My own childhood was not a happy one.
My earliest memory was of blowing out a birthday candle (I was maybe three) and of my wish being that my parents would get a divorce, that my dad would disappear forever.
The happiest days of my childhood were 72 hours spent in a shelter for battered women outside of DC with my mom and two younger brothers because for the first time in my 9-year-old life, I felt free from the many constraints of home life—short-lived as I knew this freedom would be, knowing he would always find a way back to us.
My mother was a good person and tried to be a good mom, but she was unable to break free.
She took on several jobs including through the weekends to escape her marriage, but in doing so, she effectively abandoned us. I lived in mortal fear that she would altogether leave us one day. She was our only lifeline, though never at home enough to adequately protect us.
Our house rules as dictated by my father were strict to a Draconian degree, and any diversion or disobedience was met with swift and decisive punishment. We were never asked how our day was. There was no love—only approval or disapproval. We constantly walked on eggshells, slaves to whatever mood he was in.
They finally divorced when I was in college—too late to reverse the emotional and psychological damage my brothers and I now have to live with.
And yet. And yet, my amazing husband and I are raising two incredible boys who might even describe us (when they aren’t busy being snarky 12- and 14-year-olds) as decent parents.
This is not about me.
This is not a recollection of my traumatic early years but rather about how in spite of how poorly I was parented, I persisted, and dare I say, am succeeding, in giving my own children the childhood I never had.
My guys don’t know much about mommy’s upbringing. I have made a personal choice to not tell them. I don’t want them to feel like their mother was somehow damaged, thereby introducing that toxic element into their innocent lives in any form, which I thank goodness is foreign to them. Being boys, they don’t probe.
I have been vague about my father, with whom I have not been in touch for 16 years. I had decided before I become a parent that he cannot in any way be a part of my children’s lives, just as any parent would not wish their kids to come into contact with poison.
I have cut off ties completely and it’s far and away the best decision I’ve ever made.
When my boys ask, which they have a few times, pensively, I simply tell them we are not close and he was not a great dad. I tell them when they are adults they can feel free to meet him if they want, but that I don’t think he’s a very nice person. They are close to my mom, who visits a lot and has been around since the day my eldest was born.
One day I will tell them, but not right now.
Now, they have wholesome, relaxed, beautiful childhoods to live out.
Some might, justifiably, question how hard it was for me to shun the examples my parents set in bringing up my boys. If anything, I knew from the time I was in first grade that I would be the diametric opposite of my examples. My idols who I tried to emulate and whose qualities I sought (and successfully found) in a husband were the TV parents who raised me. I gleaned from an early age that Steven Keaton, Jason Seaver, and Danny Tanner were what fathers ought to be.
They were the types of parents I aspired to be with all my heart and might.
As a parent now living the dream in the burbs, I meet moms all the time, and I never fail to register a modicum of surprise at the fact that the vast majority of these ladies have normal, positive relationships with their dads. I pass strangers at the gym, in the stores, on the street, chatting on their cells with their dads or making casual references to their dads that imply a healthy relationship, and it always gives me pause as I am hit time and again that my bleak, unyielding reality growing up was not most people’s and was not in any way acceptable, and yet here I am camouflaged in my suburban surroundings, blending in with the masses of moms who grew up in loving homes, hiding in plain sight.
I truly do not feel sorry for myself. Instead, I feel very fortunate. Fortunate that in spite of my parents, I can blend in, can live an extremely fulfilling American dream life, can shield my past from my kids, and allow them to blossom, supported by unconditional love from both their parents. Normal to me never meant mundane or boring.
Normal is what I dreamed of and fantasized about.
It has not always been easy, shackled as I still am by the ghosts of my past. They don’t shed that easily—in particular, the involuntary responses I have less control over. I find myself losing my patience unnecessarily at times. I yell too often, too loudly, and it just slays me, knowing the source of such behavior. But I apologize afterward to my kids, always. I dust myself off, and I try harder the next day.
I can proudly say there are lines I have never and would never cross that were not even lines when I was a little girl. I am far from that perfect sitcom mom, but I have learned over the years that no moms are in fact that perfect, all the time. And that is a comfort.
When my friends are wringing their hands over middle school social drama that is bringing their kids down, I say to them what I always think to myself when it happens to my own kids, “They will be fine. Just make sure they know without a doubt that home is a safe haven, that we as parents are always here to hug them tightly with a love that is 100 percent unconditional. That we will help them get through whatever choppy waters they find themselves weathering. And they will absolutely be fine.”