Life has been so sweet of late and that, for me, has been emotional. I feel a mixture of joy and disbelief. This time of mothering a teen as a parent with ACEs.
I sit the edge of my bed sorting socks and memories. A middle-aged mother in so many kinds of transition.
Some mornings, I hear her feet soft on carpeted stairs, see her long hair rolling down her back almost touching the hips. I remember when she did not have hips.
The years I gathered her up each morning, carrying her down the stairs on my hip. The years, I combed, brushed and washed her hair. Those moments now rise in the steam, visible before evaporating.
Now, she brings herself to the table, coming with a plate of food she got and adorned in hair styles of her making.
She will not thank me for a decade of tending and untangling. She will never say “uppy” from knee height or crawl to me from the floor. She will not remember the years I was her ramp, ladder, and mattress or how I stretched to be the ground so she could bounce better.
I was often an exhausted. I wonder if my daughter felt the bags under my eyes or the droop in my shoulders. Anxiety and despair were twin bees buzzing in my brain. How I’d try to hide the fear of being stung, make myself invisible to bees while present to her. I was searching for a non-existent magic epi to treat PTSD gone too far and consoling, cuddling, changing diapers and getting food for her at the same time.
She got half a Mom too often. One arm was reaching towards her, but the other was fending off demons and dragons.
My ACEs etched on her building blocks. The way I didn’t know how to relax or play or feel safe.
Her steps are steady, strong and elegant now. Those feet once needed early intervention sessions, physical therapy and stretches. I was told ice skating would be out for her and ballet, too though her countless costumes fill bins in our basement. How she proved the experts wrong. How we both did.
I am home plate for her at times, something she will trot over or slide head first into. Mostly when she is sick, needs rides, money or advice but even then she will run the bases of the world on her own. I always watch and wait. Sometimes I catch her. But I am no longer the pitcher, coach, umpire or base hitter.
Relief mixes with grief. Playing every position is hard. The first five years were brutal. Shortstops can hit hard and the staying alert, aware and paying attention in the outfield, while anxious or bored was excruciating.
There were whole years she woke me from sleep four to six times each night. Sometimes, while half asleep I’d feel ripped from another world, a hint of rage would emerge and terrify.
What if I snap, lose it or am violent before fully awake? My sleeping self scared me.
I’d binge on books about attachment, intimacy and how to shut up, sit still and give hugs and eye contact. I turned to paper more than people. Reading to try to calm down the heart that always felt on fire, to try to soothe the twisted wires of my nerves.
My father was a ghost who hovered, the grown up who drank too much, especially after Vietnam and threw radios at me as an infant before he served. The man who got so drunk he left us at the bar, who had to have supervised visits at fast food places before he disappeared. The man who gave me my last name and chased with knife or fist when he was drunk, and we cried – a combination which made him lose his mind.
Fearing anger, I became permissive. Anger, boundary setting, limits, and discipline all felt abusive. I didn’t know the difference between clear and cruel, deliberate and destructive and between emotions or symptoms. I was afraid of my body, skin, and sensations.
I was afraid a raging bear would devour, kill or maim the Mama Bear meat of me. What if I was my father waiting to happen? What if his genes were a bomb waiting to explode? If he could turn wild, primal and vicious – with his own - couldn’t I?
I had no idea how much I would benefit from mothering, how satisfying it would be to soothe and rock and be able to attend to my daughter. That a "there-there" is a steady metronome slowing the whole world. Mothering has made me feel inhabited, capable, kind and almost confident. Adult. Human. Hopeful.
Spaces which were once filled with running baths and wiping noses open now to new doors, moments and invitations. Where to celebrate and share my secret pride at not having my worst fears realized.
My daughter does not think anger and alcohol are other words for Dad. She does not think oblivious and overwhelmed are synonyms for Mom.
Or will she?
“You are such a good mother,” someone said to me in front of my daughter. Later, she corrected them but just to me.
“I’m the only one who can say if you’re a good mother. I’m the only one you’re the mother of.”
I loved her logic which is not all right or all wrong. I can’t speak for her about the mother I am.
I know I try hard but who doesn't?
"Tomorrow feels so far away" I text my lover.
“What’s to be done of it then?" with a winking emoticon.
"Sweet torture," I respond. I will not rearrange my day for lust or him no matter how glorious our time. It’s a school night. He is kindness, adventure, precision, and folly. He is a haiku master genius at using silence to punctuate himself and space. He is also patient.
I am a woman who must get work done after lunches are made and before carpool. I trust myself to be wise, adult and responsible and savor in that hard-earned ability. This isn’t bragging but confession. I have been love sick in middle age, not as a teen and almost put a man before myself and daughter coming treacherously close to repeating the past. It's horrifying and humbling.
Mistakes and missteps I have to own. I was not the glue that kept a marriage together.
I am a person with a high ACE score and an ACE provider parent. I did not protect her from everything but all I do as a mother matters.
The morning glory runs along the side of my house and has escaped from the trellis. The vines grab my attention, and I can see they are not trying to strangle, but to spread and stay alive.
I too have overreached, stomped too hard and clung too hard.
But there has been good parenting as well.
The hugs, the board books we read and the food, sounds, and feelings I fed her. I never let her cry it out, never said, “go play in traffic.” Her needs weren't met with absence or violence which is a victory.
If she has the low ACE advantage, she will be high risk for health, happiness, and a normal life span. That’s what I want for her present and future, and it guides my mothering. She might never fully know that feeling safe, solid and inhabited, for some, is a life long fight. That's my hope.
Mothering is different than it was now that she's older. It’s more about how I care for myself and her, in our relationship, than what I say, preach or explain.
Home is the shared aroma we both breathe in different rooms from under the same roof.
She is a teen, and I take all chances to bond even if it’s while shopping where we stand arm to arm
in a rack or aisle looking for sales in her size and color and style. She rarely asks my opinion because her fashion is ahead of mine, but I appreciate not being snarked or barked at and being together.
I have embarrassed her at times.
The time I left sanitary pads in candy dishes in the bathroom so none of her friends would have to ask for them if they had their periods at our house. I had corked myself as a girl with paper towel or toilet paper, squeezed my legs and willed myself not to be bleed. I’d make life in our bathroom easier, I thought, for everyone.
I would be open, radical, sensitive and feminist.
“That’s weird,” she said tucking the tampons inside a drawer. She didn’t agree pads should be as accessible as toilet paper.
She didn't know feminism saved me.
The personal is political.
Silence is violence.
Your silence will not protect you.
Those words nurtured me.
How to explain the importance of a life jacket from dry land to someone who didn’t seem me flailing in open water? How to celebrate voice when she didn’t see my tongue was almost clipped, the invisible ink story under my skin and the truth it took decades to birth.
How to explain the fight for almost normal, what it means to get back all that was taken, stolen or never given. How to apologize for being broken when I didn’t break me. Still, I know I was shattered glass, blood, and glue.
When to give full context or do I just protect her instead? Can I protect her without cloaking her in dread?
My friend Heidi calls us the “fucked up but functioning.” To my guy, I recently differentiated one relative as “normal crazy” (as in issues) while explaining the other as “scary crazy” (might be hurt or kill) and for us, it was shorthand. He knows what I meant. From experience. I hope my daughter won’t.
Some day, she and I might sit on the see-saw with equal weight and power facing each other. We may look like two adults women, peers, from a distance but we will always have a distinct bond. The type only children and parents have.
Or don’t and long for forever.
At times holding the hand of her younger cousin, patient and tender and warm. “There, there,” she says, and I hear so many of my words to her but in her tone. They are her words now.
She is not only loved but loving. She is tender and unafraid to be still and warm and open. And also, she can ask, “Can you come here? Can you help me?” without shame or apology.
It stuns me.
Might she have the mystery magic of a mostly secure attachment?
There were times just getting through the day was an epic accomplishment. When coping was the high bar I reached for. At night I’d pray or beg or hope for a secret delivery of strength or a sharper shovel to dig deeper into my bone marrow. What came had to be rationed. The cabinets within were always empty. I had nothing to store up for later. And borrowing wasn’t an option.
I think it’s in her bones most days. Safety. Sustenance. I think she trusts humans, the world, her mind, and heart. Me, even.
Sometimes, I want to fall to the ground and weep with joy. But I don’t want to overwhelm her or act inappropriately. But sometimes the ordinariness of us, love and home feel like a miracle.