Be Better

My teenaged students often ask me (innocently) why I don’t have kids. I talk about my life and my nieces all the time, so it makes sense that they are curious. They are also at a point in their own lives where they are thinking about their futures and whether marriage and a family is something they eventually want.

When I was a teenager and just becoming sexually active, I was terrified of getting pregnant. At age 16, I had an older friend drive me to Planned Parenthood to get prescribed birth control pills. I always assumed that at some point when I was older, I would just know that I wanted children. Spoiler alert: that time never came. The idea of pregnancy and childbirth terrified me and when I got married at age 27, I kept waiting for my biological clock to start ticking. Then my marriage went to complete shit. My ex husband gave me an ultimatum about having a baby and I knew better than to bring a child into a bad relationship. I chose divorce.

In my 30s, more and more of my friends announced their pregnancies and I was delighted to buy strollers and onesies and pack-n-plays, but still never felt envious. If anything, experiencing pregnancy through the eyes of my friends made it even more unappealing to me. I excitedly met and cuddled their babies and still never felt the pull to be a mother. The only feeling I remember having is waves of guilt that my mother was not becoming a grandmother like her contemporaries were. To her credit, she never pressured me in any way about whether or not I wanted a baby.

When I was with my exboyfriend, there was a period of time when we discussed marriage and whether or not we really wanted to both close the door for good on parenthood. I was in my late 30s and he was five years younger, so the decision mostly fell in my lap. He, like most men, had more time. My time was running out. I went to my gynecologist for my annual exam and for the first time ever, she mentioned that I should really start seriously considering whether or not I wanted to have a baby. I told her my concerns and she offered to do a blood test that would determine my fertility.

I went into the test pretty nonchalantly, having the confidence of always having good health. My results were unexpected. She essentially said that I would not be able to get pregnant on my own and if I wanted to have a baby, I would need to see a specialist and most likely begin IVF immediately. Although it was surprisingly disappointing to have the choice of motherhood taken from me, I wasn’t devastated and felt as if that was the last real sign I needed that it just wasn’t in the cards for me.

As a teacher, I felt as if I had an opportunity to have a positive influence on children, just in a different capacity and it was fulfilling in a lot of ways. However, when my sister had her first daughter, I understood for the first time what parents always said about their children. My first niece made my heart explode with pure, unconditional, overwhelming love. My second niece made my heart expand in ways I didn’t think were even possible. I don’t know if I could love my own children as much as I love my two nieces. I would literally give my life for either of them and I desperately want them to have the happy childhood my sister and I did not have. I am so lucky to be a very active auntie. My sister lives in the same town as me and I see them almost every day. They are truly the loves of my life.

My mother jokes that my sister’s children are miniature versions of us. My older niece, who is five, is very much like me- in looks and temperament. She is fair skinned with blue eyes, and is so smart and sensitive. People often mistakenly assume she is my daughter when we are all out in public. My little niece, the two year old, is a clone of my sister. She has darker hair and brown eyes and is impish, funny, and stubborn like my sister.

My older niece (I will refer to her as Five) is very sensitive. She gets easily upset and her feelings are quick to be hurt. She is so sweet and cares about other people. Five also seems to be a little predisposed to anxiety- she is scared of thunder and afraid to fall of her bike. Her younger sister is fearless, like my sister was. I was terrified of rollercoasters growing up and my sister would be pulling my mom’s arm to get in line. Even when I was a teenager, I was still scared of storms and would climb in my sister’s bed at the first sight of lightening. I was the older sister, but was always more cautious, a natural worrier, and overly sensitive.

At first, the comparisons between Five and me would make me so happy. I loved her so much and I felt like there was such a connection between us that went beyond the normal auntie/niece bond. I glowed with pride when strangers would comment how much she looked like me (my sister would jokingly call me Aunt Mommy) But, as Five got older, I started worrying about the ways I DIDN’T want her to be like me. I don’t want either of my nieces to have their lives dictated by fears or anxiety or mental illness.

When Five would overreact and exhibit signs of any kind of anxiety, my sister would make comments like “she’s just like you.” This hurt me so much. I know my sister never said it to hurt me, but it did. Because of all the fears I have (and there are a lot), the biggest one I have is that Five will end up like me. It makes me sad to write that because I know I have a lot of amazing traits that I would be proud to pass on to her and her sister, but I do not want her to experience mental illness the way I have. I think deep down that was a big part of why I did not want my own children- that wanted to avoid having a child be genetically predisposed to the mental health issues I have.

My nieces are a huge reason why I fight to stay healthy and try to manage my anxiety and panic disorders and agoraphobia. I know I am not doing a great job at it right now, but I am working through it all. I just worry as they get older, they will start to notice things more and more. I just want every aspect of their lives to be better than mine and I want them to be better than me.

A cry for help

There is a little girl across the street from my sister’s house who is a couple of years older than my five year old niece and the two of them hit it off and became fast friends. She comes over almost every day to play with my niece (I will refer to the girl as A.) A. has two older brothers and her parents spoil her lot (she seems to really rule the roost at her house), but they often take advantage of my sister’s generosity when it comes to watching their child. A. is bossy to my niece and often does not have the best manners. My family nicknamed her “Kimmy Gibbler” (Lol! If you know, you know…). I find A. quite annoying and I do not think she is a great influence on my niece’s behavior, but she still is a child, so I always try to be nice to her. If I pick up a little gift or candy or balloons for my nieces and I know A. is at the house, I get an extra one for her. My sister makes sure she has A.’s favorite juice boxes, even though her girls do not ever drink them, and she often makes her plain, buttered noodles for dinner since she is a picky eater.

I think my sister and I both got the impression early on that A. gravitates to my sister’s house for a reason and that something was not right at A.’s house. A.’s mother is originally from Russia and is a very sweet woman. When I first met A.’s father I definitely got a negative vibe from him. Another neighbor told my sister that she had once called the police out of concern after overhearing loud arguing coming from A.’s family’s house. A. would occasionally say disturbing things about her family. When my niece had her first wiggly tooth, we were having dinner and talking about it. A. said something about her older brother losing a tooth when their dad hit him in the face. My sister and immediately locked eyes across the table.

One day over the summer, A. had eaten dinner at my sister’s house and it was getting dark out, so I offered to walk her home. She told me just her dad was home and that she needed to use the back door, so we headed to the back of the house. The back door was locked. She rang the doorbell and no one came to the door. A. started to knock loudly on the door and I heard her father scream, “fucking go away and stop fucking knocking!” in a really furious voice. My heart immediately started to race and I swear I had a moment of PTSD of my father yelling at me in the same kind of tone. I calmly took A.’s hand and said, “let’s go back to my sister’s and wait for your mom.” This was the first of two occasions that I heard her father scream at his seven year old daughter like that . It bothered so much and my sister and I talked about it a lot, but both agreed there really was not much we could do, except to offer A. a safe space. My heart went out to a little girl that I could unfortunately relate to all too well. Even though no one explicitly said it, I just assumed her father was a drinker, most likely because of the parallels to my own dad.

The other day, A.’s mother confided in my sister that things have gotten worse and that she is concerned that all of the fighting that has been happening between her and her husband has been negatively affecting their children. Their middle school aged son has been suspended two times from school for fighting. She told my sister that her husband has been drinking more and is in “denial”. I feel so bad for her and the children, and it is a helpless feeling to know that someone is in a bad situation like that. It is also bringing up a lot of negative memories about my own childhood and what my sister and I experienced with my parents.

It makes me wonder if my mom ever tried to ask anyone for help or how many people tried to help her. A lot of our neighbors knew that my dad was abusive, evidenced by how often they called to police to come to our house. My paternal grandmother supposedly offered to give my mother money to divorce and leave my father. I just don’t know what my sister can- or should- do. I said that we should put together some resources for her. My sister is in a group text with a few other women on her street, who are all concerned and are on alert to watch out for the children if they need help.

It is just SUCH a sad situation. As much as “Kimmy Gibbler” drives me crazy when she is at my sister’s house, I have so much empathy for her. Being the child of an alcoholic, and an abusive one, has defined and shaped a lot of my life. It is difficult to reflect back on how terribly my father treated my mother and my sister and me. I never want anyone else, especially a child, to experience that. I know I am making assumptions and I do not really know what is going on in A.’s house, but I do know that she wants to be at my sister’s house for hours and hours every day and there is most likely a reason why. I am so proud of my sister for breaking the cycle and creating such a safe and happy home for my nieces…and for A.

Hold on…let me overthink this

So much of my anxiety is anticipatory. Like 90% of it. I know this, yet it is really hard to control. It is almost impossible to tell myself to just simply not think about something. It would be like me saying to you, “close your eyes and DON’T think about the color blue.” ALL you are going to do is think about and imagine the color blue. Since so much of my anxiety is related to travel and most travel or trips or drives are planned and not spontaneous, I suffer from anticipatory anxiety almost constantly. If I am invited to a dinner or event, I anticipate it for the days leading up to it. I overplan, checking Waze and other maps to see how long it will take to get there. I overthink all the different things that could go wrong or the elements I can’t control.

Even with horrible anxiety and panic disordered, I have always been pretty independent. I preferred (and still do prefer) to drive somewhere alone. I never want to be a burden to someone or ruin their time by having anxiety. My sister went away for a weekend over this past summer, during the same time I had a negative reaction to a new antidepressant, and I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I have ever experienced. It is still hard to think- or write- about. My sister has been planning a girls’ weekend trip to Florida for the first weekend in December (like fly out Friday and home Monday) and I have been soooooo anxious about it. It has literally ruined the entire month of November for me. I just think over and over, like a broken record, that I don’t want her to go. Selfishly, it isn’t that I think something will happen to HER, rather it is that I think something will happen to ME.

I have never been or felt so dependent on other people. I never had this kind of a reaction to someone else going away. I was desperately hoping for something to happen to prevent her from going, but I also knew that wasn’t fair to her. She didn’t ask to be my person like this and she is a hard-working mom who deserves a fun weekend away. It has been difficult because she is the person I am closest to and who I would confide in the most about these things, but I don’t want her to feel guilty about leaving me or me being upset.

The most confusing thing about this is that I don’t logically know WHY I need her so much or why I am so afraid for her to be away. But, like most people with anxiety, I know that logic really goes out the window. My therapist has pointed out many times that I am actually the one who does things almost daily for my sister, whether it is babysitting my nieces, running errands, picking something up for her, helping her with something at her house, etc. I do a lot for my sister and yet I feel this immense panic at the thought of her being far away.

It is frustrating because I don’t need ANOTHER thing to be anxious about. I have enough things already and now it feels like I am adding something new to the list, while still not making a lot of progress on my existing triggers.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I needed to do an update on my MacBook and when I looked at the storage option, the majority of it was being taken up by my massive amount of photos. I transfer all my photos from my phone onto my computer and organize it all into folders based on the event, person, place, etc.

I realized that I really needed to go though them and purge to clear up some much needed space. One of the albums was all of the photos of when my exboyfriend was in the hospital. I documented everything- the tubes and machines, the ventilator, the collage of pictures and letters I hung up on the wall, the flowers my sister brought to cheer us all up, the mural painted above the bed…and many of his unconscious body. I know that probably violated some kind of law, but I needed proof to show him when he woke up. And I did show him. I showed him the photo from the day his parents arrived and his dad stood over his body, his head bowed in despair. I showed him the photo of the dozens of wires connected to his head to test his brain activity. I showed him the photo of our baby niece in the waiting room wearing her “world’s best uncle shirt”. I showed him all the photos and it did not have the impact I wanted. I expected him to be horrified, to cry, to remember anything from that month. But he didn’t. He said it felt like he was looking at photos of someone else.

My therapist asked me why I still kept the photos on my computer. I didn’t have a great answer except that they provided some kind of validation of what I (and be) went through. She gently pointed out that I did not need the photos for him anymore because he is gone. They are of no use to him or his family anymore. And I am sure that his parents can no more forget those memories when they close their eyes and think about them than I can. I realized those pictures aren’t serving any purpose anymore for me. They just bring back pain to look at them.

So, without over thinking it, I deleted them all. And I didn’t stop there. I went through all my pictures and erased all of our vacation photos (minus any of just him or the two of us) and all the photos of his family. I have no relationship with them at all and I know I never will again. His sister’s children are years older now and probably don’t even remember me. I hope that they remember him. I hope his mother still has photos of him in their house and they talk about him and reminisce about him the way my family does.

I don’t need the photos of that terrible time to remember it. I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to. And when I think about him, I want to remember happy times, not traumatic ones. I actually went even a step further and erased photos of my father after he had a stroke and some pictures from when he was actively drinking and damaged things in our house (holes in walls, broken vases, etc).

I have albums and albums full of happy things- my beautiful nieces, my cute house, my decorated classroom, my great friends. It was time to make space on my hard drive for more positive, future memories instead of letting bad, sad ones take up so much room. Now, if only it was as easy to erase them from my own memory as it was to remove them from my computer….

RIP Tony

I babysat my little nieces the other day and I asked the four year old if she wanted to FaceTime her grandmother. She replied, “Mama’s dying”. I couldn’t help but laugh. My mother had a stomach virus, so I’m sure she FELT like she was dying, but she certainly is very alive. I had to explain “exaggeration” to my niece. We then got ready to FaceTime my mom to say hi. Before I could finish setting it up, my niece continues with this:

“My uncle is dead.” I know my sister talks about my exboyfriend/her uncle/her godfather with her a lot and has explained death in a child appropriate way to her. Her paternal grandfather died before she was born, so they talk about him often.

“I know. Unc did die,” I responded, not really thinking too much about it. But then she continued, “Do you want to know how?” That stopped me in my tracks. “How?”, I asked, having no idea what her response was going to be. She confidently replied, “he drank too much alcohol.”

Now, obviously she was repeating this from my sister. My niece is four and does not even know what alcohol is. I was very shocked at her response and didn’t know what to say, but luckily the FaceTime call connected and she started talking to my mom, the conversation already forgotten (by her).

When my sister got home from work I told her about the conversation and we talked about it. First she seemed surprised too and thought maybe my niece overheard an adult conversation, but later she said that she does try to tell her the truth about questions she asks. I wasn’t mad or anything, more just surprised I guess.

My sister and I have had discussions about eventually talking to my two nieces about alcoholism and how much to actually tell them about our father. They LOVE my dad. They only know their Papa as a sober man. And I hate to admit this, but one of the driving forces in my breakup with M. before he died was not wanting my nieces growing up with an active alcoholic in their lives. I am so close with them and spend so much time with them, I just do not want them exposed to alcoholism as children. I am relieved that they do not have anyone in their lives now that drinks.

But I also know that there is a genetic element to alcoholism and it is important for them to know the dangers of addiction. I don’t think they necessarily need to know everything from our own childhood or about my dad being abusive. I feel like that would just be so damaging to them. Growing up, my paternal grandfather was one of my very favorite people. He passed away when I was 12 years old. Many years later, my mother confessed to me that my grandpa was very much like my father- that he was an alcoholic and very, very mean. Obviously he was able to control that when I was around him because I had no idea. I felt so hurt, betrayed, and angry when I found out and I think it marred his memory some. I hated thinking about him in a negative way. I am very appreciative that my sister involves me in these decisions, although I would obviously support her and I know that as their mother she has the right to make all of her own decisions when it comes to the girls.

Last night my sister called me, whispering into the phone. “Tony’s dead! What should I do? Should I go get another fish to replace him or do I just tell her?” Tony is (was?) my niece’s blue and red betta fish. She said she was going to talk to her husband when he got home and they would decide what to do. I quickly googled an article from a psychologist about what to say to children when pets that pass away and sent it to her. It said that most children can handle the loss of their pet and it is important for them to talk about it, feel sad, etc. It is a part of the circle of life.

When asked my personal opinion, I half jokingly said, “well if you can tell her the truth about her Uncle dying, I think you can do the same about her fish.” I guess it kind of bothered me more than I thought that she knew the circumstances of M’s death. But I think more than anything, I just still feel so sad. It’s still SO hard. And I am glad that they still talk about him and loved him so much. I want his memory to stay alive and for everyone to remember him. It is coming up on the one year anniversary of his death and it still feels so raw.

❤️ This post is in memory of Tony 😆 He was a really cool little fish 🐟