Happy Mother’s Day and Thanks for the Dysfunctional Childhood!
Disclaimer: My mom gave me permission to post this and told me it was beautiful. Carry on!
“Be grateful you had a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your table!” This is my mother’s canned response whenever my sister and I refer to our childhood as dysfunctional. She’ll go on to say, “Nobody ever beat you! Some children would consider themselves lucky to say that.”
“Really mom, that’s the best you can say about our childhood? We weren’t naked, hungry, homeless, or beaten to a bloody pulp?”
“I did the best I could under difficult circumstances. You know, I’m not getting any younger and I won’t live forever. Why don’t you think about that instead of bringing up things that happened 30 years ago?”
My mom could teach a graduate course on the art of making your grown child feel horribly guilty.
I could provide evidence to support my use of the term “dysfunctional childhood,” but I’m trying to make a point without publicly shaming my mother (may be too late for that one) and airing our dirty laundry for all to read.
I don’t want to belabor the whole dysfunctional childhood thing, but here are the highlights:
- My mom married my dad in 1969 when she was 19. He was a brilliant man studying for his PhD in Psychology. She thought after their marriage they would have a family and live happily ever after in a sleepy college town where my dad would be a successful professor. My father was diagnosed as bi-polar shortly after they married, and after desperately trying to make the marriage work, my parents divorced in 1981. I was 6 and my sister was 9. It was a bitter divorce and I can still picture my mom taking all our family photos and cutting my father out of each one.
- With no child support, my mom was left to raise my sister and me on a shoestring budget. On weekends, we would have our court-mandated visits with my dad in his filthy, unheated, dilapidated, apartment. His behavior was often volatile and we witnessed some pretty scary crap that left us feeling vulnerable and confused.
- When I was 9, my mom remarried and had my two half-brothers whom I adore. I’ll spare the details (I’m not out to be disowned by my family), but, growing up with my stepdad was rife with its own battlefield of conflicts.
- At age 10, I was diagnosed with scleroderma. My mom told me not to talk about it with anyone and carry on as normal. Click here or here to see how well that worked out.
- When I was 12, my stepdad’s mother came to live with us. She despised my mother, sister, and me. Her arrival was like hurling gasoline at a blowtorch.
Was I fortunate to have food, shelter, and clothing? Absolutely. Could my childhood have been a lot worse? Without a doubt. Was I blessed to have a mother who loved me with fierce intensity? Yes, and I express my gratitude to her by reminding her of all the mistakes she made in raising me.
I find myself bringing up my mother’s parenting mistakes with her when she pretends I had a fairytale childhood. Sometimes I don’t know what planet she’s living on, and when she brushes off my painful memories, I feel I must rehash every poor parenting choice she made.
“You both turned out just fine, so I must have done something right!” is my mother’s favorite phrase when we entangle in conversations about our childhood. In the heat of an argument, I’ll challenge my mom on this and assert that we turned out well in spite of our childhood and not because of it. This is cruel, dismissive, and a lie. It’s unfair to blame my mother for my traumatic childhood, and simultaneously rob her of the credit for our successes.
My mother did much more than provide me with food, shelter, and clothing. She made sure we showed up to birthday parties with a gift even when she couldn’t afford to buy one. She taught my sister and me the power of self-reliance and resilience. She saw to it that we both got an outstanding education and modeled the importance of a college degree by going back to school to finish her own. She squirreled away money for years to eliminate the need for us to take out massive loans to pay for college. Never for one moment in my childhood did I doubt that I was deeply loved by my mom. Still, I never felt that I was the sun, moon, and stars in anyone’s sky. Now I know it’s because she was a human being coping with the weight of huge responsibilities, turmoil, and chaos.
Due to the wide age span between her children, my mom spent 38 years with one or more of her kids under her roof. More than half her life has been devoted to diaper changing, bathing, feeding, clothing, carpooling, managing teenagers, nurturing, and loving her children. When I reflect on my childhood, I tend to remember the mother who was often too busy, or under too much stress to give me the attention I desperately wanted. I remember the times when I didn’t have a mom to tuck me in at night, or a parent in the audience at my school play. I am not a negative person by nature, yet, I keep resuscitating these negative memories. This Mother’s Day, I’m turning over a new leaf.
I will celebrate the mom who came over to help me with my newborn son and the one who will drop her plans when her grandchildren need her. I will reflect on the mother who turned her own life upside down when I nearly died at the age of 31. After working a full-time job, my mom drove to the hospital every night to be by my side. She brushed my teeth for me when I couldn’t move a muscle. She sat with me for hours watching me sleep, knowing that even when I did wake, I had no means to communicate with her. She raised hell to get me transferred to better hospitals, and left no stone unturned to make sure I got the best possible care. When told I may need to be permanently placed in a nursing home because I was not expected to recover, my mother and stepdad formulated a secret plan to take me home with them and care for me themselves. My mom carried me through hell and brought me back. She may not have been able to tuck me in every night when I was little, but she tucked me in for the 218 days I lay in the hospital.
My mom is my hero and I love and cherish her with all my heart. She is stronger than any other person I’ve ever met. I wish my mom could live forever, but, as she likes to mention, she won’t. I’m so lucky to have my mom in my life and I need to tell her that more often. Many people would give anything to have that chance. There is no such thing as a perfect mother, childhood, or anything, really. Life is messy and full of complicated choices. It’s the messes that give meaning to the joy and prepare us to withstand the next mess. If you are fortunate enough to still have your mother here on earth, make sure to hug, kiss, and hold her tight on Mother’s Day and every day. I’ve been told that I’ve demonstrated courage and strength in the face of adversity. If that’s true, it’s because I learned it from my mom.
- “Really mom, that’s the best you can say about our childhood? We weren’t naked, hungry, homeless, or beaten to a bloody pulp?”- This is a very harsh statement. My sister and I have always resorted to dark humor in times of stress. There are millions of moms out there that truly are struggling to put food on the table and I do not want to make light of that. For a time, my mother was one of them.
- I have many positive memories of my mom from my childhood. I can still hear her pounding away at the typewriter late into the night transcribing my handwritten “novel” (I use this term loosely) into a typed manuscript so that I could participate in my fifth grade Young Author’s Conference. She was pregnant, working full-time and going to school at night to finish her degree. Thanks mom for launching my writing career!
- My mother is generous, and brave. How do I know? She let me post this blog to honor flawed mothers (that would be all mothers) everywhere.