Before my three children were born, I read every parenting book in existence. I’d hardly ever been around kids when I was younger and didn’t even know how to change a diaper. Scared that I would be woefully inadequate, I used every resource I could think of to fill my brain with information on how to be the perfect parent.
There were a few things I already knew I wanted to do. It was important that my kids had a safe space, a place they could share their feelings without being ashamed. I wanted to be that person for them.
This was especially true with the boys, Brendan and Shayne. I knew their father wanted them to be tough and grow up into strong men. That was okay, but I also wanted them to know they could be emotional without being shamed. I vowed to be someone they could turn to for anything without judgment. I believed I would always be on their side and never make them navigate their lives alone.
My daughter, Vanessa, was born three months premature. She was the tiniest thing I ever saw, but such a little fighter. She battled every day for her life and survived lung problems, heart surgery and a staph infection. She became a little pistol as she got older, always ready to take on the world that was initially so cruel to her. She is a survivor like I’ve never seen before.
After swearing I’d always be there for all three of them, I let them down one by one.
Saying Goodbye To My Heart
I signed custody of my boys over to their father shortly after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Their dad came to my apartment and put the legal papers on the kitchen table along with a note from three-year-old Shayne. I read the note first, my hands shaking as I opened it.
“I misu.” That’s all it said, but it was enough to break my heart into a million pieces.
The truth was, I didn’t have as much to offer as their dad. He had a loving extended family and a stable life, both of which I was sorely lacking. The boys desperately needed what he could give them. While I loved both of them dearly, I knew I couldn’t provide for them in the same way.
A few years later, Vanessa went to stay with my mother for a few weeks. The day she left was her fifth birthday, and I held her tight as I turned my face away so she wouldn’t see me cry. I was in severe drug withdrawal and about to check into a halfway house where they didn’t accept children. My mom said it was for the best. Again, Vanessa needed the kind of stability I couldn’t provide.
She didn’t come home for two years.
Losing my children was like a solid punch in the gut every single day. My heart ached for them constantly, and the feelings of shame were so intense I couldn’t handle them. I turned to alcohol and hard drugs so I wouldn’t have to deal with the pain that greeted me every morning.
The opiates I took regularly provided the illusion that everything was fine and it wasn’t so bad, not really. Maybe I wasn’t a total piece of shit who couldn’t even take care of her own children. Maybe they didn’t even care about me anymore. It was for the best, like my mother said.
It was a lie, and drugs allowed me to believe it far longer than I should have.
The Moments I Couldn’t Get Back
There were a hundred milestones that passed without me. Vanessa lost her first tooth and started kindergarten. Brendan and Shayne joined the Boy Scouts and earned merit badges. I had no idea what was going on in their day-to-day lives. It was too much to bear knowing I wasn’t part of them.
I still saw the boys every so often, usually at playgrounds or parks. They begged to come home with me even though I was in an abusive second marriage that would have put them in danger.
“I don’t care if he’s there,” Shayne announced one day at the playground. “I just want to be with you and live with you again.”
It was a brave thing to say, and I hugged him and turned my face away so he couldn’t see me fall apart. There was nothing more I wanted in that moment but to take them home and never let them go. It was my dream, impossible as it was.
Brendan was older and knew better. He didn’t want to see my tears or me feeling sorry for myself. His dad was tough, and as a result so was Brendan. I knew he wanted me to do the right thing, but I was too weak to comply. There was no way I was getting those kids back full time, and knowing it tortured my soul.
Vanessa was another story. My mother took her home to Missouri, and I didn’t see her until I brought her back to Florida a couple of years later. The guilt I felt over losing her almost killed me, and I stopped calling and talking to her because I was so ashamed.
I didn’t know my own daughter anymore, the one who cried angrily over the phone for me to come get her that instant. She was too young to understand how unstable things were and how I couldn’t even take care of myself, much less take care of her.
The Years Away Took Their Toll On Me
The years without my children were soul crushing. I stopped caring about my life, feeling it was worthless without them in it. I’m ashamed to admit I thought about suicide quite often. My children are the reason I never went through with it. I’d caused them enough pain in their young lives without burdening them further.
Becoming a mother changed me, but losing my kids damaged me forever. I prayed somebody was holding them and kissing their boo-boos, supporting them when they had a hard day at school, putting them first before their own selfish needs.There was no use praying that person could be me. I’d already failed at the most important job I would ever have.
There was no fight left in me. I didn’t have the option to stand up and go to court to win my children back. I already had too many strikes against me, and I knew it would only cause everyone more pain. Still, I wanted them near me with every fiber of my being. It was a constant hole in my heart I never thought would heal.
Knowing I wasn’t the best parent for them was a tough realization I had to live with, but it made me relieved to know they were growing up under the stability and love they deserved even if it didn’t come from me. Every kid deserves that at the very least. It was one thing to love and adore them as much as I did, but purely another thing to care for them enough to let them go without me.
My children and I are much closer today. Brendan is an adult, and Shayne will be an adult in a couple of years. Sweet Vanessa is 11 years old and at home with me again. Nothing is more meaningful to me than being there to support and love them, and I consider every minute with them a gift from God. I’ve become the safe space for them I’ve always wanted to be.
We talk openly about the “bad” days, the time we spent apart, and I’m as honest with them as I can possibly be. I hope they learn from the mistakes I made and can someday understand them.
When Shayne asks for my advice, I feel like the most important person in the world. When Brendan and his girlfriend come to Florida to visit, I feel blessed they stop and see me every chance they get. When Vanessa holds my hand to cross the street, I hold it extra tight for all the times I didn’t have that luxury. All three of them have healed me in their own ways even if they don’t realize it.
Things have changed. My children come first now, not me or my instability or selfish needs. I’d lay down my life for all of them gladly. Finally, I’m their mom and beyond grateful to say so. All three of them are my favorite child, each one for their own special reasons. I don’t have to hide or be ashamed anymore. I’ve been given a second chance to make things right.
No matter how we plan to raise our children, sometimes they end up raising us in ways we never expected. Kids are magical that way.
This article was originally published on