The Terrible Price I Paid Because of My Mother's Bad Parenting

Danielle Dahl, MSML

Photo credit: Charles Deluvio

Originally published in Fearless She Wrote

This act of bad parenting by my mother would ultimately set me free from a lifetime of feeling unworthy. She always found me lacking — starting from the day she abandoned me at five. Now, after being reunited after years of separation, she seemed flabbergasted that I was nearly 18 years old and still a virgin. She blamed this on my grandma’s stifling style of child-rearing. However, I couldn’t help but feel like she really thought the problem was me. I lacked her passion for reckless behavior and rule-breaking.

I had spent years wondering why she was incapable of keeping promises. She never seemed to love me enough to stay, and now the reasons seemed clear. I stood there not even 18 years old — with a college degree, great grades, and not so much as detention on my record, and it was not enough.

My successes didn’t inspire awe in the woman who lived life on the precipices of danger.

The little girl, buried under my perfect shell, screamed that she had been right all along. It was my fault that mommy left all those years ago, and I had to make sure she loved me. Losing my virginity seemed like a small price to pay.

My bookish, controlled self inherently knew this was a terrible idea. I told her about my few moments of badassery rebellion, hoping they might impress her.

I had skipped my college English class (that I took at age 15) to play pool with my high school crush (also 15 and in college). She gawked at me like I was an alien, so I made sure she knew this boy drove a Mustang. She wasn’t wowed, so I told her about the time I had written him a love letter about how I wanted to kiss him. (I decided against kissing him at the last moment and then read him my letter instead.)

She laughed, and I felt like the damage I had spent years trying to hide from the world lit up like a flashing neon sign. This made me more nervous, so I started babbling about the fact that I had a boyfriend a year later, even though I wasn’t supposed to. We made out a lot, so surely that counted for something. The look she gave me was worse than the ones I had gotten in high school and hurt so much more.

“Don’t worry, it will all be fine. You’re going to have fun.” And then she proceeded to lay out her plan: “I know the bartender at The Wild West, and I will tell him you just graduated from college.”

Technically, this was a true statement.

“And then, I’ll say you just moved back here and lost your license in the packing, but you’re my daughter and you are 21!”

This plan sounded ridiculous to me, but I went along it with it because it shouldn’t have worked.

I mean, there are rules and laws about this kind of thing. I was, and still am, a firm believer in the “right way” to do something. Her plan sounded like some teenage folly that was going to get us kicked out and sent home. I was a total stranger to these kinds of teenage antics, and there was a small part of me that was intrigued.

So, I humored her while she styled my hair and did my makeup. I wore the outfit she whipped up from her closet. She told me to throw my glasses in my purse and only put them on if I needed them.

It was like a scene from some Twilight Zone version of The Princess Diaries, yet it felt so good to do “mom and daughter things,” that I didn’t spend too much time worrying about what was happening.

Before I had a chance to process how crazy this was, we were at the bar.

She waltzes in like she is the owner of the establishment and strikes up a conversation with her bartender buddy. I keep thinking: I’m standing in a bar at 17, wearing clothes my grandma would have never let me out of the house wearing, about to break the law.

My heart is racing; my mind is trying to process all the stimuli of a busy dance club. My inner nerd is shouting that the lights are too brilliant, the music too noisy, and the people too close. Yet, part of my DNA that had lain dormant for years was too busy reveling in the adrenaline rushing through my veins.

The bartender asks me when my birthday is and with an ease that shocked me, I lied:

July 2, 1980

He whips up these two fruity drinks from thin air and sets them down in front of us. My newfound inner adrenaline junkie was exhilarated.

Holy shit! It worked! This is the coolest thing ever!

Meanwhile, the logical part of my brain doesn’t understand any of this. It’s really this easy to get served alcohol in a bar as a MINOR? Not just under 21 but an actual minor. I felt lied to about why I should follow the rules at all; it was so easy to break them, and there didn’t seem to be any consequences.

I felt lied to about why I should follow the rules at all; it was so easy to break them, and there didn’t seem to be any consequences.

Looking back on this situation with the eyes of a grown woman and not an impossibly naive child, I realize I had completely underestimated my mother. My mother was gorgeous and charismatic, a destructive combination considering she was also intelligent and compelling.

It wouldn’t take more than a few drinks to get me plastered that night. I had a few more than the few it took to get to that point. Then for good measure, I had just a few more.

During the first few rounds of drinks, a man came over and sat with us. I think his name was Vance? Or Lance, or maybe Vinnie? I believe he initially came over to speak with my mom (they were much closer in age than he and I were). However, my mom was not as drunk as I was, and she remembered the goal of the evening.

Somehow, the conversation turned to the purpose of our visit to the bar that night. He and I ended up chatting, and from what little I recall, it was a pleasant conversation.

After about an hour or so, my mom suggested that it was time he and I left the bar. That inner adrenaline junkie was all in. That part of me wanted to get out of this bar with a stranger and forget all about being me. Being the real me was painful and pathetic and unloveable…leavable. This new me from the bar was fun, daring, and everything that my mother wanted me to be. We headed back to his house without batting an eye, rather than asking things like:

  • How are you going to get home?
  • How am I going to get home?
  • Where does he live?

Or pointing out things like:

It has been about 20 years since that night, and I still am not sure how I feel about it. He thought he was leaving the bar with a 21-year-old woman who wanted to have sex. Not a 17-year-old who was wasted, angry and rebellious, and feeling free for the first time.

A girl who so desperately wanted to feel like she belonged with her mother, but had already begun to doubt her decision to stay here.

I remember that I enjoyed most of the evening at his house. He was in his 30’s and knew much more about this than I did — much more than the few boys I had made out with, for sure.

I experienced a sense of freedom that was foreign and heady. I just wanted to be liberated: released from the shackles of my childhood, independent of the overbearing parental figure, disengaged from the fact that my mother was an idiot, and freed from the walls I had spent years building.

I gave off every indication that I was the wild child I was pretending to be.

But then I clearly remember saying “no,” at literally the very last opportunity. I remember being shushed gently and told something very similar to, “Don’t worry; it will all be fine. You’re going to have fun.”

And when it was all over, I remember falling asleep with tears in my eyes. I think those tears were more because I had read hundreds of romance novels and had a specific vision of how I wanted my first time to be.

My mother hadn’t listened when I tried to explain that to her.

In the morning, he took me home, and we never saw one another again. My mother was in a panic when I got back. I guess some remnant of maternal instinct had kicked in and she realized she didn’t know where I was or how to help me if I needed it.

I learned some valuable lessons that night.

It is ok to feel free and wild but don’t put yourself in a situation that you can’t get yourself out of. I hope I have taught that one to my own daughter.

There was a reason that my mother left, and I wouldn’t be who I am had she stayed.

The most freeing lesson of all was that her leaving had never been my fault.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.


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