I was never one to defend myself. Never one to set strong boundaries, or to teach people how to treat me. I was always not only willing to take other people’s abuse, but I took it gladly, as though I deserved to be punished and I was relieved to find a source willing to dish it out. I joke, often, about being a recovering Catholic, self-flagellating my way toward the reward of Heaven. I’ve been the classic good girl, though one who often feels as though she is just not good enough.
I know that aging has taken some of that willingness to suffer away. As I approach fifty, I am more aware of who I am and what I own, and I am far less likely to take hurtful or aggressive comments to heart as I once did. I am more likely to recognize where comments come from and know that I am not their genesis—that it is the history and wounds of the speaker that are most likely the source. I know, too, that therapy has helped me learn more of what I can and cannot control and how to spot truth in people’s words, and the absence of it. But what has changed me the most? What has made me more likely to demand respect and let go of those who cannot give it? Is becoming a mother.
My eldest son has asked me why I wanted to become a parent and why I am still so passionate about it, and I’m not truly able to quantify my answer in a way that satisfies him. I can’t explain to him in a way he will understand how I have rediscovered wonder as I watched him experience things for the first time, or how I have learned about the depth of love I could feel for someone I barely knew when I looked into his and his brother’s newborn eyes. I truly cannot tell him what a gift it has been to teach them about and help them navigate the world. How much their need of me, especially as babies and toddlers, has taught me about my own limits and how to push beyond them in a way that left me exhausted but satisfied. How they reminded me of the magic of simple things, like the taste of a banana or the loft of a balloon. And, perhaps the thing I am most grateful for, how they helped to build self-respect through them being an audience to how I lived.
I remember clearly the day I said no to the source of the most painful verbal abuse I had suffered my whole life. I was on the phone with my very difficult and often angry father, 17 days post-moving house, six days post c-section, surrounded by unpacked boxes, a newborn in my arms and an 18-month-old pulling at my pant legs, desperate for mama’s attention. I was exhausted and hurting, wanting nothing more than sleep. Nothing more than time to heal. Instead, I was trapped on the telephone with a person impossible to satisfy, trying to reassure him that he was still my primary focus even though nothing was further from the truth. As his voice raised and the expletives flew, I defaulted to the little girl peacemaker I had always been and tried to placate him with soothing declarations of love and interest amidst my toddler’s cries of “Mama, mama!” My father shouted at me, demanding that I “shut that fucking kid up” and I almost audibly heard a crisp finger snap signaling that time was up. That the game was over. The switch had been flipped. I had always been fine with being the child on the receiving end of his rage, but there was no way in hell I was going to let my children endure that. My mama bear instinct kicked in, and I heard, if not out loud, then in my heart, a firm and resolute “no.” I was done.
I calmly told him I couldn’t speak to him anymore. I hung up the phone, and that was that. Years and years of trying to please him in any way possible were over because I would never, never, let anyone talk to my children the way I had been talked to for decades. I was never going to have to lie to my boys and say, “Grandpa didn’t mean that”, or sheepishly explain what a slur meant, or plead with the gods for them to behave perfectly so they didn’t randomly, just by being children, incite the storm of his anger. They deserved so much better. They deserved to feel safe and loved. They deserved to be treated with respect. And if they did, didn’t I?
It has been recommended to me that I speak to myself as though I were speaking to a beloved friend, and that is indeed good advice. How I often analyze a troubling situation, though, is by asking myself: would I ever let anyone treat one of my boys that way? Would I ask them to endure that? Would I want them to hear those words? Being a mother taught me the capacity I had for love and helped me frame what is right and wrong when it comes to treatment at the hands of others. The land of self-respect always seemed so far away—a place I could never figure out how to reach. I will forever be grateful to my boys, my beautiful, deserving boys, because when it came time to walk to that place where I mattered, loving them built the bridge. Loving them helped me learn to love myself. I can’t imagine a lesson more important, or one I am more grateful for, than that.