I Was Afraid to Be a Mom
My son has fallen asleep at last. It’s 22:37, and I’ve been up since six o’clock in the morning. He has a ton of energy and curiosity, which keeps me busy. I watch as his chest rises and falls and am mesmerized at the sight of him. I’m exhausted, but my heart feels full. A few years ago, however, I didn’t think I was capable of being a mother. I was afraid to be one.
Where to start?
I was worried I would pass on my issues.
I was afraid I would reproduce destructive patterns.
I was concerned that I wouldn’t know how to escape from my childhood demons.
A part of me is still terrified that I will screw my son up.
I had an authoritarian father. As a child, I had to work to earn his love and approval. There was a reward system in place. I didn’t feel that I could be myself or that I was enough. In his eyes, I could always do better, be better, do more. I’d love to tell you that I have overcome my insecurities, but I haven’t.
I grew up believing that no one would love me, for me. I learned that if I wanted to be loved or accepted, I had to please others. What or how I felt didn’t matter. This is how I understood things worked in the world, and it has impacted all my relationships.
At 35, I’m trying to unlearn everything taught to me about who I should be. I’m still trying to heal. I’m still trying to let go. I’ve had to do a lot of work to have healthy relationships, and I have a long way to go.
Even though there were other significant role models in my childhood, my brother and I lived by my father’s rules. I looked up to my father, but at the same time, I feared him. I hated when he screamed at us, when he spanked us, when he grounded us. I hated it when he gave us the silent treatment. It didn’t matter if we apologized. We were not allowed to misbehave.
Once, while having breakfast, my brother and I fought. My father got fed up with us; he wasn’t the most patient person. He spanked us and locked us up in my bedroom. He said we didn’t deserve to go to school that day. We spent the entire day in my room, without food, except for a glass of water. He expected us to know better all the time. He was allowed to get angry, to get frustrated; we weren’t. We weren’t allowed to have or show those emotions.
My mother advised us to do what he said and avoid upsetting him. He was like a mine bomb. Anything could set him off. We had to tiptoe around him to prevent his blow-ups. She tried to protect us, but she was also a target. If he had to lash out at someone, it was my mother he’d go after. The three of us learned to keep things from him to avoid dealing with his reactions.
He was allowed to get angry, to get frustrated; we weren’t. We weren’t allowed to have or show those emotions.
When I was 12 years old, we moved from Bolivia to Peru. Moving meant a lot of things. We were away from my grandparents, our friends, and everything that felt safe. Moving to a new country was hard enough, but he made it more challenging in some ways. The first few weeks at my new school, he checked my notebooks when he got home from work. He tore page after page. I had to redo them all until he was satisfied. Each page had to be neat, and every letter had to be perfect.
When I reached puberty, communication with him became more difficult. He had been vocal about his disappointment in my appearance. I was overweight, and that made him uncomfortable. At times, he could be cruel. On one occasion, after I got ready to go out, he told me I looked like a clown and to wipe off my face. Another time, I asked him how many calories ice cream had. He snapped and said that it didn’t matter if I was going to eat it anyway.
A few months before I turned 17, he taught me how to drive.
For a few weeks, every Sunday afternoon, I would get in the car, anxious for what was to come. He’d start screaming before I even turned the car on. What are you doing! What did I tell you! Seatbelt first! The entire ride, I had to put up with his screams, holding in my tears. Crying made it worse. There was no room for mistakes. Sometimes I wonder if he used that hour in the car with me to release the anger that was eating him up inside.
He had to be right at all times. There wasn’t any room for a conversation to express our point of view without him getting exasperated. My opinions weren’t valid; he always knew more. To this day, I’m fearful of confrontation. I get incredibly nervous when voicing my ideas. I often feel people don’t like me. It takes me a long time to feel like I can speak my mind.
“Sometimes I wonder if he used that hour in the car with me to release the anger that was eating him up inside.”
The Other Side of the Coin
Something I will say about my father is that he believed we needed to be well-rounded adults. He cultivated in me his love for reading and writing. Besides bringing home books, he bought me notebooks and encouraged me to write every day. At first, it felt like an obligation, but I found joy in telling my secrets to all those blank pages.
He saw potential in my brother and me and signed us up for all kinds of extracurricular activities. Throughout my childhood, I took ballet, contemporary dance, violin, and drawing lessons. He got a computer program to teach us how to type without looking at the keyboard.
Sports were a big thing for him, which meant we had to practice them too. He was an athlete and wanted us to be active. I learned how to play volleyball, basketball, and tennis and also took swimming lessons.
Unfortunately, it was hard to be consistent at a particular sport or art because of our frequent moves. I didn’t manage to excel at any of the things I tried out. Yet, I do appreciate that he allowed us to experience all of them.
He used to be really good at picking out birthday presents for us, he put a lot of thought behind them. One of my favorite gifts is a handmade wooden box. I still have it, and it’s full of cards and handwritten letters I’ve saved over time.
Picture a Dutchman trying to speak Spanish like a Cuban or a Spaniard. My father did that. He liked imitating people’s accents to make us laugh. He could be fun to be around when he was in a good mood.
He took me to my first concert on a school night when I was nine. It was Ricky Martin, if you must know. We were surrounded by screaming teenage girls. He and I loved it.
My father was a perfectionist, and he wanted everyone around him to be perfect too. Even though I value that he invested in our education both in and out of school, he only expected excellence. I tried so, so hard to be the daughter he wanted. I always felt like I was failing. He pushed and pushed and pushed. He tried to mold me into someone he had imagined I should be.
I imagine that if any of his friends or former colleagues were to read this about him, they would be shocked. People were drawn to him. He was charismatic, funny, the life of the party. When he moved to Bolivia from the Netherlands in the 70s, he became a political activist. Whenever I’ve met his “comrades,” all they’ve done is praise his commitment to the cause, his dedication, his generosity. He had a work ethic most would envy.
I think people outside our house got the best version of him. We got stuck with the angry and tired version.
Something you must know is that my father is still alive. I speak about him in the past tense because he’s been heavily depressed the past 11 years. In a way, he’s not the father I have known for most of my life. In the beginning, he used to have angry and violent outbursts. Nowadays, he hardly ever leaves his bed. His teeth have fallen off because he stopped brushing them. He watches TV all day and doesn’t engage in conversation. I think that he’s always struggled with depression and anxiety, but he never sought help.
I wish I could hate him, but hate is too strong of a word. Relationships with parents are far more complicated than that. He hurt me deeply, but at the same time, he did make sacrifices and efforts that should be acknowledged.
Will I Be Like My Father?
There’s a lot of my father in me. I am his daughter, after all. I have also struggled with depression most of my life. I was bulimic for about ten years and thought very little of myself until recently.
With a background like this, I thought, should I bring life into this world?
I wanted to be a mother for a long time, but I was terrified I’d continue with the cycle of abuse. I was mortified I’d step into my father’s shoes and become an authoritarian parent. What changed my mind was meeting my husband.
I used to believe that you can’t expect people to love you unless you love yourself. Now, I think that other people can love you in a way you’d never imagined you’d be loved. People can see things in you that you don’t see yourself. I’m beginning to see myself through the eyes of my partner.
Besides meeting my husband, I’ve been doing therapy for the past four years, and it has made a massive difference in my life. There’s still pain and shame, but there’s hope too.
“When a person has felt love and has grown up feeling loved, they won’t go around life trying to hurt others or themselves.”
My therapist said that motherhood will give me the chance to give my child everything I wish I had received.
He said that the world will be changed by mothers and fathers who love their children unconditionally. By: parents that are present; parents who are supportive; parents that connect and empathize with their children. When a person has felt love and has grown up feeling loved, they won’t go around life trying to hurt others or themselves.
I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that the cycle of (psychological) abuse ends with me. I also know that I will not be the perfect mother. But, I will be a mother who loves her child.
I want my child to feel SEEN. I will work to make him feel unconditionally loved, understood, safe, and heard.
I’m not here to tell him who he should be, but to celebrate who he already is.
© Andrea Huls, 2020. All Rights Reserved.