“Are there mommies in my eyes?”

C and I had to have a stern talk. I asked him to sit down next to me on the couch. He kept looking away. I ordered him to look at me, and he looked right into my eyes.

He smiled. I was exasperated. He clearly didn’t understand the severity of the situation, or what he’d done wrong, which was the school poop incident.

“There are C’s in your eyes,” he said.

I was taken aback. “There are always C’s in my eyes,” I said.

He looked at me with a curious smile. “Are there mommies in my eyes?”

I looked very closely, and said “yes, there are.”

I didn’t feel quite so stern. I didn’t want to criticize him for pooping in school, or make him feel bad about it as some sort of insurance against him doing it again. The way we proceeded after that was much different than what I’d anticipated. It was more like we were on a team instead of me being there to discipline him. We were working on C becoming a thoughtful, non-poop-flinging-person together, not me telling hime not to do it because it was unsanitary, which was the best tactic I’d come up with thus far.

Dave and I are basically tag team parents. For C, the week is divided between school days, mommy days, and daddy days. Our work schedules are somehow always in flux, so it’s rare for there to be a day from Sunday to Saturday that three of us are home together. Dave and I compare notes after C’s in bed for the night. It’s a way to stay caught up on what C’s up to on days when I haven’t seen him for more than breakfast and/or bedtime, and it’s a way to talk about ways we’ve behaved as parents, often things that we may not be super proud of. Like letting him play with the ipad all day, or giving him teddy grahams for lunch when all else failed, or yelling at him, or smacking his hand. The latter two are things of which I am way more frequently guilty, perhaps even 80% more guilty.

Dave and I were raised differently. He was hit only once, and I think he hit back. His parents didn’t yell at him so much as ask him to not do the thing next time. Dave’s parents expected a level of maturity from Dave by the time he was 12 years old that my parents still don’t think I’m capable of. He was meant to make his own decisions, and make them well, or suffer the real-life consequences. By the time I was 12 I was scared, entirely insular, and when given the opportunity, I lied to my parents about my inner life. I was afraid of being hit. I was afraid of the emotional manipulation, which was the worst, and most lasting abuse. I was afraid of getting yelled at, or pushed, or my step-mom digging her nails into my arm while she held on tight, begging me with her eyes to understand the severity of my crimes. Her eyes would dart back and forth in her head, her face inches from mine. I had a perfect clear view of her eyes, but it never occurred to me to look to see if I was in there. I know she loved me, but in those moments of anger I felt irrelevant, I felt like I could have been anybody. The anger was there for the anger alone.

I don’t know what my dad and step-mom were going through. I know it was rough for them, and ended in a spectacular divorce, complete with my custody hearing happening on the day a hurricane hit Boston. I rushed through the storm to the courthouse. I know that neither of them were at their best, and they know that. But from the kid perspective, it felt like I was first in the line of fire. It felt like they had no self-awareness with regard to their treatment of me. I remember thinking I can’t be as bad as they say I am, I can’t really be doing every single thing wrong. Sometimes their anger would build, like a storm coming up the coast, and I knew what I was in for. Just as often it would come out of nowhere, a sudden, atmospherical aberration, and I would be surprised by it. I would be standing there in the kitchen, getting screamed at, wondering what the hell happened, unable to figure out what I’d done wrong.

I grew up to have a wild, unpredictable temper. I was proud of my anger, of the volatile nature of it. I liked to think that people should fear my anger. Now I’m the only one who’s afraid. I hear all the statistics, that a person who was hurt as a kid will grow up to be someone who hurts their own children. I was well into my thirties before I even considered having a child, and part of that hesitation was the fear that I would be a parent who hits and yells and manipulates.

I’ve spent years working on it, getting it under control, taming it down, extending my fuse. My mom remarks that I have an intense amount of patience. That’s because beyond the patience, there’s chaos. Dave gets frustrated with me because when we argue, I tend to remain cold, calculated, calm. I try to stay reasonable, to not let any emotion creep in. I can see it there on the horizon. I can see how easy it would be to dip into that river of aggression and get so angry that I do that confusing, unpredictable thing. I have to be constantly aware of it, and to remember that just as there are always C’s in my eyes, there are always mommies in his.


I was going through photos to see if I could find some lovely old photos of my step-mom from her modeling days, but I couldn’t find them, so I’ve added these instead.

C and his first slice.

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I try not to feel like this painting, by Pete Sarafin.

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A monkey poncho, which my step-mom sent.

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I found this picture that is the only picture where C looks exactly like me when I was little. Exactly.

6 thoughts on ““Are there mommies in my eyes?”

    1. Thanks. It’s not an easy topic. I hope it’s useful to talk about, that no one is instantly cured of emotional scars, but you can be thoughtful enough to not them destroy your relationships.

      1. A couple of people on fb said that even working on being the parents we want to be, being thoughtful about it, means that progress is happening, that many pitfalls are being avoided. Let’s hope so.

  1. I wish I could have been there to ease you, to hug you in the corner as we both tried to figure out why we were so terrible. As I endured a private hell of my own, I wish we could have been there together to cling to eachother. I wish I was there to endure that hell with you. I’m sorry sister, I really am. What an amazing person you are to recognize and overcome the things in your past that would mold the average person into someone not nearly as admirable. You don’t let those things define you- and like myself, find a way to learn from and swear by the opposite for our own children. Your words cut me- as I write this in tears, please know that if I could have chosen a different childhood, you would have certainly been a part of it. I love you with all my heart.

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