Shannon Bream: The meanest mom in the world

Author's note: There is no one I admire more on this planet than my Momma. She is selfless, humble and hilarious. As a self-absorbed teenager, I lacked the maturity to sing her praises.  That was during the years she'd hung up a "Meanest Mom in the World" plaque in our kitchen. In my new book, "Finding the Bright Side," I explain how happy I am (years later) that she really was! 

Not many 11-year-olds look forward to spending a sunny Saturday afternoon touring a time-share property with their parents. But I wasn’t your normal tween, and I had a very specific reason for accompanying my parents on their path toward fractional real estate ownership: a Sony Walkman.

Weeks earlier, a letter had arrived inviting my parents to a ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY! In ex­change for giving up a few hours on a weekend, they would be granted their choice of several prizes, including that Walkman. It was 1982, and I was convinced I needed one.

I grew up in a very strict household, where secular music was forbidden. If we didn’t sing it at church, it was pretty much off-limits in the Norris home. However, after a sum­mer spent hanging out with the cool kids across the street, I’d managed to develop a taste for the forbidden tunes of ’80s artists like Lionel Ritchie and Chicago. (You know, real edgy stuff.) As soon as my parents got that letter, I knew the Walkman was my ticket to getting a fix.

That meant I was willing to put up with a lot, including spending the better part of a Saturday with a very determined salesman who regaled my parents with tales of how our own­ership week at a modest beachfront property along Florida’s southeast coast could be traded for glorious vacations in Ha­waii and Europe. Even at that age, the proposition seemed dicey to me. But I digress.

The Walkman was just part of the sneaky behavior I em­ployed to live peaceably under the same roof as my mom, a woman who once bought a plaque with the words Meanest Mom in the World and proudly hung it in the kitchen. She meant it. In my mother’s household, hit shows like "The Love Boat" and "Three’s Company" were "not appropriate for nice lit­tle girls." So was the prospect of staying up past 8:00 p.m. — and don’t even think about talking back.

With my Walkman finally secured, I would stay up late under the covers on Sunday nights listening to Casey Kas­em’s Top 40 countdown, safely out of earshot from Mom. I always felt a chill of excitement when Kasem said, “Coming to you from Hollywood!” at the top of each segment. My family lived in Pembroke Pines, just down the street from Hollywood, Florida, and I couldn’t believe Mr. Kasem was doing such important work just miles from my home. (Years later, Kasem was one of my judges at the Miss USA Pageant. I resisted the urge to share this middle-school confessional with him.)

The Walkman was just part of the sneaky behavior I em­ployed to live peaceably under the same roof as my mom, a woman who once bought a plaque with the words Meanest Mom in the World and proudly hung it in the kitchen. She meant it. In my mother’s household, hit shows like "The Love Boat" and "Three’s Company" were "not appropriate for nice lit­tle girls." So was the prospect of staying up past 8:00 p.m. — and don’t even think about talking back.

Shannon Bream's 'Finding the Bright Side'

Shannon Bream's 'Finding the Bright Side' (Random House Publishing)

There was no escaping from Mom’s rule, especially be­cause she worked as a teacher and always taught at the school I attended. Looking back on the experience, I can see how it kept me out of a lot of trouble (a fact for which I’m now eternally grateful). But at the time it was a soul-crushing arrangement for someone who already had to fight hard to fit in. Grade school is fraught enough with potential humilia­tion when your mom’s not correcting you in front of your classmates, or handing out detentions to your friends like Halloween candy.

In fourth grade, one fateful interaction left me with no choice but to run away from home with my friend Michelle. Mom had been passing through the gymnasium just after my class finished recess. The school’s rules required us to wear dresses every day (long pants for the boys), so I don’t remember there being much physical exertion on the play­ground. But on this particular day, my mom spotted my messy hair from across the room and came over to whip it back into shape. I was mortified.

I remember protesting that I would look like a baby if my mom started fixing my ponytail in front of my friends, but she was undeterred. “Stand up straight!” she said, fussing over my unruly tresses while my peers stared and snickered. That was the final straw!

Later that day, as Michelle and I discussed our parents’ overbearing behavior, we decided to fight back. We both had bikes, and there was a park not far from our school. We fig­ured we could squirrel away some snacks, write good-bye notes, and disappear to the park for just a single day. Maybe that would scare our parents enough to respect our maturity and ability to make our own decisions.

As we planned our big escape, we felt like secret agents, real adults. And if our mothers hadn’t still done our laun­dry at that point in life, we might’ve gotten away with it. Though I had carefully counseled Michelle over where she should hide her note until we were ready to drop our bomb, she had done her own thing. One day, when her mother went to restock her sock drawer — we were busted.

I was awakened early one morning and marched into the still-dark living room for a thorough debriefing. Still bleary-eyed with zero idea that our foolproof plan had come un­raveled, I struggled to understand the barrage of questions. What was I thinking? Didn’t I know how many crazy people were kidnapping girls on bicycles? At one point, I distinctly remem­ber my mom saying, “You’re showing your true colors.” I was baffled, wondering if “true colors” meant there was some type of visible aura giving me away. (Cyndi Lauper cleared that up for me a few years later.)

I remember my mom finding me crying in my bedroom one day after I’d been left out of something. I halfway ex­pected her to give me a lecture about counting my blessings. Instead, she listened to my story and then promised that one day I would forget about this perceived slight. She’s right: I can’t tell you now what had me sobbing.

Sock-drawer escape plans aside, I was a pretty well-behaved kid. I wasn’t robbing banks or punching other kids in the face; I was just full of energy and questions . . . for authority. My mom says she relied heavily on the classic par­enting book The Strong-Willed Child, which is chock-full of buzzwords like defiant and stubborn that described me to a T. Rather than blindly accepting the rules and norms as they existed, I wanted to know WHY. When the boundaries didn’t make sense to me, I pushed them.

News traveled quickly to my mother if I caused even the slightest trouble in school, a fact made especially painful by another one of our house rules: “If you get paddled at school, you get paddled at home.” If a teacher felt I’d earned it in the classroom, there was heck to pay at home.

I will go to my grave convinced that the buildup to the spanking at home was infinitely worse than the punishment itself. It usually started with my mom saying the most omi­nous sentence a parent can utter: “We’ll talk about this when we get home.” From there, it would morph into a lengthy bedroom discussion of what I’d done wrong, followed by an interminable period of time for me to “think about it” before Mom returned for the final sentencing. I am a people pleaser by nature, so everything about this scenario felt like a night­mare. Not only did I not want to provoke my mother’s disap­proval, I most certainly did not want to be given an extended period of time to internalize the nuances of it.

Despite the terror this routine set off in me, I refused to cry when spanked, mostly because I usually thought the punishment did not fit the crime. In school, at home, and at church, I was constantly getting in trouble because I couldn’t — or wouldn’t? — stop talking. Today, I make a good living doing just that, so I’d like to argue that it’s all worked out fine.

What doesn’t work out fine is having your mother as a substitute teacher in high school. In ninth grade, one of my favorite teachers went on extended medical leave, and my mom got hired to pick up the slack.

“Your mom’s cool, right?” the reigning sophomore hunk asked me when our teacher broke the news.

“Uhhh, no,” I stammered. Even back then, I knew the wisdom of managing expectations.

Trust me, the tension ratcheted up to another level when she showed up to class one day dressed as Madonna. Days before, the superstar had graced the cover of TIME magazine. I distinctly remember discussing her celebrity sta­tus on our drive home from school and making the mistake of saying to my mom, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to be her, just for one day!?” Mom was horrified, both by Madonna’s general existence and by the fact that her daughter would aspire to be anything like her for ANY amount of time. Ma­donna was everything my parents disapproved of, wrapped up in a single celebrity package.

And so, to hammer home the most embarrassing object lesson in history, Mom spent the next day teaching my high school class as the Material Girl. I recall a lacy headband, lots of bracelets and eyeliner, and a lecture punctuated with an overdose of “like,” “grody,” and “fer sure.” I can only thank God she didn’t actually burst into a chorus of “Like a Virgin.”

As much as I resented my mom’s guerrilla campaign to keep me on the straight and narrow, even then I took com­fort in the fact that she gave me the perfect out for the moral choices that face every high schooler. When presented with peer pressure or a somewhat questionable decision, I could always easily fall back on the excuse, “My mom would kill me.” (I’m not even sure I was kidding.) But more than giv­ing me an out, she also gave me a set of core principles that guide me to this day. They were deeply rooted in a faith that taught me that my Heavenly Father’s acceptance was the only thing I really needed in life.

I remember my mom finding me crying in my bedroom one day after I’d been left out of something. I halfway ex­pected her to give me a lecture about counting my blessings. Instead, she listened to my story and then promised that one day I would forget about this perceived slight. She’s right: I can’t tell you now what had me sobbing.

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My mom taught me to respect myself, and to question anyone who would ask me to sacrifice my integrity. As boy crazy as I eventually got, Mom encouraged me to draw lines early and often. She told me how valuable I was, how noth­ing could separate me from God’s love, and that God had someone just as amazing out there waiting for me. (There was heavy emphasis on the "waiting" part, since I wouldn’t be allowed to date until I’d secured a Ph.D.)

It breaks my heart when I see young women swept up in today’s celebrity culture that encourages them to give themselves away for the sake of a few likes on social media. It makes me wish that everyone had someone in their life to remind them, "You are worth more." Maybe having the world’s meanest mom wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Excerpted from "Finding the Bright Side: The Art of Chasing What Matters" © 2019 by Shannon Bream. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on May 14. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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