When the Child Becomes the Parent
The toxic dynamic you were too young to avoid.
I was 10 years old when I picked my mother up off the floor where she lay crying. Her and my dad had just gotten into a fight that would've woken the neighbors if we had any, but instead it woke me up long before it was time for me to get ready for school. She wouldn't stand up, instead she fell against my body and cried, "Why doesn't he love me?" she asked over and over again. I consoled her, I told her that he does, I told her that I did, I told her anything I could think of that would make her feel better. I did the best a 10 year old child could.
Throughout my life, I was put into far too many situations where I had to play the parent role to my own parents. I had to console them, sacrifice for them, and make them feel as though they were loved and accepted by me.
When my parents would fight and split up, my dad would move out and it became my job to be there for my mom. I existed to support her, watch movies with her, and make her feel good about herself. I consoled her whilst she vented to me about my dad, referring to all the screwed up things he'd ever said or done, and I'd always play her side.
When I visited with my dad, I made sure he knew I missed him, I entertained everything he'd confess to me, I met his friends or new girlfriends, and made sure he felt as though I was having a good time when we sat in silence watching TV.
There were times when my mom would cross far too many lines and divulge my dad's personal life and transgressions to me, as if it was any of my business, and as though I were her friend. Then it was my job to help her rationalize it, or comfort her when she was hurt by him. There would come a time in my early teens where I would start to impart wisdom onto her about what love should be like, and what it means to love and value yourself. She never took these to heart.
Other times my dad would pull me aside and tell me about how my mom was crazy, about how she stalked him, about how she pleaded and begged for him. There, my job became to assuage him and validate his feelings toward the situation at hand. I'd always imagined I'd have the most luck with my dad when it came to someone listening to my advice and following through. Unfortunately, (though they desired advice) neither of my parents applied it to their lives or stuck to their guns.
It didn't take long for me to stop trying to make them understand just how easy life could be. Eventually I stopped offering anything at all. I was wasting my breath.
Often times growing up I felt I needed to protect my mom. I would say no to sleepovers with friends, because I feared she wouldn't be okay if I left her home alone. I'd picture her wrapped up in her own arms on the couch, crying, rocking herself into oblivion. I never gave her a hard time about meaningless things like most kids do. I never fought back when she took her frustrations out on me, because I felt like she needed my support—no matter what.
During my early teen years I followed my parents to various churches, where I would stand like a proud mother as my dad told his story to the masses of his supposed sobriety and salvation. His testimony—his performance. I'd sit in cold metal chairs surrounded by recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, and show my support for my dad's journey through NA.
During my high school years I'd search the stands at my field hockey games only to not see him there. I'd take a bow on stage and scan the crowd as the auditorium lights came on, only to notice he didn't show up.
The dangers of these sorts of situations was that there was no one watching out for me. There was no space for me to vent, there were no sacrifices made for me, there was no support—no matter what I was going through. I'd grown up so quickly that my childlike parents didn't even notice they no longer had a child.
I've grown into an adult now, despite the lack of guidance and support I didn't receive from my parents, I think I still do a pretty OK job.
Since I've gotten older, the dynamic between my parents and I has readjusted yet again. We live states away now, and tend to speak via text messages or phone calls. There's not much room for chaos anymore, but my parenting role is stronger than ever. Since they've chosen over the years (amidst many a threatened divorce) to continue to stay married and live together, their overexposure to each other has been inevitably prolonged and their mutual disdain for one another has festered and turned into a co-existence of who's-got-the-upper-hand. Once in a while they'll argue over who had the most tortured childhood—the irony of that is not lost on me.
There was a part of me that imagined that after growing older and moving away from the life they'd built, that maybe we would fall into a sort of normal parent-adult child relationship. One where they call to check on me and maybe send a care package sometime.
However, I now dread their phone calls.
There are brief moments where I will miss them—or rather the illusion of them. But once we start to talk, I am reminded of my role here:
Conversations with my mom consist of asking her about herself and listening to her talk about herself. Next she will complain about my dad, his actions and antics, and I will give her advice, and even bitch about him with her, if that's the sort of mood she's in. I'll ask about her job, her friends, and her pets. I'll ask her if she's scheduled a doctor's appointment yet. I'll ask what she's having for dinner.
Conversations with my dad consist of asking him about himself and listening to him talk about himself. Then he will tell me his side of the same story he didn't know my mom has already told me. I will listen regardless, and pretend the news is new, and then I will offer sympathy and relationship advice. I will ask how he's feeling, what sort of events he's getting involved in with his church, and whether or not he's talked to his mother lately. I'll ask if he's happy. I'll ask if he's been out on the motorcycle lately.
I will occasionally spill anecdotes from my life, however important they may or may not be: worsening chronic illness, a car that's broken down, severe anxiety that has kept me bound to my apartment, new medications I'm trying, my cats, my boyfriend, my job—you know, nothing too major.
My story share time is usually cut short, or answered immediately with their own loosely related story. They'll often forget to follow up on anything I tell them, and instead, always manage to seem surprised when I update them anyway.
"I hadn't known."
"Your mother didn't tell me."
Kids these days, they never listen to a word you say.
My emotions towards my mom and dad stem from pity, sorrow, and some strange sense of incredibly undeserved responsibility. I harness no real respect for them, rather a sort of obligation to maintain this toxic relationship.
This delicate balance plagues me with a specific kind of dread. A full blown anxiety induced sickness. A severe exhaustion that drains the color from my face, and makes me feel more alone than I knew existed.
They're my parents right? I'm supposed to play this role? Aren't I supposed to be their advice giver, their confidant, their voice of reason?
Don't get me wrong—I love my mom and dad.
I just wish I had some parents for myself.