Everything I Know About Love I Learned from My Teenage Mother

The love that my mother and I gave one another was problematic, boundary-less, and left little room for personal development. But it saved both of our lives.
Publish date:
June 17, 2016
mothers, Young Mother, Teen Moms

My mom was three weeks into 19 years old when she had me. She said giving birth to me was intuitive, that I seemed to know what I was doing. I didn't. I was barely taking my first breath when she looked into my eyes and declared me a wise old soul. I was probably thinking something along the lines of, What the BAJEEZUS just happened to me?

Nonetheless, my barely 5'2, barely adult mother tucked me in close and did not put me down for approximately the next two-and-a-half years. Before attachment parenting was even a thing, my mom was known to say things like, "Babies need to be held to feel safe," or, "What's she going to think the world is like if she cries and nobody picks her up?" Family members would pick on her, but my great-grandmother once said that she had never in her whole life seen a baby who loved their mom as much as I loved mine.

And yet, there were times when it was too much, when the boundaries between us were too sticky.

My tiny mom didn't know she was strong, didn't believe she was intelligent, and didn't have the confidence to pursue many of the things she loved. From my earliest memory, I can discern that she represented total comfort and safety. I also remember feeling from an equally young age that I needed to protect her. I knew she struggled with self-love. I watched her put up with a slew of abusive partners. We had a ritual when she was crying — she would sit me up on the counter top, and I'd tell her to look me in the eyes so I could make her strong, and I'd open my eyes real wide and "laser beam" strength from my four-year-old body into her.

Sometimes she would say to me, "It's almost like we are the same person." And I remember taking so much comfort from this. That there was this person I could live inside of when one of the men (who all eventually came and went) was yelling. But there are limitations on this kind of love, and I struggled early on to differentiate my feelings from hers. Being away from her was so devastating, I remember shutting down and all but disappearing when I left for my father's house on the weekends.

As I grew from a toddler to an elementary-schooler, I became her confidant in all things. We wore matching Chuck Taylors and she cut my hair into punk-rock mullet similar to hers. I was her only girlfriend. I carried a lot of the emotional weight of our relationship and tried not to have too many needs of my own. She treated me like I was the most responsible and adult person on the planet, capable of doing anything and everything without a parent's guidance. In some ways, this contributed to my leadership abilities, but it often left me feeling more inadequate than not. I knew for a fact that I needed her, even if she couldn't see it.

I think that this kind of intense love/codependency definitely set me up for my pattern in intimate relationships, of diving to the bottom of the other person, trying to get inside them, trying to sacrifice every part of my own self. I often confuse love for sacrifice. I think that's because my mom gave everything and more, appeared to have no personal life when I was a child. She taught me that love was complete, absolute, without boundaries or limits.

And in the end, I learned the hard way that this is not a sustainable love. It's a love that gets you divorced at 27. It's a love that makes you hate all the tiny seeds of resentment in your heart as you push your own needs further and further down your throat.

Despite this intensity, my mother also instilled in me from a very young age the idea that self-love is extremely important. It was her mantra. She'd say things like, "You aren't loving yourself very much right now, are you?" But it was hard to practice self-love when I learned via osmosis to doubt myself and to hate my body. My mother was, after all, still a very young woman. A young woman who was dealing with abuse, depression, and some of the worst childhood trauma I've ever heard of.

And for all those reasons and a million more, I have nothing but complete gratitude for all that she gave me.

My mother was still reeling from an incredibly tumultuous home life when she married my father (five months pregnant with me). And it must have seemed like a miracle when she gave birth to a being that loved her completely after nearly every other important person in her life had hurt and failed her. The love that my mother and I gave one another was problematic, it was boundary-less, it left little room for personal development. But it also saved both of our lives. We develop these extreme patterns of relating because we have to, because we are in extreme circumstances, because the world around us wasn't safe, because we found safety in our love for one another.

But of course it couldn't be sustained forever. By the time I was a teen, she'd ask me my opinion on an outfit and I'd snap at her. She'd call me upset about work and I'd say something snarky. I was desperate for some space; what had been a comfort became suffocation. I was desperately trying become my own person. And more than that, I didn't want to take care of her feelings anymore. I wanted to feel like her daughter, at least more often than not. Putting up these boundaries was really hard, especially when my instinct was to try to save her. But it seems like in the end, it has helped her almost as much as it has helped me.

And she is still the first one I call when everything is falling apart. She always will be. She is coming over to help me clean my house tonight because my divorce feels like it is actually killing me and I need do laundry.

My mom gave me a lot, but perhaps the biggest gift was that she loved me even when I was mean. I'd eventually apologize, flopping onto her bed in a pile of guilt, and she'd tell me that I wasn't mean, that I just wanted a mom and not a friend. Her capacity to love me when I'm angry or when I'm lashing out is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

We've mostly moved on from that phase in our relationship. It still comes up from time to time, but it probably helps that we're both in therapy. She kept growing and changing as a person just like I did. And she knows now that she is strong; she knows she's intelligent; she gets up on stages every weekend to sing with her folk-rock group, something that her agoraphobic past-self probably would puke at the thought of. She is incredibly tough. She is the toughest person I know.

So it seems like we made it out of all that pain and trauma together (for the most part). And even though it was messy, I would not have changed a thing. And even though I'm still digging myself out of the rubble, I think everyone is. I'm glad that she and I have been able to grow together, even though I had to grow up too fast. I had to be a mom to my own mother. I had to be mean for a while in order to learn real kindness. And in the end I'm grateful for every lesson having a teenage mom has taught me.