Learning To Forgive My Sometimes Absent Parents


I am one of many kids. I love each one and would never trade a single sibling if given a choice. It’s complicated.

My upbringing was impacted by a fundamentalist belief that taught that using birth control or family planning was a direct sin against God. Only God deserved to choose your future. He would likely punish those who selfishly tell him what they will do with their own futures. “Look at your aunt/uncle. See how God gave them x illness?” They didn’t trust God. Again, I emphasize what a blessing I consider each and every one of my siblings. I bring up the difficulty with this belief because many of my friends fared worse than I when it came to family dynamics, finances, and more. I saw so many women trapped in a system that forced them to bear more pregnancies than their bodies or minds could handle. My mom, though, was healthy and glowed while pregnant. Of anyone I know, she was meant to mother many. My dad fully owned faith formation for us, but the understanding in our circles sometimes felt that kids were mostly the mom’s job to raise.

As a result of these choices and the huge ratio of kids to caregivers, my friends, siblings, and I were sometimes a little rough in appearance. We wore hand-me-downs and clothes that didn’t quite fit. Some of my first memories include an aunt cutting my and my sibling’s nails too short (because they were overgrown), brushing my hair too roughly (because it was unkempt), or wandering at family parties and the older aunties pinching my large cheeks. I sometimes hid, wishing my mom would tell them to stop.

At bedtime, I would follow my mom around, silently so as not to wake the babies sometime between her kids number 4-7. This would’ve put me at about age 4 to 8 years old. I would watch as she put the baby and second to youngest to sleep. The rest, like me, would put themselves to bed. I often felt scared in the night and lay down beside or under my parent’s bed once I could hear them snore, just to be near them. I always woke with hives from the dust in the carpet when I did this, but it was worth it to me. Just hearing them breathe made me feel less scared.

Growing up was mostly happy memories. We were so incredibly blessed to have a large extended family of aunts and uncles who intentionally built strong mentoring relationships with us kids. We had a strong church with people who truly cared about us, even if some beliefs were misguided. But still, the getting lost feeling did happen often. I knew not to ask for too much.

Twenty years later, during college, I spent a summer traveling overseas and teaching English. Afterward, I stayed with a very nurturing and warm aunt in Europe. After showing me the linens and seeing if I needed anything as I prepared to drift off under a comfy duvet, this aunt jokingly tucked me into bed. As she pulled the fluffy blanket around me, I suddenly felt tears streaming down my face. As I drifted off, I rewound back into my memories to find what made me cry. The memory that surfaced was me following my mom around as a young child, room to room, as she put other kids to bed. I felt the longing for that goodnight book, to feel the covers tucked around me, or that goodnight kiss. I remembered usually putting myself to bed.

When I turned 30, and my husband forgot my birthday, it stung ten times more than it would’ve if I weren’t taken right back to another moment of deep insecurity during my teen years, when my mom forgot my birthday on a weekend until the day was well past half over. She was often stretched beyond breaking, and as a mom now, I see how hard she tried. On my 30th birthday, mom helped me turn a sad day around and celebrated with our little family. Bandaging my wounded heart, soothing the fight that had ensued between my partner and me. She came armed with chocolate, and we had a fun outing to the zoo together with the toddler.

I feel this memory describes my dear mother best. When I had my first child and needed surgery, my mom rushed to the hospital after work and stayed with me and my baby. I looked over at her sleeping on the pullout chair and realized how tired she was. I felt her sacrifice and her love. She left the hospital the next morning and drove right back to another workday. That’s my mom in a few sentences. She gave her all and she still does.

Envy set in during the postpartum period, when recovery was so hard. I envied my friends from small families whose mothers stayed in their homes for a month after birth. Their mothers cooked meals every day and helped in every way. My mom made a pot of my favorite soup for a bunch of the family (many had come to see the new baby and me) on a weekend a few weeks after we were at home. Excited at the large amount of leftovers, I said, “thank you, mom, now we can have food for dinner too.”

“Oh, actually, half of this is for (insert relative) who has a cold.” My mom replied. I wanted to cry, and I left the room.

So many kids have it so much worse. Absent parents, parents with addictions, parents who can’t control anger and dangerous behaviors, and parents who abuse. I am so grateful for loving parents who worked tirelessly and taught us the best they could. I know parents fail. I have already failed as a parent, and my child is still a toddler. There will be topics for him to process in therapy. I own that.

Sometimes one of many is a good thing, like during a move, when siblings and in-laws come together and so much gets done so fast. I’m usually happy to stand in for my parents, like when a sibling had a multi-day scholarship competition and needed a parent figure to attend dinner and information sessions. I wasn’t bothered by being mistaken for being a very young mom to my sibling. My mom came to meet us so I could tap out the next day. Mom did her best, and my sibling won the scholarship. The same can be said for when I drove to my baby sibling’s town to help them celebrate their birthday without my parents due to another sibling’s health crisis. They had fires to put out, and celebrating wasn’t possible.

It’s always give and take. Seeing how much my child loves their aunts and uncles makes me forget the times his grandparents haven’t remembered him. They love my little family with the same fierce love that I feel for them. I know they would do nearly anything for us too. Just being together with my siblings for their triumphs feels like a sacred honor. To see them succeed and be happy, with minimal scarring, is all I want for them.

And sometimes, it still hurts.

What do you do to forgive your parents? How do you let go when a wound resurfaces with each new milestone? When their absence physically hurts. With each cancellation by parents who don’t have time or energy for you, the pain cuts you and reminds you that the slow bleed of being forgotten so easily runs again.

How do you love but still acknowledge the hurt? I try to picture my mom asleep on the pullout couch in the hospital, giving the few hours she had to be there for me. On a good day, I don’t feel bitter. On other days, I call a sibling because we were and still are all in it together. We have each other, and I’m thankful. I count myself blessed 99% of the time.

Sometimes it helps to view my parents as people instead of parents with whom I feel disappointed. Judgment rarely helps; sometimes, replacing it with curiosity helps me understand who they are and love them for how much they overcame.

My parents did their best. And always, I’m learning to forgive. How do you forgive your parents?