parent and child drawing on brickThis is a reader submission for our Mother’s Day essay contest, “What My Mother’s Biggest Parenting Mistake Taught Me About Parenting.”

I was 12 and my brother was nine when our own mother found herself in a failed marriage.

As a newly single mom, with child support unreliable at best, money was very tight. We made due with few luxuries like cable television and using government assistance for school lunches. But there were still times where we had to choose between living through the weekend with no water or no electricity.

There was one winter we lived for months with no gas, meaning we didn’t have central heat, because we didn’t have the money to get it reconnected. Meanwhile, my mom was working through the emotions of a failed marriage and had no one to talk to.

She and I have always been close, and so she turned to me to vent her worries and frustrations about money or my dad. I didn’t have the words at the time to tell her that she was giving me a burden my small shoulders weren’t strong enough to bear.

I wanted so badly to make her feel better, so I listened patiently when she would tell me she didn’t know how we were going to afford food that week. I helped gather together candles when our electricity was going to be cut off any minute or filled buckets with water so we’d have some way to wash our hands for the next few days. I tried to be brave and make it into a game with my brother so he wouldn’t realize how serious things were. Then I would stay up at night worrying, wondering how we were going to make it until the next pay day.

Worse yet, I had to sit and listen while she would lash out against my dad, frustrated that he lost another job and wouldn’t be able to pay child support this month. She would berate him and tell me stories that no child needs to know about their father. I didn’t even realize until my now-husband brought it to my attention a decade later that this verbal abuse had changed the way I viewed and treated him. I lost respect for father, even as he was trying to rekindle a relationship with my brother and me.

Fortunately, this hard time only lasted a few years, but it has taken me twice as long to understand and recover from the impact it had on me. I now have a good relationship with both of my parents, and they can at least be cordial to each other. We seem quite healthy and functional for a divorced family. However, I have made a vow to myself to never rely on my children for my emotional well-being.

I am not naturally an outgoing person. I can stay in the house all day for three or four days before necessity, and my 16-month-old daughter’s insistence, drive me back out into the world again. I don’t like making friends, and I rarely keep more than a handful at a time. When I go out to playdates or mom groups, I am stretching myself beyond my comfort zone. But I do it because I love my daughter, and I would never want her to become my confidante in adult concerns. I know that I need friends to whom I can vent the frustrations of raising a toddler and day-to-day husband irritations.

I also take special measures to keep my marriage as healthy as I can. Though it’s hard for me to open up about dissatisfaction in my relationship, I force myself to bring it up as needed because I know that if I let it fester, I may end up divorced in my 30s. We go out on semi-monthly dates to remind ourselves that we’re a couple as well as parents. I am a firm believer that a healthy marriage begets a healthy family.

I know I have a long way to go before I can say that I raised well-adjusted children. I don’t blame my mother for her mistakes, because I know she’s human. But I can certainly say that she taught me a lesson in the importance of a support system and boundaries between parents and children. I hope my children and I will be better off for it.

(photo: Eldad Carin / Shutterstock)