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My Mama's Waltz

About The Book

"She was my best friend when sober and I was her worst enemy when she was drunk."
With stunning honesty, My Mama's Waltz brings to light the painful legacy of daughters of alcoholic mothers -- in the first book to focus solely on this fractured relationship. Eleanor Agnew and Sharon Robideaux share their own personal accounts along with the memories and experiences of hundreds of women, from all ages and backgrounds, in an intimate and powerful narrative journey. Their recollections, courageous and unforgettable, resoundingly confirm that women who deal with the remnants of a childhood cut short by an alcoholic mother are not alone. Powerful, often wrenching, but ultimately hopeful and inspiring, My Mama's Waltz offers the support and reassurance adult daughters seek to reconcile the past and heal the heart.


Chapter One: Introduction

"My father never knew. I don't think he believed me when I told him about my years of torment."

-- Beverly Hendrix, fifty-three, salesperson, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

On the face of it, we are quite different, hardly twins separated at birth. Ellie is slender, blond, the oldest child of a well-educated, middle-class psychiatrist and his wife, who was almost as well educated and who met him in medical school. Ellie is married, the mother of three sons, and is a college professor, a transplanted New Englander who has come to love the South. Sharon is a natural-born southerner from Louisiana, the overweight, brunette oldest daughter of an uneducated manual laborer and his waitress wife. Sharon is also married, the mother of two sons, and now lives in Missouri, where she has almost completed her doctoral degree in English.

To see the two of us huddled together, usually a stack of papers between us and cups of hot tea or coffee within reach, a stranger might wonder, How did these two women ever become friends? What kind of bond could they have?

Ellie is energetic, a morning walker, a drinker of coffee, an owner of pets, a lover of movies and books. She is usually optimistic, sometimes mystical. This marriage is her third, this time to a man a good bit younger than she, who was born in another country. Her older sons are grown and live far up the East Coast, and her youngest son, on the touchy cusp between childhood and adolescence, loves and rejects her equally. Ellie is a tenured professor who loves her job and particularly enjoys the travel, which is a perk of the profession.

Sharon is less physically energetic but a great storyteller. She's a poet and an artist who walks only when she must, hates flying, consumes far too much black coffee, is owned by cats, and is a lover and writer of mystery novels. She is sometimes pessimistic, seldom an mystical, and can be more antisocial than reserved. Her only marriage has endured for over twenty-five years; her husband, also an academic, is a fellow southerner. One of her sons is a recent newlywed; the other is a high school senior. Sharon loves teaching; like Ellie, she loves the students, and she loves the written word.

We met in 1989 when we were both employed at the same southern regional university. What really unites us, though, is not our similar careers nor our similar ages, both mid- to late forties. It is not that we both are married or mothers of sons, or that we both love animals. What connects us is a not-so-tiny detail that has affected almost every facet of our lives. Both of us are daughters of alcoholic mothers, mothers who were far easier to forgive than they were to understand. We know, because we've spent our lives trying to figure out how to become the kinds of women, wives, and mothers that ours were not. It hasn't been easy. Both of us can testify that we've made many false steps.

Over many lunches at our favorite off-campus diner, we began to share our respective pasts, rather like unpeeling a multilayered and particularly pungent onion. (You can only do so much before the tears fall.) We discovered that, despite our outward differences, there was commonality in the pain we have carried inside and still carry today, decades later. We discovered that the background and setting are irrelevant: whether she is a manual laborer's wife who washes the clothes by hand in tin tubs, or a doctor's wife whose home is cleaned by "merry maids," an alcoholic mother creates special problems for her daughter.

We knew we were not alone, that there were many other daughters of alcoholics out there. When we decided to write this book, we set up an 800 number and placed ads, mostly in local newspapers, across the country, requesting daughters to phone us if they would like to fill out our eight-page questionnaire. As soon as the first ad appeared, our "hot line" began to ring...and ring and ring. Within a few months, over three hundred women phoned in, and soon we had more material than we could handle in one book. We mailed out questionnaires to the women who requested them, and to our delight, about two hundred took the time to fill them out and return them. Even though the questionnaire was lengthy, many women wrote additional pages of material. (Months after the last ad ran, we still get calls, and questionnaires still come in.) One woman penned in the margin that it had taken her four hours; she was not unique. "This questionnaire has been difficult for me to fill out," wrote Donna Cartee, fifty, a sales representative from Canaan, New Hampshire. "I avoided it for two days! It has brought so many painful memories to the surface."

We were indeed touched that so many were willing to contribute their stories to our project. Despite the thoroughness and complexity of the questionnaire, virtually all the women who returned it said they would also like to be interviewed. In fact, some women who had not filled out a questionnaire called us and begged to be interviewed. We would have loved to talk to everyone but were only able to phone about sixty women. We also met and interviewed a
number of women in person. Hearing from and talking to all these wonderful, intelligent, strong women will always stand out in our memories as a life-changing experience.

Through the questionnaires and interviews, we learned that most other daughters of alcoholic mothers have been affected in the same ways we were. They too are suffering from lack of self-esteem, problematic relationships with friends, family, lovers, and spouses, memory gaps about significant childhood events, and insecurity about themselves as women. "I really don't have much self-esteem, admits Marta Hendrix, thirty-two, a chef from Burlington, Vermont. "I have just recently discovered how much I turn to others for their approval. I have always been concerned with what others will think."

"Much of my childhood is a blank," says Jackie McClain, fifty, a nurse from Dallas, Texas. "But I find pictures of myself as a child to be very revealing: I can see the sadness, hurt, and pain reflected in the eyes of a four-year-old."

"I like to forget my earlier life with her," says Lucy Smith, fifty-seven, a physical therapist from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. "I feel that I could have been more successful and had better relationships, if not for the past. Many of my memories are too painful to talk about. She was very abusive and often embarrassed me. I have good health, but I'm often depressed."

Rachel Addington, forty-eight, a typesetter from Jeffrey City, Wyoming, remarks, "I see myself as a dog who scratches on the door wanting to get in, and as soon as the door opens, my mother slams it in my face. I want to love her and be a part of her life, but she won't let me in. "

"When my mother was drinking, most of the time you were not aware that she had even had a drink," recalls Virginia Matthew, forty-six, a college professor from Albany, New York. "The general misconception of alcoholics is that they must be stinking drunk and lying in filthy clothes in the gutter somewhere. My mother functioned as any other mother would. She was a homeroom mother, baked cookies, bought Christmas and birthday presents. She gave great parties, enrolled us in summer camp, and wrote us letters to keep us from being homesick, the usual 'Mom' things. Those are the memories that I cherish and keep dose in my heart to pull out and bask in. Then there are the not-so-happy times: the arguing late at night, the criticisms, the critical review of my appearance...."

The statement of Lauranne Seiner, thirty-nine, an insurance adjustor from San Diego, California, just about sums up the feelings that all the rest of us have for our alcoholic mothers: "I loved my mom very much. I also hated her."

We as well as many of our respondents, grew up in the 1950S and 1960s.
The fact that our mothers had drinking problems was never even acknowledged, let alone discussed, in our homes. Mothers were not alcoholics! So how could we share the "dirty family simply secret" with others? Other readers who are baby boomers will recall intimate topics which are now flaunted flagrantly in public were never discussed openly back when we were coming of age. People took great pains to hide any family aberrations from outsiders. Thus, we -- and, we suspect, millions of other women -- carried shameful, guilty secret inside, like an unseen wound, and grew up feeling ugly and full of self-loathing.

Even in today's secret-spilling, talk-show-based daughters of alcoholic mothers feel just as we two did. Even now, Mother's Alcoholism is still a touchy subject. A double standard endures as much for alcoholism as for sex. Throughout history, in fact, female drunks have always been shunned and condemned far more than male drunks. Mark Lender and James Martin, authors of Drinking in America: A History, quote a source from the seventeenth century who says, "It was a great shame to see a man in that case." It was "a social catastrophe" for a Victorian woman to be called an alcoholic, the authros continue, because alcoholism for women was considered a state of "extreme deviance." The caption on a photograph of a nineteenth-century celebration reads, "Temperance workers frowned on such celebrations. For solid citizens -- especially women -- to drink enthusiastically in public...set a deplorable example for the rest of the nation."

Women who get drunk are still looked upon with more disgust than men who get drunk. Amanda Smith, a consultant to industry and education who helps train men and women to work better together, states that for many people the very term "woman alcoholic" will "conjure up [the image of] a maudlin floozy in a bar." Elizabeth Ettore, author of Women and Substance Abuse, agrees: "There is a real social stigma attached to a woman who drinks too much." As jean Kirkpatrick explains in her book Goodbye Hangovers, Hello Life, "The stigma of the woman alcoholic still remains, despite some very forward strides made recently by prominent women publicly announcing their alcoholism. Betty Ford, Joan Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli -- all have brought some 'class' to women alcoholics, but not quite enough....Public attitudes change very slowly, and the feelings toward women alcoholics have been negative for many, many years. Society's desire for women to be 'pure' continues strong and unabated."

The film industry has also gone a long way in reinforcing society's double standard. In Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema, Norman Denzin points out that since the 1940s, female alcoholics have been portrayed very negatively in the cinema. A woman's alcoholism "is used to turn her into a doubly disgraced object: a woman who is a drunk. Cast in this identity, her inferior status as a woman is further degraded by her disease of alcoholism. The male alcoholic in the early modern films simply got drunk. His female counterpart...gets drunk and sexual. Sexuality and alcoholism were negatively joined in the female alcoholic film."

Thus, the societal and cultural message persists: a female alcoholic is indeed a "fallen woman" of the worst sort.

When that fallen woman happens to be our own mother, most of us feel understandably hesitant to discuss it with outsiders. As Judith S. Seixas and Geraldine Youcha observe in Children of Alcoholism: A Survivor's Manual, "hiding becomes a way of life" for all children of alcoholics. Yet we daughters are more likely to hide the shame of having a gender role model who is considered disgusting in the eyes of society. Part of the reason is that we identify with our mothers. Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan, author of Women and Self-Esteem, write that it is far harder for girls than boys to reject their mothers because doing so forces the girl "to include in her own self-concept a 'despised feminine self.'" Furthermore, the authors say, while boys "are encouraged to fight back when others try to violate them...girls...are encouraged to do nothing...[P]assivity seems the only way to handle problems." Finally, they point out, girls fear confiding in outsiders about family problems because they sense that others will not understand, "especially when the source of information is young and female." Instead, we daughters internalize the pain of "Mother's little secret."

Adding fuel to our pain is society's presumption, reflected in everything from print to television, that a mother-daughter relationship is always close and mutually fulfilling. Stores still stock cute sets of matching mother-daughter clothing. Mother's Day cards meant to be given from daughters to their mothers are the most sentimentally sweet ones on the shelves.

A mother's alcoholism is a crucial social issue because it is so often kept hidden. More women than ever are drinking and taking drugs, according to an in-depth report issued in 1996 by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Yet "female alcoholics more often experience less obvious symptoms" than men and "are more likely to have mental health disorders, such as depression, in addition to their addiction." Laura Lindsteadt, a therapist at the Arthur Center, states that while men often drink more publicly, at parties, bars, or business lunches, women's drinking tends to be more private. She points out, "A lot of the time their spouse or significant other isn't even aware they have a problem."

Because a woman's drinking is so often done surreptitiously, many people don't realize how much a mother's alcoholism can destroy the family's ability to function adequately. Beverly Hendrix, fifty-three, recalls, "When my son was about three or four, I corrected him at my parents' apartment with a swat on the butt. My dad said, 'Don't do that to that child. We never spanked you.' I can still hear him say that twenty-eight years later! (I was shocked.) You can't even imagine how surprised I was to hear this. My mother beat me so terribly and 'when your father gets home, he'll give it to you worse.' My father never knew. I don't think he believed me when I told him about my years of torment."

Whereas alcoholic fathers affect families due to their lost wages and possible violence, alcoholic mothers have those same effects and more. After all, women have always been considered the center of the family, since they alone can give birth and breast-feed infants. And, until the 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of women remained at home as mothers and homemakers. Although the number of women in the workforce has risen dramatically in past decades (about 60 percent of all women are now employed outside the home, as opposed to less than 35 percent in the 1950s), mothers still remain the primary caretakers of children. Dorothy Schneider and Carl F. Schneider state in Women in the Workplace, "Overwhelmingly, Americans still assume that women bear the primary responsibility for the care of house and family....Certainly men also work in their homes and in their communities. Women, however, still bear most of the burden of child care, of cooking, of housework."

Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, agrees: "Nor do women enjoy equality in their own homes, where they still shoulder 70 percent of the household duties -- and the only major change in the last fifteen years is that now middle-class men think they do more around the house. (In fact, a national poll finds the ranks of women saying their husbands share equally in child care shrunk to 31 percent in 1987 from 40 percent three years earlier."

Linda Sanford, a licensed psychotherapist, notes that most of her patients believe that their mothers, rather than their fathers, have had the strongest impact on their lives:

Mothers stand as the primary role models for young female and male children alike....Because of our social arrangements, Mother rather than Father traditionally has been the one to spend the most time with infants (regardless of gender) during the earliest years. When we were infants, it was Mother who most often fed us, nursed us, changed us and cuddled us, and in many cases she was home with us most Of the time, whereas Father was absent. Even mothers who worked outside the home probably spent more time with us than did our fathers.

Traditionally, or at least mythologically, a mother is indeed the glue that holds the family together -- until she becomes an alcoholic. Then she tears it apart. As Signe Hammer asserts in Daughters and Mothers: Mothers and Daughters, our relationship with our mothers lays the foundation for our healthy psychological development. Without a solid mother-daughter relationship, our well-being is indeed compromised.

Obviously, daughters of alcoholic mothers cannot stake a unique claim to pain suffered at Mom's hands. Many of us have brothers, and yes, these brothers are also wounded by our alcoholic mothers, perhaps as deeply as we are -- but wounded differently. As we researched and read and talked with hundreds of other daughters of alcoholic mothers, we have become convinced that the legacy of an alcoholic mother affects more areas of the lives of daughters than of sons. First, evidence is mounting that male and female children are programmed differently from birth: girls really are more sensitive. According to a 1991 study by the Institute for the Study of Child Development, female babies even as young as two to six months old are more likely than male babies to become sad in response to negative events. Further, according to a study by the American Association of University Women, young women are more likely than young men to have low self-esteem and to attempt suicide.

Additionally and perhaps more importantly, sons never have to look to Mother in order to learn how to be. They do not need her as a gender role model. They do not have to deal with, "Oh, God, I'm bleeding! What's wrong, with me?" Sons do not have to learn to become mothers themselves. They either have Dad there to teach them to be men, or if Dad isn't available, they at least have the comfort of knowing they are not supposed to be like Mother. The guru of child care, Dr. Benjamin Spock, upon whose advice many of us, along with our mothers, have relied, tells us that little boys want to grow up to be like Daddy, but for a daughter, "it's the other way around. She yearns to be like her mother -- in occupation and in having babies of her own." How can any of us admit that our mothers are flawed if we are destined by biology to be just like her?

In our culture, and we suspect in most other cultures, if there are both sons and daughters in the family, sons are seldom the ones who undress the drunk mother, put her to bed, and mop up her vomit. It is we, the daughters, who do that. It is we, the daughters, who are expected to fill in for mothers who are either not there or not functional. As a result, sons, though wounded, may still have more freedom to interact with others outside the home, to participate in after-school activities, to explore healthy relationships. We daughters (seldom sons) are expected to do both our own schoolwork and the family's housework, as well as take care of other children in the family. Sometimes we are even expected to replace our mothers emotionally in the eyes of fathers and siblings. As a result, we daughters become overburdened physically and emotionally and often escape the home at too early an age; we may become selfdestructively rebellious, addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, or shopping; we may become sexually active at an abnormally young age; or we may remain trapped with or near our birth families until the deaths of our mothers.

Even in adulthood, we daughters, much more than sons, are affected by our alcoholic mothers. Sons are seldom the ones who care for aging, infirm parents. According to Francine Klagsbrun, author of Mixed Feelings: Love, Hate, Rivalry, and Reconciliation Among Brothers and Sisters, "Just about every study made on the care of aging parents has found that the burden falls most often on daughters (and sometimes daughters-in-law). To be specific: daughters outnumber sons by three to one among children who care for their parents." Therefore, our interaction with the family unit is usually of longer duration than that of our brothers'. Even popular proverbs remind us of this lifelong bond that we have, from which our brothers are released: "Your son is your son until he takes a wife. Your daughter's your daughter all of her life." (Sharon admits that she would break out in a cold sweat whenever her mother chanted this ditty. "After all," says Sharon, "if my sisters or I didn't take care of her, who would?")

Sons can leave their alcoholic mothers behind, relatively guilt free. As Sanford and Donovan note, both sexes of children are supposed to reject Mother as a step in their maturations: "But this rejection of the mother is often far less difficult for a son than a daughter. Boys, after all, were never supposed to identify with the mother." But as daughters, we carry her with us even after she is dead, in the very echo of her body in our own. We daughters are the ones who look into the bathroom mirrors and are shocked to see our mothers' faces looking back at us. We hear our mothers' voices when we scold our children. We smell our mothers' breath when we have a drink at a party. We fight our mothers' demons, carefully disguised as demons of our own invention: weight problems, sexual problems, relationship problems, self-image problems. Without question, many of the problems we daughters deal with on a daily basis have their origins in our turbulent relationships with our alcoholic mothers.

In the upcoming chapters, we examine such issues as body images and sexuality; weight problems, eating disorders, and addictions; our relationships with our siblings, our fathers, our husbands and partners, and our children; and, of course, the underlying theme of this book, our complex relationships with our mothers. In the last chapter, we look at the many ways in which we have worked to make our lives happy.

But we want to emphasize now, and throughout the text, the purpose of this book is not to bash mothers. As mothers ourselves, we are acutely aware of how difficult the job is and how little appreciated mothers are, not only by their own offspring but also by society at large. And we know all too well how selective a child's memory can be and how unjustly negative, so we have tried to be as truthful about our memories as we can possibly be.

We also know that memories of the same incident or even of the same family life can vary widely. Typically in a family, one sibling remembers one thing; another, being either younger or older, having a different role to play in the family dynamics, will have an entirely different perspective. And not all of us daughters, even of the same mother, deal with the memories in the same way, as we discovered during extensive conversations with our sisters. One will remember each detail, replaying the scenes over and over in her mind; the other will have forgotten because it hurts too much to remember. As Klagsbrun notes about alcoholic and dysfunctional families in Mixed Feelings, "The more disturbed a family, the more likely are the children within it to insulate themselves emotionally, each finding a separate comer in which to curl up, heads down, hands over ears, cut off from one another and the outside."

If our memories seem exaggerated and too negative, then we, as well as the women we interviewed, are all exaggerating at the same rate and remembering roughly the same kinds of abuses. That's hardly a likelihood. Daughters of alcoholic mothers remember varying degrees and types of abuse: neglect, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Bur the kind most of us recall the most vividly is verbal abuse -- constant sarcasm and belittlement, almost total destruction of self-esteem. Most of us also remember some type of abandonment, either while our mothers were off drinking, passed out, or engaged in extramarital affairs. We also recall the violations of our own privacy, a kind of emotional rape that has lasting repercussions. And last, none of us will ever forget the bitter details of our mothers' humiliating public scenes.

Like other daughters of alcoholic mothers, when we were younger, it did not occur to us that there was any connection between our mothers' alcoholism and our own adult problems -- until years later, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the taboo topics of the earlier era came bursting out of the closet with a vengeance. We then learned that the presence of an alcoholic parent indeed has a profound effect upon the offspring, that he presence of our alcoholic mothers had a profound effect upon us, as women.

Ellie buried her alcoholic mother twenty-six years ago, when Jessica Agnew, barely fifty years old, died mysteriously and unexpectedly in her sleep. Sharon's alcoholic mother, Ora Cockerham, feeble and homebound for years after bouts with emphysema, facial cancer, and heart disease, and even resuscitated back from death three times, died during the writing of this book at the too-young age of sixty. But these two women are still very much a part of who
we have become.

Daily, sometimes even hourly, we waltz with Mama.

Copyright © 1998 by Eleanor Agnew and Sharon Robideaux

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 1, 1999)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671013868

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Raves and Reviews

Nancy Waite-O'Brien, Ph.D., Director of Psychological Services, Betty Ford Center Remarkable...A book that is wise, warm, and refrains from proposing simple solutions to complex issues.

The Washington Post Book World The authors have brought the family secret of maternal alcoholism out into the open....The book benefits tremendously from the emotional understanding they bring to their subject and their elegant crafting of the...stories they have collected.

Hope Edelman, bestselling author of Motherless Daughters My Mama's Waltz fills what was a noticeably empty spot in the literature of loss, addressing what Eleanor Agnew and Sharon Robideaux evocatively reveal to be the specific issues and concerns of daughters made motherless by alcoholism. This book gives a voice to the millions of women who lost theirs as children and whose stories of survival deserve to be told.

"Vicky" (New York) I read your wonderful book. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

"Ellen" (Georgia) Thank you for your treatment of a very serious topic. I also appreciate your bibliography.

"Gary" (Florida) If your book can prevent one woman from taking the path my wife did, then you can take comfort in having the knowledge that you helped save a life.

New York Newsday Well-written, and full of personal anecdotes, this book is a valuable resource for the many women trying to recover from a difficult childhood....Enormously helpful. Fascinating and inspiring....The confusion and pain experienced by daughters of alcoholic thoroughly explored by Eleanor Agnew and Sharon Robideaux....The book brings with it the force of truth in numbers....All the tales in this compassionate and important book ring with clarity.

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