Ideally, parents are responsible for nurturing their children with love and care to help them develop a healthy view of themselves and the world around them. But life is not always ideal, is it?
About two weeks ago, a video made rounds on social media about the woman from Kitengela who stabbed her toddler to death. Neighbours who filmed the horrifying incident on their phones through her locked door begged her to stop but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Some tried to break down the door but their efforts were futile. The matter is in court.
When parents, for whatever reason, abandon their responsibility of protecting their children and instead endanger their lives then the parent-child relationship becomes toxic. Such a situation can quickly escalate and become fatal.
Fortunately, more people are speaking up and bringing to light these toxic situations. A good number of people who are suffering from childhood traumas have generated discussions on toxic parents as a way to find healing.
Very well mind, a US-based website on mental health defines a toxic parent as someone who constantly acts in a way that makes their kids feel guilty, afraid, or obligated. Their behaviour is not a one-off incident; rather, it is a pattern that adversely affects the life of the child. They're not going to say sorry or even acknowledge that what they're doing is wrong. Additionally, neglect or abuse is frequently chronic or escalating.
Today, we bring this discussion to you dear reader through the stories of two young women who are grappling with the effects of a strained relationship with their mothers, one marked by emotional turbulence, lack of empathy and abuse.
Kate Chebet, 24. My heart bleeds for the love and warmth of my mum
Growing up, I felt like the black sheep of the family. My sister would do something wrong and somehow, I would be the one to get punished. The few times I dared ask why I was punished for nothing didn’t go too well. Picture poking into a beehive, that was often how it ended. I would get stung with bitter insults and punishment.
For some reason, my mother couldn’t stand me. There was something about me that repelled her and each time I tried to get close to her, I would activate her “fight” or “flee” hormone. The only time she seemed to care a bit was when I was grievously ill. She would give me medicine and then steer clear of me.
As I got older, entering my pre-teens, my mother’s deep-seated hatred for me became unsettling. I was dying for answers. One day, we were chatting with a cousin of mine and I learnt that I had an older brother who died when I was barely one. This cousin revealed that my brother who was five years old at the time got injured while playing.
At the time, I was unwell and my mum had taken me to hospital. My brother was rushed to hospital where it was discovered that he sustained a brain injury. Mum had a trying time nursing two sick children –my brother and I. However, my brother succumbed to the injury and his demise took a toll on my mum. She never recovered from her loss.
This revelation shed light on the many questions that had weighed me down for so long. No wonder my mum kept saying that I was bad news. She often told me I was a headache since the day I was born.
Unfortunately, the answers I had sought didn’t change my situation. My mum’s coldness towards me continued to grow as I got older. I tried reaching out to her, talking calmly but she would lash out with insults and vitriol. Whenever I encountered a challenge, I kept it to myself and tried to solve it because I knew I didn’t have my mum’s listening ear.
Dad was away from home a lot because of the nature of his job. The few times I got a chance to share some problems with him didn’t go too well as mum would jump in and dismiss the issues. My dad was oblivious to all these and so I gave up trying to talk to him as well.
I am now well into my 20s but my predicament has not changed. The only person who I can turn to is my grandmother. In 2018, I pleaded with my grandma to help us—mum and I –be reconciled to one another. She agreed and we had a meeting; my mum, grandmother and me.
I remember looking into mum’s eyes as I begged for her forgiveness so we could nurture a mother-daughter relationship. I got courage from my grandmother being there with us. I will never forget the icy words that came from my mother’s lips in response to my plea:
“I cannot forgive you and I have removed you from my heart. I will not even call you my daughter.”
Since that time, I became invisible to her. We live in the same house but we are worse than strangers. I still try to do my best, especially the house chores but nothing I do is good enough for her.
This strained relationship with mum has led me to attempt suicide three times. The first time I tried to take my life was in 2016 while I was in Form Three. I was at home for the April holidays and a male relative attacked and raped me. I tried to tell my mum about the incident but she literally shooed me away.
School resumed and I went as if nothing had happened. However, the pain was gnawing in me silently and I began getting depressed. At the time, I didn’t know that the agony I was experiencing had started affecting my mental health.
When the school closed again, I went home and decided to buy some pills and kill myself with a drug overdose. My brother stumbled into my room as I was popping the pills and he took them away from me. He started asking me what was wrong but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I had been raped. I fled to my cousin’s home which wasn’t far from ours and stayed there for a while.
My father came looking for me and on the way home, I shared my problems. He was at a loss for what to do but only shared some encouragement. We got home and mum was her usual indifferent self, didn’t care at all about the entire incident.
Then in 2018, my elder sister fell pregnant out of wedlock. I will never understand how I got blamed for her pregnancy but that is what happened. My parents thrashed me senselessly perhaps out of their frustrations and disappointment in my sister.
What broke my heart was seeing my father beat me up until I got admitted to hospital. After I was discharged, I went to school and he came there to disown me saying that I wouldn’t amount to anything. My only ally had been turned against me.
Alone, in pain and dejected, I bought some pills and decided to put an end to my misery. As I popped the pills into my mouth, I suddenly had a change of heart. There was this strong will to live that washed over me and I felt it was not time for me to die. So I got rid of the pills and thankfully wasn’t affected by the ones I had swallowed.
Two years after this last attempt, the pandemic was declared in the country. I was still at home and trying to keep myself occupied. Then one day, my mum came home from work and asked me to leave. She chased me away in the middle of a pandemic.
She said I was useless and banished me from home. Once again, I attempted to take my life but in the nick of time, I sought refuge at my grandmother’s home where I stayed for six months. My father occasionally came by to see how I was faring.
After six months, I knew it was time to go back home. I have been there since that time. Home is not a happy or safe place for me. When my father is around, it is bearable. When he is away, it is as though I am alone in the home. I have become totally invisible to my mother now.
We don’t talk, I am just like a piece of furniture in the house. It hurts me mentally that this is how we are, with my own mother. But what can I do about it?
Nancy Mwende, 30. My mum wishes me dead
I noticed the affection divide between my brother and me from a very young age. He would be petted and handled delicately while I was roughed up and shouted at. When I was six years old, I fell sick and the doctor said it was from food poisoning. My mum didn’t seem concerned, something I picked even at that young age. I began to feel afraid whenever I was around her.
We lived in a rural village that had a river where we watered livestock. One day while I was herding the cows, mum came to call me for lunch. Suddenly, she became agitated and grabbed me by my tiny shoulders threatening to feed me to the crocodiles in the river. Terror rocked my body as neighbours pried her away from me. I was 11 years old.
Shortly after this incident, we had an altercation and she exiled me from the house. I would look after the cows during the day and in the evening she shut me out of the house. I spent the night in nearby bushes for an entire week. I slept hungry as she only fed me in the morning as I came to take the cows out to graze. I kept wondering what I had done to make my mum so heartless.
By the time I joined Class Four, she had stopped taking care of me. I learnt to cook, do house chores, clean my clothes and be independent. A year later, mum left home.
Now, my dad was always away at work and my brother had thrown his life away roaming aimlessly in the village. When mum left, I was basically alone most of the time in the home. By now, I was accustomed to loneliness and didn’t allow it to keep me from going to school or living my life.
I completed primary school and passed the exams well enough to join secondary school. Then one day, my mum came home unceremoniously and announced that I was old enough to get married. I couldn’t believe my ears. Here I was planning to join high school then my mum who had neglected me for four years shows up wanting to marry me off!
I refused but she was adamant. My father enrolled me to secondary school and I dove into those books with great determination. When I came home after the first term, mum was waiting for me. She insisted I had to be engaged to some old man who had promised to build for her a house. I refused and she chased me away from home. I went to my grandmother’s place and stayed there for a while.
Mum left home again and we never made contact with my mum for the entire time I was in school. It hurt me a lot that I was growing into womanhood without a mum to guide me yet she was alive. I heard that she told people that she would only return home after I was dead so she could bury me.
After I completed high school, I learnt that mum was ailing so I decided to go and visit her. Do you know, even when she was frail and sick in bed she still had the strength to tell me that I would die before her?
Mum got better and now that I was grown, I thought I could win her over. I thought we could have some form of relationship. So one day, I decided to share with her my dream of becoming a nurse. To my surprise, she told me that she would to an aunt who would guide me on how to become a nurse. Her enthusiasm would have been my first red flag but children tend to trust their mothers a lot.
It turns out, she conspired with my aunt to bring me to Nairobi and marry me off. By the time I was unravelling this plot, I was already in the city, in this man’s house and stranded in a new place. That is how I got married.
After some months, I got pregnant with my firstborn son. Mum came to see me during the delivery and just when I thought we would bond over motherhood, she dropped a bombshell that shocked my husband and in-laws but didn’t surprise me much.
“The doctors should just remove the child out of her womb and let her perish.” There was my mum in her true colours, wishing me death as always.
In 2017, my husband and I decided to build mum a house despite our sour relationship. During the house opening party, she grabbed me by the arm and took me behind the house where she had dug a shallow grave.
“This is your graveyard; I don’t like you. I can even bury you alive right now.”
I don’t understand my mum’s obsession with wishing me death. Once I asked her why she wants me dead so badly and she responded curtly,
“I carried you for nine months and I have the liberty to do anything to you, I can even hang you if I wished.”
I learnt to accept that something is terribly wrong with my mum and we will never have an affectionate relationship.
However, I didn’t think this malice would trickle down to my children. Last year we went to visit her and she treated my children very badly. We have never talked with her since then.
Why would a mother hate her own child?
Isaac Maweu, a Counselling psychologist based in Nairobi describes a toxic parent as someone who has challenges such as marital misunderstandings, and childhood traumas and they transfer it to their children, a phenomenon in Psychology called projection and displacement.
“Many times, this toxicity is unconscious and a parent may not be aware of the big impact their attitude and hatred carries. Depression and stress would be another factor that triggers such behaviour which leads to negative emotional contagion which is spreading damaging emotions to the people around.” explains the psychologist.
“A parent would be battling a disorder like bipolar or any other mental issues and therefore would end up without knowledge distressing their children’s lives. A rejected child can also make a parent develop detrimental thoughts due to the background in how the child was conceived.”
Isaac says for someone who has had a toxic parent, can take an ACE (Advanced childhood experiences) test that looks back at their history and helps them come to terms with the past. The ACE is a ten-question assessment done in therapy that looks at what one went through as a child and can help ascertain how it affects a person’s current life and the extent of the damage.
An individual who has high ACE scores is susceptible to abusing drugs, engaging in violent acts and crime or plunging into a pit of mental anguish.
“Whatever one undergoes in the hands of a primary caregiver such as a house help or a parent in the 0-18 years’ bracket might end up shaping their adult life. It is advisable if one had an abusive and manipulative parent, they should seek psychological help to avoid ending up having failed relationships. When dealing with relationships, it is key to note that you offer what you have. You cannot show love to a partner or child if when growing up nobody showed you love.”
When one has pent-up emotions and pain, the counsellor says they will without a doubt vent it out causing emotional, psychological or physical harm.
To heal from within, one does re-parenting whereby the things your parents ought to have done and they did not do, you start working on yourself. For example, if you were never taken out to parks as a child, you take yourself out. You begin affirming yourself while aiming to bridge the gaps that your parents never filled.
There is transgenerational trauma which recurs in a cycle among generations because none of the family members is aware of the difficulties they have and inadvertently transfer to their children.
On how can deal with a toxic parent, Isaac says being aware of the missing link between what a parent is supposed to offer and what does not is the first step. Additionally, one should develop a coping mechanism in the midst of the turmoil that comes with having a toxic parent. It is advisable to seek professional help and break the toxic cycle.