How Past Child Abuse Affects My Parenting Now
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
There is an ongoing social discussion about sexual assault and trauma. This small fire is raging now, fueled by the stories of survivors. There is an unabashed dialogue of identifying what it is and how it makes the victim feel. There are also phrases like “sexual predators” and “rape culture” that create a camaraderie of survivors. They know they’re not in the trenches alone because there’s another open disclosure on the internet. Another survivor sheds the armor to expose the truth. This open dialogue will help present future generations comprehend this and possibly heal sooner.
What about those of us late to the party? Those of us who have carried these scars around for years — the ones we don’t even view in the dark. Those of us too old to seek comfort from our peers, yet too young to know it because our minds never developed past the age of the incidents. We’re expected to function in society; suck it up, find work, start a family and raise children. We’re out there, shattered porcelain dolls held together by the low-grade tape instead of the high-quality glue. We’re here, holding it together, walking that tightrope on the inside while you admire how effortless we take care of everything around us. I know that if someone stopped and asked me, I’d shatter where I stood.
Parenting when you’re a child abuse survivor is a harder trail to follow. In addition to basically not knowing what you’re doing, you don’t know what it’s like to be a child. Abuse ages you. You’re mature before you ever asked to be or even knew what that meant. You look like a child, but you know that your body did other things. You’re confused. It can also bring out a side of you that you didn’t know existed. You may be overly-protective or extremely hyper-vigilant. You may not know you’re doing this to your children because you’ve done this all your life. Why should this change now?
Checking locks on the doors at the top of every hour, panicking about your child being alone in the dressing room you’re sitting beside, worrying about your child spending the night at a friend’s house of parents. These are normal behaviors, right? We spent our childhoods preparing to fear the worst with every shadow; why should our parenting style be any different? I will readily admit I was that parent. I was afraid to read certain nursery rhymes to my infant children because they were scary. I also left their first babysitter with a four-page note filled front to back on paper. There’s an unexplainable fear that we face when we look at our children. We see the innocence, but we remember when we lost ours.
The lens through which we view the world is cracked and hazy, but we don’t know anything different. I, like many survivors, never had the time before to look back upon because I have always been an abused child. A turbulent cycle of fear, self-loathing and anger churns inside us until we can’t function. Our friends and spouses don’t get it. Our families can’t hear about it anymore. The concerns I have for my children are a bit unrealistic. I worry about my daughter becoming promiscuous and allowing boys to use her body. I fear that something violent may happen to my son and I would never know about it because he’s soft-spoken like his father. Now that they’re teenagers and both in their first serious relationships, I’m constantly vacillating between being happy for them and scared to death. I have to teach a young woman to respect herself while having to teach a young man to respect women, all while pushing down my triggers and holding it together.
I project a lot of my past onto their futures. It’s unfair to them, as well as to myself. Their futures will be different because their pasts were different. Their lives are better than the one I had at their age, lives I helped create. It took years for me to find comfort and joy in that. I still struggle, but it passes. We often hear about how people need to love themselves before others but telling a trauma survivor to do that is comparable to asking someone to move Mt. Vesuvius — it’s that insurmountable. Our wiring is off. We’re in survival mode non-stop, bracing for fears that are usually not there. We have good intentions, but it’s our actions which will show our children how to function in the world. That’s an extra burden on the shoulders of one who has trouble functioning day to day as it is. Yet, we do it.
I finally sought the help I needed when I turned 40 years old. At 40, I started cleaning my mental house: I changed jobs, went back to school and entered the proper therapy. My rape counselor saved my life. In addition to properly diagnosing me with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), she helped me acknowledge why I was the way I was and that I wasn’t a bad person or parent because of.it. She gave me a lot of tools to use when I’m dealing with triggers and fear. She also taught me how to fall in love with myself. This tool has helped me make better decisions and take care of myself. It has also helped me acknowledge when I need help and find the vulnerability to ask for it.
I’m still a work in progress. I’m currently in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to intensely focus on my triggers and fears. I have completed two degrees in the past five years and am now a social worker. I also talk to survivors regularly through social media in support groups and through my page. I enjoy giving back the tools and advice which helped me. I am finally becoming the healthy, stable mother I have always wanted my kids to have. I no longer feel ashamed around them. While I know they missed out on the person I am now, I know it’s better late than never. I think they do, too.
Unsplash via Vasile Tiplea