Breaking the Cycle

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“Just wait ’til you have kids. You’ll see!” Wink wink, nod nod.

Ah yes, the adage that you’ll truly know the struggles your parents went through with you when you have children of your own. We’ve all heard it, haven’t we? In a way, the realization that we were once snotty and irrational, and now the tables have turned, is in itself a rite of passage between parents and children. There is something sacred and complete about putting away your own childish ways to tend to the needs of children. You’ll get to be the person who says, “Just wait ’til you have kids!” and then your children will get to say it, and so on.

My parents said it, too, but ironically, in my home the roles were switched. As a child, I was expected to be the one to manage my parent’s snotty and irrational behavior. I wasn’t allowed to be the one to act that way.

For a long time, I didn’t want kids. I was terrified of the unknown, but I was even more terrified of what I already knew. If managing kids was anything like how I had to manage my parents, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was terrified of making a mistake and ruining them forever. I was terrified of turning out to be just like my mother or father- another adage to address another time. My childhood represented sadness, pain, and severe dysfunction. I would never wish that upon anyone else.

There was a time in my first marriage where I was a stepparent, and it appeared that all my fears about parenting were coming true. It’s a story that deserves its own space, so I won’t go into it here. But it is worth noting that who you parent with is essential. In my first marriage there were so many factors that doomed the situation from the start, it is no wonder we went down a similar path as the example set for us.

Something happened in my mid-twenties, where my life turned completely around and I truly felt like I was in control of my own choices and behaviors. Incidentally, it came at a time where I started to say no to the dysfunction in my life. I had gone no contact with my parents. At the time, I didn’t realize that was a healthy boundary, I just knew I couldn’t take it any more. I had separated from my first marriage. I was alone, but in a good way. I didn’t have perspective yet, but I knew I just couldn’t live that way any more. Also, I was seeing great results in my career. I was working with young people at the time and truly engaging and connecting with them. I had become the kind of mentor I always wanted to have. The more I channeled my energy into being the kind of person I wanted to be, the more distance was put between me and my unhappy childhood.

I remarried, this time to someone who represented normalcy in every way. He came from a good family, he valued kindness and consideration, and was unlike anyone I grew up with. He saw me and loved me for who I was, not how I could meet his needs. My life appeared to be going in the direction I had always hoped it would go. Then I got pregnant, and I started having panic attacks.

Of course, the hormone flux didn’t help things. I was not one of those “glowing” pregnant ladies. I was nauseous and fretful. But given my history of abuse, the anxious terror made perfect sense. Unfortunately, I did not have great professional support at the time. My OB dismissed all my concerns, and I went untreated for anxiety and depression. After a 51 hour back labor and 4 hours of pushing, my daughter was born. My first realization was that she was perfect. In spite of my experience, she was completely serene and seemed untouched by it. My next realization was that after more than two days of intense trauma, I had nothing left. I was defeated, humiliated. I didn’t want to hold her, I wanted to disappear.

Nevertheless, my daughter flourished. As I was piecing myself back together, I discovered there was a higher level of healing that was taking place because I could experience what it was like to be a mom. I had a lot of “Of course” moments. Of course a baby isn’t being selfish when she cries for what she needs. Of course a child shouldn’t be expected to be responsible for the feelings of an adult. Of course a child can be cranky, but it doesn’t mean she is bad or unlovable. Of course a child will make mistakes. Of course, of course, of course.

For me, having a child underscored all of the normal responses that were denied to me. It was bittersweet, to recognize the lack of support I had as a child, but also to recognize that I was capable of meeting my child’s needs. It was bittersweet to realize that I didn’t even need to be a perfect parent, I simply needed to be real.

As my children grow up, I continue to be surprised at each developmental stage. So far, they still seem to like me. We talk and joke about stuff that used to be taboo in my house growing up. We laugh together. We cry together. We are allowed to criticize in a constructive way. We are allowed to make corrections. We have clear parent- child roles. We have healthy boundaries. We can make mistakes and learn from them. We can be ourselves.

My children are beautiful, capable, and well-adjusted. I celebrate their many achievements, but I also point out that they are not what they achieve. As the years go by and I see more results, I feel I can safely say the cycle has been broken. It’s not because of anything they’ve done, but because there is nothing they can say or do to earn the love they deserve. They know they are loved and valued by their parents regardless of their behavior or what they accomplish in life.

Surely they will have their issues, and surely there will be things I did as a parent that they will want to do better. But instead of dreading how I will mess them up, I am looking forward to learning what sticks and what doesn’t. I am excited to get to know the adult versions of my children, and I think they will be amazing parents. And when their kids are snotty and irrational, they will know just what to do. They will love them anyway.

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