Parenting When You're The Child Of A Toxic Person
Learning I am enough has been a journey through my own motherhood.
Parenting is such a leap. Whatever fuels that leap, you have no idea what is waiting for you on the other side. When my husband and I decided to become parents, I fully expected the experience to make me feel truly adult. Being responsible for another human being is like the most adult thing ever, right? Instead, I gave birth to a beautiful little boy and felt scared and confused, like I would never be enough. Never enough for this boy, for my husband, or for myself. I had read the books and talked the talk but the walk was just too much. What I needed was my mother. No, not my mother. I needed a mother that didn’t exist for me.
I grew up with a toxic and emotionally abusive person as my sole provider. My mother was functional enough to slip under the radar when it came to my care (or lack of), so I never had any intervention outside of concerned extended family. I was a child with an inappropriate amount of responsibility and a few backwards ideas about what it meant to be a family, but I was mostly ok. I had a support network of healthy adults to pick up the pieces my mother dropped, and for that I'm forever thankful.
Toxic people are tricky in that they're rarely 100% toxic all the time. They have moments that give you false hope that they could have changed, especially when they’re someone who (for better or worse) you love. When you have children in this mix, it gets dicier. You have to choose early on how much contact they will have with your children.
I chose from the onset to let my mother have relationships with my children and I wish I could go back in time now and counsel myself in that choice. I longed for my children to have a loving grandmother and, for the most part, she has risen to the occasion, but there have been more than a few moments that have made me wonder why I let her in their lives at all.
I did, though, and it would be more traumatic to cut off their relationship all together than to just restrict it. I’ve had to reevaluate what’s best for my family so many times over the years and change how much and what kinds of interactions we all have. It isn’t a science that I think I will ever fully figure out.
Just when I think I know how to balance living parallel, yet connected, to a toxic person, I’m thrown for a loop. Holidays, for example, are always going to stump me. I want to model kindness. I want to giver her the benefit of the doubt. Yet, I also need to protect myself and my family. My immediate family is always my priority. I aim for the high road and to choose kindness, to be an example to my children, but the path isn’t always clear.
The hardest part of being without a solid parent figure used to be seeing the close bond between friends and their parents and coveting what they had. When I became a mother, having no model of a healthy parent-child relationship became the most urgent offense. I have been so fortunate though to find examples of healthy mothers elsewhere that I can emulate. I have relatives, friends, and even fictional characters from beloved books that I can turn to when I need guidance. Mostly, I have learned to trust myself. When I listen to my gut and act out of love, I never regret it.
I have gotten better at coping, but the pain of missing the parent I wish I had is constant. There is damage done that has created wounds that keep reopening when I least expect it. Like how watching my children experience things that were missing in my own childhood triggers such sadness in me. Therapy, with a professional or even self-administered, has been vital. It is amazing what pouring my heart out over tea with my bestie can do for my soul. I’ve learned too how important it is to let myself feel sad and not fight it or tell myself what I should be “over” by now or that I need to feel grateful. Being kind to myself is a form of care that I was starved of as a child, and it is healing to grant it to myself now.
The negative space where my mother should be is a part of me, but it is not who I am. Learning this fully has freed me from my fear of being a parent and even allowed me to rebel by succeeding. Every time I show up for my children, I reject that I could be defined by what I was denied. Every meal I make, every game and performance I attend, every loving word of praise I speak to my children is my rebel call that I am not her and I am enough.
I am enough.