We Don’t Really Know Our Parents Until We Grow Up

Shannon Ashley
Nov 14, 2018 · 5 min read

My mother made me afraid to live. I don’t know any other way to put it. For as long as I can remember, I had nightmares about her not believing me. Or being disappointed in me. Hers was always the worst punishment in my mind, because my mother was often angry with me for things I either hadn’t done or wasn’t wrong to do, and she rarely believed In my innocence.

From about the time I was 12 years old, my mother found me guilty of what she called rebellion and witchcraft. Anytime we disagreed or argued, she would tell me that I had been impossible since junior high. And that was that. There was no talking things out. No recourse. I suspect that’s why I still feel a constant need to explain myself after any misunderstanding.

Her anger came with plenty of glaring looks, exaggerated sighs, and clear disgust. I dreaded being in any kind of trouble with my mother because it meant her comments would constantly pick and scrape away at my soul.

Long-winded monologues which begin with, "What's wrong with you," still make me cringe.

One night when I was in seventh grade, my mom stormed into my bedroom and demanded to go through my notebook. I panicked, because I was writing a note to a guy friend and sarcastically wrote the phrase "fucking asshole" for the first time in my life. It was the kind of thing every tween and teen goes through at least 100 times--saying something edgy to be liked.

But I knew my mom wouldn't see it that way. In an extremely ill-conceived effort to evade punishment, I refused to let my mother read my notebook. Instead I ran down the back steps of our four-plex and threw my notebook in the trash. Unfortunately the dumpster was small, and full, so my mom easily retrieved it.

And yes, I was in a world of trouble. Grounded. From that day on, my mom talked about what an evil and rebellious girl I was. With my mom, you couldn't make mistakes that interfered with her rigid religious beliefs. She decided I had a filthy mouth and was on an "evil path."

That time I threw my notebook into the trash was one of the rare moments I tried to stand up against my mom. Growing up, I didn't try to disobey her or stand up for myself because I trusted my mom's authority. She was abusive, but I didn't have the understanding to say so.

For the most part, I just felt she was strict but assumed she meant well. She was the adult, and I was the child. I trusted that chain of command.

It really wasn't until my thirties that I began to understand my mom. To see her as the flawed human she is, instead of just "my mom." I realized that I never actually knew my mother until I could finally see her more objectively.

I've been writing about my life and sometimes sordid history for close to seven months, but I admit I still have fears about her finding my work and being horrified by my stories regarding her and our past. She wouldn't approve of anything I write--not the content nor the profanity. Since none of what I write is Christian, she would find all of it... evil.

Of course, I know my mom so much better now that I've been an adult myself. These days I know better that I wasn't evil or rebellious like she said. Now I know that she was mentally ill, and she's still mentally ill. I know now that I can't live my life to please her, because that's not living at all.

Now that I'm grown, I understand my mother's limitations. I know that she loves me, but can only show it in specific ways. Looking back on my childhood, I don't have many memories of her instructing me in helpful ways, mostly because she didn't teach me. My sister and I didn't really have any chores, though she would get angry if we made a mess. And for years, she insisted she wasn't allowed to give us chores. She claimed that the family courts forbid her from doing so.

That wasn't true, of course, but all these years later I've realized the reason she never taught me and my sister how to do basic tasks is that she prefers her martyrdom. She'd rather complain that everything was all on her shoulders. It’s all a part of her disease. And my life is a little bit better since I can finally see it.

Most days, I don't give a ton of thought to my mom, because I'm used to managing without her. It’s not like I don't want my mother around, but she's never been the kind of person I can go to for comfort or love. She's on my mind a lot lately, however. Because she's moving down here to my town in a couple of weeks. In fact, I suspect she will be living with me and my daughter for a bit until she gets her apartment lined up. Heavy sigh.

How do you love a toxic parent without harming yourself? I'm far from the only person to deal with this kind of thing, but I think all we can do is maintain healthy boundaries and keep our parents' humanity in perspective. That's so much easier to do once we're adults who decide we can't live to make anybody else happy.

My mom is moving back into my life, but it’s my choice as to how much of my energy she consumes. I've already told her some of the topics that are off-limits with me. I've put my foot down before, and I'll have to do it again. In fact, I'm probably going to have to start a lot of awkward conversations to explain to my mother that she can't keep trying to micromanage my life. Maybe that means I'm finally growing up.

The world assumes that when we talk about our parents it has to be good. If you Google "quotes about parents," you'll wind up with a slew of sentimental sayings centered on selflessness and unconditional love. Most of the quotes assume that's just the way it is. I like Mister Rogers quotes about parenting because he rarely made assumptions and he often used the word "if."

"If we can bring our children understanding, comfort, and hopefulness when they need this kind of support, then they are more likely to grow into adults who can find these resources within themselves later on.”
- Fred Rogers

Sometimes I think "if" is among the most important words in parenting and relationships. Nothing in any relationship is a given--there are no guarantees or formulas to success and harmony. But there's a whole lot of possibility in the word "if." There's wisdom there too. Family is the most important thing, but if our family members are toxic, we also need to protect ourselves.

Even if your parents are more or less healthy people, you'll still have to practice healthy boundaries. And you'll still need to come to terms with who they really are once you've grown old enough to see and understand their faults and vulnerability.

It's a good thing to keep in mind--especially during the holiday season. For most of us, our parents haven't changed much at all since we were children. We simply know them more as more fallible, sometimes broken people.

Shannon Ashley

Written by

Single mama, fulltime writer, exvangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. Top Writer. shannon.ashley.medium@gmail.com

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