What do you do when your emotional baggage starts to affect your relationship with your own children? Well, if you’re like me you dump it out all over the internet and hope some homeless guy runs away with half of it. Ok, that metaphor might have gone astray.
When I was a child my father abandoned me, and not in one fell swoop, the way a mature man abandons his only daughter. My father abandoned me little by little, piece by piece, while living along side me. When the day finally came that he walked out of our house for the last time, I barely noticed that he was gone, apart from the fact that there were fewer dishes in the sink each night.
It’s amazing how accustomed one can get to being invisible, even at a young age. At least when I was being ignored, I knew where I stood. Sort of. I knew I’d done something to disappoint the man who was supposed to love me unconditionally, even if I didn’t always know what that was. During the times when he was speaking to me, I was always waiting and wondering when I would unwittingly wander into the next hornet’s nest and suffer the inevitable silent treatment.
I think the hardest part about having an unstable childhood, at least for me, was the unpredictability. I never knew when or how I would next disappoint my father, but it was inevitable, whether I was aware of it or not. As I grew older, I developed a thicker skin and lower expectations of people. They couldn’t hurt me if I didn’t care, and they couldn’t abandon me if I left first. It was a perfect system.
Until I had kids.
I’d faced rejection many times before from boyfriends, colleges, grad schools, and literary agencies, and I’ve taken them all in stride. Ok, I might have sought revenge on my ex in the form of auto-terrorism, but for the most part, I’ve kept my head down and my therapist on speed dial. I’ve moved on. I earned a degree, got married, and had kids. I thought my days of suffering rejection were finally over.
Of course, when you least expect it is when your past tiptoes up to you and round-kicks you in the head like Layla Ali.
At first, my baby boys were tiny and malleable. They fit perfectly into the gaping holes that had been punched in my heart what felt like a lifetime before. For a while I was whole again. I was safe. My infant son could never leave me. I was his lifeline, his nourishment, his source of love and protection. I was his whole world, as he was mine, which was a bond I never felt with my own father growing up.
Smugly, I thought I’d outrun my demons. I’d spent years putting up walls to keep me safe from the judgment and rejection of the outside world, but found only loneliness. Finally, someone had broken through my defenses and nestled themselves snugly around my heart, listening to it beat faster and stronger than it ever had before. I was at peace.
I could end the story here and tell you that having kids solves everything. Plus, it’s much more socially acceptable than therapy, right?
Unfortunately, becoming a parent does not erase your past, it amplifies it. Every scar you’ve tried to hide, every emotional trigger you’ve learned to avoid, and every insecurity you’ve ever harbored comes rushing toward you like a 300-pound linebacker with a megaphone. I was in for a life-altering, bone-crunching, heartbreaking, whiplash-inducing shock, and just like when I was a child, I had no idea it was coming.
When my youngest son was about ten months old my safe-house was raided by reality. One day he was my sweet, mama’s boy who wouldn’t let me put him down to pee, quieted at the sound of my voice, and cried when I left the room. We’d been attached figuratively by the hip and literally by the boob all day, every day, since the moment he was born. He was more of an appendage than a separate human being.
Then one day, he decided he was done with all that. He wanted Daddy. He only wanted Daddy, and he was NOT shy about making that clear. If my husband was in the room, he wouldn’t let me hold him. He’d cry for Daddy. If my husband left the room, my son would wail for half an hour before finally agreeing to let me play ball with him. Even grandma fared better than I did when she came over. Over night, I had been demoted from the most important and beloved person in his life to something below an occasional houseguest, but above psychotic serial killer or evil clown. I hope.
My sweet baby had done the unthinkable: he’d abandoned me.
Of course, I know that these phases of preferring one parent over another are completely normal for children. I know that he isn’t really abandoning me or trying to hurt my feelings out of malice or spite. He is a baby. He wants what he wants and doesn’t feel the need or desire to explain himself to the likes of me. That is his prerogative.
But I can’t help but feel the old wounds from my childhood being torn anew after finally starting to heal. My heart lurches every time he reaches away from me for Daddy to hold him, and I choke back the tears while my mind races to figure out exactly what I’ve done to disappoint him.
The lonely, confused little girl inside of me is desperate to fix whatever mistake caused her to feel that familiar anguish of rejection. I want to cry out to him in pain and frustration, willing him to give me some clue as to what I’ve done to deserve such treatment. Of course, he’s one-year-old and can’t even understand the difference between food and rocks. I’m probably barking up the wrong tree there.
More importantly, it’s not his responsibility to heal my wounds. As an adult, I’ve looked back on my childhood from many different perspectives: a person, a mom, and as a psychologist. I’ve long since accepted that my father must have had very deep wounds that he was desperately trying to heal in his own way. He needed me to fight for his love and attention. He needed me to apologize for everything he felt, whether it was my fault or not. He needed me to heal him, and in doing so he broke a part of me that will never be completely fixed.
I refuse to let my baggage fall on top of my children. They are too young and too innocent to shoulder the weight of my pain. So, I am putting my past out there for the world to scrutinize in an attempt to shelter my children. When my son cries for Daddy instead of me, I will smile and give him a kiss before handing him off. I will tell him I love him no matter what, and I will mean it. When he is ready to come back to me I will welcome him with open arms and without resentment. I will love him unconditionally and unwaveringly.
I will not ask him to heal my broken heart, but will instead find peace by giving him the gift my father couldn’t give me: security.