As a mother, saying I love you to my children is something that I am very compulsive about. I am always so acutely aware of how often and in how many ways I say I love you to my children.
Sometimes, when one has compulsion, it’s important to lay the compulsion flat, on a page, smooth it’s edges and wrinkles to read the words of memory that are scrawled in pencil, smudged by thumbs and yellowed with time. Couple this with deep reflection and a generally introspective nature, and you’re in for some serious psychoanalysis (of the amateur kind, because I ain’t no doctor).
I wasn’t an angel growing up, but I was by no means wayward. Wayward? What do I mean here? I wasn’t in trouble with the law, didn’t do drugs, or drink alcohol. More importantly, I never, ever spoke back to my mother. Ever. And yes, that’s more important.
I love you.
My mother was a very volatile parent. If she walked into our room at any given moment, and deemed it messy or the beds not made correctly, she would yell. Not a “get in here and clean this up” yell either. Anything she had bottled up that had nothing whatsoever to do with us came out, directed towards us and the mess. She would walk out, and begin her cleaning process; she cleaned when she was angry. This meant, that even after putting our toys away, if she was still cleaning, we needed to be polishing, dusting, and clearing surfaces or it would only get worse for us. We opted to clean and get the all-day cold shoulder than our *&@%& beat. We were always looking for the raised eyebrow; we wanted to impress her with the shine of the glass table, the razor sharp hospital corners of our bed hoping to break the tension so we could get back to being kids. Eventually, she would say something, give us some indication that we were allowed in her presence again, that we could be tolerated. Just when we got too comfortable, she would bring up something about our transgressions from earlier in the day as her way of letting us know that she had all the power and control over our emotions and our little lives.
I love you.
My mother was also very adept at combining psychological damage with the physical. Whenever she hit us, it was usually with a belt; that was standard. But when she really wanted to unleash, she would tell us to remove our clothing. She would hit us in front of one another. We would never look; we were always too worried about our upcoming turn.
It wasn't just her either. It was rare, but other relatives would be "invited" in to help her. I remember a relative asked me and my cousins once if we wanted to dance in the shower after some minor transgression. Always, the precocious one, I squealed, “Me! Me! Oooh pick me!” The cousins knew, I think, and they just let me walk into it. He pulled the shower curtain back, grabbed my hands over my head, and held them, while he spanked me. My little legs moved so fast, almost like running in the air at my inability to get away, and he laughed. “See, you’re dancing in the shower.” Whenever it came up in conversation, because it was all open to conversation, it was a source of entertainment, something funny.
But that’s not the worst. I’d had my period and had to “catch a beatdown” in front of my brother, shorts and underwear around my ankles. I don’t remember the pain of the hit, just the embarrassment of my nakedness in front of my brother, who shouldn't see me like that, and the radio playing lowly in the background.
And always, always, my mother would end with, "And don't forget that I love you." You had to say it back. You had to. She would keep saying, “And don’t forget that I love you,” through gritted teeth until you said it back. You had to say it in a way that showed you meant it. There could be no anger or sadness in your tone, or she would start over.
Afterwards, she would act completely normal. As if nothing had happened. Kill them with kindness was one of her favorite sayings. As if you weren’t just worn down to a nub of a person, as if your self-esteem weren’t just left in a heap next to you on the floor in so many pieces that there could never be enough glue in the world to ever, ever put you back together again. But that was her point.
When I finally confronted her as an adult, she was defensive, claimed I made it all up, or that she didn’t remember. In her way, it was another psychological ploy to control what my life is, control what got me here to where I am today. She can’t take away what I felt. She can’t take away my progress, and she can’t take away the pain she inflicted. It happened whether she wants to claim she remembers it or not, whether my brothers claim to remember it or not.
She said she didn’t have a book on parenting, and she wasn’t perfect. I didn’t have one either, but I made damned sure that I wouldn’t re-read the pages she wrote for me to my children. When I look into their big eyes, I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know how she was able to snap like that, over and over again, child after child; there are seven of us. That’s what I really can’t wrap my head around, especially as a mother. I couldn’t do it. I can’t. I haven’t. I won't.
I love you, meant something different for me for so many years. It meant I could be hurt, abandoned, embarrassed, and have one's will inflicted upon me because the flimsy bandage of "I love you" covered the scar. It wasn’t until I had Alex that my outlook changed. No longer willing to repeat the cycle my siblings and I had endured for so many years from my mother or anyone else, I repeat I love you to my sons more times daily than I can count; more than my own husband. I didn’t understand why, and still didn’t until very, very recently.
I have been trying to erase the association of pain and torment from my childhood with what it should have been. When my sons are just sitting and playing, talking, drawing, mess-making, anything, I say, “I love you.” As you can imagine, they do these simple things all the time—because it’s normal. They’re supposed to play, and argue with one another, leave Legos and Silly Bands everywhere, trash their toy closet and have dust bunnies. They're supposed to lounge around on a Sunday morning while I clean, and I am supposed to say “I love you,” not just with words, but with actions. There's not even the slightest bit of room for anger and resentment on my part, toward their innocent, care-free little lives.
I make sure they know I love them because they’re honest, compassionate, empathetic, sensitive, and kind. Because they share with one another and are thoughtful about their feelings, and make me laugh so hard I get a stitch in my side. I want them to know that I love them because of what they are becoming, not just because we share the same DNA, or because I made them therefore I own them and they owe me some allegiance for the rest of their life.
I struggled with publishing this for very obvious reasons. It tore me up to put the words down and drove me within the darkness of myself even after I clicked the x and closed the window. I knew it was there: the shame, the embarrassment, and the pain, glowing on its own and saved for me to return the next day with a decision to delete all that I had written, or share it. She's cropped up twice in the past two weeks, coinciding with this post.
This morning, I received my daily "learn the catechism in a year" email. The topic, "How do parents respect their children?" This is what it read:
God entrusted children to parents so that they might be steady, righteous examples for those children, that they might love and respect them and do everything possible so that their children can develop physically and spiritually. Children are a gift from God and not the property of the parents. Before they are their parents' children, they are God's children. The primary duty of parents is to present to their children the Good News and to communicate the Christian faith to them.
So there's my decision made.
I love my children because they were given to me, especially and specifically, I feel, by God to undo the years I spent as a little girl and young adult, afraid and full of compensation at the expense of herself. God knew that I would need Alex's compassion, sensitivity, and understanding; Gabriel's constant need for "sugar lumps" (hugs and kisses) and his fierce protection of me even in the silliest of instances. God also knew that I would need Mike to sever the dysfunctional attachment I had to her. Mike literally held my face and said "I got you now," and that took a long time to believe.
I say I love you to my children all the time, for their sake, and also for mine. Say I love you to your children, in every way you can, as many times as you can, they need it, without question. Maybe you do too?
Join the rest of the Good Enough Moms at The Wounded Dove.
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