Accepting My Mom’s Limits

She couldn’t always be a good mother, but I won’t let that stop me.

by R.P.

Marharyta Marko

When I was 8 years old, I asked my mother why I’d never met her parents.

She said, “My dad was a very cruel man, and every night, he would come into my room and do terrible things to me. My mother knew, and she did nothing to help me.”

When she was in 4th grade, a teacher reported the abuse and my mom went into foster care, where she was also abused. “They made me clean the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, and they beat me with trash cans if I didn’t do what they said.”

She ran away from her foster family at age 16. She slept on benches in parks, or a friend’s couch, while working morning and night shifts. Over the next few months, she was able to get a place with a roommate and pay her own rent and bills.

As my siblings and I grew up, my mom taught us that Child Protective Services were evil enemies who separated families and subjected kids to more abuse. I felt grateful to have such a caring mom. She protected us from violence: As different men came into our lives, she made sure they never laid a hand on us.

When I was a kid I felt important, and seen. She would rub my head and rock me to sleep singing, “Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.” Every Sunday after church, she took us to the pond for a picnic where we fed bread to the ducks.

I saw my mom as caring and also powerful.She overcame many obstacles and took good care of all her children. She worked in construction and was on Fox News as a success story, for going from homelessness to running her own company. When I was very young, we lived in big houses and had a nanny. She made so much money that I never worried about it.

A Father at Last?

Around the same time that my mom told me she’d been abused, she told me about my own father. I’d been asking who and where he was. She said, “He was an alcoholic who abused me and trapped me inside the house. He went to jail for abusing me and running from the cops. You wouldn’t want him as your dad.”

I believed her, but despite the terrible stories about her dad and my own, I still wanted a father figure to look over me, comfort me, pick me up from school.

My mother met John when I was 7. The first time he came over to meet the five of us kids, he brought a huge bag of vintage Beanie Baby stuffed animals. He moved in with us, and a few months later, they got married.I was happy that I could finally call someone “Dad.” He felt like my family’s missing piece.

Child Protective Services (CPS) first came into our lives when I was 8, inNorth Carolina. A teacher at my little sister’s school reported bruises on her arm. In reality, my little sister got bruised while we were playing around. My mother never hit any of us, and neither did John.

Even though she hadn’t done anything wrong, my mom’s response was to pack up and move us all to Pennsylvania. Now I realize how strange that is, but as a child, I thought it was normal to move suddenly without saying goodbye to anyone.

I started 4th grade in Pennsylvania, and one day, I got sick and threw up at my new school. My mom didn’t come get me because she was at work. So CPS in Pennsylvania opened a case too.

My mom was sure that the five of us were enough kids, but John really wanted his own children, so they had my two youngest sisters.The now nine of us kept moving, and new CPS cases kept getting opened up even though neither she nor John ever laid a hand on any of us. (Now, I think they were neglect cases, because my mom was so busy with her job.)

Each time, CPS workers took me aside and asked me the same questions: “Do you get abused at home?” “Does your mom drink alcohol?” “Do you know the difference between a truth and a lie?” “Have you ever taken substances?” “Do you know what it means to harm yourself?” “Is your mom your only caregiver?” “Are you depressed?”

My answer was always “no,” but for different reasons over time. At first, I was completely on my mom’s side, and I also felt invaded by CPS.

Are These Things True?

When I was 9, my mom told me that a friend of John’s tried to force her off the road with his car, which I believed at first. But as she said more strange things, I started to wonder. I’d hear other kids’ parents have normal conversations and wonder, “Why does my mom talk about cameras spying on our house?”

When I was 10, I began to realize that she believed things that weren’t true.She stopped feeding me around then, too, focusing on my younger siblings. She said, “You’re 10 now, you can make yourself ramen,” as she put plates of food on the table for the littler kids.

But I didn’t want to risk getting separated from my siblings, so I continued to tell the CPS workers that everything was fine. But CPS kept coming around. Plus, eviction notices began to appear on our front doors, so now there was another reason to leave home after home.

Each time we moved, starting at a new school was gut-wrenching. I was afraid to make friends I would have to leave, and I felt like I couldn’t open up to counselors and teachers. My mother didn’t come to parent-teacher conferences, and neither did John because he was busy taking care of his own two kids. I increasingly felt like I didn’t have parents.

We were moving all the time, and I was getting bullied at each new school. My mom wouldn’t listen to me when I said how bad it was for me; instead, she talked more and more about her paranoid delusions. “I need to stay off the wifi so nobody hacks me,” or in the car, “Look out the back window to see if anyone is following us.”

She’d been better before she met John, so I wondered if it was his fault, especially because she blamed him more and more for everything that was wrong. It was true that she worked hard at her construction jobs, even when she was pregnant, and he just stayed home. But I knew that his friend didn’t try to force her car off the road.

When I was 12, she and John split up. My older brother left during that summer to stay with his friends. She’d rant that his friends were involved in “human trafficking” and that they were telling my brother lies about her. A part of me wanted to escape, too. I wondered, “What would happen if I told CPS about the things she tells us?” but I never did.

Holding in My Feelings

Our lives got worse, and we ended up in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn.

As I moved into adolescence, I started to call her out on the ways she’d been neglecting us.“You had all these kids and you can’t even take care of them!” I yelled at her once.

“You’re just jealous, Rose. Stop being so mean,” she replied.

One day at the shelter, when I was 13, I dropped glass on the floor, and my little sister cut her foot. She needed stitches, and my mom panicked about CPS getting involved. She cried out, “I don’t wanna lose you all! She needs to stay home from school for a long time.”

On the drive to the emergency room, my little sister cried in pain, and instead of comforting her, my mother said to me, “I can’t believe she did this,” and “Her school is gonna think it’s my fault, even though it was YOUR fault!”

I had grown used to shutting out all my feelings, including worry about my siblings’ feelings because our situation felt so hopeless. In the emergency room I heard my little sister cry and wondered, “Why am I not crying? This is awful.”

But I held everything in because I didn’t want my sister to feel like she didn’t matter when her foot was bleeding. Whenever we kids were sad or upset, my mother talked about herself. In that moment, I didn’t want to be self-absorbed like my mom. I held in my tears so my sister had room to be sad.

I hope that therapy will help me see my past as just one page in a book filled with love, sadness, recovery, and patience, a page I can study to help me write the rest of my life. 

My mom could not hear me describe any sadness without switching the subject to her own troubles and, inevitably, to all the people who had wronged her. I internalized that nobody wanted to hear me complain, and I shut down my feelings.

We finally left the shelter and got an apartment a year and a half ago. Things got better, but my mom didn’t; she kept lashing out and talking about her delusions. I asked her if she could benefit from a therapist, and she said, “No, I don’t need help.”

Moving Forward Without Blaming

I have stayed in touch with John, the father of my two youngest siblings. He recently told me that CPS had referred to my mom as “paranoid” and “at risk of committing emotional abuse” back when I was 10.

As her paranoia got worse, so did her blaming. Everything was someone else’s fault: She blames the men she’s been with for what has happened to us, instead of dealing with it, and accepting it, and learning from it. Her mental instability keeps her stuck.

Now I try to shut out her paranoia so it doesn’t affect my mental health. I don’t let myself dwell on the fact that I miss the mom who sang me to sleep until I was 9 or 10. She went into foster care when she was around that age. Maybe to her, that’s when childhood ends. I was even younger than that when my mother’s worries became my worries.

I am about to start seeing a therapist. I hope that therapy will help me be more aware of my emotions, and help me see my past as just one page in a book filled with love, sadness, recovery, and patience, a page I can study to help me write the rest of my life. 

As I got older, the bond between my mother and me crumbled. Although they’re not the same as a mother, my friends and my boyfriend help fill that huge gap in my heart. My boyfriend is the first person who’s allowed me to express myself in a vulnerable way, without criticizing me or turning the conversation to himself.

I used to feel anxious outside, thinking, “What if people notice I am poor?” My boyfriend helped me overcome my shame. He helped me apply to internships, and we both ended up getting summer jobs through New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program. He and other friends have spent money on me without expecting anything back, showing me that I deserve help and kindness.

Four years ago I didn’t believe in myself at all. I couldn’t imagine doing an internship or applying to college or writing what I’ve been through in a magazine.

My mother wanted to go to college and become a doctor, but she got pregnant before she could finish. I wish she had more to give me, but she doesn’t, so I’m applying for financial aid for college.

My mom’s example pushes me to understand myself so I can become better. I want to take responsibility for my life. I don’t want to blame her.

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