A woman reflects on her mother's mistakes and how they inform the treatment of her own children.
I’ve had this memory for as long as I can remember: I’m around eight years old, at home, sitting in the middle of a staircase landing, sobbing. The 1970s mirrored wall along the stairs reflects my mom and sister back to me. I watch my mom slap my oldest sister—the “difficult one”—and I do nothing. I feel terrified as I watch what I thought of as my one good parent hit my sister, and my world feels like it’s tearing apart.
Being scared was common in my home. My dad was known for his daily yelling and nonstop threats. He was so loud and threatening that he managed to get child protective services called to the house, even though we lived on a 20-acre plot of land a 20-minute drive from town. I’m still not sure who put in that call.
As an adult, friends have told me that they didn’t want to be around my dad because they didn’t feel safe. (One aunt wouldn’t leave her kids with us unattended.) It was strangely gratifying to hear—to get a confirmation that the way we grew up wasn’t normal, that Dad wasn’t the good guy so many other family friends and relatives still tell me he is. When I told my oldest sister, though, she got angry. “If they knew it was so bad,” she demanded, “Then why didn’t they do anything?”
I grew up the youngest of four. My three older siblings were close, but I wasn’t part of their group. I spent my childhood tagging along, trying to belong, only to end up on the receiving end of pranks and bullying. I believed them when they cheated during our games of penny poker, and they laughed at how gullible I was.
But with Mom, I felt like I belonged—that I was worthy of love. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d find Mom awake in the kitchen, reading a book or talking on the phone, the little black-and-white TV keeping her company. She’d smile and make me tea and we’d talk until my eyelids became too heavy to worry about bad dreams. Dad yelled, threatened and insulted us every day, but as I got older, he became more of a noise machine—loud, but at such a steady volume that I could tune it out. Mom was calm, but when her anger did rise up it was so big and surprising that it felt like anything could happen.
I tried not to think anything negative about my mom. I couldn’t. She was my life preserver. She grew up as the oldest of seven, with an alcoholic stepmother in a loving but abusive household. From her sisters—not my mom—I learned that she’d taken the brunt of the abuse when they were kids. In letters to her parents, Mom always wrote “Dearest Mother and Daddy,” and sounded like she was begging for love.
Years after Mom died in a car crash, I was visiting my sister. When we were out alone on a drive, I told her about my memory on the stairs, hoping that she could fill it out. Although she was driving, my sister turned to me so she could see my face. She was surprised I didn’t remember, she said.
We were supposed to clean the house. My sister was mad because I wasn’t vacuuming like I was supposed to. I was being bratty and unhelpful, so my sister, who’s six and a half years older than me, picked up our heavy old metal vacuum cleaner and threw it at me. It hit me. Hard. I fell down and cried, then got up and ran screaming to Mom.
“It was natural for you to get Mom,” my sister admitted. “I hurt you.” That surprised me. My sister is strong, smart and powerful, but not normally empathetic.
Mom came and yelled at her, she remembered. Then Mom picked up the vacuum and threw it at my sister. It hit her in her stomach and knocked her down too.
When she told me that, the memory clicked. I was fascinated by my confabulation—a thrown vacuum transformed into a slap. My brain had held onto the terror but reshaped the action into something that it found more manageable.
I felt guilty. I’d caused my sister to be hurt, even if I hadn’t meant any harm. Instead of learning from the moment, I’d forgotten the details. Part of me had hung on, though.
After my mom died, I hated all the people who insisted on telling me what a saint she’d been. Remembering her as all good and loving took away the edges that made her unique. It made it harder for me to remember her as she really was.
When we were kids and child protective services came, my oldest sister joked that they were worried about the wrong parent. I grew up thinking my sister was difficult, always pushing buttons, and that’s why she and my mom constantly battled. Part of me knew that I shouldn’t think that way, but another part wondered why she couldn’t just calm down and make all our lives easier. I never wondered why my sister was angry or what pushed her to fight. When they clashed, I leaned into Mom’s love and certainty. Mom called me her baby girl, her helper—and I was. I didn’t stop to think that I was only making my sister feel more isolated, making her feel unloved and unprotected, adding to the anger she carried. I just wanted to be loved. I didn’t think about the cost.
As the youngest, I often feel like I spend my life reacting to others and their moods. Even with my husband and two children, I’m not always sure how I feel about something until I write it. I’m normally too busy helping everyone else to engage with my own emotions.
When my son was seven months old he had the flu. He’d only sleep if I held him, so I held him for three days straight. When he was a year old, he fell off the growth chart. His adenoids and tonsils were severely oversized, and he had a difficult time eating or sleeping. He vomited all the time, even when I brushed his teeth. I muddled through his baby and toddler years on little sleep, desperately looking for ways to get calories into him. He was a sweet and happy kid, but he had brutal tantrums and meltdowns.
I took him to visit my sister in Switzerland when he was two and I was pregnant with my second child. When the flight attendants turned off the lights to help passengers sleep, my son wailed and screamed. I held him in my lap, trying to calm him down enough to sleep. His eyes were scrunched in pain and his coloring was off. I could tell he was hurting and couldn’t get comfortable.
Suddenly he stopped fussing. He glared up at me while he pulled out a tiny handful of my hair. He cut my cheeks with his fingernails. He beat me up, and I took it silently because I didn’t want to disrupt the plane. I only wanted him to sleep. What shocked me the most wasn’t that he was hurting me, but the intense expression on his face while he did it. He was only two but I could see the anger in his eyes, and I could tell that it was making him feel better to hurt me. I didn’t feel an urge to hit back. I only held him tight, trying to help him calm down until he finally fell asleep.
A year later, I took both kids to a shopping mall on a frantic mission to buy my son shoes. He was overtired and my five-month-old daughter was cranky. We were in the middle of the mall, surrounded by people, with my daughter attached to my front in a Babybjörn, when my son melted down. I kneeled in front of him, trying to calm him. He slapped his baby sister, hard, right in front of me.
I slapped him right back.
He wailed harder. So did she. I was too stunned to do anything, frightened that I’d just done something I’d sworn never to do: hit my child. And I’d done it in front of a lot of witnesses.
It’s become a story I tell a select few people, including my children, because of what happened next. An elderly woman with a thick European accent approached the three of us and said to my son, “What’s wrong? You don’t love your mama anymore? You want to come live with me?” She looked like the evil witch in children’s fairy tales—small, hunched and gnarled. She motioned with her hand, “Come. Come live with me.”
My son immediately stopped crying and grabbed my waist. Even my daughter quieted down. After the woman walked away, I realized what she’d done. She’d scared and distracted my son. Out of instinct, he’d clung to me because I was his safe person, even though I had just shown him that wasn’t always the case.
I tell my children this story because it’s funny, but also because it’s the moment of my greatest shame as a parent. I’m clear about it: I lost control and hit my child, something I should have never done. No hazy half-memories. Nothing for them to confuse or repress. The facts are as clear as I can make them.
The few times I have lost my temper and yelled at my kids, I’ve let them know that I yelled because I lost control, that I’m not perfect, but I should never yell at them. Unlike my dad, I don’t tell them that they’re worthless or stupid, or that they’ll never accomplish anything. Even in my moments of greatest anger, I try not to say anything bad about who they are or who they might become. I know how easy it is to become so lost in a moment that feels like it will go on forever.
After I slapped my son, I was shocked and depressed. I kept going over the scene in my head, wondering why I’d had such an instant reaction. I’d made it through years of sleep deprivation and tantrums and never wanted to hit him before. Then it clicked: It was because he hit his sister. If he’d hit me yet again I would have ignored it. But knowing and seeing that he would hit a baby, the other child that I loved, made me choose sides. It made me see him not as my child, but as a threatening other.
I don’t know what my mom was thinking the day she threw that vacuum at my sister. Maybe she didn’t even remember doing it. I do know that she was a loving mother and that despite everything, I was lucky to have her. None of us can be good all the time. When we’re wrong we need to be honest about it and forgive ourselves, so that next time we can do better.