– One of my patients said that thanks to this book she learned that she was not alone. People who experience violence from their mothers very often feel leprous, they feel that they are the only ones in the world, because they cannot imagine that a mother can humiliate or degrade her child – says psychotherapist and co-author of the book “Toxic Mother”, Robert Rutkowski
Dealing with a subject that is so taboo and painful at the same time is quite a challenge. In Poland, the relationship of a child with its mother at every stage of life is still a very sensitive area. So much so that some people are afraid to talk about it. As the co-author of the book “Toxic Mother”, Robert Rutkowski, says, it is much more difficult than even talking about the relationship with the father. He adds, however, without hesitation, that it is necessary to finally start talking about it. Just because of the feelings surrounding the phenomenon of toxic mothers in our country.
Bartosz Kicior, menway.interia.pl: Where did the idea for this book come from?
Robert Rutkowski: – It started with a difficult relationship with my father. I touched upon this subject already in our first book, co-written with Irena Stanislawska, “Oswoić narkomana” (“To tame a drug addict”), where I “fleshed out” the relationship between father and son. We even started to write another book, but by the second chapter it turned out that we both had dying mothers whose days were numbered, and we realized that we would not repeat such energy, that it would never happen in our lives. We decided that we would follow the voice of the de facto body, as I had a hard time saying goodbye to my mom, and Irene as well. It was a whole year of escorting them to the brink of non-existence and during that journey we got to know ourselves.
– To answer your question: death. The approaching death was an inspiration to look into the figure of a mother as a mother, her phenomenon
– Our previous two books, of which Irena is also a co-author – “To Tame a Drug Addict” and “The Pleasure Trap” – We created them according to the model that she, as a journalist, was the interrogator, entering the structure of the phenomenon, while I served as a substantive advisor. Here it got completely out of hand, because the moment you say the word ‘mother’ or ‘parent’ at all, the fun stops. From the very beginning, Irena brought a lot of energy, because during the writing process we discovered issues connected with her childhood, a nasty relationship with her doctor mother, an absolute workaholic, which is common in this profession.
So that’s it – how much of this book is observation and how much is you?
– My mother died at the age of 83. She suffered from Parkinson’s disease. A nasty disease that takes no prisoners, dehumanizes, but does not take life as quickly as we would expect. It drives a person to the edge of absurdity, because it steals the body. The brain functions normally, the person retains perception, feeling, showing emotions, but the body completely fails to cooperate with the patient. I experienced it very strongly, this accompaniment was extremely painful for me, but also enriching, because I was saying goodbye to a woman whom I loved very much, to whom I owed a lot, and it made me think a lot.
– I certainly brought less drama as my mother’s son, because it was a relationship, I don’t want to glorify it or epitomize it with any kind of devotion, but about which I tried many times to say something unflattering and found nothing. I am alive because of my mother, not only because she gave birth to me, but because at the most difficult time of my life she was there for me and gave me unconditional acceptance. She also gave me space. I have in my mind situations when I call her and I hear: “I can’t talk, I’m busy because we’re playing cards, we’re playing checkers, we’re on a walk.”
– That was my gift. Well, because it’s like, first parents have kids, and then kids have parents and they take care of those parents. And I became overprotective and went into her space too much because after my dad died, I thought she was going to be scattered. I remember her saying: “You know what, get on with your life and get away from me. Mom, you’ve been gone two years now, but I thank you for those words. They free us from the pressure of “hanging on” to an elderly parent. Then when we help our parents in their autumn of life, it is not out of obligation and pressure, but out of love.
– Irene’s mom worked around the clock because she was a doctor. She would lock herself in her room in front of her children to indulge her professional interests, but also her hobby interests. Irene also brought a lot of similar examples not from the study but from her friends. There are plenty of stories in the book that didn’t come out of my office. But my office is also a powerful source of inspiration. Because when asked, “What was it like with your mom?” people go silent. It’s much harder to talk about the mother and difficult, complicated relationships with her than it is to talk about problems with the father.
Adults for most of the child’s life undermine its competence, depreciate it, constantly reprimand it, use words that are like a smack of the whip: “you are naughty”. What does a child feel after 15 years of such treatment? Gratitude? No, he is a volcano of rage, he is maximally pissed off. So he uses a very wide range of different kinds of destructive behavior. The kids go along with it very eagerly, because the child would really rather be a drug addict, an alcoholic, a thief than be nobody.
When discussing such a topic, it is impossible not to touch upon its social and cultural dimension. In Poland, writing about the mother in the category of toxicity, one has to reckon with various reactions. How did you approach this?
– We were mainly accused of opportunism. To be honest, I didn’t even suspect that such accusations would appear. We don’t care about causing controversy or shocking people. It’s more my patients who come to me with an inner imperative to draw attention to themselves, so I would be a hypocrite if I did that myself. Irene and I both have successful, peaceful professional and family lives, and we have no need for glamour, applause, or publicity.
– It is hard for us not to realize that in Poland mother is a saint, because she is associated with both the Virgin Mary and the Polish mother. Facilities, hospitals are named after mothers, we have the Polish Mother’s Memorial Child Health Center. Suddenly a book comes out that shows a face of the mother that we wouldn’t quite want to see. And on the other hand – the more someone treats this as a controversy, the more they should look at their relationship with their mother.
– One of my patients said that she learned through this book that she was not alone. This woman had been treated very badly by her mother, beaten and humiliated. The daughter was property to this mother, it was a horrible relationship, still dragging on in her psyche to this day. This knowledge allowed her to free herself, because people who experience violence from their mothers very often feel leprous, they have a feeling that they are the only ones in the world, because it is inconceivable to them that a mother can humiliate or degrade a child. As well as using violence in another form, treating the child as property and forbidding everything. This is the most perfidious form of toxicity: overprotectiveness. It is worth remembering that overprotectiveness is a form of violence. It is annexing the child to fulfill their needs, to communicate: “I am special, I am loved, I am trying, and you are so ungrateful”.
Did you hear the outcry?
– Yes. I was in one of the radio stations, it was a night program that people call. Unfortunately, there is a problem in Poland that sobriety dies after 8pm. Poles are on the fleek after 8pm, they call the radio and vent their frustrations. During this program, a gentleman whose voice indicated that he was unhealthily aroused called in and asked how dare we defile this sanctity of the mother. But it was an example showing that this is why certain myths should be deconstructed, so that people would dare to talk about it. Some people live in a lie, and it is like a drug injected into the veins of a drug addict. Living this way, sooner or later such a person will have to tell someone about it – let it be a therapist and not a prosecutor.
We have the Polish Mother’s Memorial Child Health Center. Suddenly, a book comes out showing the face of the mother, which we would not like to see. On the other hand, the more someone treats this as a controversy, the more they should look at their relationship with their mother.
What, in your opinion, is the genesis of the myth of the Polish Mother?
– Women have come into such a missionary role, especially in our country, because for hundreds of years men have been dying in wars. This part of Europe is a conflagration. Wherever you stick a shovel in, you can find bones. My grandfather was a soldier, fortunately he survived the conflagration of war. My father, born in ’32, also remembers the war times. And finally I, despite the fact that I don’t remember the war times at all, I have a subliminal fear passed on by them, by their history. Many people still have this fear. It is slowly dissolving, but we cannot speak of an automatic extinction. It weakens the already weakened men in particular.
Does post-war trauma fuel women’s missionary activity?
– This trauma is being erased, but very slowly, because it still has an impact. Even today in Warsaw it is difficult to find a place where there are no bullet marks. In this part of Europe, we know much more about what a war fire is than many other nations. These women had to raise their children by themselves. We have generations of children raised without fathers. Weak men or no men at all deepened women’s conviction that they were alone, that they had to carry the burden of the family on their shoulders.
Hasn’t the Polish myth of the Polish mother started to deconstruct itself over time?
– No, it is getting stronger and stronger. It is important to remember that motherhood is inseparable from fatherhood, for a mother cannot become a mother, in the biological sense, without a father. And the male family is messed up, in agony, dying for many reasons. It is being killed by all kinds of addictions, by over-work, by surrounding itself with unnecessary objects, by frustration.
Does this mean that masculinity is weakening, giving fuel to the “umatkopolkowanie” of femininity?
– What’s more, for many years there has been an attack on men, an attempt to generalize all men, to judge them by one measure. Men are a priori oppressive, fundamentally bad, and violent. The problem lies elsewhere. If we depreciate men, we must remember that they have their own sensitivities. Encountering these kinds of opinions and watching a mother humiliate a father, we have a 100% guarantee that the son will be “neutered” because he has no role model. I hear this very often in the office.
– Oppression is not about gender, country, city, race, color, or skin. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn beautifully wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, the border between good and evil is in the human heart. Not in the state, not in gender, not in race.
– Biologically, women are weaker, but no one expects physical strength from them. They are much stronger mentally, emotionally. Very often they are the neck, the directing head of the family. That men seduce women is also a myth. Men get women who let them. A man thinks that he has fought for a woman, but if she had not allowed it, none of this would have happened. Women should never be treated as inferior because there is no masculinity without femininity. The problem we have now is that they are trying to divide us, put up barricades and put us on one side or the other. We are becoming polarized, but this is taking the easy way out, this is laziness, because it is more difficult to discuss with someone than to fight.
What is the source of a mother’s toxicity towards her child?
– One thing needs to be said at the outset: the child for the mother should not be the most important thing in the world. If that is the case, we have a problem. The most important thing to a mother should be herself. A bit like in an airplane: when the masks fall, the parent should put the mask on himself first – save himself to save his child. We are only able to help the child if we are able to take care of ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves, don’t fulfill our needs, we will not raise a happy child. If a parent will sacrifice himself and still reproach the child for it in a mean way, which is often the case, we can be sure that we will raise a frustrated child.
This is the most perfidious form of toxicity: overprotectiveness. It is important to remember that overprotectiveness is a form of violence. It is annexing the child to fulfill your needs, to communicate: “I am special, I am loved, I am trying, and you are so ungrateful”.
– Another thing: what does the badger do when the little one is at the age when it becomes independent? He takes it by the neck, carries it to the other end of the forest and runs away. The eagle pushes the chicks out of the nest with its beak. Cruel, actually. One of the five doesn’t survive, but four take to the skies. How do we do it? The other way around. We want to hold our baby as long as possible, naively thinking that this will help our baby. And the opposite is true. There is no way to create a world by fencing ourselves off from evil with a wall and having our child be ready and the parent do the anointing on the basis of: yes, this is the moment. No, the role of the parent, the mother, is to teach their child to be able to function on their own, not to serve.
– When I hear about a mother-daughter friendship, my alarm siren goes off because the mother will always look at the child as a chick to be protected. It is very difficult for a mother to allow her child to experience. We can’t protect the child from the evil of the whole world, the child has to experience it. Then what can the parent do? He can try to make the child more competent. The only shield to protect the child from the evils of this world is to be competent.
– I have before my eyes a man, a very high earner, who had the misfortune of having an unfulfilled mother. She had no role model, she developed a crippled image of a man because her father did not fulfill his responsibilities to the family at all. This woman did not experience the anointing. For a girl to become a princess and a boy to become a knight, a symbolic act of initiation must take place. It is believed that the mother should do this, but in both cases this anointing is done by the father. This is what causes these mothers: they were not anointed by their fathers. Behind the toxic mother is a guy who didn’t fulfill his role.
What is the biggest challenge in dealing with such a burden, the burden of a toxic mother?
– It is said that the longest journey begins with the first step. That first step is trying to understand why I am this way or that way, why I make the choices I do .
. you said it was easy to blame your father. To tell myself that my mother did something wrong to me is harder?
– It is harder, and sometimes it is downright impossible. As psychologists say, the most concreted social structure is the family. In the family the boy to beat is the father – because of physicality and many other factors. Very many men are simply immature boys regardless of their age.
The male family is messed up, in agony, dying for many reasons. It is killed by all kinds of addictions, overwork, surrounding yourself with unnecessary objects, and frustration.
How widespread is the problem of maternal toxicity in our country?
– It’s a self-perpetuating spiral. The longer we don’t do anything about it, the longer we let go, the deeper we go into this toxicity. In my opinion, three quarters of women in Poland tend to be toxic mothers.
Are you sure it’s that many?
– Yes, 75 percent! If only because women are more and more afraid of starting a family, because they don’t find men stronger than themselves. The more weak men around, the more toxic, frustrated mothers. This can only be remedied by a strong, loving, faithful, responsible man. I’ve had women come to me who say they’ve devoted their lives to building a home, and then they get a jerk who leaves them. They are slackers, losers, often shaped by weak fathers and toxic mothers. For many, different means better, which is not the case, because newness is not a value in itself.
– Mothers think that they can do everything on their own, that they have to take care of everything that has to do with the children, the house, the family, so they become overprotective or they exude their devotion emphasizing it at every step. Well no, in addition to care from the parent, boundary pushing is needed. Children need to experience. Meanwhile, all the spaces where children are – kindergartens, schools – are filled with women who immediately react negatively to every manifestation of children’s expression. Children do not have their own space, because this space is filled by adults who constantly interfere, and these adults around them are 90 percent women.
So toxicity can occur not only in the family, but also between the child and the caregiver, kindergarten teacher, teacher?
– Absolutely. How do you react to the phrase “good child”? I am trembling. There are no naughty children, there are no good or bad children. A child shows behavior, and it is adults who define it as good or bad. And what do we consider bad? Those that are uncomfortable for us. That’s when the words are said: “calm down!”, “how are you acting?”, “how do you look?”, “what did you do?”, “why did you do that?”.
On the other hand, any lack of behavior on the part of the child is tremendously appreciated, right? One says: “look how polite he is, how polite she is”.
– That is a disaster. I urge parents not to be afraid to let their child be a child and be with them in this. Adults for most of a child’s life undermine his competence, depreciate him, constantly reprimand him, use words that are like a smack of the whip: “you are naughty”. What does a child feel after 15 years of such treatment? Gratitude? No, he is a volcano of rage, he is maximally pissed off. So he uses a very wide range of different kinds of destructive behavior. The kids accede to this very eagerly, because the child really would rather be a drug addict, an alcoholic, a thief than be a nobody.