I’m sure I speak for a lot of parents when I say that I just want to do right by my kids. I realize that, at a certain point, I’ve done what I can do and they’re going to be who they are. I just hope I’m not the dominant reason they go to therapy.
I talked about wanting to yell less and listen more. To respect my children as people and remember that my actions will influence who they become in this world. What an amazingly terrifying responsibility, right?
I think back to my childhood and analyze my own parents and realize that I’m pretty much flying by the seat of my pants with this parenting thing. I really didn’t have much in the way of positive role models. My mom was 17 and my dad 23 when they married. Just over a year later I was born.
Neither of them graduated high school. We worried about being evicted. We regularly had the heat turned off. There was alcohol abuse and physical abuse in my house regularly. Swearing, crying, hiding, kitchen tables flipped, phones cords torn from the wall, picnic tables thrown down hills. I remember the day my mom told me she and my father were divorcing (I was almost four – the same age Olivia is now) and I cried. …Tears of relief.
We lived separately for a year before my parents got back together. My younger sister was born and life carried on as it always had before. It wasn’t unusual for me to watch my sister by myself. I dropped her once and felt like I might die from guilt. She was less than a year old; I was six. I fixed us cereal, did our laundry, washed the dishes, did my homework, tucked us into bed and waited. If my father came home sober, I’d go to sleep. If he came home drunk, I’d get ready to referee him and my mother. Only twice was I unable to stop him before she bled. On Christmas Eve the year I was nine, he broke her arm. That’s how I discovered there was no Santa Claus.
They separated for good when I was thirteen, and my father periodically got a handle on his disease. He was kind, funny, silly and encouraged me to be more than he ever allowed himself to dream. He believed in me and made sure I knew it. But, ultimately, the disease won and he was killed in a drunk driving accident a month after my 20th birthday. He was only 44.
My mom suffered from her own demons. There are too many to list, but chief among them were the inability to stop smoking even after being diagnosed with COPD and early-onset emphysema and addiction to prescription pain medication. The latter likely played a huge role in the failure of her second marriage and both ultimately caused an enlarged heart and led to her death at age 49.
She depended on me as a child depends on a parent. In many ways, she was selfish. But, one of my best memories of her is brushing her hair while she was in the hospital and her stopping me to say, “Stephanie, you will make such an amazing mother one day. I know it.”
I know that my life could have turned out so differently so very easily. I had mediocre grades in high school, but I went on to college and got a bachelor’s degree. I have a good job, a home, an absolutely amazing husband, a close relationship with my sister and nephew and two completely beautiful, sassy daughters.
It might not seem like my parents shaped my life at all. Do we have any parallels at all? For the most part, we don’t.
I know now (after years of therapy!) that every person has their limitations. And their own baggage. And that my parents probably did the best they could with what they knew and the resources they thought they had. And the past, while you are certainly NOT doomed to repeat it, does help dictate your future. It’s up to you to decide how.
In large part, they taught me what not to do. What’s not normal. What won’t be a part of my life. My children will never feel afraid in their own home. My children will be allowed and encouraged to be children for as long as possible. I’m responsible for them, not the other way around. They’ll always have clothes that fit, never worry that they won’t eat. They will never be shamed by us. Never hit.
But, there were those shining moments from both of my parents. The sunshine peeking out through the storm. They loved us. They weren’t great caregivers by any means, but they loved us. I take that with me and make sure that my girls hear, “I love you,” so many times a day, I get eye rolls from them. I sing a lullaby from my childhood that my mom sang to me and know that she wished she could have done more. That she was just a baby herself when I came along.
I’m independent. My husband would tell you it’s annoying. I don’t call AAA to change my tire; I’ve changed the oil in my car myself. I move furniture, paint walls, hang photos, assemble cribs, troubleshoot electronics issues, and don’t ask for help. I can do it myself. My dad taught me that. I want my girls to know that, too. That they are capable of anything.
Mostly though, I hope my past helps dictate a better future.