It's easy to want to blame something else when things don't go well. Or, someone else - especially your parents. I'm not close with mine, so it should not have been a surprise when things recently fell apart after 2 weeks of my mom living with us to help with childcare. Naturally, when I lost my job about 2 weeks after her departure (exactly 5 days ago), there was a direct correlation for me and I unwillingly found myself mourning all over again the mother I always wanted and needed her to be. That's the thing about being a parent, though, isn't it? The day-to-day minutiae of raising babies to be their best little selves shines a light into the darkest folds of our own experiences of being parented and forces us to contend with layers of memories which we may or may not wish to venture toward or work through. I'm a gay white mom raising adopted black sons with a therapist partner, so I don't have a choice but to figure this shit out.
For some of us, growing into our own parenting style involves every stage of grief, often many times over, as we discover our fuller selves while learning to see our parents for who they really are or are not. A pendulum of grief and triumph, as we carve out our own path toward either being the parent we didn't have or being the parent our kids need us to be. Or both.
If you asked me to describe my own upbringing, there would be 2 chapters: before the trauma and everything after. The 2nd half of my young life was full on Michigan working class. Hard working, loyal, conservative democrat, blue collar, Union. The fundamentals of my own value system were structured around a model of you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours. Take care of your older neighbors. Public everything. And lots of booze & cigarettes.
My father worked first as a carpenter, then as an iron ore miner. Many of the people from the family I was born into were millworkers, steelworkers, factory workers. Their victories were hard won, their arguments were violent, their beer was in a can. They loved their sports, they partied hard and often and their kids were largely unsupervised. They surrounded themselves with White people who looked and sounded like them and they all had rifles for hunting. My younger brothers and I spent more time in the bars with a glass of sprite and mozzarella cheese sticks than we did building things or playing with our own friends. It's fair to say there are lots of big reasons why I want my kids to have a different trajectory. Equally true: creating that path is my life's work.
The first half of my upbringing was different: my mother was around and we lived on her turf. My parents had not yet divorced and I was not yet at an age where I needed to steal pads and tampons, too ashamed to ask for help in purchasing them, too broke to acknowledge we couldn't afford them. I remember her as only ever wanting to be a mom. I know her now as the complex woman she is in the context of where she comes from. We didn't talk about her side of the family much and we weren't allowed to spend time with many of them. My father said very mean things about them as a group and I understood this to mean we were different, better. Over the years I managed to patch together my own understanding of these dynamics; I would have sheltered my kids from the bulk of them as well if I were my parents.
Actually. That's what I'm finding myself doing now.
The beautiful thing about this very young period of my life, however, is that my mother was from a more diverse part of Michigan and while my parents were giving it their best go at raising a family - something they really had no business doing - I spent my elementary days walking great distances to and from school with a patchwork of colorful kids that shaped the parts of myself I like the most to this day. I'm not in touch with many of them because, let's be honest, relationships aren't my strong suit and there's not much from my childhood that I would actively pursue. But I carry with me the variety of sounds and smells and activity of our collective lives from such an impressionable age. Which is what I'm thinking most about these days; how much my kids soak up and whether what I'm giving them is the best I can offer.
When therapist mom and I decided to start our family, my biggest/earliest wish for our kids was that I would work out the toughest parts of the narrative of my own youth while they were too small to know it was happening so that I could be the parent they needed me to be. So that I could be the parent I wanted to be. My plan: do the work in the moment, feel the feelings, work it all out, and magically wake up one day, no longer impacted by the trauma synonymous with my own childhood and happily raise my kids with a clean slate of awakened, healed bliss. I've matured a bit.
This past month of tumult and now job loss has forced me to reckon with my fantasy plan and acknowledge which pieces of it are not working. The same thinking that left me investing in a belief that I would, in such a short time, come to appreciate my parents for who they were and are, and accept that they came by their own ways honestly has done more damage than good. The wish that I could quietly eradicate, in the short time between our boys coming into our lives and leaving for kindergarten, any traumatic impact my parents had on my upbringing that surfaces in my own parenting is like saying climate change would reverse if we all stopped using aerosol hairspray; there's a disconnect between what I understand to be true and what I wish to be true which is, in the end, super fucking ridiculous.
When my mom couldn't show up for my family, and instead, left a gaping childcare hole, I felt only rage. I still feel mostly anger. Sometimes it's toward her. Sometimes it's toward my own self for believing she could be someone I knew she could not. For introducing her to my children, who now know her as Gramma, and who ask about her because she is a real live person to them who read and played games and sat at our table and who lived in our home for 2 very long kid weeks. Previous to her arrival and subsequent departure, I had done a couple years of serious work on myself, moving through big stuff to gain insight into why I am the ways that I am, for better or worse, so that I can make those changes I want for the better of my family. I was doin alright. I understand now that the work of healing and breaking intergenerational patterns of violence and trauma isn't something you get to put a timeframe on. I don't get to set a deadline here. I can set goals and work toward them, knowing that if I'm overly reactive I'm going to raise kids that are afraid of me. If I'm controlling or anxious I'm going to raise kids that are rigid and anxious. If I check out because of the stress of it all, my kids will learn that walking away is the way to deal with big feelings. If I'm not gentle, they won't feel safe. If I treat their mother unkind, they will treat their partners unkind. And so on.
This is my life's work. I came by it honestly as well, but blaming my parents hasn't done me much good. Pretending a couple of years is enough time to learn to be the parent I wish to be because I want it so badly also hasn't done me much good. I can let go of wishing my parents to be something for me that neither of them actually know how to be and instead, focus on holding my babies when they're hurt, laughing with them when we're feeling silly, reading another book when I really don't want to, setting limits around things that matter, teaching them to respect and love their bodies, eating seaweed and kale and brushing our teeth, playing, napping, singing, being curious together, letting them beat me when we wrestle, family time at the Y, planting seeds in a cup and nourishing something while it grows. That stuff.
Some days are easier than others, but if I'm honest with myself, I only know how to operate in a world where things are hard won. If I can bend the arc of just how hard that is by injecting a little compassion and long game, maybe it'll be less about winning and more about building a life worth celebrating. Maybe it'll be about living and leaving that legacy my kids deserve. I've never seen that before. I don't have models for what that actually looks like. I have to believe that the universe will conspire on my behalf while I spend my life working endlessly to meet it in the middle.