the one who stays; cw: generational trauma
Welcome home my child,
Step in, don’t be shy
My roots sleep in the frozen ground,
My branches touch the sky
I’m your mother and your father,Intro (Welcome Home), Mila Ziska
for as long as time may last,
I’m the leaves, the fruit and soil,
The future and the past
I know I don’t usually start my writing with the song lyrics up top, but this tiny one minute song, which found its way onto my deep midwinter playlist, has me either sobbing or feeling like I’m about to be sobbing.
Hello to my deepest traumas: the part of me that is a child, and the part of me that is a parent.
I know what it is like to understand myself as both the mother and the father for my kids, no matter if that is rational or possible. In a period of my life when I was creating family with my children, and kept trying to include a partner — based on loneliness more than anything — I identified myself as the one who stayed. Everyone else left; they left my kids, they left me, they just … left. I was the one who was always there, always doing bedtimes, always the doctor’s appointments and school dropoffs and wiping tears and stretching grocery money as far as I could. I was always there. I was not going to leave them.
My identity was me as a mother: nurturing, strong, capable, resourceful, waiting to cry about my own pain until they were all asleep in bed. I could not imagine ever being whole unless I had all my kids with me. That was an immovable truth for me: if I had my children, I was okay. Even if I wasn’t okay, if they were with me, I had more hope, I knew I loved them, and I was comforted.
The first time there was a leaving, it was my first husband, who has been gone so long that I usually forget that he’s an actual person who exists and not just an idea best forgotten. He left us, and I had to become that twin-person parent for my two little ones. From then on, I was their mother and their father. I had to be both because otherwise, I could not imagine anything other than a breaking-open that could never be healed. I was so sure of that. I was so afraid.
This isn’t a long-form memoir today, so I’m going to skip past a lot of other leavings; some of them were me leaving someone, some of them were exes of mine taking custody of one of the kids for a time period we hadn’t agreed on as a way of harming me. My heart broke so many times that I’m not sure it ever healed, it’s just covered with scar tissue.
The second child I gave birth to was, I feared, fated to live out what I think was a generational curse of fathers leaving their children. What I believed was that I did not want him to carry that forward into his own life one day. I wanted the cycle to break, as I have worked to break other cycles of harm and abuse that happened to me and that happened to others before me, all of us carrying it in our DNA.
I tried for years to raise him, to rescue him, to get between him and whatever it was that pulled at him, toward danger and forgetting and dissolution. You cannot keep someone from self-destruction, although you can damn well try. A person as young as fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, should not be burdened with the kinds of mental illnesses that are almost impossible to treat without a determined force of will. I stalled and I stonewalled and I obfuscated and I bull-headed my way through so many of the things that threatened to take him away from me. And in the end, he chose to leave.
Another time, I might write about how my other experience of parenting, as the person being parented (or not), has been the reason I wanted to be their everything. Nobody was ever that for me, and I don’t believe that anyone deserves that experience of childhood. I can’t prevent all the reasons they might need therapy later, but I can do better than what was done to me.
One of my younger kids stays with her dad most of the time now, and it feels like the worst and most cruel irony that my relationship with her is better when she doesn’t live with me. I am still struggling to carefully pull apart the belief that I must be in close proximity to my kids in order to be a good parent. My trauma is so extremely binary. Either all my kids are with me, or I am a terrible parent.
I know this isn’t true. I don’t know it below the skin, and I don’t fully know it with my heart-self yet, but I do know that I can be a good parent and have completely different ways of relating to my kids than I had conceptualized back at the very beginning with that first leaving.
But the nostalgia? The sudden wave of longing and sorrow that brings tears and memories of things that just aren’t, any more? It hits hard, and this little one-minute song reminded me of how much I wanted to be their everything. A long time ago, in a fairy tale I told myself, I could be everything.
I know now that I can’t be everything to anyone, and as a person with adult children, a couple of teenagers, and a toddler — none of whom I have to parent on my own, because I get to share my most precious treasures with other loving and beautiful grownups — I am glad that I can’t be everything. It’s too fucking exhausting.
I’m the leaves, the fruit and soil,
The future and the past
I misunderstood this song at first because it hurt to listen to. But it’s not a song about being a person who is trying to parent children as multiple people without actually BEING multiple people; it’s a song about how the land cares for us. It’s a song about the deep loving relationship that we can have with the places we call home. The quiet peace of knowing how far your branches reach, and how far they don’t. The comfort of being part of a web of being, in which needs are met and no one goes without.
If my ancestors told me anything today — besides asking why I haven’t shared any of the biscuits and sausage gravy I made for dinner — it might be that the places my heart is broken are the same places that other hearts before me were broken, but that in the end, I am enough. What has happened has already happened, and the only thing that I can change is myself. And I want to love deeply without assuming that all the pain is mine to endure.
I think it’s time to put some of that dinner on a plate for my ancestors now. They’ve gifted me with trauma, sure, but also I know how to cook comforting food because they cooked it for me.
featured image is a photo by Joel Swick on Unsplash