I Need To Be The Parent To My Own Parent

by Kathy Black
Originally Published: 
A daughter holding hand on her mothers' head while she sleeps, being the parent to her parent
Scary Mommy and Zinkevych/Getty

Growing up, my mother had many suitors after she and my father divorced. She got married very quickly to a man she definitely wasn’t in love with, as was apparent by the way she walked all over him and belittled him in front of us.

It wasn’t long before she started blowing off afternoons with us when we were teenagers to spend time with different men (yes, she was still married). It hit me hard one day when I was home from college and a friend of mine who was doing a summer internship where she worked spilled the dirty news after he’d had a few beers. “Your mother has quite the reputation at the office,” he said, sipping his Natural Light. “I think she’s slept with everyone there.”

I was pissed at him for being so blunt and honest. He apologized after seeing the look on my face, but it still cut so deeply because I already knew this about my mother. It was a dirty little secret I’d carried and tried to hide from my siblings.

She needed to heal some deep wounds, and she left the job up to any man who would fill in — she didn’t care if it came in the form of a marriage proposal or an afternoon delight in an office.

While she was out sewing her wild oats, my siblings and I took care of each other. I felt abandoned and so did they. When you are pushed aside by a parent for some random person they don’t even know, I don’t care how old you are, that shit stings.

I was angry at her — so angry. But we kids made the best of it, and looking back, I realize I tried to stand in for her and fulfill motherly duties she had no interest in filling.

After her second marriage ended, she quickly dove into another one with a man who moved in while my brother and sister still lived at home. Not only did she let him have his way with redecorating our childhood home, she didn’t say a word when he’d yell or roll his eyes at me and my siblings.

I’m pretty sure you know how this story is going to go — that marriage ended too. It’s been two decades since her last marriage and many fights between the two of us.

These days, she asks me for advice about men, but never takes it. I still have dreams I’m screaming at her. She once told me I needed to “back off and let her mother her own kids because I was overstepping and they already had a parent to take care of them.”

It never felt that way to me, and I always felt like if I wasn’t the rational one who made sure they were all right, emotionally and physically, while she was out gallivanting trying to find herself through the elixir of some dude, no one would.

It wasn’t something I ever thought twice about. Rather, it became second-nature to step in where she stepped out.

I love my mother and have come to realize she’s simply trying to heal old childhood wounds through a connection with a man. Of course, I wish she’d try to heal them by connecting with her kids, but after years of no luck trying to get her to do that, I gave up and set up boundaries. It’s been really hard not to turn my boundaries into walls though.

I feel as though if I did do that, I’d be abandoning her in the same way I was so afraid to be abandoned as a child, and really, it wouldn’t help the situation. Besides, my siblings would take the wrath.

I have a family of my own now. I am also a single mother who clings to her relationship with her kids, because they are number one to me and no man will ever come before them.

I’ve had to tell my mother no many times because her childlike ways extend beyond dating. If she’s in financial trouble, she has no problem taking. If she wants something, she has no problem taking advantage of someone to get it. If we go out to dinner, she simply sits there and waits for one of her children to pay her bill. She’ll blow off her grandkids to spend time with a man.

I often have to take a break from her in order to maintain my mental health, but I can’t lie: I still feel the need to fix her, to fix this situation, to force her to look at herself and “mom up.”

I’m tired and have days that turn into weeks when I swear I am done.

But then I see her do something like throw herself at a married doctor or schedule a trip with a man she met online during one of her grandkids’ birthdays, and I feel the need to speak up for my siblings. And, I guess, for me too.

Maybe this is the natural flow of a situation like this: When there is a child and a parent, each person needs to take on one of the roles. And if something gets flipped and tossed around, we react accordingly.

Taking on the role of a parent when you are their child is taxing to say the least. But we do it out of love. We do it because we aren’t ready to let go of the hope that one day we can snuggle back into our child role, and breathe a bit better.

We do it, as dysfunctional as it is, because someone has to.

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