I have been afraid of my mother ever since I was a little girl. She wasn’t outright physically abusive, but she was verbally abusive with a side of throwing objects around the house and the occasional slap. The look in her eyes was scary. I used to have nightmares that she was going to murder me.
I lived in an environment where conflict was handled by screaming and unrestrained rage for 18 years. Heavy doses of shame were served regularly. Healthy emotions and expressions were shut down.
I hated it.
I always told myself, “When I’m a mom, I will never be like her!”
It was really easy to say that as a child. But in practice, it actually isn’t that easy.
As I got older, I fought back more and more. I screamed louder. I argued longer. I refined the act of hitting below the belt. I had been conditioned to react with a fight-or-flight response and I usually chose to fight. I told myself that it was OK to act this way because she deserved it. It was her fault. I still told myself, “I will never be like her!”
I realized when I became an adult that I needed to stop reacting to conflict this way and learn to develop healthy relationships. I grew in my faith and I felt God’s strength help me start to overcome these habits. I was finally free from my past!
Or so I thought.
Then I became a mother. I got depression and anxiety. I had more kids. Stress grew exponentially. With each year that passed, I found myself less and less able to cope with the stress of motherhood.
I started slipping right back into the patterns I learned as a child.
One day I heard myself yell something similar to my children that my mother had yelled at me. Stress and mental illness had triggered something deep inside of me. My heart sank.
I was becoming like her.
This shook me to the core. I talked about my fears of becoming like my mother with my therapist and my husband. They both assured me that I wasn’t becoming like her. I was my own person. And because I was self-aware, I could recognize and fix my mistakes. My therapist told me that how I handled these mistakes would have a big impact on my children.
I have always apologized to my children (partly because my mother never did), but now I also explain to them on an age-appropriate level why I reacted the way I did and tell them that it was wrong. I let them feel how they want to feel about it. I let them express those feelings . . . or not. I try to give them what they need to process the situation. I remind them that I will always love them no matter what.
It’s painful to realize that I am not so unlike my mother, despite what I always told myself. I now have more empathy for my mother. I understand a little more now why she was the way she was. She had a mental illness too, with almost no support. She was surviving the best she knew how. That doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it gives context to it.
Because where would I be if I didn’t have support for my mental illness? If I had to struggle without medication, without therapy, without a supportive husband, and without my faith? Right where she was, that’s where I’d be.
I now have a chance to break this cycle, and I won’t give up until I do.
As much as I wish that I could erase my past and forget it, I cannot. I have to face it head-on. I did myself a disservice in my youth thinking that my mother was “bad” and I was “good”. Life isn’t black and white like that.
I now reject the notion that we are, at our core, really so different from one another. We tell ourselves that to protect our hearts from some of the awful realities that are out there. But truthfully, none of us know exactly how different we would be had we been born in different circumstances.
I forgive my mother. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything that happened. But a quote I read in Elizabeth Smart’s book Where There’s Hope helped me to understand an important point: “Forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.” We don’t approve of what the person did, but we also cannot change or live in the past.
So every day, I strive to move forward and overcome.
I still fail more often than I’d like to admit, but my biggest hope is that I can fill my children’s lives with enough happy memories to compensate for the not-so-happy ones.
And I hope they can forgive me, too.
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