Friday, October 24, 2014

Library Shelf: Parenthood Reading List

Much of my personal reading this year has focused on healing the effects of my childhood. It began inadvertently a few years ago with a library book about mothering, and led further and further down the rabbit hole, as it were.

I share this list in hope that it will help someone else--to recover a lost or damaged childhood, or simply to be a better parent.

The Mom Factor by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (authors of the Boundaries books)

This book really set me on my journey to figure out the role we call motherhood. Incidentally, it is also the only one of Cloud & Townsend's books that I've really appreciated. The authors examine what a child needs from a mother, and then look at how five different types of mothers fail to adequately meet those needs. Overall, The Mom Factor motivated and inspired me. It gave me hope that I could repair the gaps my mom was unable to fill and become the mom my kids need.

As I was reading, I really wished I'd found this book before becoming a mother myself. As it was, I found myself processing the information at three different levels at once: what my mother missed out in her childhood, how my mom was unable to give me what she didn't have, and what my daughter needed me to be for her. It was rather overwhelming!

(I should probably note that this is the only book on my list that uses the Bible as a reference. However, it was not difficult to separate the counseling parts of the book from the parts that read like a sermon.)

You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen

As a linguist, Tannen is primarily interested in how conversation reflects social relationships. Here, she turns the spotlight on conversational interaction between mothers and daughters. The sociological implications build on Tannen's other fascinating work, but frankly, communication with my mother has never been primarily about words, so I didn't find this book very helpful in a therapeutic sense. It probably did influence my relationships with my girls, though, in that it provided an outside reference point for mother-daughter communication.

Complex PTSD by Pete Walker

Since this book came out in January, it has been my bible. My copy is dog-eared and highlighted throughout. Seriously, if you are struggling to overcome the effects of abuse or neglect in your childhood, this is a must-read.

Walker writes with compassion and understanding, having spent many years on his own recovery. Many times, I would dissolve into tears after just a page. All year, I've intended to write a proper review of this book, but words fail me.

Through these chapters, Walker has been my mentor and friend, offering courage and encouragement at every step and especially when I feel I am making no progress at all. The sections on grief, on managing flashbacks, and on silencing what Walker terms "the inner critic" deserve particular mention.

While this book builds on the work of many others (check out the extensive bibliography for further reading), it stands alone as a self-help manual or as a supplement to help you get the most out of your therapy experience.

Toxic Parents by Susan Forward

From the author of Emotional Blackmail, another extremely accessible and straightforward therapy book!

The first part of the book covered ground that was already familiar to me from other sources, but the second half was invaluable. Forward offers very specific advice on confronting toxic parents--not in the hope of changing them, but in order to recover one's autonomous self. She outlines clear goals and milestones on the road to emotional health. It did me good to see how much progress I have already made! There is also a forthright chapter on handling relationships that involved incest.

While each author I read discussed the concept of forgiveness, I found the thoughts in this book most helpful to my situation.

Difficult Mothers by Terri Apter

A good overview book. Like Cloud and Townsend, Apter categorizes five different types of difficult mothers. Unfortunately, they all sounded familiar, so I had to read the whole book! Very readable, but not as practical as some of the rest.

Surviving a Borderline Parent by Kimberlee Roth and Freda Friedman

Though written to adult children of a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder, the authors emphasize that the tools described here are useful whether or not a difficult parent has actually been diagnosed with BDP. (Diagnosis may not even be possible, since narcissistic or borderline individuals may not be open to getting psychological help from professionals.) A very educational and informative book.

Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Lawson

Using a fairy tale metaphor, Lawson describes various types of borderline mothers and gives specific advice for understanding and interacting with each. I learned so much about BDP while reading this book. For example, that borderline individuals may be high-functioning or low-functioning. The many possible variations make understanding a borderline mother extra-challenging.

Ultimately, Lawson benefited me by removing my fear that I, too, might be a "borderline mother" and by helping me realize that a borderline mother can be truly incapable of parenting. In other words, she may really have done "the best she could".

Adult Children of Abusive Parents by Steven Farmer

If PTSD is not a factor, this book would be a fine place to begin. Farmer uses slightly different terminology, but his explanations of psychology are otherwise very similar to Walker's. Farmer uses a more linear approach that is very easy to follow. Also, throughout each chapter, Farmer assigns short, specific exercises for healing and recovery, and encourages extensive journaling. If you are looking for do-it-yourself "therapy", this is the book for you.

I have spent many reading sessions in tears over this book--perhaps not surprising since Farmer highlights the healing importance of both grief and anger. But he is not content to resolve the past, he moves on to chapters on "Growing Up Again" and on becoming the parent you wish you'd had.

* * *

In addition to the above self-help genre, these novels and memoirs have been healing and enlightening in their own way:

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas--A recent novel about a charming but psychopathic mother and the havoc she wreaks on her children.

A Spell on the Water by Marjorie Cole--Poignantly set in northwestern lower Michigan in the 1960's, the mother in this novel struggles to raise five children without succumbing to her own grief. Themes include addiction, fear, and loneliness.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls--The author's first novel. Short, but meaningful.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls--A shocking memoir; I think it permanently rearranged my brain. Walls is an inspiration and a guiding star.

Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes--My book club read this southern memoir, and it generated lively discussion!

Mom and Me and Mom by Maya Angelou--The fascinating story of two incredibly resilient women.


  1. The Glass Castle was sure an eye opener, wasn't it?

    I am still smarting from a dismissive, self righteous, and cliched response that a relative made after reading it.

  2. This is a little awkward, but I enjoyed some of your posts on Recovering Grace and found your blog. My husband is struggling with the psychological aftermath of his ATI/abusive parents, so I checked out some of the books you recommended from the library for him. The library didn't have "Complex PTSD" by Walker but did have his "The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame" so I got that instead. My husband is not a big self-help book guy, but he found the book really meaningful. Thank you so much for recommending these books!

  3. I found the book "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting" both gut-wrenching and tremendously helpful. The title should be ignored-- it doesn't capture what the book is about at all. I'll try to explain:

    This book is about how you help your child learn to understand and express their emotions. I had read a lot of books like those on your list, about healing from abuse, but Gottman's book gave me something different-- an exact sense of what was missing when I was a child. Fundamentalist parenting involves denying, shaming, and suppressing your child's every emotion. For some kids, like me, that just never quite took-- I was never able to suppress the way my parents & church wanted me to-- and even after leaving home, I was just left with enormously strong emotions that I couldn't deal with. I harmed myself, I smoked, I had risky relationships, because my feelings were just always too much for me. In this book, Gottman talks you through example after example of a child expressing emotions-- sometimes just by crying, sometimes through misbehavior-- and a parent helping them learn to name those in a non-judgemental way, talk about how it feels to have them, and ultimately, accept those feelings and learn to express them in healthy ways.

    The book goes into a lot of detail about the unhelpful (and sometimes abusive) ways that parents respond to their children's emotions. It has tremendously helped me with my parenting (two-year-olds live in a constant state of intense emotion!), but it really put things into place for me personally, because I began to finally see how I have floundered about, looking everywhere for recognition of my emotions, because they were never accepted in my home.

    I read it when I was pregnant, and I can already see in my son that he has a confidence in navigating his feelings that I never had. His "fits" are never out-of-control the way mine were, because he can seek understanding from me and knows it. His "no!" is never as defiant and angry as mine was, because he knows I will acknowledge it (even if I can't accept it-- sorry, kid, you may not pour water on the cat!).

    Anyway, I highly recommend it, even for non-parents, because it really helped me replace my own shame-based inner monologue with an internal "emotion coach," who acknowledges the feelings, but helps guide me into healthier expressions of them.