As parents or guardians, we have a massive responsibility to provide safe and loving homes to the children in our care. Meeting our kids’ needs is critical to their sense of security; this includes their physical and emotional needs. Parenting does not have to be pretty—and quite frankly it rarely is—but it should be healthy. Okay, healthyish. I’m sure I have created some therapy-worthy moments for my kids, but you know what I mean.
So how do we do this? How do we get this parenting gig right? Books, online groups, and parent friends offer suggestions. Many of us measure our parenting skills against our own parents; we either emulate them or promise to never be like them. Both of my parents have provided a manual for what not to do, but as a mom, I use my own mother as what not to do when parenting my children.
For years I described my relationship with my mother as tricky. It took going to college to see that my relationship with her was different from the relationships my friends had with theirs. Early into my first semester as a freshman, I was hanging out in a dorm room a few doors down from my own when my roommate appeared in the doorway, her irritation obvious. “Your mother is on the phone. Again.”
I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to talk to my mother. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her; at the time I still liked her too, but I was trying to make friends. I was trying to have a good time while gaining independence. I was ready to grow. My mother was not ready to let go. I realize most mothers struggle when their child moves out, but my mother continued to demand my time and attention in unfair ways. She expected me be available to talk, comfort, and entertain her when she called—she called at least 5 times a day, usually more—and if I wasn’t available, she would continue to call until she made contact.
It took going to therapy to realize my relationship with my mother wasn’t right. It needed boundaries. I suggested that we only talk once a day, but that hurt her. She missed me. I mentioned that most of the people I had met only talked to their parents once a week. Just the thought of that crushed her. She didn’t have access to email, and texting wasn’t a thing in the late ’90s. Her only lifeline was calling me on the phone. She needed to hear my voice. How could I deny her that?
It took my mother’s unwillingness to accept boundaries to see that our relationship was dysfunctional. I had told her what I needed—less daily interaction so I could make friends and experience college life—and she countered it with how that made her feel—sad and lonely. She took it as insult and injury. It was the beginning of me realizing just how much my mother had molded me to be her source of happiness.
I was not just a source of pride and joy; my accomplishments, hobbies, and friends became hers. I was her confidant and companion, and she needed me to maintain her identity. My being away at college meant she didn’t have a reflection of herself to know who she was anymore. As I grew up and into adulthood, my mother took advantage of my empathy and the piece in me that needs to “fix” things and people. Because my father didn’t, I took care of her in ways that emotionally supported her, and she cultivated it.
The relationship I had with my mother was all I knew–it was my normal, and I didn’t understand the damage my mother had done until I tried to pull myself out of it. Here’s the tricky part: suffocating, needy love is hard to see as dysfunctional when you’re in it. Emotional abuse is often difficult to explain when experienced through good intentions, especially when the abuser is a narcissist.
I graduated from college and established a life where my mother was no longer the focus. It was also a life where she wasn’t needed. The distance alone made her insecure, and the fact that my life was no longer something she could claim as her own took away her sense of purpose. I worked with my therapist and created more boundaries, but the more autonomy I sought, the more entangled she wanted to become.
When I had kids of my own, I realized my relationship with my mother was not just tricky, it was toxic.
I silently promised myself and my kids that I would never allow them to be responsible for my emotions.
I would never be the mother who would do or say something hurtful and then ask my kids not to hold any negative feelings about it, especially justified ones.
I would never be the mother who didn’t hold myself accountable for the consequences of my actions and words.
I would never be the mother who told my kids that my only goal and purpose in life was to be a mother, because that would mean the only role my children could play would be that of my child.
My children will always be my children—that’s the nature of relationships. Titles are given and roles are played. Within those roles I will experience beautiful and painful emotions, but those emotions are for me to hold, understand, and figure out. My emotional health is on me, not my kids.
I didn’t have children to create something I couldn’t find within myself. I had kids to offer pieces of myself while helping them learn how to piece themselves together and discover their own identities. I love watching my kids find independence. Yes, it hurts to watch my babies grow, but alongside that hurt is relief, not fear.
I want nothing more than to raise strong and emotionally intelligent children who feel safe enough to hold my hand, but even safer to let go. It’s not a suffocating net or a short leash that will keep my kids emotionally close—it’s my ability to love with selflessness that lets them know it’s okay to grow.