How I Parent explores the ins and outs of modern day parenting with moms and dads from all over the world, who are raising their own unique families and sharing their best advice and most heartfelt lessons with PEOPLE. Want to be a part of it? Email what makes your family so special to howiparent@peoplemag.com.

By Diane J. Cho
August 05, 2020 09:00 AM
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Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

Name: Jean Soto

Location: Garnerville, New York

Occupation: Mental Health Blogger

Family situation: I'm a stay-at-home mom of three children (two boys and one girl, ages 2, 4, 12), married and living with my husbands’ parents. My in-laws help us take care of our kids during the week, while we continue to save up enough income to move out on our own and get our first place together.

Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: My goal as a parent is to raise emotionally secure and independent adults by nurturing their emotions, providing them with valuable life skills, and filling their childhood with quality time and educational experiences.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

What was your journey to having the family life you have today?

Both my parents suffered from mental health issues. I didn't know what their diagnoses were until my 20s, but now I know my mom was bipolar and addicted to alcohol. My father was bipolar, addicted to alcohol and heroin and suffered from schizophrenia. They were living in Section 8 housing when they first met. They both had rough childhoods and bonded over their stories before getting married, but by the time I was 3 they legally divorced.

Credit: Jean Soto

By elementary school, my mom got remarried and we lived with her new husband. They actually got married without me. At the time, my dad had me for the weekend and my mom ran off and married my stepdad. They met at work — my mom was his employee at her job — and they're still married. Throughout my life, my stepdad never tried to get close to me. We pretty much just tolerated each other. He never wanted to have kids, although they did get pregnant but they lost the baby and never tried again.

By middle school, my mom was really drinking heavily. Whenever my mom and stepdad would fight, my mom would throw things, break dishes, knock over all the dinner. She was erratic. It's difficult to describe the circumstances because as an adult, I now know what she's been diagnosed with but back then, I didn't know what was wrong. I felt like I was in trouble all the time. All I was used to was my parents yelling at me or locking me in my room.

Credit: Jean Soto

By high school, things only got worse. My mom was breaking everything in the house, all of our furniture, and then she started coming after me. One day, she chased me around the house with a knife up to my room. She didn't seem to know who exactly I was. It was more like blackout rage and she was just super angry. My dad was oblivious to what was going on with my mom because he became detached and was doing heroin at the time and drinking heavily.

High school was also when I got my first boyfriend. By 11th grade, I found out I was pregnant. I had just turned 16. Somehow my mom got word of the news and freaked out. She said I had to have an abortion and that if I had the baby, it would ruin everyone's lives, including mine. She told me to schedule an abortion at Planned Parenthood and that she would take me, so I did. But on the day of my appointment, she didn't show. My grandma came instead and I started to panic. My mom and I were never close but her absence destroyed me.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

After experiencing years of more abuse and me getting pregnant again, this time keeping my child and moving in with my aunt's family, I enrolled in a new high school and was able to see the school's social worker twice a week. By 17 I sued my parents. We went to court so I could be legally emancipated from them. I had to face the two of them during the trial and my stepfather was there as well.

I brought up everything — the abuse, the drinking, the drugs, everything I could think of. Luckily my aunt and grandma were able to vouch for me and also show through documentation that I was in their care. I didn't have enough proof for all of my claims so they ended up throwing out my case, but the court said that I legally didn't have to go back to my parents anymore because I had my aunt as my guardian.

The trial was the hardest thing I ever had to go through. I had no photographs of the bruises or police reports and my mom told the judge that I was just a problem kid who was in and out of school. She said anything and everything she could think of and at that point, the judge must've thought both sides were crazy.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

Fast-forward to today, I'm married, have three kids and run a blog about mental health. My life had gone full speed once I was able to escape my parents, graduate from college and meet my husband. Once we had started to try and establish ourselves and our new family, I started noticing that my mental health was deteriorating. It took 12 years for the effects of my trauma to hit me, and that's when I was diagnosed with PTSD.

At the time, I was a mom with two more young children, and staying at home triggered all of the horrific memories I had when I was young. But since my diagnosis, I've decided to take time to really evaluate all of my memories and experiences. I started researching trauma and child abuse and I fell down a rabbit hole of new and enlightening information.

With all this helpful knowledge, I decided to start my blog and reach out to online communities, which has helped with the emotional coaching I had been looking for so I could work out my feelings. Writing about my journey has also helped me connect with people who've experienced a similar childhood to mine.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

How did your upbringing influence your parenting style?

From the moment I had my first child, my daughter, I knew she was the love of my life. I constantly hugged, kissed and talked to her. I know her better than anyone else. Once I got married, I was nervous about how my husband and daughter would get along because of my horrible relationship with my stepfather. I also found it really hard to share her and then co-parent our other children.

By the time I had my third child, I started realizing that I had anxiety. If my kids started to get really loud — screaming, stomping or throwing a tantrum — or if I heard sudden noises, I got scared. I started to realize that my childhood trauma was following me into motherhood. I also felt this pressure to want to overachieve as a parent because of how my parents treated me. While I was going through these periods where I was crying or having panic attacks, I was hiding a lot from my husband. I had felt ashamed because I had told him how strong I was, despite my childhood. I was breaking down.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

I then decided to start researching and reading about what I was going through and I learned a lot. I changed my diet, I started taking vitamins and going to the gym, and now I feel so different. Now, I can recognize that I was depressed and had anxiety and it was coming up because I had not taken care of myself properly and didn't consider my mental health. The most important thing I learned is that you are not the sum of your thoughts. I take things one day at a time as a mom now. I'm kind of re-parenting myself, too.

What’s your favorite thing about parenting?

My favorite thing is knowing how much they love me. My kids are like my shadows. All three of them just want to be with me all the time. My kids are my best friends. My daughter is going to be 13 this November and I can't believe it. I want to know every little thing about them. I want to be there for everything. My kids are the loves of my life.

Credit: Jean Soto-Bowen

What’s the hardest part?

It's realizing that everything is not such a big deal. My mom used to pick apart every little thing. Everything I did was bad. If I was too loud, if I didn't take my shoes off, if I didn't fold my clothing the right way ...

For me, the hardest part is when I get upset about something they did. I try to remind myself that it's okay. I'll catch myself getting really angry, or really frustrated, or tired, and then I kind of have to give myself a timeout and ask myself, what's the real problem here? That's been the hardest part — regulating my emotions.

Credit: Jean Soto

How do you keep your active kids energized and full of imagination?

My husband and I work from home, so we get to be with our children every day. I love taking my kids to the library or finding free books to build up our library at home. We encourage our kids to be curious, get hands-on experience through play, and to participate in different activities with us to help prepare them for life. We also speak two languages at home, so they're fluent in both English and Spanish.

What's the best advice you can share with new parents?

Always look at the bigger picture when it comes to what type of relationship you want with your child. As long as you're doing your best with their best interest in mind, you're doing a great job. We're the adults so we have to be in charge of our anger and feelings. Kids are just trying to learn.

Credit: Jean Soto

What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?

For my daughter, I would want her to look back and feel proud and understand that everything I did was for her. She was too young to remember specific events but I know she understands that I was young when I had her and was dealing with issues with my parents. I always try to remind her that she was not a mistake and that she changed my whole life for the better. So for her, I want her to look back and feel proud of herself, too, and the journey we've been on together.

Credit: Jean Soto

As for my boys, I'd love for them to always feel like they're home when they're with me. No matter where they go, what they do, how good or bad things get, I want all of my kids to feel like I'm that safe place they can come back to.