When You Have a Complicated Relationship With Your Parents

When You Have a Complicated Relationship With Your Parents

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“I have four cousins,” my daughter said to her friend one day after school.

“What are their names?” her friend asked.

My first grader then listed my spouse’s brother’s kids and kids of close friends, whose parents my daughter has called Auntie and Uncle since she could talk. She didn’t mention my brother’s kids, who are technically her cousins. She didn’t mention him or his kids because I don’t have a relationship with him or his kids. I don’t talk about him, so there isn’t much to talk about.

I don’t talk to my father either. The last interaction I had with my dad was through a letter in the mail many years ago. He admitted to never wanting to be a father. He apologized for losing interest in me. He assured me he had since found “The Lord.” The Lord had forgiven him. He hoped I could forgive him too.

I don’t know if I actually forgave years of his physical abuse or his shitty ability to be a good dad, but I let go. His letter was the validation I needed. I haven’t had contact with my father since I got that piece of mail, but sometimes I pull out his letter. I touch the letters written in pen on a sheet of notebook paper. I can feel the indentations under my fingers. He left many indentations on my body with his hands and fingers, but these don’t hurt. They helped heal me.

The only relative still in my life is my mother. But if not for survivor’s guilt, I would have cut her out a long time ago too. Then I had kids, and they got attached to their grandmother.

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When Grandma visits she brings an overabundance of affection and junk from the dollar store. Grandma will read for hours as long as one of her grandkids is snuggled up against her. As much as she is willing to give affection, she craves it more and will take it until you have no more to give. A child’s love is unconditional, and my kids don’t know the conditions in which I grew up. They have no reason not to love their grandmother.

I don’t love my mother. I don’t know that I even like her. She is too much of a reminder of my past and everything I have let go. She is my trigger, and I have detached myself too many times from her to protect myself. I don’t think there is any way to fix what is broken. Yet she is still a big presence in my life.

I often tell people that my relationship with my mother is tricky. It’s tricky because she was both a victim and abuser in her role as my mother. Her own years of abuse at the hands of her father and my father were never recognized for what they were. So those wounds were never addressed. They never properly healed. She became the person and mother she is because of her damaged sense of self and her broken capacity to love and be loved in a healthy way.

She didn’t hit me, but she didn’t leave a situation and relationship in which my father did hit me. She didn’t sexually abuse me, but she didn’t cut the person out of our lives who did. Her failure to protect me was her acceptance of my abuse.

She told my father to never touch me again. But he did.

She was sad and angry when she found out I was sexually abused by her sibling. But then she asked me to understand why she couldn’t stay mad at her sibling. She needed family in her life and my abuser was family. She needed me to be civil. She needed me to sit quietly next to my abuser at family dinners and at church on Sundays. So I did.

She now recognizes that she was wrong to have put me in those positions. She should have protected me. She says she would do things so much differently had she known what she knows now. But much of what she knows now is a direct result of the boundaries I have set and of the lessons I have provided based on my years of therapy.

She has apologized. But that does not excuse her from the mistakes she made. Her inability to make healthy decisions and to protect me cannot be swept away by simply saying she didn’t know any better. Her constant need for me to be her emotional support, to be her reason for happiness is too much.

She has asked for forgiveness. I don’t know the meaning of that word when it comes to my parents. I have learned how to heal by letting go and by saying goodbye.

The trickiest part of our relationship is that I have told her these things, but she still does not and cannot recognize her role in anything that has caused me pain. I have tried to create boundaries, but it’s like I am speaking a foreign language to her. She doesn’t understand them, and maintaining them feels too uncomfortable to her.

At what point is it no longer my responsibility to make her understand? What is the tipping point between my attempts to be kind and my attempts to be free?

I have grown and emotionally lapped my mother many times, yet the race still feels close. I have tried to lose her, but I can’t.

She is hanging onto memories of ghosts, of what she wants to remember of my childhood. And I am hanging onto hope that I can make the ghosts go away.

She’s not a bad person; she is an unhealthy person. As long as she is in my life, I am unhealthy too.

I have tried to make her better. I can’t. It’s not my job. I have tried to forgive. I don’t know how.

It’s time to let go.