On Being the Mom I Wish I’d Had

My daughters are my light in the darkness.

Two days after I published the above piece, my oldest daughter (of four) read it as she was sitting next to me in the living room. Sometimes she reads my writing, sometimes she doesn’t, but she’s always welcome. I asked her specifically to read this one because she could see I was having a hard time holding it together — my somber expression and tear-stained face giving me away as I went about my daily chores — but she hadn’t yet found the courage to ask me what was wrong. I knew if I tried to tell her at that moment, I’d just start crying again, so I asked her to read it. She needed to know what was going on. I could see it in her face.

I’m honest with my girls about my struggles and feelings (in an individually age-appropriate way). I think it’s an important part of parenting to be open with both positive and negative emotions and to model effective coping mechanisms. But knowing that sharing is important doesn’t always make it easy.

We sat down with our twin laptops, hers with the Kurt Cobain sticker and mine sporting a whimsical music note with tired, curled up corners. Side-by-side. I waited, trying not to watch her — to not stare at her beauty and marvel at the speed with which her eyes darted across the text and absorbed the words. It was quiet. That doesn’t happen too often in our home.

When she was about halfway through, I stopped fake-reading the news article I had no interest in and turned to look at her. She had tears streaming down her face. She and I have a running joke that if an article I write makes her cry, it’s a good one. So when she finished and met my gaze, I said, “It’s a good one, huh?” I was crying, too.

She didn’t smile, though. She looked like she was in pain.

“Mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, no. Sweet girl, no sorrys. Yes, I’m sad right now, but I’ll be okay. I made a mistake, and I’ll learn from it.”

“No, that’s not it. I like Sean and all, but that’s not what I’m sorry about.”

She reached into her back pocket and pulled out her phone.

“I was looking at your IG yesterday, mama,” she said, still crying. “Do you remember this???”

Goddamnit.

Yes. I remembered it.

It was a collage I made for my 10-year-old autistic daughter, Charly, after we went to a wildlife park on vacation about a year ago. Charly loves animals, and Charly loves love. She spent probably 15 full minutes at the primate exhibit cooing over a mama/baby marmoset pair. She flapped and jumped around and even teared up, watching the baby cling to her mama and the mama carry her baby. She begged me to take picture after picture. It was a tough shot to get because the baby liked to burrow its face in its mama’s back. It finally peeked up at us, and we snapped a perfect pic.

I showed Charly the picture, and she immediately said, “Mama! I want a picture like that with you!”

“What a great idea, Charly!”

So we took one together and posted it on IG that day.

The crux of the article my daughter read is that, 35 years later, I am still dealing with trauma from my upbringing. When I was a child, I internalized emotional abuse and neglect from my mom, and it fucked me up. Even today, as a grown-ass woman and an incredible mom, who has got her shit together in every other way, I still have lapses as a result of that trauma. My brain has mostly healed and found workarounds — but it’s remains damaged deep down underneath, just the like monkeys from experiments on neglect that I described in the article.

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This is a collage of two photographs of the maternally neglected monkeys, and myself at 3-years-old, all from the original piece that my daughter read.

I have moments of panic, and my fears of abandonment can culminate in behavior that sabotages my relationships. I have compulsions that drive me to leave people before they have the chance to leave me. The closer I get to someone, the stronger the fear to flee. I ruin beautiful things because I’m scared of their beauty…that it could somehow hurt me. That once I let the beauty in, it could be weaponized and kill me.

I’m still damaged from my childhood. I’m damaged from my mom.

I was looking at your IG yesterday, mama,” she said, still crying. “Do you remember this???”

“I do, babe. That was such a sweet picture.”

Mama, we are so lucky to have you,” she said, tears still streaming down her face.

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My daughter had connected the dots and identified a perfect photographic analogy that laid bare what had lacked in my childhood and what I made sure she had in hers. She saw the juxtaposition that I had suffered as a child and still worked tirelessly to create a loving, caring, supportive environment for her and her sisters. She felt, in my article, the anguish I still wrestle with to this day trying to pull apart the knots caused by my neglect, piece by tiny piece, without allowing it to roll over onto them.

She felt sorrow for what I had endured and gratitude that I had decided, the moment she was born and held her in my arms, that I was going to break the cycle of abuse and save her the pain that had almost ended me on more than one occasion.

The best advice I’ve ever received as a mom is to “be the mom you wish you’d had.” I remember that every single day.

On that perfect day, 16 years ago, I looked into her sweet, newborn eyes and found my purpose. My reason. My life, from that moment, was dedicated to being the mom that would never ever harm her and always be there to meet her needs. All the things I couldn’t bring to do for myself suddenly seemed possible because there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. Or her sisters.

Her existence made me who I am today.

Two days ago, I wrapped my arms around my sweet girl, and she transferred to me that same strength that her tiny fingers wrapped around mind had done the day she was born. I felt her love and her gratitude, and it was all I needed. It was everything.

“No, babe. I’m the lucky one. I have you.”

She smiled.

How could I ever be scared of the dark?

My girls are my light.

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Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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