Extensive brokenness marks my family history. My mother has not been in my life for more than 10 years. Neglect and abuse characterized the previous years. It is said that hurt people hurt people, and I believe it is so. Pain begets pain. I don’t fully understand what pain might have drove my mom to addiction or why she treated me so badly. But, a result of growing up lonely and unloved, I determined to live a different life and not follow the pattern she set.
For a few years I kept contact with her and tried to manage a semblance of relationship between her and my new family. Unfortunately, things did not improve. I discovered at one point that in addition to the verbal abuse and manipulation I still endured from her, she was also illegally using my identity. All hope of seeing change vanished as I realized I had to protect myself and my husband from further financial devastation.
My husband came from a similar background. There is a different brand of pain and loss there, but it’s sorrowful all the same. And the sum of it all is that my children have two estranged grandmothers, and what hope I had for in a mother-in-law and grandmother for my children faded away as well.
The Irreplaceable Woman
Recently my little boy asked me what a grandmother was and if he had one. He probably recalled the word from a children’s book. Perhaps he imagined a patient older woman with a plateful of homemade cookies. One who has a wide lap and a story to tell. As I tried to articulate the beauty of a grandma, I felt a bit like Wendy from Peter Pan when she was describing a mother to the Lost Boys.
It’s not fair that they stole a fact of childhood away from him. A grandma is a staple of family. Everyone gets a grandma. I can’t explain to him all of the ways that what should have been his has slipped away.
My heart aches for my children to be loved by their grandmothers, but my children are not the only ones who suffer. How much I have lost by not having an older, wiser woman to love me through all of the seasons of womanhood — a lasting friend who overcomes miles, busyness, bad moods, and bad years! It’s not difficult to find other women in my stage of life with similar interests. I am so thankful for these friends, but where would one find an older woman to pour love and wisdom into her life with a commitment that trumps the seasons of unfriendliness? Is that not exactly the gift and duty of mother?
Filling in My Past
My kids regularly ask questions about my childhood. They want to know if my mommy made up silly songs for me like I do for them. They ask if she braided my hair or read me stories. The truth is that I only have sorry answers for these questions. There is nothing to embellish. I don’t have a single happy memory of my mother. So, I’ve decided I am not going to lie to them. As much as I hate throwing my mom under the bus, it’s my story, too.
Being honest with my children about my past abuse and how wrong it was, in an age-appropriate way, of course, gives them valuable insight into how a person ought to treat another. It also demonstrates that there is something greater than authority. They may learn that a person who holds authority ought to be kind, that every person has value, and that they can be believed if they need to share that someone is hurting them.
I am open with them, but I am careful to never place them in a position in which they feel that I am relying on them for advice, emotional fulfillment, or stability. That is a burden too big for a child to carry. To my younger child I might say something like, “No, my mommy didn’t do that, but I am very glad to do it for you because I love you.” My older child will get more details as she asks, and sometimes I will say that I would rather not discuss a particular topic at that time.
Learning from the Past
Coping with the effects of my mother’s abuse has been difficult and ongoing. I have forgiven her, but it would be ridiculous to assume that there would be no damage done. I did not understand then just how awful things were. It has only been by contrast in many cases that I’ve uncovered the depths of wrongs I experienced. For example, when my daughter went through puberty, I was struck with a particularly humiliating memory that I had ignored for years (and still don’t wish to share). It wasn’t until then that I realized how terrible it would be for her to experience what I did and that it was more than just an embarrassing memory.
I want so badly to hear my mother acknowledge my experience and express regret. Which brings me to the fact that I am not a perfect mother either and have wronged my children more often than I’d like to admit. Although I have not repeated the patterns of serious abuse that I suffered, all relationships will occasionally be subject to selfishness, anger, impatience, and so on. I have learned the value of the apology. It is so important to clearly articulate what you have done wrong and show sincere remorse. There is little worse than being hurt and feeling invalidated.
I look forward to being the irreplaceable woman in the lives of my children and grandchildren. Having known what I lost, I suspect I will relish the special place I get to hold in the lives of the people I love. For the present, I will continue loving these kids to the best of my ability and cherishing the wonder of childhood.