My Kids Aren’t Alright (And That’s Alright)
Sometimes, my teenage daughter tells me that she hates me. She hates me because I married bad men who hurt her and her siblings. She hates me because her brother suffers from depression and sometimes wants to die. She even hates me because I was too stupid to realize that one of those bad men I married molested her. It wasn’t “just one time” like she told me at first, and she hates me because I believed her when she told me that, too.
Sometimes, my daughter thinks I have destroyed her life. She says that she has no reason to respect my authority because I have proven that I make terrible life decisions. “Why should I do what YOU say?” she asks.
And sometimes I have no answer.
Because the truth is, my daughter is right on every count. It would be absurd to pretend that my life choices haven’t impacted my kids, so I stand in front of her and admit my mistakes, listen to her pain, and bear the brunt of her attacks.
What I don’t do is allow myself to plunge down the rabbit hole of shame. Not anymore.
I don’t remember when I first began to fear becoming my mother, but I know it was early in my childhood. Even as a very young child — as I clung to my mother and prayed for her approval and loved her — it was always crystal-clear in my mind that I would never be her.
For most of my life, I didn’t understand why I harbored this conviction. It took many years of growing up, moving out, and having other people begin to tell me that my mother’s behavior wasn’t okay before I began to recognize that her parenting was conditional and tumultuous at best, and disordered and abusive at worst. She was a tortured woman who never confronted her own demons, and who inhabited a nightmare inside her own head. I fought to exist outside of her world, and her narrative, and was punished for every deviation along the way. I was supposed to be an extension of her, and to reflect well upon her, and I always knew on some level that I would only be loved, and maybe even tolerated, for as long as that remained true.
Perhaps as a result of this fraught dynamic, I never gave much thought to motherhood. I loved to play house as a child, but I was always more concerned about the marital dynamic than the children, and that remained true as I entered adulthood. I wanted a boy to love me — and really it could’ve been almost any boy — but babies weren’t even on my radar.
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That changed one afternoon in a dingy apartment when I peed on a stick and watched it turn shockingly, glaringly positive. I was 18 then, and living with my boyfriend because my mom had kicked me out. If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, the relationship would’ve ended naturally without much acrimony or even any fuss because, frankly, neither of us were even very interested in the other. But that little piece of plastic, combined with his latent Catholicism, prompted him to propose marriage — and my own latent Catholicism and horror at the idea of becoming an unwed teen mother led me to accept.
We were married in my aunt’s living room, with my belly bursting out of my cheap white wedding gown and my shame looming almost as prominently. It was a complicated pregnancy and a premature birth, but my son was born healthy. I desperately studied everything the nurses did with my son, and listened to every bit of advice they offered — I had never even changed a diaper or babysat before. But after the initial flurry of help was gone, I found myself alone with my son.
Six more children later, I can now confidently say that I didn’t become my mother. But what I became was far from perfect . . . and far more complicated than I could’ve imagined.
When people hear that I have seven children and have been divorced three times, they have a lot to say. Most of it is predictably shitty and also somewhat accurate. Yes, I was a train wreck; that is why I married the men I did and had seven children. The kinder people tell me that I did the best that I could; “You made mistakes,” they say, “but your kids are alright.”
For many years, I clung to this comforting notion; maybe, no matter how many mistakes I’d made, my kids had made it through unscathed. I parented “right;” I co-slept and breastfed and pumped and cloth-diapered. My kids ate organic, free-range, gluten-free kale. More importantly, while I clung to my mom for many years, desperate for her to love me freely and unconditionally, my own children know how much I care for them. And I have never taught my children what my mother taught me — to accept my serving of abuse and come back for seconds.
But eventually, I allowed myself to come face to face with that one simple truth: I did the best I could, but my kids aren’t alright. They aren’t alright at all.
Despite my best efforts to be a good mother, I’ve hurt my kids by making decisions from a place of deep, personal brokenness that led them to be hurt, too. I regret marrying not one, not two, but three men who were absent or abusive. I regret waiting to enter therapy until I was 33 years old. I regret choosing to believe that it happened “just one time.” I regret the decisions I made that caused my children pain, even though most of them had absolutely nothing to do with them and everything to do with me.
If my kids aren’t alright, it’s because at least in the past, I wasn’t alright, either. I made the best choices that I could make, at the time and place I was in, and I have always loved and nurtured my children with every ounce of love I possess — but it still wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.
It’s an ugly truth, and it’s not one we are supposed to say. We are supposed to tell each other that we are enough; that our best is good enough. We are supposed to support each other, not tear each other down. Yet I know that my mother’s best wasn’t even in the ballpark of good enough — and I also know that mine wasn’t, either.
My mother would never concede that she has hurt me, and certainly not in passive ways such as her choice of spouses. If I am not alright, my mother would tell you that it’s my fault. But I’ve found freedom in acknowledging my own faults, in part because it allows me to believe that my kids will grow up to be better than their mother, too.
My kids aren’t alright. They are flawed and imperfect, vulnerable and scarred. They go to therapy, where it is safe to hate the men who hurt them and the mother who allowed it to happen, and where they learn to process their pain before it consumes them. They learn to set boundaries, sometimes even together, and there is no such thing as perfection in this house. Even, and perhaps especially, not when it comes to their mother.
In their kinder moments, my children tell me with compassion that I made a lot of poor decisions in the past. They won’t make the same ones, they say. And as I look at them, each with their individual flaws and faults, pain and scars, I believe them. They will stumble and fall, and succeed in a myriad of ways, but their mistakes will be their own. And even if they aren’t alright today, they will be someday. Just like their mother.