Written by Melinda Melo
I’m one of nine children – five girls and four boys – all born from our mother, who struggled as an undiagnosed, paranoid-schizophrenic living on welfare in the slums of Toronto, Canada. Mom was mentally haunted and trapped in a destructive cycle of generational trauma and abuse. She had the mental capacity of a child with a responsibility most adults couldn’t handle. Children’s services had been involved with our family years before I was even born, but they didn’t see her inabilities and egregious neglect as a cause for removal.
At three years old, I had already witnessed abuse of every kind. I lived with Mom, random men, my siblings, and of course, the mice, cockroaches, and spiders that invaded our space and made our apartment their home too. My head was full of lice and my clothes were covered with urine and feces. I had red bruises and open sores from my skin being so raw and irritated. My big brown eyes begged for mercy.
One winter day, when I was three-and-a-half, Mom and my thirteen-year-old sister walked me and my one-and-a-half-year-old sister into the Children’s Aid Services office. Mom told workers they were placing too much responsibility on her as a parent. Without any emotion in her voice, she said, “You need to take the girls.” My eyes widened. Mom called me and Lorraine ‘the girls.’
Mom looked down at me and my sister and in an empty numb voice, said, “Don’t follow me out of here.” Then she left. She dropped us off like she was returning a book to the library. I kicked and screamed and begged her to take us with her. I screamed for my older sister, who cried and apologized repeatedly. I didn’t live with my family again for a whole year. When we returned home, nothing about our lives changed. Mom had broken my trust in the most traumatic way, and I kept my heart distanced from her. I feared she would give me away again or that I’d be taken from my siblings.
When I was nine, seven of us were living in a single run-down motel room. Mom made a phone call, and again, without telling me, had me and my sister forced into a car, never to live with her again. I fought to stay with her the same way I had when I was three. I cried to be with her every night in my new home, but I couldn’t help but feel anger and resentment toward her for what she had done – again. After missed visits and empty promises, her betrayal cemented itself over my heart.
I lived a wild and barbaric life with her, and was suddenly dropped into a Conservative, beyond strict, religious home. I started my first full time year of school in grade four. By the time I turned fifteen, I ran away and embarked on a lonesome and naïve journey into adulthood. I gained contact with my older sister and moved in with her. I learned a lot about our past, about mom, and our siblings through stories she told. I had missed much of my sibling’s relationships, having been separated from them so many times, and I loved listening to every detail. I learned Mom had been homeless for over seven years and living in shelters around Ontario. For a short while, she moved to our town, still living the same way she always had. It was her normal. One night on Christmas Eve, Mom called my sister saying she was really sick. We found her nearly frozen, pulling a radio by its cord through the snow with one hand, and dragging a garbage behind her back with the other. We took her to the hospital, which turned into her being chased down by police, and being admitted to the psych ward.
“If you don’t take her in, she’ll be living in a homeless shelter this winter,” Mom’s worker told me. Flashbacks of finding mom homeless and nearly frozen still haunts me. I can’t let that happen to her again.
Becoming mom’s caretaker wasn’t something I saw for my future, but I had a stable home with my husband and three children, a supportive family, and the space to accommodate her. When discussing solutions with my eight other siblings, I felt the urge and responsibility to say yes to mom living with us.
She’s been here since the beginning of December 2023. I’m still grappling with the amount of responsibility I committed myself and my family to. Mom needs help and support with most basic tasks, like using a can opener or pressing buttons on the microwave. She depends on me for everything.
I panicked the whole first month she was here. I felt a churning emotional turmoil I couldn’t manage. I cried and cried. I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares and panic attacks. I hid in my room. I wanted to retract my decision. I felt buried, burdened, and alone with the complexities of my situation and nobody, other than God, truly understood it.
I was struggling with childhood trauma, and it was devouring my body and mind. In my fear and desperation, I cried out to God, who revealed the deepest darkest question piercing my heart.
Why should I have to care for the woman who didn’t care for me?
I was a small helpless child that deserved to be cared for too. Abandonment. There it was, peeping its ugly head again. The ramifications of our situation felt so heavy on me and none of it felt fair. God provided so much healing for me prior to Mom moving in, but I wasn’t prepared for what he was going to do with the rest.
Mom needs the same grace I need. The little girl she was, who was abandoned, neglected, and abused by her parents, deserves to be loved too. She deserves to be cared for, to have her needs met and to live the rest of her life in a home that feels safe. I’ve come to know that she and I are not so different after all. This life hasn’t been fair to either of us, but we can start again.
Our situation isn’t perfect, but we’re making the best of it and figuring it out. Mom’s inability to do simple tasks, her nagging questions and requests, and obsessive messages, gets the most of me some days. My children have surpassed her mentally and have become little caretakers themselves. They include her in what they’re doing, like measuring ingredients, and having Grandma drop them into the mixing bowl.
Grandma doesn’t know how to use the remote in her ‘apartment’ upstairs, so the girls find channels on her TV they think she’ll like, which oftentimes, are shows they want to watch. They remind her of her bath days, and when to take a walk around the laneway.
Mom prefers to spend her days upstairs where it’s quiet. When she’s downstairs, she likes to sit and watch what goes on. It feels weird to be watched like that, but there’s a lot of things I’m still getting used to.
My goal as a daughter is to be the caretaker both mom and I needed as children. While our pasts were horrific, our futures don’t have to be. We have lived enough of our lives with feelings too big for us to understand or handle. I’m releasing all expectations of Mom, and trusting them to God. I know there is redemption in our story. There’s redemption to be had in yours too. I know how painful it can be to love people who have hurt you or broken your trust. I’m reminded of how God pursues us – even when we’re undeserving, when we push him away, and when we feel abandoned. Forgiveness and grace have taught me so much in this life.
I have wept at the feet of Jesus for the childhoods we’ve endured.
I have peace knowing it won’t continue in my family.