My Childhood Struggles Are Damaging My Marriage

by Susana Kuehne
Originally Published: 
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty

I grew up right in the heart of an impoverished neighborhood where I saw people in wheelchairs completing drug deals at my corner, and every time I went for a run, I had to be on the lookout for pieces of broken beer bottles. Like me, much of the residential population was of a Latin background. Although my family had friends here, it was always assumed that we didn’t live in a safe area.

We didn’t have much money, so there was no option to move to a better neighborhood. I was okay with that, but my mother wasn’t okay enrolling us in the local schools. They received less funding, were more likely to have troublesome students, and didn’t attract the best teachers. Therefore, she manipulated the system whenever she could to get us into the schools that the middle class families around our district attended. And when that was no longer possible, she worked three jobs to be able to afford our tuition at a Christian private school.

Though I was grateful that my mother would stop at nothing to give us the life she wanted us to have, I was not blind to her struggle, or the ways in which my life was still far from normal. By the time I was 8, I had attended three different elementary schools, understood that any money I saved had to go towards buying milk or paying for gas, and was the daughter of newly divorced parents. Caught up in custody battles, visitation disagreements, social service visits, and the responsibility of being the oldest of three siblings, to say that my life was stressful would be an understatement. At that time, I didn’t know any other reality so I adjusted and became the partner my mom had needed my father to be.

I babysat when my mom worked overnights. I helped with laundry and other household chores. I listened to my mom complain endlessly about my father and his latest personal crimes against her. I helped my siblings with their homework. I looked up things online for my mom since she didn’t know how to use a computer, and I constantly relayed messages to my father from her when she couldn’t hire a lawyer to mediate. In fact, some of the worst messages I had to relay were supposed to be delivered as if they were my opinion, not hers.

“Tell him you don’t want to be around his girlfriend.”

“Pretend you need money for a field trip and then give it to me so we can pay the light bill.”

“Ask him why he left you and punish him by being difficult when he takes you out.”

I don’t hold any grudges against my parents. They did the best they could. Their own parents sometimes weren’t able to feed them; they grew up in a harsher environment than me. My young self understood what their sacrifices meant and how they were forging a different path for me and my siblings. But recently, I am noticing the remnants of my childhood traumas spill into the delicate relationship that I’ve worked so hard to build — my marriage.

Anxiety suffocates me whenever my husband and I have to make large purchases like televisions or windows for our home. But when we were newlyweds, I couldn’t even buy groceries without shaming myself afterwards.

“We just spent $100 on frozen pizza, snacks, and shampoo. My mom could have put that money towards her mortgage or cable bill.”

It’s as if the fear of not being able to support my mom never left me. I felt guilty spending anything, because I could always see those numbers disguised as something that my mom might have needed. And I tried to push the same guilt on my husband, as if it were his responsibility to take care of my mother, too.

My mom is an independent woman, but she struggled with money for as long as I can remember because my siblings and I needed so much: food, books, shoes, toys, fundraiser money, clothes, beds, and more. The older I got, the more I was happy to be able to help her, because I felt I owed her so much. It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I realized she wasn’t my baby. She could survive on her own and didn’t need me, but the urge to help her financially lingers still.

My father would contribute sometimes, because he saw that it was a burden for me to constantly try to think of ways to supplement our family income. My first credit card was maxed out after she told me she couldn’t make the mortgage; she was three months behind. I gave both of my parents a chunk of money from my financial aid check when I started college. I paid my mom rent when I was pregnant and living with her during my husband’s stay in the U.S. Navy, and I was the one my siblings rushed to when she needed to cover medical expenses and utilities one summer.

It’s not all about cash though. Since my father left our house when I was very little and my mom pushed me so hard that I never felt that she thought I was good enough, I frequently sought to be liked by others. I wanted the popular kids to invite me to eat lunch with them. I wanted the teachers to be proud of me. I wanted the boys to think I was pretty. Now, I push my husband the way my mom pushed me, and it’s getting ugly.

From calling him useless to berating him for his bad memory or awful sense of style, I find myself spewing out insults that were directed towards me as a child. I was told that I was too skinny, that my hair was too curly, that my personality was too boring, that my body was not as great as my sister’s. All of these things contributed to my low self-esteem, and even though I’m more comfortable in my own skin, I’m also turning into the kind of wife that drove my father away.

I’m impatient and demanding, and I lose my temper for the smallest things. My parents’ divorce was rooted in other factors involving mistresses, bankruptcy, loneliness, and mental health issues, but if I were to hold a mirror to my marriage, I would see small beams of light that resemble much of the same patterns. The only difference here is that I’m looking inwardly as well. And I want to change. But how do I abandon the memories of my past without leaving behind a part of my identity?

That’s something I’m still working on. I think it starts with distinguishing between what matters and what doesn’t. Ticking off all the items on a to-do list will not benefit my son as much as showing him that I respect his father as a person. Similarly, spending a few extra bucks on our family room won’t make it so my child has to go hungry someday.

And for the moms out there who stress because you don’t feel you’re saving enough for your kids, or that you’re not giving your child the best because they don’t wear expensive shoes or take glamorous vacations, stop and try to remember your own childhood. You’ll realize that the stuff that was important to you — things like your parents getting along, being able to play in the sprinklers during summer, etc. –are likely what your kids will also playback in their minds and smile about too.

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