Opinion: Loving a Parent Who Refuses to Change

The author, Berkley junior Bella Bakeman, plays with bubbles as a child. During childhood, one experiences joy from simple things like blowing bubbles, something that often becomes more difficult with age (Photo illustration courtesy of the Bakeman family).

Content Warning: This article contains content regarding alcoholism.

As children, we are told that family comes first. In church, I was taught to love, respect and obey my parents. I was taught that they knew best and would always know best. 

What I wasn’t told was that they are human beings who make mistakes. What I wasn’t taught was how to recognize when my parents were doing something wrong;  I definitely wasn’t taught how to confront them about it.

I remember walking down the street with my mom as a child. We would blow and chase bubbles, draw on the sidewalk with chalk and play hopscotch. We would look for rolly pollies and find them new homes. We would dance in the rain and save worms from being stepped on. Sometimes – and these were my favorite days – we would walk down the street to Jim’s, my local ice cream shop.

As I grew older, we’d go to the park and play. On rainy days, we’d go to the library and fill my tote bag, decorated with puffy paint and glitter, with “Rainbow Fairy Magic” and “Baby-Sitter’s Club” books I would devour in a day.

My childhood was filled with good food and music, along with plentiful love and laughter for a time. Until it wasn’t. 

My parents got divorced when I was eight years old. One day, they sat my brother and I down and told us they weren’t going to be together anymore. But they still loved us, they said. 

My mom moved out a few months later. But she still loved us. My dad kept our childhood home until he couldn’t afford to live there anymore. But he still loved us. 

I was an angry kid: I would scream, cry, yell and just about everything in between. If I wasn’t being vocal, I would let that anger simmer inside of me, until it would later come out as deep-seated rage.

I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just work it out. I didn’t like that I had to cart all of my stuff around all the time, never really knowing how long I’d be in one place. On top of that, divorced kid politics suck. You have to be careful what you tell each parent: You don’t want to get the other in trouble – and you definitely don’t want to get in trouble yourself. 

It wasn’t until after my mom moved out that she started drinking. As a kid, I would find Trader Joe’s bags filled with empty beer bottles. That was only the beginning, though.

Soon, she would have a drink at dinner, but just one. I didn’t think anything of it – I just knew it made her feel better. She worked really hard to provide for us as a single mother. For a while, it was the physical labor that broke her down and made her tired. I reasoned with myself that she deserved to relax with a drink at the end of the day. 

When I was in sixth grade, she started dating my stepdad. He also had a drink at dinner – or four.

I was pretty oblivious to it at the time; looking back though, drinking a beer at dinner quickly turned into a drink in hand at any function. If my brother had a baseball game, they’d walk with mason jars filled with vodka and orange juice or lemon water. When we went to the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park, we’d pass signs that said in all caps “no alcohol” and I’d look at their styrofoam cups. I remember asking my stepdad what was in his cup: He didn’t answer me. 

But they still loved us. 

It would take until my adulthood to recognize that they had a problem, to realize that not all parents drove with a vodka-filled tumbler in the cupholder. I didn’t know it was abnormal for my stepdad to be drinking and driving a boat until my best friend pointed it out to me. This was my normal; drinking was around me constantly. 

I’d later look back at arguments I’d had with either or both of them and realize how drunk they must’ve been. To yell like that, to slur their words like that, to look at me like that. But they still loved me. 

When I was offered my first drink at a high school party, I declined. I wouldn’t realize until later that I said no, not because I was underage, but because I was afraid I’d behave like they would. I was afraid I would want to drink all the time, I’d become angry and slur my speech; that I would try to forget. 

Last week, I spoke with my mother for the first time since June. Our conversation lasted about 15 minutes. That conversation started and ended with me telling her that I was worried about her drinking, that I didn’t feel comfortable being around her or my stepdad while she was drinking – that I was afraid for her health. 

If I’m honest with myself, I think that might be the last conversation my mother and I ever have. 

She can’t admit she has a problem; she doesn’t want to get better and she definitely doesn’t want my help getting better.

So here I am, writing this article, not knowing what to do next. Having parents experiencing alcoholism wasn’t included in the rulebook I was given as a child. No, the rulebook I was given told me to forgive. 

Well, I do forgive her, though she will never apologize. I forgive her for not being able to recognize her problem. I forgive her for being unable to see how she affects me. Because as much as it doesn’t feel like it, I know she loves me. I am her first-born, her eldest and only daughter. For a long time, I thought I was the Rory to her Lorelai.

Now I recognize that our relationship does not mirror that of my favorite fictional drama – as much as I’d like it to – after all, I watched it with her. Instead, our relationship is supremely human, flawed and broken; it’s unlikely to be repaired.

And that’s okay. I don’t need to try and fix our relationship any more than I already have. Believe me, I’ve tried. Now, I need to try and protect myself from more pain and trauma. And while many will disagree with me and say that I should keep fighting for her, I need to fight for myself. 

I’m not going anywhere, I will be here for her when she is ready. But, in order for her to repair the damage she has caused – the damage her alcoholism has caused – she has to acknowledge the problem and heal from it. Only then will I allow her into my life again.

And that’s okay, too.

I’m only 20-years-old. I’m broke. I’m balancing a major, concentration and a minor. I’m working more hours a week than I’m paid for as editor-in-chief of the Pleiad. I’m in two institutes. I’m on the editorial board for more clubs than I can even name. And I’m tired. 

But, that’s just normal college-level exhaustion. I can deal with that stress. It’s not easy, by any means, but I manage it. 

What I cannot deal with is continuing to fight for someone who won’t even fight for herself. But, I didn’t always feel this way. 

It took a really, really long time. I felt like the fractures in our relationships were my fault. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to fix it, to help her – sometimes I still feel that way. I fight that feeling of guilt every single day. 

It starts with being honest with yourself, about how you feel and how the other person in the relationship makes you feel. It takes a lot of introspection and hard conversations. It takes being honest with your friends, trusted adults and family members who will listen. 

And honestly, even if those family members listen to you, they may not be ready to hear what you have to say. They might disagree with you or encourage you to try and try again. And you will. Because you love them. 

Those conversations will be hard, but they are needed. Eventually, you’ll find the people who see the truth – who see you. Those humans will be your anchor in every storm.

At some point, you might need to reach out to someone who is not interconnected in your life. For me, it took years in therapy to help me dissect my feelings. It took years to finally get to a place where I could recognize that her disease was not my burden to bear, to understand that her reactions are not my responsibility.

If anything in this article has resonated with you, just know that you are not alone. It is not your fault. There are people all around you who want to help; you just need to ask.

About Bella Bakeman 49 Articles
Bella Bakeman is a junior from Berkley, Michigan. She is majoring in English with a Secondary Education Concentration and minoring in Political Science. Bella seeks to bring both joy and justice to her readers. She can be found with a camera around her neck, notebook in hand and pen in her pocket. Contact Bella via email at INB10@albion.edu.

3 Comments

  1. Brave writing, Bella. You’ve transported me back in time 45 years when I could have written an identical article (my dad, though). When I tell others “Everything good in my adult life began at Albion College” it was partially about the ability to leave behind the life you describe, partially about the support from faculty and staff who helped me move forward in a positive direction instead of being in fight and flight every minute of every day. I emerged tougher on the other side, but like you, I remain sympathetic for those who choose a path of self destruction. Keep writing well, Bella, and keep doing good.

  2. Your story is truly inspiring. It’s incredible how you have shown remarkable insight and maturity while going through such a difficult situation with your mother. Your experience can serve as a guiding light for others who may be facing similar challenges.

  3. This is why I don’t tell young adults that they are now “in the real world.” You haven’t experienced everything yet, but what you’ve experienced is very, very real. The healthiest thing I did for myself and my son was to cut myself away from my mom when I was 25. I didn’t go into therapy until years later. I’ve been part of an online queer moms group for about 30 years now, and the ways we’ve had to deal with family of origin issues are heartbreaking, and vastly different. And sometimes very positive. We’ve found ways to support each other even when we chose differently.

    What you’re doing is self care. You should be proud of how you’re taking care of yourself.

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