In therapy, many, many years ago, the therapist asked me to recall my earliest memory. I didn’t really have to think long. I immediately knew. I could see myself as a two or three-year-old, lying on the couch next to my mom, her hip acting as a pillow for me. She was crying and I didn’t know why. The therapist asked me to think of how I felt at that moment. I said I felt helpless. I didn’t know how to comfort her or make her better. It wasn’t a good feeling at all.
As the years have passed, I have thought back to that day in the therapist’s office. Is that really my first memory? Now I don’t know anymore. Did that really happen? Absolutely. But was it the first real memory I have of my childhood? I’m not so sure. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that my first memory is such a sad one, because I also have so many happy childhood memories. Why didn’t those immediately come to mind that day? I suppose it has to do with whatever we were discussing just before the question, which I no longer remember what it was. Anyway, so now you see why I worry and wonder what my children will remember as their earliest memory.
Growing up with my mom I was certain of a few things beyond a shadow of a doubt. I knew that:
1) I was her gift from God.
2) I was her life and her reason for living.
3) She adored me.
I know these things because she told them to me all the time. These sentiments she expressed so frequently and freely made me feel like I was the most important person in her life. She would tell me how happy I made her. After school, we would snuggle together on the couch and watch Spanish Telenovelas (soap operas). She was super funny and made me laugh a lot with her goofiness, sarcasm, and potty humor. We played Barbies and Uno and Master Mind. She really loved games and didn’t mind beating me. She was so competitive! She would spontaneously dance with me in the kitchen when a good song came on, like Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. She smothered me in kisses and big bear hugs to the point of annoying and embarrassing. She let me play with her hair and do her make up. Well, I say she “let” me. In reality she forced me. She loved to have her hair played with. (She also made me cut her toenails but that’s another story.) During summer we went to Winchell’s every day and bought sugar donuts. On Saturday mornings, she would call my name from her bed and I would run to lay with her and just hang out and talk. We ran errands while listening to cumbias and salsa and singing together in the car. We were inseparable and did every single thing together. I was her constant companion and she was mine. She often told me how I was the prettiest girl in the world or the smartest or the most talented. Most of the time, I just shrugged it off because moms are supposed to say those things. I knew she was biased. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident all those expressions of love through words and actions did a nice job of elevating my self-esteem and thankfully didn’t turn me into a conceited ass (at least I don’t think I am).
When she got pissed at me though...watch out! She had a knack for holding long grudges and withdrawing affection when she was angry with me. It was quite challenging to get back in her good graces. I learned to play the game of “Win Mommy Over”. I would draw her pretty flowers or write her a sweet note telling her I was sorry and that she was the best mom in the whole world. I would slip my artwork under the bathroom door or leave it on her pillow to “surprise” her. As I got older, I remember it sometimes taking even a couple of days for her to start speaking to me or showing me affection again. You see, in my family it was the most common way of handling disagreements. You piss me off = I don’t talk to you for a long time. So, that’s how it went with my mom and me too and it was TORTUROUS to me. It made me insecure and unsure. I hated it. I knew she loved me to death; I knew that at any given moment she would defend me like a mama bear protecting her cubs (like I saw her do once at the donut shop); I knew I was among the most important people in her life. Yet when she was upset with me and didn’t reciprocate the hugs and kisses or spoke sternly to me for more than an hour, she managed to plant a little seed of doubt in my mind in how unconditional her love really was. The rejection was truly unbearable for me. I knew it was temporary and that things would resume back to normal eventually but the fear I had of upsetting her was pretty high because of the consequence of losing her affection and attention.
I know I carry the scars of that rejection in my adult life because still to this day the worst thing anyone can do to me is to stop speaking to me. It is the biggest punishment you can give me. I don’t like confrontation whatsoever but believe me, I’d much rather duke it out with you than have you turn a cold shoulder and not tell me why. And if someone I’m close to doesn’t return my call or reply to my text within a day or two, I begin to think they are angry at me. I replay our last conversation in my head. “Did I say something offensive? Did I forget her birthday? Is she mad that I didn’t go to her party?” And it won’t be long until I’m calling or texting them to make sure we’re ok. (Friends: Please don’t worry. It’s me. It’s not you. Don’t feel pressured to return my calls ASAP every time now. I’ll be ok.)
I have always subscribed to the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. And Iyanla Vanzant talks a lot about how everything we go through has a lesson in it and it’s our job to see the lesson; to make different choices if what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. (I’m paraphrasing.) I don’t look back on my mom’s behavior with anger or resentment. The little girl inside of me may be hurt by what she did, but the adult me can understand that we are all human, just doing the best we can. We are products of our environment. We learn what we see at home. It’s highly likely that her mother did the same things to her. I look back on her negative behavior as a lesson to me in making different mothering choices.
When I get angry at my 9 year-old, my instincts are to stop speaking to him; to be short with him; and to withhold affection, but as soon as I see his sad little face, crying for me to not be mad at him, (most of the time) I think of my little-girl-self and I stop. I’m not saying I don’t get upset or flip my lid and yell. I’m human too, you know! But I make an effort to be cognizant of how my mom’s choices affected me and I make different choices with my own children. Even if I’m angry at him, I hold him while he cries (if that’s what he wants me to do) and after every mess-up or argument we have, I tell him that I love him always and forever, no matter what. I tell him that whatever happened is done and we get to start over. These words are usually very comforting to him. They ease his anxiety about me being upset with him. He repeats back to me what he just heard me say as if to make sure he understood correctly. It’s really sweet.
Just as much as I try to change the things I don’t like about myself that I got from my mom, I also try to incorporate the parts I feel were beneficial. So I also tell my children that they are my gifts from God (which I really truly believe they are). I remind them daily how much I love and adore them. I shower them with compliments and tell them to be proud of themselves. I tell them often how important they are in my life and how happy they make me. I tell them they are my favorite little boy and little girl in the whole wide world. We play and laugh together. We put on singing shows and we have living room dance parties (I probably don’t need to mention that I am the one who usually initiates these last two activities). And just as my mom did to me, I smother them in hugs and kisses until they scream at me to stop. My wish is that my words and actions of love will impact my children the way my mom’s loving expressions impacted me.
In June 2010, when my son was a freshly turned six-year old, I was having a bad day and I yelled at him for something lame. He got upset and cried because I was yelling at him. After I calmed down, I sat on the patio swing with him and told him that I was sorry for yelling. I told him that I knew it wasn’t nice of me but that I was having a bad day and I asked him to please forgive me. He said he did. Then he asked if my mom yelled at me when I was little. I told him “Oh ya. She yelled a lot.” He asked if I disliked it when she yelled. I told him that I hated it and that I know how it feels to be yelled at so I try really hard not to yell so much. He sympathetically answered “I know, Mommy.” Then he asked me if Grandma used to say she was sorry to me for yelling. I told him “No, never. She just yelled but never apologized to me.” He matter-of-factly responded “So you learned to be a better mommy.” As tears trickled down my face, I hugged and held my sweet boy. I was so grateful! He got it! He understood that I was just trying to do the best I could; I was making different choices; I was trying to be a different mother.
I may have a sad first memory of childhood but that’s ok because I have hundreds of happy memories too. I may remember the grumpy and mean side of my mom but I also know and remember the beautiful, sweet, loving, and funny side too. When I am feeling down and depressed, I try to remember the pedestal on which she held me that made me feel like I was someone who mattered greatly, not just to her but to the world. I make a choice every time I remember my childhood. I choose to not let the bad outweigh the good. So even if my kids remember the “bad mommy” moments, I pray that the memories of goodness and love in my heart for them will always prevail.