It was an unspoken vow. It just sort of happened. I got pregnant, then married, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and then we divorced. She was just a toddler. That’s when I married my three-year-old little girl. One of the vows that I made to her when she left my womb was that I would always put her needs before anyone and everyone. I vowed to put her even before myself. And for the most part, I was incredibly successful in our marriage… we had a good run. Until she got older. Until I got older. With age, growth, and years of therapy comes a great deal of understanding. People change. As with most marriages, there were high and low moments. I prided myself on saying that I have never put my hands on my daughter. I believed that I had broken the cycle of abuse with me–that the beatings would stop with me.
When she was a baby laying in her crib I wrote her a love letter where I promised that I would never abuse her the way I was abused. I made promises for the life I intended on giving her and the kind of mother I intended on being. It was a letter filled with all of my hopes and dreams for her future. I listed all the things I wanted for her life, that she graduated college, that she finds happiness and that she always would know how much I love her and would support whatever dream she wanted for herself. One of the things I knew early on was that I never wanted my daughter to feel the way I did growing up. I didn’t want her to feel violated or disrespected. I didn’t want her to feel like she was nothing. I didn’t want her to feel unloved. I didn’t want her to carry the years of pain, shame, and blame that I had been carrying and continue to carry. But I did abuse her. They call it “emotional incest.” Just seeing the word incest conjures up all of these feelings of disgust and nausea in my body. It makes me want to vomit. Some of the essays I have read focus on helping parents to see the inappropriate relationship between parent and child.
“Asking a child to play the role of an adult is a heavy burden for most children. In many cases, the troubles shared with children (who don’t have the coping skills or life experience to know how to deal with them) leave the child feeling hopeless and helpless. Rather than augmenting a child’s self-esteem, the constant feeling of futility can lead to lower self-worth.”
When Courtney was younger I tried to protect her from knowing the truth about certain things that were happening in our lives. Her father and I were not getting along. I was making some really bad choices. She was seven when I uprooted her for the… I can’t even tell you how many times–more than 13 apartments. I’ve lost track. I think the first time she began to feel safe with me was finally when I ended my relationship with the man who raped me. At such a young age there were things that were already forming her. There were things that were traumatizing her. Things I am embarrassed to admit. Things that maybe I should have never shared with her. Like, the people I have slept with, and mistakes I have made. I told her everything and sugar-coated nothing.
Something brought me to a breaking point when I got tired of playing the role of “bad guy” while her daddy was revered. I began allowing her to see my rage, my anger, my hatred–I hated being invisible. I hated being silenced. I hated being disrespected. I hated having to play nice. I hated being told that I would never amount to shit. She was 9-years-old when I was finally beginning to discover who I was and what I wanted for our lives. This was when I decided that I wanted to arm her. This was the age that I thought it appropriate to share certain truths with her. This was the moment I believed I needed to prepare her. I believed that I needed to teach her about this fucked up world. This is the moment she became my partner… my wife. She was only nine.
This “sharing of my truth,” might have started when I left Florida to return to New York City to chase my dream of becoming a writer. We had the sex talk, and since there is nothing normal about me, I printed a binder (visual aid) of every sexually transmitted disease known to man, with images and definitions… and this was the way I taught her about sex. This was my, “let me give it to her straight, let me give it to her raw… no bullshit… no cookie cutter parenting.” I wanted it to come from my mouth and her to understand early on that she would always have two choices… she could have sex and have to worry about contracting any one of those STD’s or worse an unwanted pregnancy (or) she could choose not to have sex and have nothing to worry about.
To me, it was just this simple and simply insane in retrospect. I fucking terrified her. You were a terror, she has told me on many occasions. She has shared with me how incredibly scared she was of me and what I know to be true is that she was scared of my mouth. She was terrified that anything could set me off. She constantly worried about which mami she was gonna get today, would it be, “cool fun mami who watches movies with me?” Or, “belittled powerless mami who would take out everything wrong that happened to her–on me?”
Its fucked up! It’s embarrassing! I hate to admit the shame I carry about this. The journals and psychologists call the relationship I have with my daughter many things, “Emotional Incest”, “Enmeshed Parenting” and “Parentification.”
“Emotional Incest, also known as covert incest, is a dynamic that occurs in parenting where the parent seeks emotional support through their child that should be sought through an adult relationship. Although the effects of emotional incest can be similar to those resulting from physical incest, the term does not encompass sexual abuse.”
“Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as a parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”
“Enmeshed parenting describes a style of parenting that can cause problems in your child’s successful development of their own personality, ethics, and values. Your children’s good or difficult behavior, and successful or unsuccessful achievements define your worth.”
The truth is that I didn’t know how to be a mother. I didn’t know how to NOT fuck up my daughter when I was so fucked up. There are very clear roles for children and parents in a Dominican home. The women are the esclavas, the men are served first, the girls are groomed to be mothers and wives and the boys can do no wrong. The boys are to be revered. The boys are to be respected. “Que tu crees que tu eres? Un hombre?” are words I would come to hear hundreds of times over my lifetime. Wanting to be seen and respected as a girl in my culture and with my upbringing was next to impossible. So I grew up to be an angry little girl. I grew up wanting to fight… to fight girls, to fight boys, to fight anyone. I grew up not having my emotional needs met because what I learned early on was that my feelings didn’t matter. My thoughts didn’t matter. My dreams didn’t matter. My voice didn’t matter. When you don’t have your emotional needs met you tend to turn to whoever is closest to you. And in my case, it was and has been my daughter. The truth is I was developmentally stuck. The truth is that there was much I needed to learn. The truth is that I treated my daughter like a friend and confidant because she is the only person in the world that I believed would ever love me and would never leave me. I made my daughter Courtney my partner… I leaned on her heavily.
But she needed a mother.
Where did I learn this form of parenting? I was trying so hard to not repeat the programming I received from my home. Much of what I know about being a mother and a father came from my upbringing. As the oldest daughter, I was a caregiver. I had many adult responsibilities–that in the moment were passed down as “just how we pitch in–in a Dominican home.” But when are the kids allowed to be kids? There was so much I felt responsible for and embarrassed about as a child. My parents were immigrants who held positions where they were always the employee never the owner. My father worked in a factory and my mother cleaned offices. It was common for the children to take on the roles of the adults. When you rely on your children the way my parents relied on me you rob them of their childhood and their innocence. You strip them of their ability to make choices for themselves. This kind of dynamic breeds children who constantly seek the approval of adults. My parents relied on me to translate documents, to translate conversations during the parent-teacher night or to convey whatever messages they needed. I didn’t have a choice. In our house, everyone pitched in. Everyone had a job. Everyone had something to carry. As I write this essay I am flashing back to all the things I gave my daughter to carry for me. I made her responsible to lift me when I was in pain. I can see now how fucked up that was. I had no right to make my daughter responsible for me. There is so much about our relationship that is beautiful and incredibly special. But it was never her job to give me my self-worth. She had her own shit to worry about.
I believed that telling her everything about my life was serving her in some way. I believed that being honest and open would somehow serve her. I never once thought that it could be damaging. That some of the things I was bringing home were too much for her young self to process and navigate. What was she supposed to do with my dysfunction, with my depression? I go back to that day, when I had my nervous breakdown, she was twelve, and I was deteriorating right before her eyes. I didn’t bathe. I didn’t comb my hair. I had clothes thrown all over the floor. Piles and piles of clothes that were more akin to a military obstacle course. I no longer wanted to exist. I wanted to burn everything I had ever written. I wanted to just up and leave her and change my identity and begin again.
During that time she told me she noticed that whenever I got home from work I always grabbed a bottle and poured a glass of wine. I was drinking a bottle every night. There was a moment where I stopped mothering her and relied on her to mother me. I relied on her to love me through my pain. I relied on her to make it all better. Yet I was supposed to be the mother. I was supposed to be the one who takes care of her. I am very ashamed that I might have robbed of her something or worse that I might have damaged her in some way.
Her entire life has been a self-help journey for me. I was working out every horrible thing that had ever happened to me while mothering her. I was learning how to be a healthy woman while teaching her to honor herself. The irony was, how could I teach her those skills when I didn’t know how to do it for myself? I didn’t know how to NOT bring all the pain from my day home. I didn’t know how to compartmentalize and keep some of the pain I was into myself in order to protect her. I didn’t know how to just be present when all that I was carrying felt so heavy and I needed support. I was desperate for help.
When I met Ray, my psychotherapist, I kept it casual. I was incredibly unprofessional. I was flirty and not ready for what was about to come up during our sessions. When I asked him if I should end my marriage, his only response was, “Alicia, you will know when it’s time. You are not paying me to make the decision for you.” During those days, I tried really hard not to hide who I was from Courtney. I was drinking like crazy. There was no food in the fridge, but there was definitely boxes of wine. I was numb. I was empty. I was unhappy. My marriage was over but I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. I had no direction. I had no plan. I had no real parenting skills other than knowing that I did not want to be like my parents. I was living a cycle of dysfunction. I was living a life of promiscuity. I was clubbing four days a week. She spent most weekends with her grandmother and father. I never came to see her when I said I would. I always disappointed her. I kept her waiting. Failing her at every turn… and she was always excited to see me… her eyes always lit up when I walked through the door. This beautiful little girl loved me anyway. She forgave every trespass.
I was screaming for help but no one could hear me.
I began therapy when she was three and I was 24-years-old. Coming from the culture I come from, we don’t go to the therapist, that shit is white people’s problems. Dominican women, we sit here and take it. Blow after blow. We get beat down and we get back up. And we never ever expose our family secrets to anyone. That would get you banned from the family or beat down. I knew that “not sharing our business” was the consensus within my tribe. Yet I kept thinking, “keep quiet, cry in silence…” this could never be me! That kind of silence would have killed me. This is when I decided I needed to save myself and my daughter in the process. I wanted to fight like hell for us. I wanted her to see a warrior. I wanted my daughter to see a mother who would learn to stop making excuses and blaming the world, blaming white people, blaming men and blaming society for every fucked up thing that was happening in my life. I needed to undo so much damage that had been done to me. Yet, when I decided to see a therapist it was only about figuring out whether to stay or not stay married. I was definitely not ready to face all that had formed me. I wasn’t ready for the digging and reopening of wounds I had been ignoring for my entire life until that point. All I knew during that time was that I was adamant about my daughter not growing up in a broken home. I never wanted the choices I was making to break her.
In my family, I am the glue…. I am the rock… I am the Messiah (inside joke–they definitely call me this). I couldn’t let them see me falling apart. I kept my depression a secret for many years. The shame and embarrassment of so many of my choices were beginning to rear its ugly head. I didn’t know how to do this. I didn’t know how to do this alone. Therapy could only take me so far. What I needed was some practical skills to make radical changes in my life. This is when I met my best friend Lalita. We both worked in the Psychology Department at Rhode Island College, her showing up in my life was a gift from God. This woman only a few years older than I began opening my eyes to authentic living. We talked about spiritual texts. We talked about purpose. We talked about love. Our deepest conversations were had in car rides across state lines over delicious red wine, with Ella Fitzgerald playing in the background. Ella, Laleet and I spent many a night talking about self-love and dreams. I began to change. I began taking action. I began to want more for my life and more for Courtney. My therapy sessions seemed more intentional and more focused. Those days I was more determined to heal, to recover, and to move on with my life. And then one day it happened exactly the way Ray said it would. He said I would know and I did. I ended my marriage to my daughter’s father and this was when I married her. I was STARTING OVER!
It was pouring out. I was sitting on a Greyhound bus in route to Maryland. The day was cold and the fog kept me from seeing the view. The blurry windows were exactly how I had been feeling, unclear, uncertain, and confused. I wanted so badly to Start Over. I was fiercely determined to get it right. I was desperate to right all the wrongs that had been done to me. I was heading to Maryland for a casting call for a tv show with Iyanla Vanzant titled, “Starting Over”. I wanted so badly to be selected for this reality tv show. I wanted to hit reset on my entire life. Courtney was the only person in the world that I told where I was going. I wanted a cure. I wanted a miracle. I wanted to be healed.
I really believed that if I shared my innermost private thoughts, told her the truth about my past and shared the gritty details about my history that this could somehow serve her. What if it has done more harm than good? I dumped all my shit on her. What was she to do with all of that? I remember telling her about the show and why I wanted to be on it. I was obsessed with the show’s premise, to help women find their way out and heal from all the pain they carried. I wanted to heal. I wanted to be cured. This was when she said to me, “mami, you don’t need that show you have started over again and again and again…”
And this is what I am talking about… why is my beautiful little girl mothering me? Why is my little girl raising me? Why is my little girl showing me the beauty and greatness in me? That shit was never her job! I am the mom! I was so mad at myself. Why did I put all my pain on her? I mean I can sit here and beat myself up, but the truth is I was a wounded little girl trying to raise a strong and healthy little girl. I needed to learn so many life skills, skills for healing, love skills, and gentleness. I was committed to my recovery.
When she graduated high school we sat at our favorite African restaurant in Harlem and reflected on our life together and how proud I was of her finishing high school and now preparing for college. We laughed so much thinking about how everyone hoped and prayed and said that “con esa tu la vas a pagar todas!” People swore that I was going to be punished for all the fucked up shit that I have done in my life and pay for it with my daughter. It’s like people were taking bets on all the ways my daughter would fail me because to them I was such a failure. But we proved them wrong. The joke is on them! Not only did she graduate high school with honors, but she graduated Syracuse University also with honors and has her Masters from Sarah Lawrence!
What I have realized on this journey with my daughter is that for as much as I hoped to be different from my parents I am very much their daughter. I did exactly the same thing: I relied heavily on her in the same ways they leaned on me. While I can crucify myself I understand that as a parent we do the best that we can with the tools that we have. I needed to learn some things and for the most part what I know to be true is that I have raised a healthy young woman just as my parents raised the amazing woman that is me. What I have learned in this marriage of now twenty-five years is that I no longer need to rely on her in that way. I have arrived at the place where it’s time to divorce her. We had a good run, but now she’s living her life and I’m living mine. I have learned that my healing, working on my self-esteem, was always my job.
I carry so much guilt and shame over all the ways she took care of me and continues to take care of me. What is beautiful about our relationship is that I have always known that she was born to save my life. In so many ways she has been the one to give birth to me. She was the first person I ever felt safe with. My relationship with Courtney is the only one I never felt threatened by. I could trust that she would never harm me. What I knew to be true was that she would never leave me. So as our marriage has ended what I can trust and believe is that for all the ways I might have hurt my daughter in the way I parented her, I know that I have also given her so many gifts. I was born to be her mother! This love is forever.
ALICIA ANABEL SANTOS is a Priestess, Afrolatina/Dominican Writer, Lesbian, Speaker, Performance Artist, Producer, Playwright, and Activist. She is from Bushwick, Brooklyn and is a proud Dominican Writer. Her work honors and celebrates the contributions of Latin American women of the diaspora. Anabel is the Founder of the New York City Latina Writers Group with over 700 women writers.
She has been a guest on NPR’s Tell Me More and has written for LATINA Magazine. In 2011 she published her memoir, Finding Your Force: A Journey to Love and her play I WAS BORN was selected as part of the ONE Festival in New York. She has worked for renowned magazines, yet it was an article published in Urban Latino Magazine, “Two Cultures Marching to One Drum,” which would change the direction of her life. In 2008, she joined Creador Pictures as Writer / Producer of its first documentary, AfroLatinos: An Untaught History.
In 2008 Alicia Anabel Santos and Renzo Devia, Director / Executive Producer of Afrolatinos embarked on a journey of self-discovery African roots by traveling to almost every single country in Latin America. The intention was to document the African influence in Latino culture seeking out the often unspoken truths, stories and hidden facts about this history. What they discovered was a history that had never been taught. It became a spiritual and educational adventure that would change their lives forever. Renzo took his 20+ years of experience producing television combined with Alicia’s passion for writing and they created AfroLatinos: The Untaught Story.
AFROLATINOS LA HISTORIA QUE NUNCA NOS CONTARON is the story of the estimated 150 million Afrodescendants throughout Latin America who have been excluded from historical narratives, literature and academia. With the United Nations declaring 2015-2024, the International Decade of People of African Descent including Latinos in the discourse is revolutionary. Afrolatinos takes you on a journey throughout Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations as we learn about their history, religions, music, dance and many contributions. We hope this documentary will empower Afrolatinos to start a dialogue that creates awareness, to promote change and to give voice to a large community who have been silenced and historically marginalized. Afrolatinos premiered and has sold out screenings at the United Nations and the Pan African American Film Festival.
She can be found writing her ass off! Alicia attended New York University and lives in the Bronx, New York with her partner.