I decided at an early age that I would be a better mom than my mom was. The daughter of abusive alcoholics and a victim of unspeakable trauma, my mother carried her childhood wounds into parenthood, which caused her to struggle to be present with me. She didn’t drink like her parents did — “never had a stomach for alcohol,” she’d say — but found other ways to mask her pain. Her weekly trips to the ER for her autoimmune disease left her addicted to prescription painkillers, and her fight with mental and physical illness ultimately took her life.
My determination to forge a new path was rooted in resentment — I didn’t know it, but my obstinate desire to be different stemmed from the same pain that had caused my mom to self-medicate. I was angry, and for good reason: When I should have been catching fireflies and playing hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids, I watched my mom cycle in and out of the hospital, strung out on a new prescription every time. Because I learned early on that I couldn’t rely on my mom to take care of my physical or emotional needs, I decided I’d be there for my children in ways my mom never had been for me.
Still, it’s easy to idealize our values and dreams until we’re in the thick of it ourselves. I was able to breeze through my first pregnancy and postpartum period without much major struggle, but when I was pregnant with my second son, I developed hyperemesis, which caused me to throw up several times a day, every day, for six months. As my 2-year-old son looked on, I emerged into the same kind of weakness I witnessed my mom suffer from, staying in my bed for the majority of that summer while my husband parented our child alone.
“Why you so sick, mama?” Ollie would ask, standing outside the door as I camped out next to the toilet, totally depleted. He’d ask, “Dada, is mama OK?”
At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was. I had been in and out of my local emergency room so frequently that the nursing staff knew me by name. Most of the time, we’d have to bring Ollie with us, since my sickness peaked in the middle of the night. And just when I thought it was over, it got worse. The nausea, coupled with debilitating anxiety and depression, stole me from my family for the first two trimesters of the pregnancy. I wanted so desperately to be present, but I couldn’t. There was nothing I could do. I was in survival mode, just like my mom had been.
Deep down, I knew my mom’s addiction and illness weren’t her fault. But I never understood why she didn’t ask for help — why she seemed to prioritize numbing her pain over connecting with me. From my perspective, I was the victim, and she was the perpetrator. I didn’t learn until my own battle with mental and physical illness that my mom’s absence in my life probably hurt her as much as it hurt me.
When I was sick in bed, I was miserable — but the deepest pain I experienced was knowing I was missing out on being with my son. I was afraid he might remember me as weak and absent, that my struggle would not just confuse him, but emotionally scar him, leaving him vulnerable to the same cycle I was determined to break. I was worried he wouldn’t trust me because I told him I loved him with my words but couldn’t always relay that love with my actions. When I looked in the mirror, I saw, beyond my pale, tired face, a picture of my mother: depleted, broken, and desperate for a hatch door from pain.
Thanks to a support system my mom never had access to, I was able to find a way out of my struggle. The combination of therapy, an empathetic husband and community of friends, and anxiety medication — not to mention the end of that difficult pregnancy — brought me to a place where I could not only function again, but thrive. Stil, every time I get sick (with two little kids in daycare, it happens a lot), and every time I sleep in, and every time I have an anxiety attack, I identify with my mom. But while I struggle with the reality that I can’t be the perfect parent I wanted to be and that my kids will probably need therapy when they grow up, my pain impacts me in another way.
Because I’ve struggled with weakness — because I’ve descended to the darkest parts of myself — I can forgive my mom. I know how it feels to prioritize pain over connection. I know what it’s like to feel like you have nothing left to give. I know what it feels like to be in survival mode. I know the profound guilt that surfaces when you see the depth of love you have inside you but, for some reason, struggle to translate it into action.