“On prie pour sauver les apparences (To save someone from losing his appearance)
Par moment oublier toutes les distances (In this moment you have to let go of all the distances)
Sans répit je pense et les silences (Without a break I think, and all the silence)
Dissimulent la souffrance de vos absences (The hidden pain of your disappearance)
…I just feel no joy
Far away from love,
From my baby boy” –Nâdiya, Si Loin de Vous
Trigger warning: child abuse
“Soap in my eyes! Soap in my eyes!”
“Hold still, baby, I’ll help.” I carefully rinsed my hands in the bathwater so I wasn’t adding more soap to my brother’s face. I gently pressed my thumbs across his eyelids, removing the extra liquid on them. We could fit up to five children into my parents’ Jacuzzi tub at once, and I wanted to bathe them gently.
I remembered being a child and I disliked how wiping my eyes with a towel didn’t always work. This solution made my little siblings calm down, and it minimized the pain of soap in the eyes.
When I was a child, my mother would warn us to be extra careful while in the bath, because if we were disobedient, we’d get spanked. Spankings on bare skin, while wet, were the most painful of all. It was hard to tell when our bath time playing would make mom or dad decide to spank us.
I was allowed to spank my little brothers and sisters, but I could never bring myself to hit them while they were in the bathtub. It was too painful for me, and I remembered what it felt like.
These days, I drive past my parents’ house and there’s a dull ache in me. Those kids were mine. I raised them, and I can’t see them. Sure, I could drop in uninvited, but it would do no good. My little brothers and sisters have been trained to distrust and hate me, just as I was taught to hate my older sisters.
It’s like I’ve lost custody of my kids, except I was the better parent, and the court never asked about my rights. Also the parents who got to keep my kids are abusive, and they tell lies about me.
I used to read about big families and how the older kids raised the younger kids, and I thought it was all nonsense. Of course I changed diapers, and of course I spent half my time babysitting. That was just life in a big family. People on the outside wouldn’t understand that we all felt like mom gave us individual attention, the dynamic just looked a little different.
Now I remember with more perspective. I know how ignored we were. I know I did more work than my parents, both around the house and in the office working on the family business. I’ll always have back pain because I learned to carry children on my hips before I properly had hips. I’ll always have memories of getting up in the middle of the night to take care of a sick or restless toddler.
Part of me doesn’t resent all that. How can I, without wondering which of my siblings I would have given up, and knowing I love them all? I know kids are smart because I taught my siblings how to handle the things I didn’t know how to deal with. I know kids respond well to kindness, because I was kind to them.
I wasn’t always kind to them. I had a temper when I was a young teenager, and got angry and would lash out at my little brothers and sisters. I was bigger than my brothers then, and could wrestle them to the ground and smack and hit and punch. With my more sensitive smaller sisters, I could make them cry with my words.
I hated how it felt to hurt other people, so I stopped. I chose, instead, never to get angry. When a conflict came up, I’d hide my feelings from myself, so as not to hurt anyone. I learned to dissolve conflicts by making everyone cheer up, helping everyone be as happy as I was. That’s how I managed to be gentle and cheerful: I forced myself to do it.
So I exchange stories with other people who’ve also lost their surrogate kids, and we help each other cope.
One friend said her siblings are always asking when she’ll be coming back, they don’t understand that she moved away from her parents for her own mental health. Another friend told me she can’t tell her little siblings about how she’s happily partnered with a girl, because her parents believe that being gay is a sin. She wrote in an email, “When I first came out, everyone tried to manipulate me into staying by using my kids as pawns. They knew that it was the only thing that would make me pause. It was brutal. Even now, a year later, the pain is still fresh from leaving them.”
We are invisible mothers, and our children will never be ours. We will wait years to restore our relationships, if they will ever be restored.
In memory of my siblings, of the pain I inflicted upon them, and the love I know they can’t reciprocate because they think I’m insane and I’m a bad influence, I write to help others.
Because there are countless young people who distrust their older siblings, believing lies their parents tell them daily. There are countless surrogate mothers who have no voice, no way to get their kids into a better situation.
We write to each other and exchange stories about our little siblings. How we found ways to be gentler than our parents. How we know each of our siblings’ individual struggles and needs and interests.
We say, “I’m sorry you lost your kids. I understand. I lost mine, too.”