Breaking Ties With My Mom

I kept giving her chances, but she wouldn't let me become myself.

by E.O.

I didn’t meet my parents until I was 9. I grew up in El Salvador with my grandmother and traveled alone to join my father, mother, and two new little sisters who were born in New York.

When I first got here, my mom bought me new clothes, and showed me around the neighborhood. She made sure I learned how to speak and write in English so I could do well in my new school. I’d always wanted a mother, so her attention gave me joy.

Soon, however, my mother became controlling and manipulative. She made me do my sisters’ homework, and when I refused, she said I didn’t “love my sisters enough.” She supervised me closely when I played with my friends. My younger sisters could run around all over the place, but I was confined to my mother’s side.

Now I have an idea why she watched me so closely: My father started to show sexual interest in me. After that, my relationship with my mother became more distant. She gave me the silent treatment and glared at me, especially when my dad defended me against her. She also began to separate me from my sisters, forcing me to stay in my room while they played around the house.

My father raped me for four years, and I became withdrawn, sad, and angry. I kept a diary, and once wrote that I hated my home and wanted to run away. I came home from school one day and found my mother lying in her bed laughing, with my diary in her hand. I still don’t understand why she was laughing. I don’t think she knew my father was raping me—I never spelled it out in the diary—but why was the thought of her daughter hating her home funny? I stopped writing in my diary after that.

After the abuse had gone on for about two and a half years, I told my mother about it. She called me “a liar” and “disgusting.” I felt alone and abandoned, ashamed and guilty. Part of me knew they were wrong, but I also believed my parents knew everything, so I must be at fault.

My grades fell and I sabotaged my friendships. Finally, I told a counselor when I was in 6th grade what was happening, and my little sisters and I went into foster care.

I Knew She Was Wrong, but I Wanted a Mom

My father went to jail for raping me, and my mother was furious—at me. She said I betrayed our family.

The older I got, the more I knew she should have been mad at him, not me. But she was my mom, so I kept trying to have a relationship with her after I went into care.

Back in El Salvador, I had seen other girls walking to school with their mothers, and I fell in love with the idea of having a good mother who would protect me.

I was lucky to get a great foster mother, who I’m still with. I call her “Grandma” and she is the closest to an ideal mother I’ve had. She is protective, supportive, and loving.

But no matter how good a guardian Grandma was, I still hoped to keep my mother as my mother. Walking away never felt like an option.

We had supervised visits twice a week with my sisters at my agency; I attended every one. We ate dinner and my mom played board games with my sisters. I would try to engage, but it felt uncomfortable and lonely, knowing what had happened. I usually read a book or listened to music to feel more comfortable.

Even worse were the visits where my mother pushed me to lie in court and say that my father never laid a hand on me. She couldn’t just say that in front of the worker, so she’d whisper it to me as she hugged me goodbye or wait until the worker was distracted. She wanted me to say that I wanted attention and made it all up.

I refused and she called me a bad and ungrateful daughter. She said, “I wish you’d never been born.” That hurt so much.

I was willing to do family therapy, but my mother said therapy was for the weak and crazy.

An Apology That Left Me Empty

One Wednesday evening when I was 13, I went to visit my mother at the agency. She seemed anxious, off. We went into one of the big conference rooms, as usual, and my sisters, my mother, and I sat down to eat dinner at the long table. The social worker sat far away in a corner to give us space. We ate in silence.

My mother got a phone call, and I heard a voice that gave me chills.

I heard my father say, “I miss my girls. How is Eva?”

I froze. A range of emotions crossed my body. I didn’t know what to feel. She told me to take the phone. “Eva, toma el teléfono, es tu papá” (Eva, pick up the phone, it’s your dad.)

I took the phone.

“Hi Daddy, I miss you.” I felt sad. I did miss him.

He said, “I miss you too, princess.” But I could tell he was angry. I tried to give my mother the phone back, but she told me to apologize to my Dad. She said, “Dile perdón a tu padre, espero que te perdone.” (Say sorry to your dad. I hope he forgives you.)

I said into the phone, “I’m sorry, Daddy, for telling on you. I’m really sorry.” I felt empty.

He said, “I love you, my princess.”

Then my mother took the phone from me. For the rest of the evening, I was silent. I couldn’t grasp what had just happened. I never spoke to my father again, and my relationship with my mom got steadily worse.

New Family

Soon after that, I got involved with an older man. I wonder now if I was trying to gain control over my own body by making this choice.

I got pregnant, and when I was 15, I gave birth to my son James. James’ father wasn’t in my life, but Grandma was supportive and helped me with the baby.

Meanwhile, my mother wanted to help me mother my child, even as she continued to blame me for being in foster care. She said James and I would’ve been better off at home with my whole family together, and that I should have kept my mouth shut.

It was so confusing; she had let my father rape me, and she thought my baby and I should be with her? I was angry and exhausted. I had made the great effort to forgive her for allowing the sexual abuse and making me take the blame.

But she pushed me away from everything that was helping me become myself. I couldn’t wear certain clothes around my mom. She told me to stop playing the violin because she didn’t like it. She wanted me to stop therapy. She even told me to stop reading books and comics because she believed they “poisoned the mind.”

To be with my family—my mom and my sisters—I had to stop growing and stay under the thumb of someone who continually crushed me.

When I was 16, the court and caseworker decided that since my mother had completed a few parenting classes, she was equipped to take care of her daughters. My middle sister chose to go back home, and my youngest sister wasn’t given a choice. The court wanted me to go back, but I chose to stay with Grandma.

Power in Making Decisions

I wanted the relationship my sisters had with my mom, but I was also ready to create a new chapter in my life with people who truly cared for me. I had another human being to look out for, and my mother made me feel worthless and tried to stop my growth. I decided to cut ties with my family.

I didn’t make this decision overnight; I sought guidance. Ms. Damien, one of my teachers, told me that her mother left her at a young age. Now at age 37, she was finally beginning to start a relationship with her mother. This gave me the courage to analyze my situation. I could build a relationship with my own mother later if I choose to.

Grandma also supported me. She thought I should keep contact with my mother, but she didn’t try to influence me and gave me space. She asked me often if I was sure of what I wanted to do, which brought me comfort. She was reinforcing that she would be there no matter what. Knowing that I could live my life to the fullest with Grandma’s support reinforced my decision to leave my mother behind.

I never had a conversation with my mom about it, I just visited less and less and finally cut all contact.

I have not spoken to my mother and sisters for more than two years. When my sisters first went to live with my mom, I was heartbroken. Even though I have my sisters’ number, I don’t call them. I’m afraid of losing my current emotional balance.

Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t have a connection with them, but it’s gotten easier over time. Grandma supports my going to therapy, so I’m getting the help I need without feeling criticized.

Healing myself was not easy. At first it was overwhelming and frustrating because I wanted to get better quickly and instead I had to face how much my father damaged me. I was so used to following orders that the smallest decisions were hard to make. Ordering at a restaurant was overwhelming.

The freedom I gained was so foreign to me that I looked to be controlled again. When my “friends” ordered me to give them my homework or buy them things, I did. After a while, though, I figured out that they weren’t real friends and that they were just using me.

After this I fought the urge to follow orders. I have become more affirmative when I speak, and I make more decisions on my own. I had to start small, like choosing what clothes I want to wear and developing my own taste in food.

Letting the Hidden Parts Show, Slowly

To grow more comfortable being in charge of my own self, I wrote in my journal, read fantasy and mystery novels and poetry, and did positive self-talk. I started my own book club at school, because my friends supported me and believed that I could be a good leader. Our first book was Room by Emma Donoghue. I liked how the mom reclaimed her life after they got out of the room they were trapped in.

I have not told many people what I’ve gone through. Most of my friends don’t know, because I’m still afraid to let people into my life. I’m still learning how to trust people, starting with myself.

One close friend, my teacher Ms. Damien, Grandma, and my therapist know most of what I’ve been through. I like that I don’t have to put up a front around these four. I appreciate that regardless of my past and choices, they support and care for me and my son.

I know they censor themselves around certain topics like sexual abuse, child neglect, violence, and sex. I get that they don’t want to upset me and I appreciate the care, but I also want them to be their authentic selves. Ms. Damien and my therapist are the most straightforward with me and I am with them. I told them not to treat me like a victim, and they changed the way they speak to me.

In my day-to-day life, I don’t reflect on or talk about my past experiences. When I write about my life here, it’s an escape into parts of my life that are usually buried. Digging into my past and noting how I have grown is a form of liberation through art.

My family made me feel worthless. Away from them, I have my own voice, a voice I use to stand up for myself and other foster youth, both by volunteering at a nonprofit that connects foster families with each other and by writing for Represent.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think E.O.’s past abuse impacts their ability to develop relationships with others?
  2. What do you think about E.O.’s choice to cut ties with their family?
  3. E.O. goes through a range of emotions and trauma throughout this story. What stands out to you the most about their journey?
  4. What would you say to E.O. after having read their story?

Digging into my past and noting how I have grown is a form of liberation through art.
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