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How do you parent when you were deprived of a childhood?

By February 16, 2020April 17th, 2020No Comments

“It doesn’t feel great to admit that I envy my children, and that my love for them is occasionally tainted by my own sense of loss, but that’s where I am right now.” Louise McSharry on the hangover of childhood trauma

Last year, after years of procrastinating and false-starts, I started going to therapy. I’ve had a heavy last five years, between the cancer and the child-bearing, and the thirty or so years before that weren’t exactly care-free, so there’s a lot to discuss.

We spend a fair bit of time talking about my biological mother during these sessions. I stopped living with her when I was seven and she surrendered custody of us. My dad had died of cancer when I was three, and in the aftermath her alcoholism really took hold. By the time I was seven, she had failed to get sober via more than one treatment programme and was sick of people telling her to stop drinking. When the Donnelly visa lottery came up in 1987, moving to America seemed like a solid plan so she applied, and she got one.

On the way to America in early November 1989, we stopped for a weekend in London. I was really excited, because she had brought me there for a magical weekend away the previous year. She was passionate about history, and wanted to pass that on to me, so she had brought me to the Tower of London and taught me about Henry the Eighth and told me all the juicy tales of the city’s past. We bopped around the city like two best gal pals, and I loved every moment of it. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the weekend in November, 1989, when we didn’t leave the hotel room once and she drank several bottles of blue Smirnoff while crying almost constantly.

These two weekends illustrate almost perfectly the great tragedy of my mother’s life. When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid. Most of my saddest, scariest, can-barely-think-about-them memories come from time with her. But the moments in my life when I felt most safe and loved come from time with her too. She had it in her to be great, but addiction, hand in hand with its best friend, undiagnosed bipolar depression, meant she couldn’t be the mom she knew she had the potential to be. We wept about it on her death bed. “If only…” she said, over and over again.

I thought I had put the “if only” sentiment to bed long ago, but recently I’ve found myself thinking about it all over again, thanks to a realisation I had in my most recent therapy session. We were talking about my mother, and suddenly I realised that when I parent my children, I’m trying to make them feel like I did with her in the good times. We all joke about “turning into our mothers”, but I guess I didn’t think I would.

Not in a good way anyway.

Now that I’ve realised this, I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time I hug my son, or reach back from the front seat to hold his little hand, it’s bittersweet. I’m so glad I learned to be a loving parent, and that my instincts are to comfort and protect my sons. I’m also really sad, and if I’m honest, envious. All I want is to give them the life I didn’t have, but it’s confronting. Watching them have it seems to highlight my loss. Obviously, I wouldn’t change it. But it’s hard.  I spent so many years wishing I could be with my mother, and then years thinking about the life I would give my own children – so different to the one I had, and now that it’s here it… well… it hurts a little.

It doesn’t feel great to admit that I envy my children, and that my love for them is occasionally tainted by my own sense of loss. But that’s where I am right now. I’m also grateful that I’m capable of giving them this life. I’m grateful that I don’t currently have a mental illness which prevents me from doing so. I’m grateful that I earn enough money to give them a consistent home. I’m grateful that I’m not as broken as my mother was. It’s possible to be grateful and envious at the same time, and that’s what I am right now. And I don’t think I can possibly be the only one. I’m giving myself permission to feel these feelings, and I think you should too. Childhood trauma leaves a lasting impact, and this is part of it. I am allowed to feel loss for the childhood I didn’t have. I’m allowed to feel grief. I am allowed to hug my son, feel the wave of sadness, and find that it makes me want to hug him even more. Parenthood is confronting, and makes you examine your own life in a whole new way and this is part of it. It will pass, of course. I’ll work on it in therapy. 

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

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