First Person Eventually, I learned to forgive both my moms

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Today’s First Person is part of a week-long tribute to mothering.

At 61 years of age, I can finally and truthfully say that I forgive my mothers. At different points in my life, releasing my feelings of fury and resentment to both my birth and adoptive mothers seemed impossible. But as I grew older and learned more about the context of their lives, I was finally able to do so.

It took a long time and did not come easily. My birth mother placed me for adoption with the Children’s Aid Society in 1956. She was young, single, involved with a married man and raised in the Catholic faith. No doubt she did not feel able to take on such a responsibility, and trusted that her decision would mean that I would have a better life, be loved, happy and content. My birth mother would never know that life with my adoptive family would be one filled with its own trials and tribulations.

For a long time I felt hurt and angry that she didn’t keep me. But as I became a mother myself and dealt with the challenges and multitude of worries that come with parenting, I understood how difficult it would have been for her to raise me. I knew that in 1956 her options were limited. It was easy to forgive her.

Both of my adoptive parents struggled with addictions and untreated mental-health issues. The home environment was abusive, chaotic and unpredictable. My parents separated when I was young and my father died shortly afterward. My mother found herself a single parent, living in poverty with no support. There was shame in accessing “Mothers Allowance,” the government’s social welfare program. A social worker would make unannounced visits to our home to ensure my mother was indeed not working, or worse: in a relationship with a man. To cope, my mom drank and the problems related to her alcoholism were unrelenting. To this day I cannot bear the sound of empty beer bottles rattling around in a box. This meant a trip to buy more. More beer would change my mother. She would sink into depression and sleep for what seemed like long periods of time. Seemingly unimportant things would make her angry. In an effort to keep the peace I learned to be the “perfect” child. I had to be responsible and shield my brother from her wrath. I always did what I was told. I never asked questions. I pretended that everything was okay when caring teachers asked questions about what life was like at home. I walked on eggshells. I sought her approval. I avoided conflict at all costs. I never showed her that I was afraid.

The process of forgiving my adoptive mother started after her death in 2002. I was then 45 years old, married, blessed with two children and had a successful career in health and social services. I had never been able to talk to my mother about the impact her behaviour and addiction had on my childhood. Old patterns of relating prevented me from doing so. Why rock the boat? And besides, she still denied that she was an alcoholic. But I was curious. After her death, I wondered how she became the mother that she was. Discussions with a family member revealed that my mother had experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse as a child herself. I was shocked. It explained so much. It allowed me to put things in perspective and understand that she was probably the best mother that she could have been. Historical trauma, poverty, lack of social supports, all contributed to her poor parenting.

I also learned to forgive those around me who did not intervene. It was helpful to hear from another family member that in hindsight, they wished that they had acted but “had no idea what to do.” “We knew what was happening to you and your brother was wrong. But in those days, no one felt comfortable getting involved and we were afraid that it would make things worse,” she said.

Thankfully there were also those along the way who did intervene. My grandmother loved me unconditionally, she made me feel special and made me laugh. Caring teachers believed in me and encouraged me to pursue a postsecondary education. My friends’ families took me in when the situation at home was unbearable and provided some stability, acceptance and support. As I got older, friends listened and supported me to move forward in a healthy way. There was also the therapist who helped me see that I had broken the cycle of abuse and neglect with my own children. She taught me that the expression of anger is normal and helped me learn the skills I needed to live a happy and healthy life.

Gradually, I began to feel compassion for this woman who was my mother. Because of my childhood, I learned some important life lessons and am a good mother to my own children. I don’t hesitate to intervene in a caring way if I think someone needs help. I try to look beyond the behaviour. I don t judge. I try not to return to old patterns of relating to people. I ask for help. I am less hard on myself. I am grateful for all that I have.

It still hurts sometimes. I won’t ever forget. But I can honestly say that I have forgiven. And that feels good.

Janet Bowes lives in Ottawa.

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