My father died when I was just shy of 5 and my mom struggled with bipolar disorder and drug addiction. My extended family vacillated between heroic and toxic. To feel safe, I made wishes in the form of books, writing stories from age 5 about intact families and kids who went to Disney World instead of the child shrink’s office. And I played God, too. At age 7, I remember telling myself that if I could make it home on my bike in four minutes or less, I would be safe for 24 hours.
Years later, as an adult who had carved out a life for herself and largely rid herself of the toxicity associated with family (I don’t have the secret but boy, moving to a new continent helped!), I was happy, feeling distant from the incessant fear and anxiety of my childhood.
And then I saw the two pink lines on my pregnancy test.
I’d always had a chip on my shoulder because I had life experience. I understood so many things that my less damaged friends could never comprehend. I was in tune with my emotions. I knew how not to screw up, what not to do. But when I found out that I was becoming a parent I realized that understanding what was wrong with my upbringing wasn’t the same as knowing how to be a good parent. Healthy interpersonal relationships within a family had never been modeled for me, and I rarely experienced it. So what the heck was I going to do with this little person who needed me to be a mother?
Sometimes I feel resentful, like the joy of being pregnant was robbed from me, because the truth is that I was petrified more than I was excited. Fortunately, it was made bearable by the confidence that my husband and close friends seemed to have in me. Still, I thought that perhaps they were wrong. I felt overwhelmed by cliches like “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and “how we were treated affects how we treat others.” (Seriously, don’t say those things to people who have family dysfunction).
Questions lingered, and years later, sometimes they still do. Did I understand my history well enough not to repeat it? Did all of those years of fantasizing about functionality make me equipped to provide it for my son? Did my family know how much they were hurting me, and would I even know if I were, god forbid, continuing the trend?
One of the happiest moments in recent times was when I visited my best friend from childhood and her parents, always my go-to model of “good parents,” told me that I was doing a good job. It was as if Picasso reincarnate had told me that I’d painted something beautiful, and that kind of external validation gave me strength. But ultimately, the validation I needed in order to feel calm about my parental abilities had to come from my son.
At a certain point, though, I started to pay attention more closely. I realized that when my son was scared or upset, he asked for me or my husband. When I was a kid and I was scared, I pushed my mattress a bit off the bed and nestled between the bed and the wall, comforted by the “embrace.”
I got home late last night and joined my son in his bed. He said, “Emah-leh!” and fell back to sleep. I stayed next to him all night and at some point I woke up to his hand on mine while he slept peacefully. It was as if he were trying to say, “I’m happy with you, and I’m sleeping soundly.” This is precisely what someone like me needs to hear from her son, even before he has the linguistic ability to say it.
To everyone who relates, I’m willing to bet that like me, you’re surrounded by clues that you’re doing a good job. They would quell your fears if you took a deep breath and looked for them. History doesn’t have to repeat itself, and apples fall all over the damn place.
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