By Clare B. Dunkle
Let’s say you hear about two teenagers in your town—sisters. One spends weeks in a psychiatric institution for cutting and burning herself. The other is hospitalized with anorexia nervosa. She’s starving herself. What would you think? Maybe: Those poor girls!
I’m not proud of this, but a decade ago, my next thought would be about their mother. One girl might have issues, sure, I’d have thought. But TWO? You have to wonder what’s going on there. Is their mother too controlling? She must have made some bad mistakes if her children have so many problems.
I don’t think that way anymore.
Getting It “Right”
My daughters, Valerie and Elena, are two years apart. They grew up as close friends: Valerie, smart and cheerful, and Elena, a leader and a dedicated student. I wanted to help them succeed and be happy, to be the best mother I could be.
But with so many choices (how much sleep do they need? which toys are truly educational?), I worried about how well I was doing. I felt insecure, so I kept an eye on other moms, comparing our parenting.
That poor woman! I thought as a tired mom pulled her screaming preschooler from the playground. But she isn’t sharing her expectations with her child! I let my children know 5 minutes before it’s time to leave, so I don’t have that problem.
I didn’t feel like a bad person when I judged these women. I thought I was being an active, responsible mother, making sure my choices were good ones. But the fact is that I usually reassured myself at someone else’s expense. And really, what did I know about the challenges other moms faced? Nothing. But in my need to feel better, I judged and confirmed the value of my own decisions.
A Tough Road
By the time my daughters were in middle school, I felt pretty good about my mothering. Elena and Valerie had no cavities. (Sensible snacks.) They read constantly. (Lots of library trips.) They spoke two languages fluently. (I’d helped them after school.) They were happy and confident, had lots of friends and loved their school. All they seemed to need was for me to cheer them on—which, of course, I did. I was so proud of them!
But just before Elena turned 14, everything fell apart. The girls became angry, moody and nervous. I followed them around, asking tactfully what was wrong, but they were evasive. Weeks passed, then months, but it only got worse. Elena grew thin. I caught Valerie smoking. Then she began to harm herself.
I felt bewildered and terrified—and also ashamed. I knew what I would have said about a mother like me if I’d been looking in from the outside: That poor woman! Still, children don’t turn out like that by accident, do they?
Had I done something wrong?
I didn’t know, and not knowing felt horrible. But the one thing I did know was that second-guessing myself now would do nothing for my girls. So I set aside my own worries and redoubled my efforts to find them help.
I took Valerie to doctors and psychologists and spent hours on the phone to sort out insurance tangles. Valerie spent six weeks in a mental facility, and in time, she came out of her depression. Elena needed more serious intervention. Throughout her high school years, we went from hospital to hospital as first her heart showed damage from the anorexia, then her thyroid and spine. When she was 20, I moved with her 900 miles away so that she could get the round-the-clock treatment she needed.
My daughters had gone from happy to miserable almost overnight, and during their treatment, I finally learned why: Just days before her 14th birthday, Elena was raped. She was too proud to tell anyone and she blamed herself, so she turned to starvation to control her violent emotions.
As for Valerie, most of her beautiful, sunny confidence came from her family’s love and approval, and she was closest of all to Elena. But Elena, filled with rage, suddenly turned against her sister and became cruel. That crushed Valerie’s sense of self-worth. With depression and anxiety on both sides of their family tree, my daughters were vulnerable to stress.
It was agony to think about what they’d suffered, and I often lay awake at night, wondering what I could have changed, or what I might have done differently. But for the first time, I didn’t measure my choices against other mothers’. The crisis was too big for that. All I worried about was helping my family heal.
Elena (left) and Valerie, friends again.
With time and treatment, Valerie and Elena regained their joy. Today, they’re happy, fulfilled young women with families of their own. They’re closer than ever because of what they went through.
I’ve grown too. I’m done comparing myself. I’ve been the mother whose child graduates with honors and the one whose child rages in public. Being both of those mothers has taught me that judging other parents is a trap. It doesn’t make us do our jobs better. We just end up worrying more, and that’s no help when our families hit a crisis. The truth is, none of us has the slightest idea what challenges another mom faces. We all have our good years and bad years. We all have our burdens to bear.
I’ve also learned that we moms don’t have to be right all the time. We just have to be ready to grow. At the end of the day, a good mother is one who helps her children have their chance at happiness. That’s truly all that matters.
Clare B. Dunkle is the author of Hope and Other Luxuries. She and Elena are also co-authors of Elena Vanishing.