By Tara Overzat
I never remember being spoke to as a child by either of my parents. My mother used me, from about the age of 5 on, as confidant and, surprisingly, advice giver. So dependent was she on my father, that when he mercifully left, she sincerely did not know how to do the simplest of things.
Not long after my father left, we went to visit my fraternal grandfather, who lived 3 miles away from us in our New York town, a town she had lived in well before I was born. Leaving his home, she got to the stop sign down the street and asked “Left or right?”
Was she talking to me? She wasn’t asking my 3 year old brother, I guess. I honestly didn’t know, hadn’t really ever paid attention to my father’s driving before…
“Right?” I hopefully guessed.
She dutifully turned right. A few minutes later, she was very agitated.
“Where the hell are we?!” she shrieked. “You little idiot!”
The car was still moving (albeit slowly) as the hand found me over and over again in the back seat of the small car.
We did find our way home, but I was berated all day over my right versus left flub.
At eight years old, I was editing “news flyers” for my mother. She was changing diapers in a preschool classroom, as a teacher’s assistant, when the teacher, who was pregnant, took leave. My mother took over for the few remaining months in the school year. This was still only part-time employment and there was no pay bump, but now she was a “teacher” and had to make a “lesson plan” and a “news flyer” for the parents.The “students” were 18 months old.
Essentially, all this flyer had to say was, “This week, we made some colorful finger paintings to celebrate spring! Miss So-and-So read us a funny Berenstein Bears story…” Really basic stuff.
My mother had a very hard time with this. So, it was up to me to help. Spelling, grammar, tone, word choice. She never helped me with my homework, but I had to help mom with hers.
The worse and most lasting consequence of this was being shoved into the role of confidant to a 40 year old woman. I endured story after story of my father’s abuse, and then was promptly gift-wrapped and sent to him to claim our rent check. So, not only was I dealing with my own fear of being attacked again, but now could add to it the time he threatened to kill my mother; the time he threatened to set the bed on fire while she slept in it; details about a drunk driving accident he’s had; lurid stories about love affairs he’d had while they were married; details about their divorce.
My mother was an extremely repetitive person, so I didn’t hear these stories once or twice. I heard them over and over starting when I was about eight until I was an adult. The details didn’t change, it was just the same memorized monologue to deliver to me for countless encores.
I don’t think she did that to poison me against my father. After all, her biggest delusion was that they would get back together. She did it because she had no friends. She had stopped speaking all but entirely to her family. She needed someone to talk at, and there I was, a captive audience. An audience that did not have the life experience to tell her she was wrong, that she was better off without him that her suffering children were better off without his drunk ass. The perfect audience: one that cannot deride you but only nod in agreement and offer you sympathy.
This role reversal didn’t strike me as odd then, just like how I thought much of my childhood was normal. I thought all divorced families were like this and that every divorced mom was like my mom. I had never heard of the term “parentified child” and I did not have the knowledge of the outside world to see how my mother, unable to handle the role she chose for herself, was trying to shirk her responsibilities and give them to her unwitting child.