Who am I, and which part of me is real? It happens in the flick of a switch. The war within me between the “best version” and the “far-from-the-mark” mother. It doesn’t take much for this duality to be activated as pieces of my own story are stirred up. Both have a significant impact on my adult children.
I remember being nineteen, seemingly unaware of the harm I had suffered as a child. At that time, I never would have named the profound loneliness and humiliation I had endured through the neglect of my own mother. But a deep longing to be a parent was already present inside me, and I hoped to be extraordinary.
In those days, I had a budding faith in Jesus, and I managed to to make a vow: “With God’s help, I will be a perfect mom.” I had a plan for how to do it, and God would help me to rewrite the damage I had suffered when I had offspring of my own.
Ten years later, I gave birth to my first child, and my goal was set. Unlike my own mom, I was ready to catch it all, fiercely protect, and effectively prevent pain. It was a credible goal…and utterly unattainable.
Though my children are now grown, many things can pique high-alert mothering in me. “I hate my job,” “I think we are breaking up,” “I just threw up,” or virtually any struggle my kids are navigating propels me into action. My fear for the potential of loss, abandonment, or “mistakes” can bring out a destructive matriarch in a matter of seconds.
My own history of harm creates an anxiety-fueled duality that probes and tries to force outcomes that aren’t mine to choose.
Sadly, I attempt to procure the life I want for them as I push my own agenda. Eventually, when I realize what I am doing, I turn on myself. I find myself in my young story, discarded and alone once again. Obsession and overanalyzing are familiar, and sleeplessness is common. This protective mechanism shows scant trust in God or my capable kids, who are learning and in process.
Sometimes a preferable side of me shows up. I gently uncover the lies and tend to the uncomfortable places that wish it was possible to prevent my children from experiencing pain. I allow their discomfort to transform them, just as my struggles have molded me. I breathe deeply, and I anticipate them navigating the hard things while I repeat, “It’s their life, not mine.” I care for the tension in my body with deep breathing and stretching, and I aim to surrender them to God. Then, I watch and wait from the sideline.
I am improving on this interminable journey to honor my children’s transition into adulthood. It is one I want to celebrate. As I loosen my grip on the vow that gave me so much power, I still yearn to be a better mom than I experienced. I employ the agency that has accompanied my mothering for decades, and I let go so that they can be more free and so can I.
Maryhelen Martens has been gathering and connecting with others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. She is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. While her emotions and voice were shut down for decades, she is finding them again and using them in healing groups, story coaching, and writing. She’s always been drawn to water and sunsets and more recently to the desert and sunrises. She’s curious about that. Mother to three authentic adults, Maryhelen lives with her steadfast husband Keith on the shore of Lake Michigan.