Happy Mother’s Day – no, we didn’t always do the best we could
Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.
“They did the best they could.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say this about their parents, I would be retired in the Swiss Alps in a luxury chalet – or maybe, just a sweet little house with a fenced back yard and a pack of rescued, ancient doggies.
As a mother of (oh, my daughter’s gonna want to smack me) pushing 39 years, I am here to tell you that’s absolute bullshit. I did not always do the best I could. Sometimes I knew perfectly well I was being an appalling mother and I went ahead and did it anyway.
- The times I chose to indulge my temper over the vociferous protests of my inner voice.
- The times I did something really mean because I let my inner bully be my guide.
- The times I was too weak to be the defender and protector she deserved.
- The times I was lazy.
- The times I followed my selfish impulses even knowing it would hurt my child.
- The times I let my own difficult childhood form my parenting with the full knowledge of exactly how it felt.
Don’t even begin to think I didn’t know I was doing all that. I sure as hell did. Nobody with the sense God gave a goose doesn’t know when they’re doing something absolutely wrong.
Not that there weren’t times when I screwed up with only the best of intentions. I had more than enough of those, too. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the times when I not only did not rise to the occasion, I descended to levels that I despise (now that I’ve evolved at great cost and with tremendous struggle) in others. You who are parents? Unless you are saints or had amazing upbringings, you know damn well what I’m talking about, whether you admit it or not.
To introduce a note of forgiveness, I was not parented well. I was parented by well-educated (VERY well-educated) but emotionally fragmented people who were raised in a way that makes my maternal hackles rise and my Mother Bear teeth bare in a homicidal snarl. They were ravaged, and ravaged people don’t learn how to be human. They have to teach themselves, and it’s not unusual that they wind up merely approximating it. I get that. My wise and brilliant daughter tells me, referring to parenting tools, “Mother, you still managed to give me a nice panel van and an array of power tools. You had a rattletrap truck, a broken hammer and a crooked screwdriver. You did amazingly, given that.” True enough.
Still, it was my personal responsibility, having taken on the care, feeding, psychological and emotional well-being of a whole little person, to mindfully and lovingly do as good a job as I could – and a respectable amount of the time, I did. But sometimes I didn’t, and yes, I freaking well knew better.
This is why my daughter left before her 17th birthday and didn’t speak to me for 6 months or let me touch her for 6 years. Not only did I deserve it, so did she – the freedom of escape, of healing, of redefining, of emerging from the shell of desperation that a mother who could only move from one bandage situation to the next created.
It was the best thing she ever did for either of us and I am proud of her beyond all possible expression.
It made me take a good, hard look at myself.
It forced me to examine the things I had knowingly done wrong and have the humility to take ownership of that and ask for forgiveness (which she has graciously given; I am still working on forgiving myself).
I had to change. I had to make healthier choices for myself. I had to grow (and it hurt).
But back to the opening sentence that asserts that our parents did the best they could. Again I say – no, they didn’t and more often than they will admit, they bloody well knew better. We grow up and older and people will tell us to “just get over it” but it’s harder when we’re trapped in that concept – or the even worse one of “they did it out of love” or “they did it to protect me” and it’s compounded if it’s ongoing (as it has been with me). I’ll leave it behind (as best I can) when it stops, thank you.
We try to normalize the abuse because our minds cannot bend around the idea that they did it because they were mean or controlling or smallhearted and unloving. I am also here to tell you that there was nothing normal about this. If you still think so, let me ask you this: If they did any of the things they did to you to a child of yours, how would you feel about it?
Does your face contort with rage? Do you snarl out “I’d fecking KILL them if they tried!” Um…there’s your answer. You are no less precious than any child you could ever have (current or hypothetical). If your child could not possibly deserve it, why on earth would it be acceptable for you?
People will tell you to walk away from your abusive parents. That may or may not be a realistic expectation. This much I will tell you – you deserve as an adult child, to be treated with at least the same respect they would show a complete stranger. It is perfectly acceptable to lay down some rules of engagement and make them stick, the best way being simply to walk away when they start up again. Just get up out of your chair and go. You can choose to explain it or not, but they’re likely not stupid. If you simply leave (or hang up the phone) every time the abuse begins again, they will a) realize that your spine now has a solid titanium coating, and b) you will not endure another minute of the crap they apparently still feel entitled to dish out. Remember your (real or hypothetical) child and stand up for yourself as if you were standing up for them.
As for me, I will give myself this much credit. When I woke up to the realization of an appalling thing I did as a parent, I would tell my daughter, “I’ve just figured this out. Give me a week and I’ll get rid of it,” and I did. I really, truly did. My parents, not so much. Perhaps that was generational – people born in the 1920s or so were discouraged from introspection while us Boomers are all about our own navels – but if I wanted an admission or an apology, I would suffocate waiting. I changed. I apologized. I took personal responsibility. And over the 22 years since my daughter left home, we have worked as hard as two people possibly could to rebuild our relationship anew until I can honestly say she is the best friend of my wildest dreams and someone with whom I am the best I can be (at least most of the time). Not to mention, she’s one of the best mothers ever.
This is dedicated to my daughter, Nicola Mahoney, who deserved better but at least knows that she is the breath in my body and the very beat of my heart.