When You Can’t Be The Parent You Want To Be

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had panic attacks. I was terrified of having children, for good reason. I was afraid that I would succumb to the cycle of abuse that I grew up in. As much as I had already made many choices that were vastly different from my parents, I feared that abuse would be some inevitable fate. I knew, statistically speaking, about the high risk, and I was worried.

On top of that, I already had a traumatic parenting experience, which struck me to my core. When I had just turned twenty-one, the summer I had just graduated from college, I became an instant stepmother to a four year old whose birth mother was a drug addict.

The child’s father and I had just moved in together, which is a whole other story. I met the child maybe once or twice before his mother kidnapped him and disappeared out of state. When the DA found them, police in the other state were about to arrest her for aiding and abetting a homicide. He was taken from his mother and flown back to us, where he came to live with us permanently. He arrived with only the dirty clothes on his back. All of his teeth were rotten. He was used to eating candy bars as meals, and his mother used to blow pot smoke in his face to “mellow him out.” She had sex for drugs in front of him. She took him to violent movies in the middle of the night as a form of babysitting. When they arrested her, it was early in the morning, and she had been out all night with him in tow.

The poor child had all the social, emotional, and developmental problems you would expect from living a life like this. I was horrified by what he had been through, and I was horrified about what it meant for his present and future life. I was not even close to starting to unravel the effects of my own childhood abuse, but I knew at the time I wasn’t ready to be a mom. I was stuck. I had nowhere else to go, so I took an awful traveling job doing makeup and working out of cheap hotel rooms. I endured it for a few months until I couldn’t take it any more, and decided I may as well give step parenting a try. After that, I fully committed to the role. We moved to the suburbs, and I played Mommy.

Needless to say, it was hard. It ranks as one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had zero resources to help this child, or myself for that matter, but I was determined to give this kid a better life. I made sure he ate real food, and had clean clothes. I read books to him, and limited his screen time. I married his father and became his official stepmother. I sat in on his school IEPs and counseled with his teachers. I took him to the doctor, and made sure he took his medication regularly. I provided his first-ever experience of a relatively stable environment. I cared about him and his welfare, but I could not bring myself to fully love and embrace him.

I was blinded by the guilt, panic, and rage about all of it. His father was a “nice” guy, but generally avoidant of all responsibility and conflict. He was all too willing to let me take over all of the care and raising of his child, and I deeply resented it. I was furious at the situation, and furious at him for having a kid with a drug addict in the first place. I was angry at the injustice of it all, and at people who make terrible life choices. Most of all, I was mad at myself. Mad that I couldn’t be more than I was. Mad that I couldn’t fix it. I felt deeply ashamed that I could not be the answer to a problem I didn’t even start.

I entered into a cycle of rage and shame. The kid would do something wrong, I would overreact out of frustration and rage, then I would overreact out of shame at my own response, and so on. He had some scary problems, especially with emotions, and I feared he would turn out to be a serial killer or something. Of course, my own immature response was not helping the situation, and I felt terrible about it. We all desperately needed help navigating it all, but other than a couple of really lousy counselors, we were completely isolated in the struggle. At the time, I didn’t even know where to look for help.

My worst nightmare was coming true. I was becoming a rageaholic like my dad. My fear of screwing up this kid more than he already was piled on even more guilt and shame. I started having panic attacks. I stopped being the primary caregiver. It started out as a boundary to motivate my husband to take more responsibility. I stopped being the one to pick him up from school. Then I started having panic attacks whenever I was in the same room with the boy. In the last year, I no longer spent any time with him. I was working crazy hours (on purpose) and barely saw him. Obviously, the marriage didn’t last, we broke up, and I never saw the child again.

There is no guilt like the guilt of abandoning a child who has been abandoned before. As someone recovering from narcissistic and emotional abuse, I have since learned how that experience was the perfect storm for someone like me to feel overwhelmingly responsible and guilty. I have since learned to forgive myself for my part in what was a terrible, fucked up situation, but on some days, it still doesn’t feel like enough. On those days, I pray for that child, who is now a grown adult, older than I was when I was his mom.

Fast forward several years to the birth of my own child. I was in a happy, healthy marriage, and my life was completely different than my early adult years. But I was still in a panic. When I became a mother, I had zero confidence in myself to be the kind of parent I wanted to be, but I knew the kind of parent I didn’t want to be. I learned how to speak up about what I need so that I can best love and care for my child. I learned how to protect myself and my children from physical, sexual, and emotional predators. I learned to surround myself with the right people. Most of all, I learned to trust my own instincts, and to seek help when I need it.

And now, years later, so many of my anxious questions about my own abilities to parent have come to pass. I was given an opportunity to do it right, and I did. Al Franken made a comment recently about people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. First, they need the boots. Sometimes, in order to succeed, all we need is the right opportunity.

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