My mother taught me how to read before my fourth birthday. She taught me how to write before my fifth, and when I struggled with spelling — sometime between first and second grade — she quizzed me in our ’70s-style kitchen. I would sit on the cool, avocado-colored linoleum while she read from a list of words, which sat beside our electric stove or near the kitchen sink. We colored together, played dress up together, and sometimes, we would sing and put on plays. When I was little, I walked (quite literally) in my mother’s shoes. But I don’t want to be like her, not now or ever, because these moments, while idealistic, are distorted memories. False memories. They paint an inaccurate picture of the woman my mother was — of the woman she became.
My mother, born the same year as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was a difficult woman. A complicated woman. She was angry and unhealthy and all-around complex. She drank heavily and frequently, drowning her sorrows (and every other feeling) in alcohol. She spent the little money she had on cheap beer and lighter fluid-like booze. She was also mentally unwell. My mother struggled with an undiagnosed and untreated illness for years. But that’s not all.
She didn’t care for herself — or about herself. She slept all day, and most nights. She didn’t care for our house or keep our home. Thick layers of dust and cigarette ash covered every surface, bugs rummaged through our kitchen cabinets, and worms wiggled in the space between our carpets and subfloor. I found critters in containers. Holes had been chewed through Rubbermaids and cardboard boxes (which lined every wall, and the hall) and she didn’t care for my brother or me. By my thirteenth birthday, I was raising us both: cooking and cleaning and trying to make ends meet. I was taking on adult responsibilities long before homecoming or my senior prom.
But the real reason I don’t want to be like my mother? Well, that all comes down to abuse. Despite the few aforementioned “golden” moments and memories, my mother was cold, cruel, and calculated. She was a perpetrator. A master manipulator. She was an abuser, through and through. And while she rarely struck me, she hurt me in ways one can scarcely imagine.
She yelled and screamed frequently. Every single day she put me down — and then she apologized. She minimized and berated me and then coddled me. She held me so close I couldn’t be or breathe. I couldn’t think, rationalize, flee, or feel.
She told me I was stupid and worthless. When I messed up those spelling words, she called me names. I knew I was a fuck up and failure by my tenth birthday. By my thirteenth, I believed I was a “dumb bitch.” A problem child. A “fucking mistake.” And I felt this way for years. Hell, I’m (nearly) 37, and in many ways, I still do. But I’m fighting hard to stop the tapes and break the cycle. I’m fighting hard to pull myself out of the darkness. To lift myself up, and I’m working everyday to become a better person and parent.
To become the woman my mother wasn’t.
Of course, it’s not easy. When my blood boils and I reach my “breaking point,” I feel my mother. I hear her voice escape my lips. Her vitriol. Her tone. The anger that lived in her heart resides in mine. It is instinctual. Biological. An untamed and unnamed beast resides within. But my daughter deserves better. My son deserves better, and my husband deserves better, and so do I. So I go to therapy weekly. I meet with my psychiatrist biweekly, and I practice mindfulness and take medication. I take a handful of pills to keep the flashbacks and panic attacks at bay.
I take care of myself and love myself on a (near) daily basis, through healthy eating and exercise. I spin, walk, hike, bike, and run. I make myself a priority, which is something she never did. She never fought for herself — or her health. She survived but never thrived, and I try to find joy in the little things. In everything. Because I am determined to break the cycle of sickness, sadness, and abuse.
I also apologize, constantly and frequently. If I speak out of turn or struggle to be present, I let my children know I’m sorry. Mommy was sad or angry, but her actions were not okay.
Does that mean I’m happy and “successful”? That I’ve broken the cycle? Well, yes and no. There are days when I slip, and on these days, rage wins and anger comes to play. Other days, depression wins. Sadness takes over. I struggle, like my mother, to cook or clean, to complete the most basic tasks. But my children will never be responsible for my feelings or my actions. They will never feel like a burden or a bother, and they will always know they have value and worth. And that is my greatest legacy, as a person and parent. That is my greatest success.
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