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How I Learned to Be the Parent I Wanted to Be Despite a Traumatic Upbringing


Many people have wonderful and nurturing role models for mothers growing up. Some mothers, even as children have gotten older, are still the most important women in some people’s lives. I know this to be true, as I often hear many of my friends talk about fun outings they have with their mothers and the endless array of phone calls they share each day to discuss important life issues or just to say, “hi.”  However, I’m willing to bet a few of you, like me, have absolutely no concept of what this kind of relationship feels like. Some of us have mothers who do not fit this description.

I have very few memories of early childhood, but the ones I do, all have two common themes: sadness and fear. I can recall being outside on the driveway crying, my brother holding me, covering my ears so I wouldn’t hear my parents fighting inside. By age four, they began a lengthy and horrific decade-long divorce. The details are not important, but my mother was often emotionally and verbally abusive my brother and me. Today, I can look at my reflection in the mirror and see the terrible scars of the decades of abuse, so invisible to many, but ever so clear to me.

Much of this abuse still goes on today. Even as a grown woman, with children of my own, her words and actions still manage to slice through my heart and my psyche. Despite understanding the futility, I continue to look to her for the validation I never got in my youth. It’s been a long road to acceptance, but I know now I will never receive it in adulthood either — not, at least, from her. I wish I didn’t feel this way and sometimes want to erase them from my history altogether. But alas, I cannot. Despite my past, right now, I am happy and proud of the woman I have worked so hard to become.

Though my upbringing was difficult, I learned the most important parenting lesson of my life: I did not have to be the same kind of parent as my mother. As a mother of two incredible children, I refuse to continue the cycle of unhealthy parenting and abuse. I strive to be a loving, supportive, competent mother, a mother whose children are not afraid of her. 

Sure, I learned other good things from my mother as well — she wasn’t all bad all of the time. She taught me how to cook and passed on her love of all movies involving 18th and 19th century costumes. She made sure to instill a love of reading and education, beautiful art and baking of incredible desserts. But in the past year, as I have made changes in my life and grown emotionally stronger as a woman and a mother, I realize I wanted a different life for me and my family.

My mother has a mental illness. I work hard at happiness because I have seen how unhappy she can be. Despite sharing some of her genetics, I choose to work at not allowing my mental health to dictate my life in its entirety. I have come to understand her behavior and her actions, as a mother and as a person, can come from a place of untreated mental illness. Because of this understanding, I have the capacity to not only forgive her, but to understand I have the choice for recovery. I choose to no longer be a victim of parenting, to no longer allow her words and behavior to bring me down. And for this, I am lucky.

I swam through the shark infested waters of my childhood, and though I came out on the other side damaged, I am not beyond repair. Through it all, I learned some important truths about the kind of parent I want to be. This would not have happened had I not gown up the way I did. So, ultimately, I am thankful for my past for teaching me I have the strength to break the cycle.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Unsplash photo via Thomas Kelley.