When my sisters and I were in elementary school, we were often left alone at home. Both of our parents worked, and since we lived in the middle of nowhere, I’d spend my days sliding down the stairs on a pillow, making prank phone calls, drinking Hershey’s syrup out of the squirt bottle, and taking care of my 4-year-old sister. I was 10.
My mom would call every day around noon to check in, but she never asked a lot of questions or seemed concerned. My father would come home and sip Budweisers until he came out of his bad mood while he watched the news. He could be mean and scary, but my mother never stood up to him or for us.
I was afraid to speak up as a child and I tried to do everything right. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair or pierce my ears. I was constantly told to be quiet. I had so much to say, I started to stutter out of nervousness every time I talked.
My parents eventually divorced and my sisters and I lived with our dad for a few months and only saw my mom on the weekends. My dad coped by drinking more beer, coming home long enough to drop off a pizza for our dinner after work before heading out and many times, not returning home.
I made sure my younger siblings were bathed and had lunches packed for the next school day. I was 12.
When I went to my parents to tell them a family member had been molesting me for years, they didn’t do much. They were both into their own lives and the news really disrupted the family. I was 16.
I’m not writing this to complain — I know many have it worse than I did — but I’m writing this because despite it all, I was a very happy child. I did well in school, went to college, got a scholarship, and loved myself.
I didn’t think anything that happened during my childhood — whether it was being left in the car for over an hour when I was eight while my mother grocery shopped, or the ignored abuse, or my father going six months without seeing me after I moved in with my mom — was that big of a deal.
Until I had kids of my own, that is.
When I met my firstborn child, I looked down at his squiggly head of hair and oversized sleepy eyes as I tried nursing him. And all I could think was, I’ll love you so much better. I’ll try so much harder.
Then, the anger set in. I started getting mad at my parents for all the things they’d done decades ago. How could I not think this with the treasure who was my son in front of me?
How could they be so careless, lazy, and selfish? How fucking dare they?
I told myself they must not have loved me because if they had, none of that nonsense would have happened.
I decided to tackle motherhood like a business and my goal was to make up for all the hurt my parents caused me and my sisters. I wanted to right all their wrongs and be so different from what they were, it was almost impossible to let my kids out of my sight.
I became anxious. I overcompensated. I wasn’t able to live in the moment because worry would take over and I’d be consumed with “what ifs.”
I’d somehow taken how my parents raised me and rebelled against it so hard, I was suffocating my children for fear I’d fuck up.
I fucked up anyway. I still fuck up every day. Maybe not in the same way my parents did, but they are fuck ups just the same.
I love my parents. I loved my childhood. They are all a part of me, and what makes me who I am. And when I had kids, I was so shocked my parents did some of the things they’d done, I started hating them and my childhood. That felt pretty shitty. It was stealing my joy as a mother and I was parenting out of fear.
Over the years, I’ve softened a bit. I’ve learned that people can show us how not to be (including our parents), and we can take that as a guide, and still love them. Then, we can let it go, and trust ourselves enough and allow ourselves to screw up.
It took a decade of parenting for me to chill and realize this. And truthfully I’m still working on it, but I’m telling you, it feels so much better to not harbor the pain and know all I can do is my best, just as my parents did — even though they fell so very short of what I needed.
Regardless of the conflicted emotions, I know this much is true: I am not my parents. I am not going to repeat old patterns. I am, however, a damn good mother despite — or maybe because of — my past.
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