How the Ghost of My Abusive Childhood Haunts Motherhood Now
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
“I love you,” I say to my daughter.
“Of course you do,” she says, “I’m awesome.”
She’s 12. The mother in me smiles. The girl I was shakes her head and wonders: How would it have been to feel both loved and lovable while a child?
I do not know. I will never know. It does not matter how wonderful my present is. It does not matter who I will become. I can’t change the past. The past is a country I never want my daughter to travel near or in. I am an exile from my past, my child self. There are no photo albums I want to share with my daughter. No traditions I want to pass on or teach.
My cultural pride is shame. My native tongue is a memory I try to scrape clean so mud doesn’t cake out of my mouth.
My greatest gift of maternal love is to insist she get no heirloom. My gift is to break the cycle. And what I give her is something I didn’t own as a child.
I am not a child-girl-victim anymore. I’m a mother-woman-adult. Except I will always be both.
The past is never completely done. We are not only now but also where we come from. I know my parents, her grandparents did the best they could. And I know it was lacking. I know my parents had nothing for themselves they did not share with me. They did not have enough and so I did not have enough, and because of that, I am raising my actual daughter as well as my emotional self.
I carry my past in my skin like a birthmark, in my teeth like a cavity filled and as a ghost I can’t make real or go away, who hovers, tethers and feels or refuses to feel. She is an invisible and palpable presence riding shotgun in my psyche at all times. She is the foundation of the life I now live in. She is not where I live now. She’s not my living room or my kitchen or even my bedroom. She’s still the basement bottom and the foundation all else is built upon.
I can’t pretend she isn’t in the way I settle in doors, windows and choices.
Childhood was raged upon by the ocean during an astronomical high tide. Angry waves rocked the base and flowed through the bottom layers of my being. Watermarks and mold weakened wood which couldn’t dry without swelling even when the sea receded.
I weathered storms without coastguards or police to warn me, evacuate or take me to safety. I endured extreme conditions.
I tried to “pass” for normal and pretend we had not just been through tsunami weekends. I went to school wet, hungry, shivering without homework or lunch bags or confidence.
My 11-year-old self was a bed-wetting girl who also got her period. She didn’t have access to sanitary supplies or clean sheets. She went to school sitting on her hands, hoping blood wouldn’t mark school chairs. She held her breath, hoping it would keep others from smelling her. She didn’t know the words “abuse” or “neglect.” She just thought she was dirty, smelly and life was hard.
The little girl I was wasn’t as confident as my own child is now.
Sometimes I watch, stare and marvel at my own child. Sometimes I celebrate when she asks for more food or affection, because she does so without apology, hesitation or shame. Sometimes I worry I am parenting to my voids rather than her gifts.
How can I keep my distorted beliefs from seeping through my floorboards where my daughter’s bare feet cross? I know now that I was a scrappy and innocent warrior doing the best I could, but that is not what I grew up believing.
I “knew” I was damaged and something in me caused people to act bad. I can’t go back and give accuracy or truth to the me I was during development. I can’t go back and inhabit my body or the world as a child who felt safe. I can’t ever know what that experience feels like.
I inhabited faulty beliefs, a less empowered view of reality and marinated in fear. I don’t know how to shed my former self while honoring all she went through and still be this mother, adult and new self too.
I know the world offers beauty, love, and health. I’m eager, giddy and sometimes surprised. And honestly, sometimes I binge on joy and happiness like they are a food with an expiration date that will spoil if not consumed.
Can I teach my daughter not to binge, to count on the world, and to pace herself? Can I teach her she need not hoard and grab for fear of going without? Sometimes, my daughter doesn’t even finish a cupcake. It astounds me every time and I stare at the plate.
“I’m not hungry,” she says as she pushes it away. I would have never left an empty plate as a child, or know what it meant to “listen to my belly.”
Can I trust her to trust that there is always enough? It seems she already knows things I do not.
How can I model for her what I’m only starting to believe and that she seems to know better? In some ways, she is wiser than I — stronger. And that’s a result of my good enough mothering but it also means the childhoods we each inhabited can never be shared. Not really.
Will I tell her someday what and why I write so much? I’ve done so only outlining the full story.
Will I speak of the sentence of childhood as a mother?
How will I ever tell my daughter how sorry I am I was not whole from the beginning of her precious life? It’s not my fault but it’s even less hers. I am her mother even as I tend the wounded child I was.
Will I apologize for not being more present for barbecues and picnics on the porch or swinging in the hammock?
Will I tell her why I sometimes need to go down into the basement to open up windows and let sunlight into the darkest, deepest and oldest crevices?
Learning to navigate my survivor identity and being a mother is not something that ends after childbirth or adoption but is ongoing. It does not start or end with pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding or attachment parenting. It does not start or end when our kids sleep through the night or have their first sleepovers.
As survivor parents, we relive our childhoods as our own kids grow and sometimes, for the first time, with feeling. We raise them and ourselves at the same time.
Sometimes the work of parenting is monumentally hard, lonely and daunting. Other times, it is staggeringly beautiful and fortifying and healing. And confusing.
Mostly, it’s quiet. Few people say childhood, trauma and “it feels like this” in one sentence.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “There are years that asks questions and years that answer.” My questioning is not yet done.
Once, my daughter heard another mom yell, “You’re such a good mom,” to me. Later, she said, “I’m the only one who can say if you are a good mom because I’m the only one you’re the mother of.”
I don’t disagree with her logic. I smiled.
I am raising two girls still: my own and the child I was.
Will good enough truly be good enough?
I can only speak for me.
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Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash
A version of this article originally appeared in the Parenting With PTSD anthology.