Recently I had occasion to be interviewed by my friend Erin Goodman; and in that interview we talked about a host of topics, including my childhood. She gently inquired about what it takes to break the cycle of abuse–or at least what worked for me–in the hope of helping others.
Encouraged by this conversation and Erin’s recent blog post about her own struggles with depression, I share this with you–the tale of my childhood, of my mother, and the power of and potential for change.
Some have said I paid my dues—8,134 days’ worth of dues, to be exact—that my childhood was a sort of penance and that I should be able to relax into my adulthood, into my role as a parent. But when you are the child of a mother who suffered from both schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, you never quite relax into anything.
My mother died nearly two years ago; and some have said that I should feel relief—that I should be able to walk down the street—with my children or without—and no longer fear that I will see my mother around every corner. But when you are raised by a parent without any sort of boundaries and with a skewed sense of reality, you never can fully release your fear.
Some have said that my three beautiful sons—each of whom my husband and I adopted as infants—are my reward for two decades of suffering. But when all you know is suffering, when your self-esteem and sense of worth have been hacked to the bone, you don’t believe in rewards—at least not for yourself.
So how do you become the mother you want to be, the mother you would have chosen for yourself when this is your story? How do you let love in when most of your life you saved yourself by building walls? How do you learn to love your children when the one who was supposed to love you most only terrorized and terrified you?
I was born in May 1968, and walked out the door of my childhood residence and away from my mother only after graduating from college, landing a full-time teaching job, and finding an apartment. It took me more than 8,000 days to get there; but I knew once I left I would never go back. Yet though I never went back, I have never stopped looking back. And having children, taking on the role of mother when my own first role model was so deeply deluded, has forced me to confront my own childhood in ways I could have never previously imagined.
My oldest son was the first to ask me about my mother. At six, he was understandably curious about what this amorphous figure of my past was all about, wanted to know why he didn’t see this particular “grandmother.” I answered his questions in a way that I thought was honest but also laden with euphemism, tempering the harsh reality with language that would be palatable to a young child. He listened intently, concluded that my mother was not really able to be a mother, and asked a question that had danced through my own mind throughout most of the 1970s: Do you ever wish your mother had made an adoption plan for you?
With a single question, asked by his six-year-old self, my son helped me to release the first of my many debilitating demons—and for the first time I was able to see my mother the way he sees his own birthmother—as a woman who had a baby but wasn’t able to care for that baby, who wasn’t able to be a mother. This monumental shift, brought on by a single ingenuous query, allowed me to let go of four decades’ worth of anger, of blame. My birthmother—unlike his—lacked the understanding of her own limits and chose to attempt to raise her children; but her limitations were precisely that. She didn’t choose schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. They were thrust upon her. And with that acknowledgment, I could begin to forgive.
When I learned of my mother’s death, my middle son, who was five at the time, asked me if I was sad. I told him I didn’t know if I was sad or not. He told me—in his infinite wisdom—that it was “okay to be glad.” He innocently reasoned that my mother was not a kind person and that maybe it was a good thing that she was gone. But then he quickly added that maybe it was sad that she had died, that maybe she was so mean to everyone because she was hurting on the inside.
And there were my own words brought back to me. Again and again, I had explained to my children that sometimes people are unkind because they don’t feel good about themselves. I used this rationale to explain the behavior of everyone from schoolyard bullies to more egregious examples they may have heard about peripherally on the news and elsewhere. And yet, it wasn’t until my son made this connection to my mother that I was able to see her in this light—as someone who was hurting who then, in turn, hurt others. And while none of this is an excuse, it provides an explanation—and it was an explanation I was ready to hear, delivered to me by a sweet child, my child.
Throughout my life and, specifically, for the first six years of my journey through parenthood, I believed that I was “safe” if I simply did the exact opposite of what I knew from my own mother. My mother lied; I would be truthful. My mother stole; I would be trustworthy. My mother’s mind dwelled in a different reality. I would make sure mine resided here, thank you very much. My mother was insulting; I would work to build others’ self-esteem. My mother coveted and bragged about her abilities; I would share my knowledge with others and remain humble in the process. My mother had no work ethic; I would push my limits. My mother was volatile; I would be calm. My mother was nonsensical; I would be reasonable. My mother hurt her children; I would be gentle. I created a version of myself that was my mother’s inverse. And for a very long time, I often wondered if I were precisely that—a version, albeit the antithesis, of another.
But as I think about my children and how they have helped me re-envision my mother, I can only conclude that my children are who they are because I am who I am—my mother’s counterpoint—and that this is, in fact, the true, most authentic version of myself.
People who know my story—even just pieces of it—have said that I am the mother I am, the person I am because I know what “not to do,” further asserting that I could never be where I am right now if I hadn’t endured my past. I would argue that if had grown up with a supportive, loving parent or parents, I could still be precisely where I am right now—and have saved a lot of heartache along the way. Instead of seeking out the converse, I could have simply done what others have done and do–modeled myself on what I knew.
And this is what gives me hope as a parent. My mother did not know how to love—but thanks to sheer determination, a hearty dose of luck, the love of a considerate, devoted husband, and, now, my children, I am learning how. I am able to be—although admittedly a constant work in progress—the role model my children deserve, the mother I want to be, the mother I wanted my own to be.
I have always maintained—as an educator and now as a parent—that children are our wisest teachers. But little did I know that in addition to teaching me how to love, my three sons are teaching me how to forgive a person who didn’t know how to be a parent, who didn’t know how to love, a person who was cruel—to herself and those she was charged with protecting. My mother suffered. She was pained. She hurt others and couldn’t express any kind of healthy semblance of love or affection; but her story will not be mine. And my story will not be my children’s.
When my oldest son looks in my eyes and tells me he loves me, when my middle son jumps in my arms and tells me I’m “the best mother he could ever have picked,” and when my youngest son runs up to me and hugs my knees with all his might, I am beginning to believe that I am worthy of this bounty. It took a long time to get here, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I have to believe that if my mother had been well, that if she had been able to engage with her family and the world without the burden of her substantial mental health issues, that she would have chosen this path for me, her child, that this is precisely what she would have wished for me.
And if this had been the case and I am correct, thanks to the revelations provided to me by my children, then I can honestly now say that I would have loved her for that.