Judy Ruskay Rabinor Talks About Making Peace with My Mother

For many, Mother’s Day is a bittersweet holiday, the pressure to celebrate – exacerbated by a commercial juggernaut that pushes cards, flowers, and gifts – conflicting with feelings of suffering, anger, guilt, or regret. Those emotions may be even more difficult to reconcile for those whose mothers are no longer living.

Judith Ruskay Rabinor understands those sentiments. Her latest book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother follows her very personal journey to reconcile with her own mother who died ten years ago. Rabinor knew her mother’s love, but she also felt wounded at times. Writing this book proved to be cathartic.

Rabinor is a clinical psychologist, author, writing coach, speaker and workshop leader. In addition to her New York City private practice, she offers remote consultations for clinicians, families and writers. She has published dozens of articles for both the public and for professionals and has authored two previous books, A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy (2002) and Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex (2012). 

The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother is filled with hard won life lessons, including the fact that it’s never too late to let go of hurts and disappointments and develop compassion for yourself—and for anyone you love.

Rabinor sat down with our writer Esther Cohen for an interview.

Why did you write this book?

You might think that’s a simple question, but it isn’t.  

I began writing this book as a ritual of mourning. My mother passed away in 2011 after a difficult decade battling Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, a slow, sad, debilitating ending. I was the loyal and devoted daughter who was also despairing and resentful as I plunged into what is now a familiar journey: accompanying our parents to the gates. I grieved for my mother as she deteriorated, I grieved for myself, too, as I tenaciously stood by her side in what was an exhausting journey for both of us. I’ve always found solace in writing, and I thought it would be consoling for me to write about her.  As a therapist and as an author, writing has always offered me an emotional outlet.

There’s a deeper answer to this question as well:  Although the title of my book is The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother, it wasn’t really my mother I wanted to make peace with: it was my own ambivalent feelings towards her. The heart of the matter is I loved my mother deeply, cared for her tenaciously – and, I also carried grudges, resentments, hurts and wounds. Now that I’ve written the book, I understand both of us better.  

Judy and Her Mother

What was something you understood better after looking at your relationship with your mother?

One thing about my mother that irritated me was her uber optimism. It felt superficial and inauthentic. I felt she was unknowable. Here’s a great example: 

She always described her mother—my maternal grandmother, Lillian, whom I loved dearly—as a “perfect” mother. Although I knew a “perfect” person didn’t really exist, perhaps on some level, as a young child for sure, I thought, that I too should have a perfect mother. But unfortunately, that was not how I felt. Ambivalent feelings tortured me. I thought there was something wrong with me that I often found my mother to be annoying or insensitive, certainly less than perfect.

Today I know that “perfect” love always carries imperfections. There is no perfect person, no perfect mother, no perfect child or partner. Writing this book helped me clarify this simple fact: I could love my mother and still have disappointments. 

Tell us more about your mother.

My mother grew up in an era and a family milieu where emotional difficulties were not discussed. For example, she was an only child, but whenever I asked her why she didn’t have any siblings, she would simply shrug: she didn’t know. She hadn’t asked her mother. My question, “Was grandma unable to have more children?” was met with another shrug. Many topics we talk about today, (i.e., infertility, abortion, domestic abuse) were taboo. My mother had trouble validating any unhappiness she or I struggled with. I often felt ashamed of my feelings of hurt or resentment —I felt they were “wrong” even though now I know feelings aren’t wrong.  Expressing “negative” feelings wasn’t acceptable. According to my mother, everything was always “fine.” Being told things are fine when they are not fine is crazy making. So is being told to “just get over” whatever is troubling.  

When my children were young, Mr. Rogers television show was a staple in our home. One of his favorite sayings sticks with me to this day: “What’s mentionable is manageable.” Being able to talk about feelings normalizes them. This is a basic principle of psychotherapy and undoubtedly influenced my decision to become a therapist. Talking not only helps but can change things. And actually, it’s not only talking that is helpful—it’s being listened to.  Writing this book helped me listen to my own story and helped me appreciate how I gravitated to becoming a psychologist and then a psychotherapist where feelings were a source of curiosity.

Judy and Her Mother Relaxing

Did you always feel you mother’s love?

It’s important to stress that I knew my mother loved me and was no “Mommy Dearest.” I knew I was not a victim of childhood neglect. I certainly never lacked for the basics—food, clothing and shelter.  I knew I came from privilege: a home with books and classical music where summer camps and family vacations were par for the course. A college education was always in my future. But I know from years of being a therapist that we are all shaped by the way we are loved—and not loved. As a therapist, I know that we are all a combination of nature and nurture and the traumas of ordinary life leave scars.

There is more. I wrote this book to normalize the fact that painful childhood experiences live on and are sometimes impossible to “just get over.” You don’t have to be the victim of cataclysmic abuse to have been traumatized and left scarred. I learned this as a specialist treating eating disorders. The Girl in the Red Boots is filled with stories of people, mainly women and young girls who developed anorexia, bulimia or binge eating as a consequence of unmanageable events and feelings. My book has been described as a hybrid because it combines my memoir with stories from my patients.  What’s unique about my book is I describe how doing therapy changed me as well as my patients.

 Can you explain how therapy changes the therapist?

Reflection is core to psychotherapy. Therapy offers patients new questions and experiences as well as the opportunity for reflection. Not only do patients carry their therapists with them, but therapists carry their patients’ stories as well. Central to my growth and healing was my ability to ask myself the question: how was it that I was compassionate to my patients’ mothers but lacked compassion for my own mother? Asking this question shifted something important in me. Ive learned from my patients that sometimes simply asking a question is enough to create change.  

“A proud day in the life of my mom: she graduated college at 63! She’s with me and my children.”

What do you want the reader to learn from your story?

I wrote this book to remind readers that stories are our best teachers. Every story you hear has the possibility of changing you.  I have the privilege of being a therapist; the stories in my office are a window on pain and resiliency. Every day I learn from my patients. But all of us listen to others’ stories every day.  The stories you hear have great power—all that is necessary is to listen with curiosity: an open mind and an open heart.

Any surprises in writing this book?

Yes. This book was initially titled Careless Love, a title that reflects how I felt about my mother. When I started writing the book, I saw her as careless and superficial. I was angrier at her than perhaps I even knew. What surprised me the most was the compassion I developed for my mother as I researched and thought deeply about her life. When you explore someone else’s life, it’s hard not to forgive them for their flaws, and to acknowledge both the highs and lows that shaped them.

Pondering some of the challenges my mother faced help me acknowledge my own limitations: I had not thought deeply enough about factors that shaped her generation and her life. That was a humbling experience – seeing I hadn’t taken in the whole story. My perspective widened. I didn’t know that I had this reservoir of compassion and acceptance in me. And with acceptance came a new level of respect for my mother. Seeing her strengths was a gift because to feel you are the daughter of a strong woman rather than a careless woman is a rich, wonderful legacy.  

How long did it take to write the book?

Many stories woven into this book were written almost 40 years ago when I took my first writing class. I was inspired to join my first writing group by my mother-in-law’s story. 

In 1983 my mother-in-law, Ruth Rabinor, announced that she was getting remarried. How ironic: she was getting remarried, and I was getting divorced from none other than her son—but that’s a topic for another day.  I was delighted for her– after 15 years of divorce she had found love—at 66- wow!  I’d assumed her life as a divorced woman was pretty miserable, but on the eve of her remarriage she eagerly shared her adventures as a single woman. She was an inspiration for recently divorced me and her message was clear: single life could be fun!  

I began writing a book I named (working title) Between Marriages: Tales from the Diaries of Mid-Life Women, chronicling Ruth’s stories as well as my own. In the course of writing that book, suddenly, it was as if I went into an altered state. I switched my focus and began writing stories about my mother. Why? I can’t really answer that question. Now after many years of teaching and coaching writers, I know that creativity is a mystery. I’m often surprised how a story about one thing can suddenly pivot, but that’s how the creative process works—it’s filled with surprises. What’s significant here is many of the stories I wrote decades ago have wound up in The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. Many of the stories that wound up in this book were first written in the 80’s.

Here are some takeaways from the book:

  1. It’s never too late to change your story and change your life. I wrote this book after my mother had passed on. Even if your parent is gone you have the opportunity to revisit your story and rewrite your life.
  2. No one is as bad as the worst thing s/he has ever done.  For many years I held onto “Bad Mommy” stories that reinforced my dissatisfaction with my mother. 
  3. We are all imperfect narrators. Your story is simply a story. Now is a good time to examine any stories you tell yourself repeatedly. Do your stories reinforce your grudges?  Are you telling the story of a victim or a survivor? Change your story, change your life.  
  4. Love is always flawed. Recently I heard Adrienne Brodeur speaking about her compelling memoir, Wild Game. She quoted Vivian Gornick’s advice about building characters when writing a memoir: “You have to show the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the victim. While writing my memoir, I kept those works taped to a bulletin board above my desk.

The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother
Judith Ruskay Rabinor

For more information on Judith, go to her website.