The Corner: Mother Appreciation Parties
Journal of Systemic Therapies, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2012, pp. 79–86
I can easily trace the genesis of Mother Appreciation Parties to my meeting with Julie and her 13-year-old son, Brandon. I recall reading the intake worker’s notes regarding the referral mentioning “temper tantrums.” By then, I was very familiar with temper tantrumming in many of its varieties over the years I had been developing and trying out my contextual “temper tantrum party approach” to such excesses of behavior.1 But I have to admit I was entirely unprepared for the history and context of Julie’s concerns about Brandon’s tantrumming.
Julie, despite her age of 40 or so, looked as if she was weary with life itself. On first meeting, she immediately set about telling me what she considered to be the back story to Brandon’s tantrumming. She met and married Brandon’s Kiwi father overseas and then emigrated to New Zealand to make a home for the couple here. He was an international businessman whose travels took him away from New Zealand for various periods of time. From the very beginning of their marriage and even more so after Brandon’s birth, he would scream at, revile, and beat her if any of his whims or demands were not urgently attended to. The beatings were frequent and often led to injuries requiring medical treatments. However, she was tolerant of this because of her fervent desire for her son to grow up having a father, and she thought there was nothing she couldn’t endure to see this longing of hers come to pass. During her husband’s absences overseas, she was determined to devote herself to her only child, doing everything imaginable to foster his initiative. During his father’s residences in New Zealand, she spoke of how Brandon would withdraw into what she referred to as “a kind of hiding himself away.” Brandon did agree when I asked if he had, in a manner of speak- ing, led two lives, one under his mother’s care and another during his father’s periods at home? As I might have expected, mother and son looked very kindly towards one another throughout this discussion.
However, Brandon went on the alert when Julie said that when Brandon turned 11 and, as she put it, “started having a mind of his own” and was no longer willing to obey his father’s commands as he had once been willing to do, his father started to turn his attention to his son and chastise him for each and every per- ceived breach of his orders. According to her, she did everything in her power to deflect his father’s attentions away from Brandon. No matter how hard she tried she could not be successful for very long and would be threatened by him “to stay out of this. It’s got nothing to do with you!” As she dreaded, finally he started beating Brandon. This became unbearable to her given her devotion to her son, especially when she observed how he had started “going into hiding all the time, even when his father was overseas.” Despite her desire for her son to be raised by a father, she finally decided the violence her son was suffering was unconscionable and fled to a women’s refuge during one of her husband’s over- seas trips. Again as I might have expected, mother and son looked very kindly towards one another throughout this discussion.
This was soon to change dramatically. As Julie proceeded, her direct and forceful manner of speaking was replaced by a hesitance as if she was taking pains not to offend Brandon and seemed to be checking with him almost after every carefully enunciated word. I was soon to learn she had good reason for such prevarication. She told me that ever since they started living on their own, Brandon had commenced screaming at, reviling, and beating her if every one of his whims or demands was not attended to immediately. In fact, “he calls me exactly the same names his father did!” Perhaps I was so taken aback by what Julie was telling me that I was no longer scanning Brandon when he erupted in what could only be called screaming that was of such an intensity that my first thought was for other families and their children in adjoining therapy rooms. I jumped out of my seat and rushed to him: “Quick, give me your hand! This is an emergency! You are frightening the young children in the other therapy rooms!” He was caught off guard, temporarily desisted from screaming, and allowed me to take his hand in mine. “You are going to be okay! Just slow your breathing and count down after me . . . 10 . . . 9 . . . 8” and so on. There were long pauses between each number. He recovered his equanimity and reassured me that we could proceed. Julie told me, watching Brandon out of the corner of her eye, that such events as I had just witnessed occurred between 10 and 15 times a day whenever he disagreed with anything she said or in response to any of her requests of him. The disheartened look on her face, which for good reason she didn’t dare to speak aloud, suggested several queries to me: “Is this my fate? Was every beating I endured to provide him with a father and every beating I accepted to cover up for him for nothing?”
There were four more incidents of uncontrollable screaming when Brandon was affronted by some comment or other of his mother’s, each of which I was able to deal with by some version of my “emergency responding.” Julie also mentioned her policy to which she had always been faithful: “I decided to never say a bad word to Brandon about his father!” I turned to Brandon and asked him if he could “bear the weight” of learning “the truth about your mother, even if her truth might be very different from your father’s truth?” Wondering what was coming next, he tentatively agreed. Knowing the risks we all were taking and con- stantly seeking Brandon’s consent to proceed with further inquiry, I interviewed Julie about how she “would find ways so you took the blows that were intended for Brandon and he got off scot-free.” I carefully observed that Brandon listened intently and without comment. After a detailed account of several incidents, I turned to Brandon and asked him: “Did you have any idea before now that your mother went to such lengths to take the blows that otherwise would have fallen on you?” He admitted that this was entirely new to him. “Do you mind telling me if knowing this changes your mind about the kind of mother you have?” He seemed to me somewhat ashamed to admit that it definitely had. “Would you be willing to tell me what kind of mother you thought you had before knowing her ‘truth’?,” I asked. Before he could answer, I quickly turned to Julie and asked if she would allow him to tell his “truth” to her and “not think unkindly of him.” She gave her permission to go ahead: “Say what you really think. Don’t worry, Brandon! I had to keep it from you!” Brandon shamefacedly told us that he had thought his mother was “just plain dumb.” “Has your mother’s ‘truth’ made you have second thoughts about your mother’s stupidity?” He nodded ignominiously. “Julie, did you play dumb so Brandon could go unharmed?” She admitted to having done so.
Although I will not detail the “temper tantrum party approach” here, Brandon readily engaged in not only considering it but commissioning me to proceed with its introduction to him without any delay. My guess is that it did not matter than much that I offered his mother “a double-your-money guarantee if he ever has another tantrum after leaving this building.” What I recall so vividly was his response to the requirements for his mother to either record or videotape a tantrum for his “temper tantrum party.” He resolutely informed her: “Save your money on buying batteries!” and vowed: “I will never have another tantrum as long as I live!” Julie stared at him in disbelief. I smiled to myself with a certain measure of confidence.
When they returned in a few weeks’ time, he had indeed lived up to his vow. Not surprisingly, we reviewed how it was that he had gone from 10 to 15 tantrums a day, all of which bore a remarkable resemblance to his father’s tantrumming, to what his mother referred to as “having my son back again. I thought I had lost him forever!” She wept with joy and Brandon was far more at ease with himself and our company. I was able to relax my vigilance of him.
We once again discussed how it had dawned on him the extent to which his mother had suffered to secure more than adequate care and protection for him. We talked too about how Julie had reached a point of desperation and despair with his tantrumming and admitted to having considered taking desperate measures. Brandon now was more than willing to acknowledge that he was deeply concerned for her well-being, although up until he had found out her ‘truth,’ he conceded that he had taken her care and concern for granted. He had never considered her as sacrificing herself on his behalf but merely doing her duty. When Julie reas- sured me that she had a sense that I deeply appreciated her sacrifices on behalf of Brandon, I sought her permission to speak with him “privately,” then adding “and secretly.” I negotiated a pact of qualified secrecy with them both—“secrecy for the time being.” I added a rider to this and directed my comments to Julie: “I give you my word of honor that in due course absolutely everything Brandon and I secretly discuss will be completely revealed to you!” This introduced an element of intrigue, if Brandon’s furrowed brows were anything to go by as he, as yet, had no idea what in the world we would be keeping secret. But grinning, Julie readily gave her consent for us to proceed and hastily left us behind on her way to the waiting room.
“Brandon, do you mind drawing your chair closer to me? And do you mind if I draw my chair closer to you?” I looked at him kindly and asked: “Are you worried about your mother’s well-being?” He agreed. “Have you come up with anything off your own bat to provide some relief from her distress?” In fact, he had instituted some remedial action. “Do you think your cups of tea are giving your mother sufficient relief for her to be relieved of her distress?” He conceded that the cups of tea weren’t as effective as he had hoped. I then changed the subject from the inadequacy of his remedy with a very enthusiastically stated inquiry: “By the way, have you ever heard of a surprise mother appreciation party?” Not surprisingly, he had to admit to having never heard of such an event. But he did know something about the concept of a “surprise party.” From the outset of this conversation, I found myself regularly appending to every line of inquiry: “If we do not keep it a secret, how can it be a surprise?” I then asked if he might forego his current remedy on behalf of his mother’s well-being and instead would he be willing to consider a “surprise mother appreciation party.” Brandon seemed relieved by the promise of such an event, even without knowing any specific details.
“Have you ever been to a party?” Brandon recalled his attendances at various parties. “Do you know a fair bit about parties in general even if you are still in the dark about ‘surprise mother appreciation parties’? What do you think goes into having an ordinary, everyday party?” We came up with invitations and guests, food and drink, and usually something to celebrate like Easter, Christmas, or a birthday. We then set about figuring out the guest list before writing up the invitation. “Who do you think you would like to invite to come to the surprise party to appreciate your mother as a wonderful mother? Who do you think would want to show her appreciation for all the sacrifices she has made to ensure your care and protection?” Aunty Jenny stood out as one who was a strong advocate for Julie and assisted her in her flight and re-housing. “Do you think you could secretly contact Aunty Jenny and find out if she’ll come?” By the end of this meeting, we had a list of invitees whom Brandon promised to “secretly” contact between sessions.
At our next meeting, once again “private and secret,” which meant Julie was excluded for most of it, I was not surprised to learn that Aunty Jenny and Julie’s best friend, Beth, a former neighbor, had insisted on assisting Brandon with the preparations. Brandon had already come up with a list proposing the food and drinks and how Aunty Jenny and Beth were organizing that along the lines of “bring a drink/plate.” Brandon reported considerable momentum towards the scheduled date that they had agreed upon. “By the way, Brandon, how are you doing keeping the ‘mother appreciation party’ secret so it will turn to be a surprise?” Brandon laughed with pleasurable mischief, telling me all the subterfuges he had gotten up to avoid detection. I suspected Julie knew something was up but was allowing him free reign here. Conspiring together like this had allowed Brandon and me to draw even closer, and we were by now very at ease with one another.
Still, I had some reservations about my next question: “I suppose you have been wondering how you go about ‘appreciating a mother’ at a surprise mother appreciation party?” He admitted that he “didn’t have a clue.” What interested me was that he then asked me if I had any ideas. “I have, but you might be surprised by what a son your age gets up to.” He urged me to proceed. “Well, the only way I know how you can show your appreciation of your mother at her surprise party is by giving a ‘mother appreciation speech’!” The fact that he was speechless gave me sufficient time to add: “Hey, don’t worry about it! It will be easier than you think. I will ask you mother appreciation questions and you will reply with mother appreciation answers. And as we go along, I will take notes and then type it up as your speech. You might even give it to your mum afterwards so she can keep it with your baby photographs and other stuff she keeps as memories.” We agreed on another appointment to have all the time we required to “write a speech your mother will never forget as long as she lives.” We then summoned Julie into the room and sought her permission for just one more private and secret meet- ing. Julie said that would be fine. She laughed aloud telling us: “You can have as many secret meetings as you guys need. Brandon has become so much more willing to help me around the house and accept my rules. Whatever you guys are doing secretly is working!”
In addition to preparing Brandon’s “mother appreciation speech,” we also discussed how we might ensure it was a “surprise party.” He cooked up the idea of having Aunty Jenny take his mother to an early movie. He and Beth would make sure all the guests arrived before they returned home and were out of sight. Their cars would be parked around the block so as not to alert Julie.
I have never attended such a celebration in person but I couldn’t wait to hear from Brandon, who promised to ring me “first thing” the day after the surprise party. I heard it went well and Julie agreed when at my request he called her to the phone. “Was it a surprise?” I asked. She told me it was the best surprise she had ever had in her life. I invited them to meet for the last time to tell me all about it. That was my first post-party meeting and surely that and others like it were some of the most memorable events of my professional career.
The highlight of the post-party meeting was Brandon agreeing to re-read his “surprise mother appreciation speech” to me in Julie’s presence. He asked his mother for it and she produced it out of her purse sealed in a plastic bag. She handed it over to me like a person from a persecuted religion showing a relic in secret to a coreligionist. I asked if he might stand up and could he face his mother. Once again, I am sure they were looking kindly towards one another. He hesitated, clearing his throat before he began.
To everyone here, I want you to know why I planned and with Aunty Jenny and Beth’s help organized a surprise mother appreciation party for my mum. I am so grateful to her doing everything she could to make sure of my care and protection. Most of you know that my father would scream at my mother, call her terrible names, and beat her up for just about anything. She had to follow his orders, and if she didn’t so something he ordered perfectly or right away, that was the reason he would give for hurting and beating her, sometimes injuring her. I was so scared but she always made sure I was safe and hidden away in my room. When he was overseas, I now realized she did everything she could to make me believe in myself. She said that I hid myself away when Dad lived with us, and I guess she was trying to have me come out of myself when he wasn’t at home. Perhaps she knew what was coming when I got older and didn’t always do everything right away when my father ordered me around. Then he started screaming at me and calling me names. And it wasn’t too long before he would beat me up too, even if it wasn’t as bad as what mum got. Then my mum started getting stupid. Or at least that is what I thought at the time. She would do really obvious things that would get her a beating when it was me who was at fault. Like the time I ate all the ice cream not knowing my father would come home on an earlier flight. And my father had to have ice cream for pudding or else. I told mum what I had done and she just smiled and told me to stay in my room. I heard my father screaming, and she said that it was her fault and that she had wanted to eat some ice cream. This made him scream louder and hurt her more. She kept doing lots of stupid things like this.
Just a month or more ago, my mum told me she did it on purpose to keep me safe. I was ashamed as after we lived at the women’s refuge and then got this apartment, I started screaming and calling my mum the same names he did. And I hit her too. One reason for my speech is to tell you how ashamed I am and how I want my mum to know how much I respect her for saving me from my father’s violence. She suffered so I would not suffer. Now, can anyone here think of a better reason for a son my age to hold a surprise party to appreciate his mother? When I am older and maybe have a son of my own, I hope my mother will be as wonderful to him as she is to me. Can everyone take a glass of something and can we sing “For she’s a jolly good mother!”
I didn’t ask what happened at the party, but I know at the post-party reading, all of us had to dry our eyes from our tears. But we parted with memories of all the fun everyone had, but in particular Julie. Brandon had seen to it as he had promised me that she didn’t do a lick of work at her party.
Brandon and Julie inspired me to conspire with young people to plan, execute, convene, and speak at such “mother appreciation parties.” “The Annals of the New Dave: Status—Abled, Disabled or Weirdly Abled” tells of another set of circumstances that led to an equally extraordinary “mother appreciation party.”2
Sharon Murphy sank into the nearest chair in David’s office and started drawing deep and audible breaths that indicated utter exhaustion and the cessation of a great effort. Vestiges of her determination to manage the behaviour of her 14 year old son, Dave, lived on in her constant but half-hearted remonstrating with him to desist from his constant flurry of activity.
Jenni, Dave’s 13 year old sister, observing that her mother’s admonishments had little or no effect made desperate and reckless attempts to take over from her by insisting that he ‘stop it!’ These only seemed to provoke Dave to more excess. Jenni’s seething rage was palpable. Such was the frustation of her indignant forays to reign Dave in, that she would be reduced to tears on each and every occasion. However, for Dave, the room seemed a marvelous source of novelties that he had to explore, touch and touch again.
When the first break in these proceedings, David began the conversation by inquir- ing about Sharon’s visible despair. She bravely related to him the intolerable strain she was under as a single parent, as ‘bread winner’ for her family, and as the manager of Dave’s mind and body. She spoke of her ‘weariness’ from having ‘lived on the edge’ since Dave’s birth. She declared that this meeting was her ‘last ditch stand’ to avert her own ‘nervous breakdown’ and to avoid placing both her children in foster care—a prospect which was the opposite of she had devoted herself to over the past fourteen years. (p. 43)
And once again, her concerns that led her to make this referral, which she told me was her 28th over the past 10 years, almost immediately abated, much to her amazement.
“Mother appreciation parties” unfortunately became commonplace over the period of my anti-anorexia/bulimia years (1987–2006).3 I was to learn that many mothers were blamed for attempting to murder their daughters, hospitalized with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. This led to many complaints and finally a Hospital Board Enquiry in Auckland about such practices, which led to them being curtailed. Until then, “mother appreciation parties” were a notable antidote.
Although I was intimately involved with scheming, planning, and assisting with the “mother appreciation speeches,” I always turned down invitations to attend. But I can’t tell you how impatiently I would await the post-party review. In fact, I would regularly record and transcribe them for these mothers and daughters. It gave me the greatest joy to hand this document over to these mother and daughters. The highest attendance of “well over a hundred” was achieved for Gloria by her daughters, Jenny, aged 20, and Jo, aged 22.
1. Epston, D. (1992). Temper tantrum parties: Saving face, losing face, or go- ing off your face? In D. Epston & M. White. (1992). Experience, contradiction, narrative and imagination (pp. 37–74). Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
2. Epston, D., Lobovits, D., & and Freeman, J., introduction by Murphy, S. (2008). Annals of the new Dave: Status—abled, disabled or weirdly-abled? In D. Epston, Down under and up over: Travels with narrative therapy (pp. 41–60). Warrington, UK: Association of Family Therapy. A free copy of this book will be sent to anyone applying to firstname.lastname@example.org for PDFs of the hard copy version. I thank the Association of Family Therapy (UK) for allowing me to distribute it in this fashion.
3. See Maisel,R.,Epston,D.,&Borden,A.(2004).Biting the hand that starves you: Inspiring resistance to anorexia/bulimia. New York: W.W. Norton; Epston, D., & Maisel, R. (2009). Anti-anorexia/bulimia: A polemics of life and death. In H. Malson & and M. Burns (Eds.), Critical feminist approaches to dis/orders (pp. 209–220). London: Routledge; Epston, D. (1999). Co-research—The making of an alternative knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.narrativeapproaches. com Lock, A., Epston, D., & Maisel, R. (2004). Countering that which is called anorexia. Narrative Inquiry, 14(2), 275–302; Lock, A., Epston, D., & Maisel, R. (2005). Resisting anorexia/ bulimia: Foucauldian perspectives in narrative therapy. Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 33(3), 315–332.