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I’m Not You, Mom
I convinced my mother that my life is my own
Isela Larreinaga
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Before I entered high school, my mother was always home, helping my little brothers with homework, cooking dinner, and being an involved parent. But when I hit 9th grade she got a new job and couldn’t be home until midnight.

Instead of talking to me about needing my help, she just demanded more from me—at home and at school. She’d say things like, “Isela, now that you’re 14, I want you to act like a lady and do some chores around here. You’re old enough to look after your brothers and clean the house.” And, “I also want you to get high grades. You’re smart so don’t mess this up. One bad grade can ruin your chances of getting into college.”

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She began treating me as if I were an adult. I had to come home after school to watch my brothers, help them with homework, and cook dinner. Suddenly she was hardly around. Besides having her new job she also started going out with her friends on weekends.

When I asked her about that she said, “You’re too young to be asking about my life. I’m the adult and you’re a kid, so don’t question what I do.” I wondered how I was old enough to take on all this responsibility but too young to question my mom.

When I did try to talk to her about things that mattered to me, her standard answer was, “Isela, don’t waste my time.”

Never a Day Off

One day after school, my mother was sitting on the couch watching television. I said hi and headed to my room. I thought she wasn’t going out so I felt relieved that I had the rest of the day for myself. But as I was lying down my mother called me from the living room. She was putting her jacket on. I sat down on the couch.

“Ma, where are you going? I thought you were staying in tonight. Can’t you give me the rest of the day to relax please? I’m super exhausted,” I pleaded. My mother sat down next to me.

“You’re tired? Well, that’s how it feels being a mother so get used to it. You get zero sleep and you have to multitask.”

“Mom! I’m 14, not 25! I just barely started high school,” I said angrily. “I know being a mother takes a lot of work and you’re sleepless but that doesn’t mean you have to put me through that at my age. I should be focusing more on my schoolwork than my brothers. They’re your children, not mine.”

I saw my mother’s face change from annoyed to angry.

“Isela! Por favor! You’re their older sister and you’re supposed to help out in this family. Stop being so lazy, and take care of the kids, OK? I’ll see you later.” My mother took her purse and walked out. I was angry. I hated that she walked out while we were discussing something that bothered me.

I’m Not You

My mom often compared my life to hers when she was growing up in El Salvador. As an 8-year-old she had to drop out of school and move in with her aunt to take care of her younger cousins. If she made a mistake her aunt would hit her. She never had free time. Still, just because her life was difficult I didn’t think it was fair for her to expect me to take on the same burdens. Plus, she expected me to excel in school.

Fortunately I had my father to talk to. Ever since my parents divorced when I was 10, he’s been the one I confide in. He wasn’t happy that my mother was leaving me alone with the kids. He wants me to focus on my studies so I can go to college. (In my large family, only three people have attended college.)

My dad tried to talk to her about it but she said I was complaining too much, that she had it way worse than me. He told me he couldn’t interfere because he doesn’t live with us. Although he couldn’t do anything about the situation, I felt better talking to him.

I felt like my mom saw me as an unpaid babysitter instead of her daughter. When my brothers showed my mom something they did in school she’d be interested, asking questions, and I could see that she was proud, even if it was just my 4-year-old brother’s scribble. But when I showed her my 99 on a French test she glanced at it and handed it back without saying anything. I thought, “So my grades don’t matter to her, yet she’s pushing me to get A’s.” When my mother saw my brothers feeling sad she’d try to make them smile, but when I was upset she wouldn’t ask me what’s wrong.

I’d Had Enough

Every day, I was focused on what to cook for my brothers and on helping them with homework instead of my own school needs. I was tired and cranky. I started to do poorly on exams and class work.

One night I had a huge history project due the next day and Mom didn’t come home until midnight. My brothers didn’t want to go to sleep without her so I had to keep them occupied. Once she got home I began the project. I didn’t finish until 3 a.m. and I had to get up at 5:45. But I was so exhausted I overslept until 7:30!

I grabbed a pair of sweats and a shirt. As I was running back and forth getting ready my mom just sat drinking coffee. She didn’t ask if she could help me. As I grabbed my bag she said, “This is what happens when you don’t start your project earlier.”

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I’d had enough. I walked into the kitchen. “No, this is what happens when you come home late, Ma! I couldn’t do my project because Joel and Shalyn wouldn’t stop jumping and crying. I can’t handle schoolwork and housework. It’s too much for me, Mom! Why can’t you understand how I feel for once?” I pleaded.

My mother just sipped her coffee and told me to go to school. I was furious. I walked to the train station in the pouring rain. I didn’t care; I didn’t want to go back home and get my umbrella. I didn’t want to see my mom.

My grades were dropping. Plus I was having trouble with some mean girls at school. I started to feel depressed.

Closing Myself Off

But except for my dad, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I figured I’d just come off as a complainer. If my mom didn’t care, why should anyone else? I put a happy face on and tried to pretend that everything was fine.

But my best friend could tell something was wrong. I wasn’t myself, the one who had a comment for everything, the one who was always loud and singing Bieber lyrics. Instead I was quiet. When I got home from school I would usually post happy statuses on Facebook, tweet my favorite artists, and text my friends, but ever since my mom made me the leader of the house I had no time for any of that.

I didn’t realize it but I was slowly isolating myself from my friends, particularly my best friend Emelly. One day she texted me: “What’s up? You’re acting strange, I don’t like it.”

“Yeah I’m fine, I just had a bad day. Don’t worry about it.”

“Isela, please, I know you well enough, what’s wrong?

“I don’t wanna talk about it Em, it’s not important. Leave it, I’m fine.” I hated the fact that I was lying to her, and that she knew I was lying to her. But I was afraid she’d dismiss my problems as being unimportant like my mom had been doing and I didn’t want to feel more rejected.

“Isela.”

“If you’re not going to drop it I’ll talk to you another time. Bye.”

Even though my dad was there for me, I had concluded that if my mom didn’t care about my problems no one would. So I kept pushing Emelly away until one day she said she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. It took me a few days to realize that not only was keeping my feelings to myself making me feel worse, I was hurting Emelly. In fact, she thought I didn’t trust her and felt rejected.

I apologized and I told her about everything that had been going on at home. She accepted my apology. Once I got it all out I realized that keeping my feelings inside contributed to my depression.

I also spoke to another friend, Daniel. He comforted me too. “This is just temporary; life isn’t always going to be like this. Stay strong,” he said.

Healing Bit by Bit

A few months later, my mom got a new job as a cashier at a grocery store. There’s also a restaurant and she does some of the cooking. She loves it and doesn’t have to work as late.

I still have to babysit, but since my mom got her new job she has been happier, more relaxed and considerate of my needs and feelings. So I decided to try to talk to her over the winter break. I wanted to be sure that we would continue on these good terms.

“Mom, listen, and really listen. Words can’t describe my love for you. I’ve noticed that you’ve been more understanding about how hard high school is and you’ve been cutting me some slack. I’m so happy about that and I appreciate it. I want our relationship to be closer then ever, I want us to be best friends. You’re an important person in my life, Mom.”

She looked like she wanted to cry from happiness. I hugged her and cried. I felt relieved that I told her how I felt. When I stopped crying she let go of me and looked at me before she began to speak.

“I’m truly sorry, Isela. I should have let you tell me how you feel. I wasn’t willing to listen. I’m also sorry that I treated you as if you were a mother. You’re just a teenager and I know you have a lot of schoolwork and friends you want to see. I appreciate all the things you do for me and your brothers. God has really blessed me with such an amazing child. I’m forever grateful Isela, I love you.”

I realized then how much I needed her approval and attention. My mom and I aren’t fully recovered but we’re healing bit by bit together, as a team. In the meantime I’ve learned that when I’m going through difficult times, I can’t keep my feelings inside. It’s OK to depend on other people without worrying that I’ll be burdening them.

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(NYC-2015-05-09)