There’s a stigma associated with being an only child. Think about it: what comes to mind when someone says they’re an only? Weird, spoiled, controlling, anti-social, moody – these all, at one time or another, described me. And not without good cause – I’m a f*cking weirdo. I talk to myself constantly, I don’t adapt well to sudden change, I crave quiet and calm, I’m fiercely self-critical (to the point of making social engagement difficult at times), and at one time I quite honestly believed I might be the unwitting star of my very own Truman Show.
Marriage and motherhood aren’t the most natural lifestyle choices for someone like me, and in the early years of both, when I felt extremely uncomfortable and unmoored through the persistent, sudden changes, I blamed my upbringing for making everything so hard. Adapting to change is never easy, particularly when you aren’t certain that all will work out okay (and let’s face it: in both marriage and motherhood, there are no guarantees that it will). When I faced challenges that seemed insurmountable, coming face to face with my own flaws and shortcomings, the things that came out of me weren’t very pretty. There was mess, chaos, vulnerability, and fear; yelling, disrespect, and words meant to cause hurt. Afterward, there was guilt, shame, and a deep disappointment and disgust with myself. I wasn’t shaping up to be the wife and mom I’d anticipated, and it had to be somebody’s fault.
So, blame came pretty easily. I’d be better at all of this if it weren’t for my upbringing – my church-pew childhood, friends who failed me, my noticeable lack of siblings, suppressive southern roots, and of course, my parents. Parents are so damn easy to blame. I spent a long time pointing fingers at mine, striving to distance myself (or so I thought) from my past, and making excuses for my behavior.
As a kid, I felt confined and controlled by my surroundings. I felt defined by them, when I desperately wanted to define myself. So at the first opportunity, I fled 1,500 miles away to college, dove deep into debt earning an education, married a man vastly different from anyone I’d known before, and plunged into motherhood, intending to succeed in all the spaces where I believed my parents had failed. I would be different, fix their mistakes, and somehow being the perfect wife and mom would silence the self-doubt, fear, and loneliness that I’m learning come second nature to all of us.
Spoiler alert: there are no perfect partners, nor mothers. In fact, these roles tend to turn up the volume on one’s inconsistencies and flaws, and grow deeper that nagging chasm of loneliness. And no matter where you go, or which lifestyle choices you make, you simply can’t outrun your past. In my efforts to parent differently from my own parents, I found myself repeating their habits; the same weaknesses I condemned in them poured out of me, and I finally understood – really understood – where these came from in the first place.
As I walk the bumpy road of marriage and motherhood, I’m finally connecting with the past in a new way, more fully comprehending the humanity of my parents, and acknowledging the lives they lived before I came into the picture. As it turns out, their existence didn’t originate with me – their experiences, ups and downs, failures and successes, and individual upbringings came with them into parenting, just as mine do, sometimes placing an opposing weight on their efforts, same as mine.
On the heels of all these revelations, I decided to return home this past weekend to visit my parents for the first time in six years. It was amazing – healing, even, at least for me. Instead of tension, offense, and contention, we were relaxed, engaged, and gentle with one another. We’ve all made big changes in our lives since my last visit: houses were bought and sold, kids were born, vocations shifted. But I realized, as I flew home, that the biggest change was my mindset.
I’ve spent my life struggling to separate myself from my parents and the place in which I grew up. I thought life’s magic existed “out there,” where the grass was greener, and where I could enjoy the freedom to make bolder, bigger, unrestrained choices. As a kid, your choices seem repeatedly made for you, and I felt born ready to assert myself, impatiently fearful that time would somehow run out, that I’d never get the chance to break out and DO something.
I see now (through the eyes of a wife and mom) that back then, just as today, I always had the ability to make my own choices. I could choose to see the beauty in my environment, the humanity and goodwill in my parents, and the comfort and protection in their temporary authority over my path. I desperately longed to live free of their control – of anyone’s control – and now I realize that there will always be some sort of constraint on my choices, some even of my own making (hello, children). I’m realizing, too, that true freedom is borne of laying down all the blame and finger pointing, and taking responsibility for the choices I can make; that if I fall short – as a wife, as a mom, in my vocation – I’m the one with the ability to make amends, make changes, and press on. Blaming just wastes precious time.
I’m starting to see clearly how my history makes me who I am, all of the good and bad together, and to finally appreciate the entire messy picture. I’ve felt fearful for so long that my kids would inherit my odd parts, flaws, or the flaws in my marriage, that these would somehow leave a permanent mark on them, that my baggage would detour them from a bright and beautiful future. I see now what I hope and pray they will see one day: that our parents’ baggage remains their own, and only becomes ours when we choose to carry it forward. That we have today, as always, a degree of choice about our own behavior, about the habits we want to shed or create, and share with our kids.
The choice is yours.
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