This is Stefan Molyneux’s radio program on the topic “What Do Children Owe Abusive Parents?”:
Good topic that doesn’t come up very often. Few care to talk about it, and when they do, it’s frequently framed in terms of the grown child needing to forgive their parents and still provide for their care as they age. Arguments like that have bugged me so much, because truly, as the article Stefan was reading points out, there comes a time when we need to take care of our own selves and not risk being sucked back in to an unhealthy dynamic.
This is how I approach my mother now that she’s interested in sending text messages after nearly two decades of us barely speaking and very rarely seeing one another. And I’ve been given plenty of grief from others who don’t know the situation yet righteously declare that I SHOULD forgive her, I SHOULD work toward making amends despite her showing little interest in doing so over the years, that I should excuse her lies and unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions and just love her regardless.
Several times I did try going back to her, and every time she made me regret it by being rude and selfish like always. Back in 2009 I did sit down and write her an email outlining how I feel about her treatment toward me, and it was met with her typical denials and claims of not remembering this or that. My mother can change her story more than anyone I’ve ever met, and comes across as if she actually believes each contradictory tale, like she’s able to convince herself and rewrite history accordingly. But I was there and I grew up under the nonsense and haven’t forgotten. Each time she blows off my concerns or attempts to rewrite history to forever frame herself as the ultimate victim of everybody else, she makes it clear that no reconciliation is possible or worth pursuing.
Yet people on the outside, most of whom have never met her, still felt the need to tell me that I am now creating the problem by being selfish in keeping myself away from my mother. I am now the culprit who’s no better than her because I harbor resentment and pain that I can’t let go of. Ugh. People have said some downright nasty things to me on this subject, and again, these are relative strangers who may know me a little but who don’t know my mother. They’re operating under the assumption that a mother’s love is unconditional and always well-intending. But that’s not reality — that’s a mere fantasy people feed themselves in order to have something to believe in.
It was only a few weeks ago when I last listened to an older woman talk about how much disdain she has for this world and the people in it, stopping short of criticizing mothers’ love for their young, that being the one exception in this life that she personally appreciated. I did interject to say that even that isn’t perfect, which seemed to annoy her slightly. She serves as yet another example of people who willingly pull the wool over their eyes and tell themselves that a mother’s love is the last refuge in a world gone mad. But what if that mother’s love was absent? What refuge was there then? That question invites hostility from some folks, so I’ve learned to be careful treading there, preferring to not have to hear how out of line I am for suggesting that a mother’s love isn’t always pure and sacrificial and whole-hearted. Frankly, such talk makes me queasy.
Some mothers don’t care much about their young, and that’s a sad fact of life. Some mothers care more about positioning themselves financially than making sure their kids are properly cared for. Some mothers seem willing to forget they even have a child if they see him or her as a hindrance to them getting what they want. Some mothers throw their own kids under the train so as to save themselves. And some mothers choose favorites among their young, putting far more time and energy into those fathered by the new man in their lives, turning over to relatives the kids born out of wedlock from a time back before. Some mothers behave competitively with their young daughters, seeing them as rivals for attention, which can ultimately lead to tossing them out in order to punish them for the sin of making her feel jealous. Some of them laugh gleefully at the sight of their child’s pain and confusion, and rather than aim to protect them, they offer their young up to the wolves to be done with however they like.
My own mother wasn’t the worst of the worst, but she’s certainly an odd duck who formed serious resentment toward me soon after I was born. Of all the memories I have to reflect back on that pertain to her, more often than not I listened to her criticism of me, her laughter at my anguish, her dismissal of my need for her, and her complete ignorance of my own life story unfolding and her central role in it. She encouraged others to see me as “bad” and troubled as well, though always mindful of keeping the heat off herself in terms of responsibility as a parent. I came up understanding that I was a consequence of her frustration with her own upbringing and that I reminded her of a past she’d prefer to forget.
I grew up wondering why she hadn’t opted for an abortion when it appeared so obvious that she resented my existence. Her answer to that was that she wanted someone to love her unconditionally. And she got that, but it turned out to not be enough. I, forever the painful reminder than her life didn’t go as she’d hoped. I, the fatherless child who didn’t get along well with her husband and didn’t fit into the dream she envisioned for herself and her new family going forward. I, the remnant from a past better rejected and forgotten.
Just so happened that I also turned out to be flesh and blood rather than a figment of her imagination that she could turn on and off at will. And I grew into an angry, resentful young person who wound up making a lot of unsavory choices that she’s still in the dark about and doesn’t want to know. The sadness seeped deep into my soul and has never left me, not even as I now embark on my 30s. Melodramatic as it might seem to onlookers, I still can’t help but feel as if my existence is a problem.
I know, people will say that it’s time to get over it, time to move on, time to let it go, time to put on my big girl britches and accept that this is the way life goes sometimes. And I feel that I’ve done a lot of work on this throughout my 20s and am in a much better headspace at this point in life. Soon after turning 21 I moved farther away and created a life for myself without any of my family present to see me struggle. Worked through college and completed a bachelor’s degree, in part to prove to myself that I am capable of accomplishing something. Made my own money so as not to wind up at their mercy begging for a dime. Met a few people who turned out to be good friends over time, and thank God for them — they really saved me more than they will ever know, providing me with much-needed friendship and love that has radically altered my life and outlook. Seven years ago I moved farther away, and 5 years ago I created my own little business to sustain myself, which I continue to work at. Life is better. Even my stepdad and I learned to communicate and to treat one another like family after he and my mom divorced a little over a decade ago.
But still, there’s this feeling of being a waste, a problem, of living on borrowed time, and I can’t seem to ever shake it. People make it sound like you grow up and everything changes, as if a little age is all that’s necessary to set things right, but that’s delusional thinking. Pain can stick with you inside your heart, and I’m not sure how one removes it once it’s become fused in there from such a young age. One upside to this is it forces me to think deeply on how I’m perpetuating problems myself, even without meaning to, and what role I have in breaking cycles such as the one I grew up experiencing. This life has taught me the value of love and honest friendship, just as it’s also taught me about how wickedness beckons those who are hurting inside and wishing for a release or for someone to take it out on.
The past can’t be changed, and not all relationships can be salvaged, not even those between parents and their children. They say we grow to a point where we must pick up the reins to our own lives and direct this ship in moving forward, and this is true. But does it involve forgiveness? I can’t stand what Oprah and her ilk have done to the meaning of that word. Try as I have over the years, I am unable to forgive or forget. But at least the rage died down and I no longer feel something must be done to right past wrongs. Because there’s nothing that can be done, not at this stage in the game.
A couple years ago I took my boyfriend two hours away to visit my mother without giving her prior notice, fearing she wouldn’t see me if she knew I was coming. That was the first time she and I sat down in the same room together in … probably a decade or more. She behaved decently, and we agreed to communicate by text message afterward, and that’s all the contact we’ve had since. She’s never in all the years I’ve been away attempted to come visit me anywhere I’ve lived. She hasn’t picked up the phone and called me since the year 2001, and even then it was only to berate me because her marriage was failing once again. She doesn’t ask me what I’ve been up to or if I’m happy or how life has treated me. Nothing. Normally she just rambles a bit about her own day-to-day living and that’s about it. Might occasionally mention something my brother is up to. And that’s the extent of our relationship.
In the past I’ve told my brother that I won’t be helping out in caring for our mother as she ages. He didn’t seem to like that idea, but then again, he and I couldn’t have been raised more separately. He was afforded a life very different than my own, so it is up to him if he feels the need to someday provide for her. As I’ve explained to him, my (maternal) grandparents were the ones who made the sacrifices on my behalf and they were the ones who took me in when I had nowhere else to go and was being threatened with being warded to the state. I’ve committed to them, now having experienced my Papa passing away, with a part of my heart remaining standing at his bedside, and I’ll continue to do my best for my Grandma. Because they loved me, imperfect as they might’ve been — they sincerely loved me. What goes around comes around. It takes love to generate more love. Those who’ve loved me I am indebted to. Those who did not and who instead made life harder than was necessary because they wanted someone to blame or to make fun of — those people can remain going their own way. I may miss them, but that’s just the childish instinct within us all that calls out for our mothers — it can’t be helped.
What can be helped are the choices I make in my own life, in terms of whom I surround myself with and where I focus my energy. That’s my power, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to listen to anymore from people aiming to shame those of us who came up experiencing upbringings that don’t fit with their ideals. Didn’t fit with my ideal either, but such is life. What more can be done? At this point we try to pick up the pieces and do what we can to create a new life with value and meaning, one in which we do matter and where relationships are reciprocal and where we remind one another often, through actions and words, that we love each other.
Come a long way and still have a lot farther to go, but at least now there’s some sunshine and a greater sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel they belong somewhere. I’ve created a new family of my choosing over time which includes my friends and select family members, and this is much better. I won’t pretend everything is rosy and that I’ve fully arrived, because it isn’t true. I continue to struggle with accepting real intimate bonds, and I’m having to relearn ways of coping since what I relied on for many years there turned out to be self-destructive. I continue battling impulsive behaviors and aggressive tendencies. But at least there appears now to be some light at the end of the tunnel. All is not lost.