I have three brothers, three sons, and three ex-husbands. There’s a nice symmetry about that, right? The first group of guys basically made my six-year old life miserable, and tortured and cajoled me for a decade or so until their friends became interesting to me. My brothers reluctantly allowed me into their circles of street ball, extreme biking (back in the pre-helmet days of dee-double-dog-dare riding the hills of our neighborhood), and other male endeavors that usually involved some kind of edgy risk that would make me sweat and get them in big Daddy trouble in the days when hitting a boy with a belt was considered good discipline.
Although I was often the snitch who got them in hot water, they never let go of me. Brother-love showed me how good men can be, and they are still my best friends. My brothers were like a training ground for raising my three sons, who came barreling into this world with that recognizable male energy – grabbing the world by the cojones after tumbling from the womb – eager to terrify me by sledding down the stairs, roller skating through the kitchen and turning any space into a potential trip to the ER. As a single mom at the helm of a ship full of teenage boys, fueled by testosterone and all lacking frontal lobes, I navigated for survival only. We did make it through the rocky seas of alcohol, parties, weed, and too many phone calls from the cops. Sailing in calm waters now, I can breathe (finally) and reflect on the men they have become. My brothers, their uncles, had a lot to do with supporting my sons through rites of passage and I remain eternally grateful to them. I love all of these guys beyond measure.
Now to the third of the man-triad that has defined much of my life: the exes. My parents, first generation Italians trying to manage their stormy, fraught relationship, had no tools to offer me, no hands to hold, no sage advice. Emotional chaos rained down on us often. Raised in the post -depression era, they feared scarcity and scrambled to ensure our security. This was their paramount focus, not building psychologically secure or resilient kids. Their abject emotional confusion was unfiltered and so I saw with terrifying clarity a marriage that reflected betrayal and pain. My father was a brilliant wounded man with a raging temper and my powerful mother was deeply enmeshed as his co-dependent scapegoat. Thus I spent my adult life seeking out intense and wounded men who needed me, a full blown recipe for disaster. I repeated my parents’ drama, as we often do when it’s buried so deep. Freud will likely meet me at the pearly gates with a cigar and a back slap: Thank you, Phyllis. You proved me right. Three times, three good men who each in some way wore my father’s suffering like a flak jacket. I stumbled blindly through it, no doubt wreaking some measure of havoc on my kids.
But here’s the miraculous part: history has not repeated itself. Just last week I did my third and final mother-son wedding dance, poignantly letting go of each man so that an amazing woman could fully step in to partner. How could this be? Not only did my boys choose to marry (why would they not run from the madness?) but they chose healthy, smart, independent women who love them completely. Their unions don’t reflect the odd subjugation of women that I knew; rather they operate like full-on teams – consulting, deciding, and collaborating on just about everything. I believe deeply that they are each building a robust and sustainable framework for a happy, connected life and I am stunned by this karmic reversal.
Maybe we are not slaves to our history and biology. My kids have taught me everything worth knowing and even now the lessons just keep on coming. My dear parents were hobbled in so many ways – it was a generation of secret pain and conformity at all costs. They didn’t have the benefit of a cultural acceptance around therapy or seeking treatment for mental health issues. They just struggled valiantly, certainly unaware of how their story was impacting mine. I, on the other hand, eventually opened my eyes (halfway at least) and finally saw my responsibility for attracting conflict and began the tough road of changing bad habits. Maybe awareness widens with each generation, dissolving the barriers that subconsciously imprison us. Maybe each generation will make Dr. Freud less right. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
I have mostly worked through the guilt I’ve felt around my scorched earth relationship life, accepting the past as my story – without pride or shame. But throughout the journey I’ve worried that the sins of the mother, so to speak, would be visited on the kids. Turns out that children are resilient; they can see and endure things and manage to make conscious decisions to avoid the pitfalls and glaring missteps of their parents. My kids – like yours no doubt – are brave and much stronger and smarter than I realized. I still fall on my knees with gratitude for this, however it came about. I guess this is the best we can do or hope for: that each generation wakes up a little more, opens up to the grace of forgiveness and the miracle of real love. We have some say in the history we create. It’s not an endless droning of repeat suffering if we stay awake, open to possibilities and reach out to each other for help.
I cherish those mother-son dances, my heart broken open and drenched in huge relief and happiness for my kids who have found their life partners. Here’s my secret wedding toast: May my history not repeat itself. May my boys learn well from my mistakes. And may their kids do the same. At this rate, maybe our grandkids will be the happiest generation ever.