My childhood can't be easily summed up with an elevator pitch. There's no box I can neatly wrap it in, no quip I can use to describe it, and no stereotype I can lean on to make it more understandable for others. One thing I know for sure, though, is that my childhood experiences gave me clear examples of what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. In fact, I think there are parenting things you end up doing better because you had a toxic father, or other toxic guardian growing up, and while a silver lining doesn't make it OK for someone to treat you poorly or abuse you or create a hostile environment, I do find that it's helpful to look at the ways I've made a bad situation into a positive one.
I think most, if not all, parents have the best intentions when they start caring for a tiny, helpless human being. You hold that new baby and look into their eyes and dream of a better, brighter future for them. So I'm sure my father didn't mean to veer off course. I'm sure he had, like me, the best of intentions. But my father's toxicity still affects me to this day and along my journeys through womanhood, marriage, and parenting. Because I was made to feel like the bane of my father's existence, I couldn't wait to turn 18, claim a life for myself, leave my home, and travel as far away from the pain as I could. In other words, I was forced to grow up at an unforgiving rate.
None of this is to say I'm perfect. I make mistakes all the time. I've yelled at my kids and I've handed out punishments that didn't fit the crime. But I've also learned from those mistakes. That, to me, is the most important lesson in parenting — not to repeat the mistakes of our parents, but to be wise enough and humble enough to admit when we have. I'm always learning, evolving, and trying to be a better version of myself today than I was yesterday, and despite the way I grew up. So with that in mind, here are some of the things I think mothers do better because they grew up with a toxic father.
I don't remember a lot of times when I felt heard as a kid. My parents divorced when I was 7, and I used to think shared custody and split weekends meant more time to connect with my parents on a deeper level. Unfortunately, in my case, it didn't. To this day I have trouble using my voice because I had been silenced so long my voice eventually stopped feeling important. In fact, sometimes I still don't feel like I matter as a woman, a wife, a mother, or a person.
But in a way I'm also thankful I didn't feel heard, because it's the biggest reason I'm teaching my kids to speak up for themselves. It's another reason why, no matter what, I always take the time to stop and listen to my children. I want them to know, always, that their voices matter. That they matter.
You Think Before You Speak
A lot of parents get caught up in the moment when things pass the point of calm. I've done it, particularly when my tween shouts in my face. My dad always said whatever he was thinking when he was angry. It didn't matter how hurtful or inappropriate it was, or how much emotional damage he was doing in the process. It taught me how to take a beat to calm myself before responding to my children, so they don't repeat the same cycle when/if they're parents.
You Set Appropriate Boundaries
My younger brother and I were left to fend for ourselves on the weekends we stayed at dad's house. I remember walking to the market all hours of the day, and night, alone. I never felt like my father would've cared if something happened to me. It was just assumed we'd find a way to survive, somehow, on our own. I'm sure, as a father, he did care what happened, but his way of showing it was nonexistent.
As a result, I've been strict with boundaries (sometimes, arguably, a little too strict), hoping that my children will eventually understand that it's for their benefit and continued wellbeing. I parent because I love them, and I want them to stay safe.
You Spend Time With Your Kids
My mom worked and put herself through college after she divorced my father. As a result she wasn't around much, but not by choice. As a child I couldn't understand that she was doing it so we could eat, have a roof over our heads, and heat beneath that roof, though. Instead, I was just resentful.
So coupled with my father's aloofness, I felt like my parents didn't want to spend time with me. That, in turn, has made quality time with my children a consistent priority. I know what it's like to feel alone in your own home, and I don't want that for my kids.
You Constantly Communicate
My parents used to communicate through screaming, cursing, or throwing tantrums, and as a 7-year-old I was constantly stuck in the middle. Things weren't hashed out calmly, and as a result I wasn't taught how to express my emotions correctly. This led to a lifetime of self-destructive patterns I'm still trying to undo.
Although I mess up, I aim to communicate the right way with my kids. Not angrily, not shouting down at them, and not in a way that'll stay with them forever. I want to keep lines of consistent communication clear, and I want my kids to know that, no matter what, they can always come to me to talk.
You Show Love
The word "love" was lost on me for a long time. In fact, I don't think it was until I became a mother that I really understood the complete definition of the word. For so much of my life, my dad would say "I love you" but his actions proved just the opposite. It's hard to reconcile a love that makes you feel so crummy all the time, and the older I got the more it resonated that I didn't really know what "love" meant.
So now, when I look to my kids, I can't just say "I love you." I show them. Always.
You Utilize Empathy
No matter what I do, I'll only be successful as a mother if I take a step back to remember what I felt like when I was a kid. The world is scary, and constantly changing and growing and learning can be overwhelming. I must show my children empathy, even when they're trying me and pushing boundaries and questioning my authority.
When my daughter screams in my face and slams her door, it's because she's testing her boundaries and wants to be heard. If my son throws a tantrum out of nowhere, it's because I've not given him the time he desires or a way in which to express his confusing emotions. Without empathizing to understand their behaviors, I'll never be able to provide them with a better environment than the one I grew up in.
Things with my dad are better now, and I know he has regrets, but what's done is done. All we can do is move forward. All I can do is do the work to make sure I don't make the same mistakes with my children.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherlode, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.