Why A Toxic Parent Is Not Better Than No Parents At All


Quite often I find myself in a situation where people ask about my parents. My answer, reluctantly, is that I don’t have any. Typically an “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know,” follows, which yes – how were you supposed to know? Normally people don’t ask for details, thankfully. They have much more self-control than I, I guess, because I’m curious enough generally that I’d probably be the idiot that asks “why not” before thinking. So I get it, it’s a relatively normal question, I may feel slightly uncomfortable but that’s because I am the odd one, not you. Most people do have parents. But for some, like me, it is complicated.

My father died a few years ago, before I came to law school. He had been sick in a way that it was just plain awful to watch his extremely long and slow deterioration. If that wasn’t bad enough, the actual event of his death was pretty traumatic, and I watched him die in a sudden and extremely unpleasant way. So I was left with my mother. To be frank, I’m not quite sure which of those two things has been more traumatic, in the grand scheme of things.

My mother has harbored some form of hostility toward me my entire life. She hated her mother, and she always felt neglected and underappreciated in her family, so I’m 99% sure she had kids so that she would have a mini army to always take her side and love her unconditionally. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Nor is that a good reason to become a mother, to receive unconditional love without putting in the work. She used to be a better mother, I will give her that. And I was not an easy child, in fact I am sure I was very difficult to deal with. I can tell you about all the tantrums I threw on airplanes, and on the way to school when I was little, as if I actually remembered them. That is because she would constantly remind me just how awful I was as a child. Apparently, she actually checked to see if I had “666” written on my body, because she was convinced I was pure evil. True story, but I digress. Let’s just say that after my father died there was nothing left, at least nothing left in her to give as a parent, and nothing left in me to try to salvage the abusive relationship.

She has in effect regressed to a childlike state herself; throwing temper tantrums, needing the full attention and sympathy of those around her, and worst of all, frankly, she is incapable being a parent, or even an adult in general. Perhaps if we had a solid relationship before everything else happened, we could have gotten through it. But that simply was not the case. A few days after my father’s death, she riled my older brother up to the point of physically beating me, pushing me down a flight of stairs, and spitting in my face, all because I wanted to keep some of my father’s ashes. She stood by idly watching, not intervening, enjoying every second of it. My father, who would have always defended me, who would never pit one child against another, was no longer there to protect me. While I understand that everyone grieves differently, it became abundantly clear that my mother was done being my “mother.” And so began the slow process of cutting her out of my life.

It’s certainly easier said than done. Suddenly being alone and in the process of grieving is not easy. The natural instinct is to cling to what stability you do have, the family you do have. Like Stockholm Syndrome, we can lie to ourselves about the people around us – our “caregivers” – in order to cope, in order to survive. It’s the same way people want to believe that sufferers of addiction can change, that they will change, that you can keep them in your life. The fact remains, however, that some people are simply too sick and too far gone; they have lost sight of reality, they have lost the ability to care about anything but themselves and their sickness. In order to coexist with someone like that, sometimes the only choice you have is to just get out – save yourself. And in some situation, that choice is not necessarily selfish, or foolish, or cruel – it is simply necessary.

I’m a firm believer in karma, and showing compassion, and giving people second chances. I’d like to consider myself a relatively good person, even in spite of the tantrums I threw when I was three years old. The second someone finds out I’m estranged from my mother, however, the first thought seems to be “What? You need to fix it. She can’t be that bad. You only have one mother. Be the bigger person! You will regret this eventually…” Well, while I appreciate your judgment and concern, you do not know what you would do in my situation because you are not in it. You are not me. Some people do not have wonderful parents, some people have parents who intentionally inflict pain upon them. So while I understand you have a notion of a “parent” and it being this unbreakable bond – I’m here to say that not all people that give birth to children are parents in your sense of the word, not all deserve deference, and that “bond” can in fact be broken, and when, if so, it is not necessarily the child’s fault.

My “mother” will purposely say the thing she thinks/knows/hopes will hurt me the most. After not speaking with her for a few months, she texted me out of the blue, on my birthday, to tell me that my deceased and dearly beloved father “didn’t really love me” and “wasn’t even there the day I was born,” and that she was thinking of me “but not for a good reason.” Just to, you know, really liven up my day. I know my father loved me more than anything, and if anything he was the reason I can stand on two feet today and know that I am worth something, that I deserve happiness. Luckily, I am so conditioned to my mother’s harassment that I know not to answer her or engage.

I did try, for awhile, to at least keep in her my life just from a distance. But she would have spurts of anger and lash out, and it got to the point where I knew I had to block her number from contacting me once and for all, just to end the harassment. But I’m not sure anyone that stands there judging me knows what it is like to be bullied by the person that is supposed to love you unconditionally. The person that gave birth to you, the person that is supposed to look out for you – that that person is the one that hurts you the most, and with great malice. Well people just can’t understand that – so they assume it must be me.

With my boyfriend, for example, I had a feeling from day one that he had silent reservations about my lack of relationship with my mother. He never said anything, but I get it. I’ve told him, “If you ever met my mother you would understand. But I honestly hope you never meet my mother.” It is hard for him to understand because he has never met her, meaning he just has to trust that I am doing what is best, that I am not the problem in the situation, that some people are, as he says, “just that crazy.” Slowly he has come to trust me, despite that it is not a topic I even want to discuss. But just the other day, he informed me that his mother has concerns about me because of my lack of relationship with my mother; she worries that I “may not be a family person” as a result. Initially I was annoyed, and a little angry, but I realized it was because it was just about the millionth time I’ve heard the insinuation that I am probably at fault.

For the record: Yes, technically, I choose to not speak to my mother, but I assure you, it is barely by choice. What it is is survival. And I can assure you that knowing what I know now, having been raised by my mother, I would take the role of parent extremely seriously should I ever embark upon it, because parenthood isn’t simply the act of giving birth. No, it is something that is earned, that takes a lot of hard work; it takes patience, dedication, love, and selflessness. Put simply: Some people should not be parents.

Right now, I work with children who are abused or neglected by their parents, in a low-income area of NYC. I assist in legal representation of children whose mothers use heroin while pregnant, who have parents that commit unspeakable acts against their children, who will continue to have children and let them go into the foster care system and not comply with any services to get them back. That being said, I think it is easier to feel sympathy toward people who are victims of physical abuse, where there are marks, scars, physical remnants of abuse – rather than those who are victims of psychological abuse. But it is the invisible scars that are most troubling for children – because it takes much longer to heal from those than for the physical ones to heal. It is the psychological trauma that hurt the child the most. This can perpetuate a cycle – being treated poorly by your parents, then having children and treating them poorly because that is all you know. Unless and until: someone is strong enough to break the cycle.

It will probably take me the rest of my life to fully heal from the way my mother has treated me. It takes a lot of work to understand that her pointing out all of my faults is mostly her projecting her issues onto me rather than being an actual reflection of my level of my self-worth. I am doing a lot better, but no, I do not have any more time to waste in an unsalvageable situation; I cannot afford to sustain any more damage. Life is short, and I deserve to be surrounded by people that lift me up rather than try to tear me down. It is difficult for people who grow up with real and unqualified love to understand how a parent could be so cruel. It is all too common, however, that people procreate and do not form genuine attachments or have healthy and loving relationships with their children. Some parents should not be parents. Some people do not earn the right to be called “parents.” It is something that people need to understand is a real thing, and if you cannot fathom it, at least try not to pass judgment where you do not understand.

I know I don’t have to answer to anyone, nor should I care, but constantly hearing “But you would feel so awful if something happened to her! What if something happens to her? You should just make it right…” it really does get under my skin. Why? Because you don’t know. I wouldn’t otherwise feel that I have to harbor this tremendous guilt for not talking to someone who makes me feel like I’m not worthy of love, or even of living. No, I should not feel guilty for not speaking with someone who tries to make me feel worthless. Just because she happens to have given me birth to me does not mean I do not have the ability to leave, that I have to take it. My grandmother, bless her soul, is near 74 years old, and still putting up with my mother – she has withstood decades of hoping my mother will change and disappointment because she doesn’t. So I’m choosing to get out now, break the cycle, give my future children a chance to experience real love. I’m choosing to start picking up the pieces now, rather than delay because I refuse to admit that she is too far gone.

No, I have nothing to feel guilty about. I am not the parent. I did not ask to be brought into the world. I am not the one that intentionally causes pain upon someone I am supposed to love unconditionally. I have nothing to feel sorry for. All I have done is survive; I continue to live. I refuse to give in. I have been through two years of law school on my own since I cut my mother out of my life. It has been difficult to say the least, realizing there is no one to catch me if I fall, in the way that parents would. But that is life! And so you keep on going, so I have kept going. I realize that in less than a year I will graduate law school, and I won’t be inviting my mother to Commencement. I won’t have any parents there for me – proud of me, cheering me on, happy for me. Yes, technically I could, but that is not my choice: it is hers. And she made that choice a long time ago, and continues to make it every day that she chooses herself and her unwillingness to change for the sake of her children. I am fortunate enough that I do have people that love me, who are proud of me, who want me to succeed. I have extended family who care about me, who are there for me. I have friends who I consider my family. I have learned that blood is not determinative of love.

I have tried to write this article a thousand times, and have never been able to finish. I hope this time is the time I finish it. If you have family who loves you, then appreciate them. Never take their love for granted because it is not guaranteed. And do not assume that others are at fault for not having relationships with their parents, simply because you have a good relationship with yours. Realize that some people are not equipped to be parents, and if you are one of those people that has too much of your own baggage to deal with, deal with it before you bring another human being into the world. They didn’t ask to be here, you brought them. A toxic parent is not better than no parents at all.