literally 30 years.
Brandy: Will you, for a second, bring me back when you met her for the first time?
Brandy: When you were 19. So at that point, you’d had at least one child.
Kathie: Yeah. Actually, I had two.
Brandy: That’s what I was … Yeah. I didn’t want to assume that you were …
Kathie: They were a year and eight days. You remember I wanted to get pregnant right away.
Brandy: You were insane.
Kathie: They were a year and eight days apart.
Brandy: I can’t even. Okay. Bring us back to that moment where your brother was like, “My mom showed up for me.” Your sister was like, “Fuck you,” And you were like, “I don’t really know.” Walking into that room, what was the conversation? What did she say to you? She hadn’t seen you your whole life.
Kathie: The thing is that she was kind of an actress. So she figured she needed to play the role of the mother. So she kind of was, I don’t know, just like saying things in a semi-authoritative way, like, “I know you must be doing this for your kids or your …” I don’t know. It’s weird.
Brandy: This is so bizarre.
Kathie: Yeah, it was weird. It was weird. It was weird. So in a way, when I broke it off, it was like, “What was I breaking off?” She never wanted to meet my children. That was really a big thing for me because yeah, we have a lot of kids, but it’s like is your only connection to your own flesh and blood that you don’t want to give up seven Christmas presents? You know what I mean? I don’t know what she was dreaming about that.
Brandy: Oh my gosh.
Kathie: I have no idea what she was dreaming.
Brandy: I can’t Imagine it was that logical. It’s all so bizarre, all of it. That’s too much of a logical kind of conclusion.
Kathie: But the only thing I know, I have a picture of me sitting on her lap and she’s looking over at me kind of sternly, but with a little bit of humor, like … That was before she left, my grandmother wanted to take all these pictures because back then, mothers did leave their children, in the 1950s, and people didn’t get divorced in a Catholic family. So this was like a big earthquake in our family that this was happening.
Brandy: But then it’s crazy that it was never talked about.
Kathie: I know.
Brandy: It’s like the earthquake that decimated your house and everybody’s like, “No, we never had a house.” What?
Kathie: Yeah. You know weird family stuff. I think-
Brandy: Yeah. We all have it. But I mean this idea of your mother ghosting from your family. We all have weird family shit, but that’s a pretty big chasm. I was reading online something, this idea of the “mother wound” is “injury to the psyche of a child resulting from significant dysfunction or disruption in relationship with the mother.” And so that’s a real thing that people have talked about and about how coming from the mother wound, how that affects your own mothering.
Brandy: That’s why I’m always so in awe of you because you definitely have this mother wound. One can have a dysfunctional relationship with your mother, but she never and abandoned you – but you have this extreme version and yet your mothering is beautiful. So I’m curious, how did this mother wound … How do you notice or do you notice that it affected your mothering?
Kathie: I think that that was the 15-year period of my self-help books. I think a lot of the things that I understood about myself were things that could have been helped with a good mother. But things like when you start your period, things like when you try to figure out what looks nice on you and how to put on makeup, what to do with your hair, talking about boys. So I think that that 15 years of my life trying to fix myself, I think it was productive. I think it was survival, I really do. And I think that I did come along way with that, but unfortunately, I probably passed on some negativity to my own children through that process.
Brandy: What do you think that is?
Kathie: I don’t think I was as communicative with them. I didn’t really know how. No one had ever communicated with me. I think I failed there, which is so ironic because communication is everything to me and we are a flawed family, but we do have a lot of love and devotion.
Brandy: Oh my gosh, it’s obvious to see it. The fact that your kids are all friends and you guys have a Facebook group for your family. I think you had to have been a glue for that and to model that somehow to them.
Kathie: They have given me feedback that they learned about forgiveness from me. When you live a life with a family, there’s lots of occasions for forgiveness to come forward and some kind of life-changing ones.
Brandy: I want to go back for a second. When you were 30 and Debbie, your number six – I love that there’s a numerical system here – when Debbie was born and that’s when you had that moment of saying, “How could anybody leave a baby?” I’m curious why it took you number six to get to that realization. Why do you think that that didn’t come up for you the first time you held your first baby? What was different about you at 30 than it was at 17?
Kathie: That’s a really good question. I think when I was 17, I was so relieved to be away from my family and I think my focus was forward thinking and not back thinking.
Brandy: So it’s like maybe you didn’t even know at age 17. You were just getting through, “I’m away from this. I’m in my new life,” and so you weren’t even processing yet the lack of mother and what that means. You were still a teenager at that point, so you weren’t even fully in the role of adult quite yet.
Kathie: Right. Absolutely. And I do think it was like a time clock inside of me that I looked at her and it was like I knew it for the first time. It was strange because why 30? Why 30 years old to realize something that was so obviously true for many more years before that?
Brandy: Yeah. But “obviously” – when you’re in it, it’s not so obvious and how long it takes to process what you’ve been through. And sometimes when you get out of the thing, you’re just so happy to be out of the thing. We were talking about this earlier today, sometimes you skip a step, which is the processing of, “Holy shit, this was a traumatic event,” and maybe in your case, a traumatic 16 years.
Kathie: And also that was the point or within about five years that I went to therapy for the first time.
Brandy: Oh yes. You’ve said that brought you a lot of help.
Kathie: Because I didn’t trust women at all. Even though I had close friends, I didn’t reveal a lot about myself. And so when I went to therapy, I’ll never forget, the therapist said to me, “At the age you were when your mother left, you were just at the age when you could capture a picture of the person and remember it when they come back in the room. So it became, for the first time at that age, that it was okay for people to leave the room because you could remember their face and they came back.” And so the fact that she didn’t come back, and then everything changed. I went to a different house and I wasn’t with my brothers and sisters. I realized that through his words to me. And then he said to me, which … There’s no accident that I had a male therapist. I didn’t trust women. He was like my dad to me. You know what I mean?
Kathie: And my dad, I love my dad so much and I never ever felt unloved by my dad, but my dad wasn’t there. He had a big family to support and he was always at work, and so I was with my step-monster.
Brandy: Was he not there? Like he lived at your house with you but he was just gone a lot or was he …?
Kathie: He worked nights and then he was asleep. And so the only time really we got him was on the weekends.
Brandy: So he gets more of a pass than your mom because your mom just ghosted?
Brandy: But you still lived in your father’s house and you have the step-monster, but he showed up when he showed up.
Brandy: Okay. Got it.
Kathie: Sadly, he thought things were different when he was gone because-
Brandy: He didn’t know how his new wife was treating you.
Brandy: And did he find out years later? Did you tell him?
Kathie: I did. I sort of regret it in a way that I did.
Kathie: Yeah, because he got really sad. So when he was around it was okay. When he was not around, that’s when it became very difficult, but I think therapy … He ended up saying to me, “You need to find someone who looks like you,” meaning a female, “Who you could look into her eyes and see yourself mirrored back.” And so that was when I went on a mission. I think that’s when my healing in earnest really started. I went on a mission to make relationships with women, and not to avoid them as I had been doing unconsciously, really.
Kathie: Ever since then, and am today, in a women’s group. None of them have been perfect, if you judge for perfect, but the basis of peer support group is you take what you need and you leave the rest. And so intuitively, I probably picked up pieces that my mother could have given me. Even basic things like observing what people were wearing, observing how they did their makeup. It’s like I still didn’t have that piece. It just help to normalize me being around other women and figuring out who I was. Not that I was modeling them or imitating them, but just you breathe it in. It’s nothing anybody says consciously. It’s just, you take it in from in the air.
Brandy: So had you had a mother that you watched growing up, going out with her girlfriends or doing girls nights or having friends over, but it being a loving thing – and it doesn’t sound like maybe it was like that with your stepmom.
Kathie: I don’t think she had any freedom at all and I think that’s why she was cruel. You know what I mean?
Kathie: I think there were really good reasons why she was the way she was. I sympathize with that. However, when I went to therapy, one of the things that I did was I stopped calling her “Mother.” My siblings, they were pissed but they didn’t really say anything because we didn’t really talk, but it was like we had, you could say six different childhoods. I was listening to this program today on the radio about women who experienced something and other people tell them it was not so. It wasn’t so. It really wasn’t so.
Brandy: Also known as “gaslighting?”
Brandy: I’m familiar with this. Yes, I’m intimately familiar with this.
Kathie: And so with my siblings to this day, it’s kind of like that. It was like they’re singing her praises and I’m like, “Whatever.”
Brandy: I know your mom passed away, was it two years ago?
Brandy: Do you feel like you’ve forgiven her and not that that has to be, that you have to forgive her, but where do you feel like you’re at with that and did her passing change how you felt about her?
Kathie: I feel sorry for her. So if that’s a version of forgiveness? I guess the little person in me on some level says … with the wiser person in me saying, “She did the best she could with what she had, probably.” That’s a core belief that I kind of believe for all people, but then the little person in me says, “Yeah, but it was fucking not good enough.” It was not good enough but I feel like I did everything I could. In fact, I had this priest friend who every once in a while I would talk to him about trying to reach out and how crazy it was. And finally, right before this whole conversation with my birth, when I sort of cut it off with her, he said to me, “Kathie, why do you keep going back?” And I said, “I feel responsible.” Ain’t that interesting? “I feel responsible.”
Brandy: What did you feel responsible for? Did you know, specifically?
Kathie: I felt responsible for the relationship that I should … I was lucky enough to learn things that perhaps she didn’t know that might be, I don’t know, maybe high-minded.
Brandy: Yeah. That’s pretty amazing.
Kathie: I don’t know. I mean, high-minded like “haughty,” but I-
Brandy: No. I think you knew.
Kathie: I was genuine. It was genuine.
Brandy: That doesn’t seem like an ego sort of, “I’m better than you so I know how to do it and you don’t.” But it seems like a real deep down knowing that your mom was so incapable of so many basic nurturing motherly things, and you were not that. You have the skills potentially to make something of it, but man, with her lack, it would be a one-sided and-
Kathie: And it was.
Brandy: That’s what I would imagine.
Kathie: And it was, which is why the priest said, “Kathie, why are you going back?” And I could never take that as permission until it seemed clear that there was really nothing there. I mean, you can’t even hear me asking a simple question?
Brandy: Right, about your birth.
Kathie: I was in your body. You carried me in your body. If you don’t remember, that’s fine, but be honest. It’s a bit of a mystery but no one talked about her and no one talked about anything other than talking about other people. It was very cynical environment and caused-
Brandy: Maybe that’s why you’re drawn to me.
Brandy: Maybe it’s like the dad who swears and you are like, “Oh, that person’s very cynical, I’ll be her friend.”
Kathie: You’re very sassy. I think it’s actually what’s made me an optimist because I’ve sort of rejected that. So I’ve had to come back around from being an optimist to a more balanced place. It’s not always appropriate to be an optimist. And it’s like, “Are you truly an optimist and Trump is president? Are you optimistic?” It’s like, “Hell no.” But I do think that my inclination was in response to the day to day to day, not fun cynicism, like yours is, but just kind of rotten. Kind of “the world is shit and we’re stuck in the shit”, and it’s like, “Are there any other options?” I think that’s why I was clearly really happy to get away from home because I didn’t fit there and I never fit.
Brandy: Yeah. And at least with being mom, it seems like that was a really great fit. And one of the things I talk to lots of friends about, when we talk about this transition into motherhood and how easy or hard it is for people, one of the things that we’ve been talking about recently is how much you liked yourself before you became a mother and how much you felt like you fit into the world, and kind of like what you’re saying. I feel like those people, when they became mothers, it seems more likely that they find this motherhood role really, really amazing. As a friend of mine said, “I didn’t really like myself before I became a mom, but then when I became a mom, there was so much love and I liked who I was as a mother.” So it’s different from somebody who, before they became a mother, really liked their life and really liked what they were doing and who they were. And so them becoming a mom was sort of jarring and like, “Well, now who am I? But I liked that other person. Can I go back to being that other person living that life?”
Brandy: So it seems that the motherhood journey for you was really lovely and you didn’t have a lot of grappling with who you were. It was like it just suited you and kind of like what you said about everybody’s saying, “Oh, Kathie won’t know how to cook a meal for her husband,” and then you did. So you were really excelling at this thing that people second-guessed you about and on top of that, you belonged and people treated you… your sweet kids and your husband treated you like you belonged.
Kathie: Yeah, and actually, at some point, our decision to not have Thanksgiving with my family was a big deal in regard to that because my stepmother was so mean to my kids. And not mean and overtly hateful, but just never welcoming, like, “ALL seven are coming?” And so it didn’t take us long and I said, “No, I’m not going to subject them to that,” because I could – I had control over that. I couldn’t control what I, myself, was subjected to but I could control what they were subjected to.
Brandy: Oh my gosh, Kathie, that just … I so get it. I’m in a similar situation in a part of my life and it’s like that putting up a boundary that you know has consequences and there’s things that people will lose out on.
Kathie: Yeah. It’s like you gotta measure it out, what’s worse.
Brandy: Right. But this family that is your family where you finally belong, we have to make them the priority over those that don’t love and accept us or show up for us.
Brandy: So, Kathie, having lived through not being mothered yourself, what insight would you give to other women who have experienced the same?
Kathie: I would tell them two things. One, I would tell them that the people around you will get tired of you talking about it. So try to find a group of people doing the similar work and keep talking about it because you need to keep talking about it until you get it settled in whatever way it settles within you. I got tired of hearing it, really.
Brandy: There have been things that I’ve shared with you and you’ve always said, which I’ve found super helpful is, “You talk about it until you don’t need to talk about it anymore.”
Kathie: Right, right. And that can be hard for the people who are closest to you. So it’s like, it’s okay. You can continue to do work and one cannot be everything to you. It has to be broader than that. But the other thing I would say is that do keep your eyes open for mothering coming from places you don’t expect it. And I think the best mothering is the mothering we give ourselves because we know intimately what we need. And if we can step out of the bullshit of having to deserve this or that – you don’t need to deserve anything. If you need it, then do your best to see to that need and then you are mothering yourself and you will be a better mother for your own children, and you’ll be a better wife. You’ll be better friend and you’ll be happier, and I see you doing that. I think it’s a good habit. I don’t know across the board how many women have that good habit, but took me a while to figure it out and so I would definitely say, “Do something that’s for you. It’s not taking away from your family. It’s giving to your family a better you.”
Brandy: Join us next episode for part two with Kathie where we get back into the differences between motherhood then and now. We hear why she’s relieved she’s not wrangling children today. We discuss how modern kids have shifted position in the family hierarchy and then Kathie tells us an outrageous story about what she wants did to make happy memories for her seven kids (that I think none of us today would even consider doing.)
Kathie: “We just went into their rooms and said, ‘Come on, we’re going to go. We’re going to go on an adventure.'”
Brandy: Thank you all so much for spending your precious time with me and my podcast. If you like what you hear, maybe think about subscribing, leaving a review or hitting me up on Patreon, which is my virtual tip jar.