I might be a Toxic Parent.
At least twice every day (and often quite a few times more than that) one or both of my daughters crawl into my lap and ask for hugs and cuddles. My first emotional impulse is to cringe, push them away, and shout at them for invading my space—and before the soul-crushing guilt hits, I remind myself that my parenting model was a toxic mix of mental illness and emotional abuse.
I am a loving parent because my mother was not. I do not hit my children because I remember the sting of her hand on my face and her words on my teenage psyche. I do not criticize my children because I remember my harshest critic had a spark of creativity in her words that no other middle school girl could match. I keep my exhaustion to myself because I spent much of my early childhood crying in front of a locked bedroom door knocking and knocking with no answer from the overly self-medicated person hibernating within.
The sad truth is that my experience is not unique. I was not a special case. There are hundreds, thousands, even millions of us. Adults who were neglected, abused, and chose better for our little ones. For those of us who chose to become parents ourselves, we felt terror at the first sign of that little blue line. I wondered if I would be an instrument of history repeating itself—would I find my palms stinging and not my body, would I find myself on the other side of that locked door? Although most first time parents feel that twinge of uncertainty—that common uncertainty bloats into something uncommonly horrifying and grows right along with that baby bump. The worst part for those of us who survived toxic parents is that the idea of parenthood itself perpetuates the cruelty we experienced as children—dredging up dysfunctional feelings of insecurity and inadequacy as we consider who we will be as parents. For us, finding a balance between caring for our children and caring for ourselves is cardinal to the emotional health of our families as a whole.
Will I be able to put their needs ahead of my own?
A common sign of a toxic adult-child relationship is the reversal of these roles. The adult has a child-like need to be tended to and praised by their children, while the child shows mature behaviors that require more energy and emotional strength than what is fair to ask of them. Being a single mother on top of being a survivor of a toxic parent makes me worry about this two-fold. Will I manipulate them to meet my own emotional needs? Or use guilt as a tool to control them?
The answer is no. Finding the balance between your needs and theirs is not as difficult as it feels like it could be. For me, balance is wine and whine night with girlfriends. Sometimes, you just want someone to say, “That sucks, you poor thing," and listen to you complain while you drain a bottle. That someone shouldn't be your kiddos. So I vent, and they get a calm, focused mommy—after the wine wears off, of course.
Will I have unattainable expectations for them? Or be unreasonably controlling?
Some toxic parents live vicariously through their children—pushing unfair expectations, or somehow creating a situation where their children place unreasonable expectations on themselves. My experience was the latter, and now I am definitely a helicopter parent by instinct. I have to consciously remind myself that my girls are clever and strong for their ages and to take a step back. I still try to be involved in every aspect of their lives for better or worse, but I worry that my instinctual need to be involved will cloud my view into the amazing little lives they lead and the awesome little chicks they are growing into. Am I perpetuating this dysfunction by standing at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum?
The answer is maybe. And it sucks. The good news is that by recognizing this possibility and my possible failure in preventing this possibility, I am allowing myself to save that energy to encourage and support the girls in a healthy way. Their successes will always feel like my successes, and their failures are mine as well. Hopefully, this means they'll feel their successes doubled and their disappointments halved.
Will I make them feel safe and cared for?
Will my children feel confident that I am there as support and not as a critic? Americans are socialized to feel as though they can change any aspect of themselves (both physical and psychological) to reach a "better" state of self. That's why there are so many niche fitness centers, plastic surgeons, and self-help centers thriving—particularly in California. The number of young adults on some sort of mood-regulating drug is horrifying. We are taught that our best selves deserve love, kindness, and respect. Unfortunately, this incorrectly expressed truth can be harmful when internalized the other way. A child who does not feel loved and respected understands this as an expression that they are not good enough, and are not capable of being their best selves. From there, it's a slippery slope of daddy issues and low self-worth that leads to a little girl growing into a young woman pulling dollar bills out of her g-string. As a product of toxic parenting (and an ex-go-go dancer), am I even capable of providing for them emotionally in this way?
The answer is yes. I acknowledge my parenting shortcomings and personal hang-ups so that I can actively work to build my coping skills, even if for no other reason than to teach them to my girls in order for them to survive me, should I fail to provide the childhood they deserve.
Will I be able to teach them to see their own strengths and love themselves?
Every day, I am floored by something my kiddos do. I truly see them as the incredible little humans in training that they are. But will I be able to express to them just how amazing I know they are? I find myself holding back, and to be honest, I wonder if I sometimes come across as cold to them. Flashback to every single time I opened up about something I cared for and having it used against me by my mother. I learned to hide any positive feelings toward people or objects simply so they wouldn't be taken away from me. I feel that same necessity to be cold now as a parent—and again comes the soul-crushing guilt because I know better. I know that my littles need, want, require my affection to be emotionally healthy. Will this coping mechanism leftover from my childhood ever fade away?
The answer is maybe not. So I had to turn the automatic response into a learned behavior. I read parenting books well before Evyn was born, and then did so again before Quinn. I saw a counselor and practiced expressing my gratitude for their existence in ways they could understand—hugs, kisses, cuddles, special one-on-one time with each of them, and verbalizing exactly how much I love them and how special they are. It's funny to think how hard some of us have to work for things that should seemingly come naturally.
Will I abuse them and not realize I am doing it?
The first time I spanked Evyn (yes I spank) I cried harder than she did. She had gotten away from me on a walk to the park and sprinted out into the street. She got one good swat on her diapered butt, and I crumbled inside. It wasn't in anger or frustration, and her dad and I had just talked about whether we would spank her or not a few days before. We decided that we would spank only in situations where Evyn was putting herself in immediate danger. But somewhere inside my atypical parenting mind, I wondered if that was how abuse starts and a void of incredible guilt opened up. Could it be possible that I was an abusive parent, or could become one and not realize it?
The answer is absolutely not. There is a clear line between abuse and discipline. For me, the fear of inflicting any version of my own childhood on my kids is strong enough that the line between okay and not okay is clearly marked. My children will not flinch when I reach out to hug them or worry about what kind of mood I am in when I walk in the room. The difference between being an abusive parent and a toxic parent is the fact that abuse is intolerable. Toxicity can be coped with, which causes a long-term ripple effect of dysfunction. Your job as a parent is to build them up so they respect themselves and others. With this awareness comes responsibility—if you have ever questioned your parenting, talk to someone, read a couple books. Your relationship with your kiddos and even your kiddos themselves can only benefit from your efforts.