"She quickly grabbed the laundry basket from her left side and placed it next to me and said, 'Fine, you want to fold them, here you go,' and walked out of the room," she said. "So feeling a knot in my stomach because that was completely not the outcome I was seeking, I kept myself from crying and started folding towels thinking that maybe I could still salvage some attention by finishing folding the towels."
A minute later, still with no acknowledgement and a lump in her throat, Leslie found a way to do the job faster, folding two towels at once. But when her mother returned she slapped Leslie across her head and shoulder and undid all the towels.
"The saddest part of this story for me was the moment I was showing her my fancy new folding trick, when I saw her arm coming up out of the corner of my eye," said Leslie. "I thought for a split second that she was going to hug me for thinking of something so clever ... I was wrong."
Leslie says she was lucky to break free at the age of 17 when her mother changed the locks on the door while while she was at her high school job. Today, she has a loving and close relationship with her own children, 9 and 11, but Leslie has seen how the abuse can carry through generations.
"My parents didn't speak to their parents," she said.
She learned to expect the worst and not let herself get hurt emotionally, a survival skill that sent her into counseling later in life when she had trouble in relationships.
Wendy, a single parent from Monterey, Calif., was raised by a mother who likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, defined by the psychiatric diagnostic manual as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy."
"I felt like I grew up with no floor," said Wendy, who wrote to ABCNews.com but did not want her last name used. "The attention my mother needs is dumbfounding."
A pathological liar, her mother told her daughter she was "Queen Maria Theresa of Austria" -- a would-be Hapsburg princess or queen. She once advised Wendy, "If you say something enough it becomes true."
She exaggerated her accomplishments and took all the credit for her daughter's as well. "I thought there was something wrong with me a lot of the time," said Wendy, who was talented at art, but never got praise.
Her mother told her daughter to refuse a scholarship to college. "I loved my mom," she said. "I worked to get her love. I turned down the scholarship."
Sometimes mental illness plays a role in bad mothering.
Pamela grew up in the 1950s and 1960s with a mother who had undiagnosed bipolar and multiple personality disorders. "It was a horrifying experience," said the Springfield, Mo., woman who did not want her last name used. "Many things I have blocked."
"The embarrassment, the treachery, the verbal and physical abuse left me scarred for many years," she said. "I think my greatest fear was growing up to be just like her."
Pamela, now 52 and the mother of two, remembers her mother screaming that she hated the children, threatening to leave and never come back. "We formed a human chain against the door but she threw us to the side and left getting in her car and driving away."
Pamela doesn't know how long her mother was gone, but the "record player of her hateful words still play in my mind."
Her mother died of a stroke in March at the age of 79, and Pamela was finally able to forgive.