Trigger warning: child abuse
I was often reminded of how lucky I was to have a family with two parents. My mother’s parents had divorced and this haunted her for the rest of her life. Many of my friends were from single-parent or blended families and envied how “normal” my family seemed to be.
“You are so lucky. I would have given anything for my parents to stay together.”
“I hate having to see my dad on weekends. You are lucky yours gets to live with you all of the time.”
“I wish my parents loved each other like your mom and dad love each other. You are so lucky.”
If I was so lucky, why was I so desperately unhappy?
People only saw what we allowed them to see. And in my mother’s case, she only saw what she wanted to see. Her little family had two parents and she swore she would never divorce my father. She convinced herself this was enough not to repeat the same mistakes her own parents made.
But history did repeat itself and it was devastating.
My parents had a very toxic relationship. Both of them came from abusive childhoods and often used this to excuse their toxic behaviors. The way they saw it, they’d had a hard life so they didn’t care if they made other people’s lives hard too. That included their children.
We seemed like a very loving family on the surface. My parents were very outgoing and sociable people, and people thought this was the same as happy and fulfilled.
My dad was a born entertainer, constantly cracking jokes and brightening people’s day. My friends thought he was hilarious. Many of my friends didn’t have dads or their dads didn’t spend much time with them, and they looked to my dad as an example of what a dad should be like.
My mother was very emotionally expressive and charming. She would shower people with attention, compliments, and drop everything if someone needed her help. She was kind to my friends and encouraged them to call her mom.
Despite their lovely qualities, this treatment didn’t extend to their own children. My father hardly bothered with me, finding me too quiet and sensitive. He favored my younger sister, who was more of a tomboy. He had wanted a son but got me instead. I don’t think he ever got over the disappointment. I sometimes questioned whether he was my real dad because of how little attention he paid me compared to my sister. But we looked so alike that it was impossible, so I had to admit to myself my actual dad didn’t like me.
My mother treated me like a friend and a therapist. Her nurturing, mother-hen persona was an act. She was never nurturing towards me. In fact, I was her nurturer. I regulated her emotions, dealt with her interpersonal problems, and was punished if I didn’t fix them properly. She would fly into rages for no reason, and I was afraid of her. She would say cruel things to me about my personality and appearance. She was resentful of her role as a mother, insisting she could have been someone but she had kids. Often she would threaten that when I got back from school, she wouldn’t be here anymore.
I never looked to my father for protection. I knew I wasn’t important enough.
Although I was fed, clothed, and had all of my basic needs attended to, I couldn’t help but feel neglected. This made me feel guilty because I had been told how lucky I was to have such a wonderful family. Everyone liked my mom and dad, so I reasoned there must have been something wrong with me. I wasn’t good enough and that’s why they treated people outside of the family better than they treated me. I tried harder with them, but it was never enough.
As an adult, I realize now there was nothing wrong with me. I felt neglected because I was emotionally neglected by my parents, but I had no idea what was happening because they were skilled at creating an illusion of a perfect family. They were so neglectful they allowed all three of their children to be abused by extended family members. Although they didn’t realize the extent of the abuse, they knew enough to do something about it. But their worldview of “I’ve had a hard life” would cloud every decision they made. They felt sorry for themselves and had no time to feel sorry for others. As a result, their children suffered needlessly.
I’m sure both my parents swore they would be different. My father didn’t want to be unloving like his own father, who clearly favored his sister. My mother didn’t want a broken marriage like the one her parents had. But she resented my father, and would use me as a relationship counselor, much like her own mother did to her.
They never put the effort into not repeating history. Instead, they put all of their energy into convincing others they were not repeating history by creating personas of the perfect mother and father.
When the time came for me to start a family of my own, I had a lot of thinking to do. I realized family isn’t necessarily defined by DNA or how much you have in common. It’s about learning from history, not pretending it doesn’t exist out of shame. It’s about being honest about your learned behaviors, not fooling yourself into thinking you could never repeat the same mistakes that were made in your childhood. It’s about taking accountability, and not using your past as an excuse for any hurt you cause to your children. And it’s about choosing to be different every single day.
I have a daughter of my own now and I’m acutely aware of the pattern amongst mothers and daughters in my family. I plan on having more children, and I am acutely aware of the pattern in my family of favoring certain children over others. And I am acutely aware of the tendency to care more about appearances than deeper issues. Unfortunately, I have learned to be anxious about what other people think of me. I fear social judgment and have a deep need to be liked. I need to make sure this is never at the expense of my family.
There are many toxic patterns in my family history and I don’t know if I will ever be able to unlearn all of them. They were the only family I ever had and although I managed to escape them, I can never fully escape the template they gave me for future relationships. All I can do it work tirelessly on myself and take responsibility for any learned behaviors. The cycle stops with me.
What sets me apart from my family is that I know the family I have created isn’t perfect and I am okay with it. I know I won’t get everything right, and I am okay with it. And what sets me apart more, is I don’t care about how my family appears to others. Sure, it hurts if people judge my family. I’m only human. But I don’t need to create a persona of a loving wife and mother. I love my husband and daughter exactly as they are. Unlike my parents, I have nothing to hide because I am genuinely proud of the family I have created.
This is what the perfect family is. It’s my imperfect little unit that may not always look good to others. I know I may not always look like the best mom in the world and will be judged. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we love each other and are committed to being the best versions of ourselves so we can create the best possible relationships with each other. Family is about trying, getting it wrong, and trying harder next time.