I was 8 or 9 years old when the girl with the red hair came to stay with us. I can’t remember how long she stayed. A few days? A couple of weeks? I remember she wet the bed — an oddity in my mind since she was a few years older than I. I remember finding out, either by being told or overhearing it, why she was staying with us. Her dad did terrible things, like throwing her baby kittens against the wall in a drunken rage. She cried herself to sleep at night.
I had a pretty normal childhood, all things considered. But I was always keenly aware that it could have gone differently. My mom had been raised in a loving, stable household, but my dad’s upbringing more closely resembled our red-headed guest. Dysfunction was not a stranger in my house.
My dad’s grandfather was a crooked cop who chased his sons down an alley with his police pistol, thankfully too inebriated to hit the broadside of a barn. My dad’s mother, despite her Catholic Penance, had six children with six different fathers. She went into a blind rage when she got drunk, which was frequent enough as she was an alcoholic.
My dad could easily have continued his family legacy of abuse, addiction, and dysfunction. Most of his siblings did, to varying degrees. I clearly remember my mother answering the phone and crumbling to the floor at the news that my dad’s baby brother — my charming and funny uncle Doug — had committed suicide. I was 10. He was 24 and had just gotten married. The damage done to my dad and his siblings as children was deep, and the demons they inherited wage a near-constant battle with their psyches.
But my dad decided at some point that he would not pass on those demons to his own kids. Through a combination of self-awareness, prayer, the support of my mother, constant willpower, and God knows what other weapons, he took on those monsters in his head.
We knew the monsters were there. We saw them in flashes of rage on occasion. Most parents get angry sometimes, of course, but it’s different when there are demons behind it. There’s a certain energy in the air when the monsters threaten to break loose, a danger behind the anger that everyone can feel. My dad did his best, but he couldn’t always shield us from the perils of war.
But he talked to us about it. He explained to us where he came from, what his childhood was like, and what it was like to try to be a parent from a dysfunctional family. When he struggled on his internal battlefield, he apologized. Even as a child, I understood how growing up in an abusive, volatile environment would make it hard to parent differently. I knew my dad worked hard at overcoming his instincts. I knew the war was never over, even between battles.
Though my dad fought on his own most of the time, he was not alone. I’ve known other parents from wounded childhoods who’ve forged a different path for their own children. There are countless parents who take on their dysfunctional demons so their kids won’t have to— cycle-breaking heroes who amaze me with their strength and fortitude.
Parenting is hard, even when you come from a healthy background. I can’t imagine having to go against everything I’d experienced, everything I’d been taught, everything my subconscious tried to push on me simply to parent my children. It’s an awe-inspiring act of courage to attempt to break cycles of abuse.
If you are a parent whose time and energy is sapped battling your own demons, please hear me: Your struggles are worth it. Your children will benefit from your efforts more than you know. You may lose some battles, but if you are open and honest with your kids, they will understand that’s the cost of war. They will understand that you are fighting for their freedom, and as they grow to understand their own humanity more fully, they will thank you for it.
Occasionally, I wonder what happened to the red-headed girl whose name I don’t remember. I like to imagine her out there now with her own kids, fighting the good fight. Maybe she became a cycle-breaker like my dad, doing her part to raise humans with minimal damage. I can picture her armed with resolute determination, her flaming hair flying as she beats back the beasts that threaten her children’s future.
Her kids will thank her too.