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Becoming a Parent Triggered My PTSD From Childhood Abuse

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Editor's Note

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.

My 2-year-old daughter came up to me and gave me a hard, passionate kiss on the lips with a smacking sound and all. My heart began to race. I was in full panic mode. My mind immediately jumped to: who taught her how to do this? Who is abusing her? I pulled away from her in shock. She arched her back and fell backwards giggling. She thought nothing of it. This behavior continued to happen.

• What is PTSD?

My mind was racing. What was happening? I could not put my finger on it, but I was scared and did not know how to put into words or actions how I was responding to what was a simple kiss by my toddler. I did not know it, but I was beginning to be triggered by my child.

I would change her diaper and would feel like I obviously was abusing her. Touching my daughter on her private parts was so invasive — she was so vulnerable. She would have let me do anything to her. She trusted me. Just like I had my perpetrators. She often would slip out of her clothes and run around naked, like 2-year-olds do. Without a fear in the world. I would cover her up. No one could see her this way. Bad people would see this as an invitation to hurt her. I had to protect her. I felt I was failing at this protection of her. Something was happening to her; I just could not figure out what. I was so sure all of this was not normal and that I needed to put a stop to it.

When I announced several years earlier that I was considering having a child on my own, none of my treatment team (gynecologist, therapist and psychiatrist) warned me about complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and raising my child, and how that could manifest and be exacerbated. I do now recall when I was raising my teen step-daughters years earlier that I was overly concerned about showing them physical affection. I feared I would be accused of child sexual abuse, so I withheld hugs and other affection. I regret that to this day.

Why did no one prepare me? When my daughter started age appropriately sexually acting out, I was overwhelmed with flash backs, memories, amnesia, nightmares and panic attacks. I was convinced someone was exposing her to these behaviors and that she was being abused. Why else would she be acting in this manner? I could not wrap my head around it and I was deteriorating rapidly, thinking my child was being abused just as I had been.

My concern initially went so far that I called a friend of mine who was also raising a two-year-old and asked her what she feels and does when her child kisses her on the lips. She said it was cute and it brought up no concerns. The next time my daughter kissed me like that, I closed my eyes and tried to will it to be cute. It did not work.

Now my daughter was touching herself in the tub. She was masturbating. As a child I was taught that was wrong, and one should not do it. I had later learned that it was natural, and children had every right to not be shamed about doing it. So I did my best to talk with her about not doing it in front of other people and that it was something we do in private, but it still triggered me.

My internal world of struggling began to bleed into my external actions. I began struggling with bathing and toilet training my daughter, supposedly a natural thing for a mother to be doing. I was actively having flashbacks and now I was scared that I was abusing her. How could I not be? I was bathing her and toilet training in the way that is normal for any mother to do, but because of my experience with how my perpetrators abused me, I was concerned. I could not in my mind find the distinction.

I decided to finally seek professional help to deal with this and other issues that were all being triggered by my past and my 2-year-old reminding me of it. I realized through this intervention that I was not abusing my daughter and no one else was abusing her. I was still feeling the effects of my abuse and was not yet free from my abusers.

One in four girls (higher for Black girls) and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old (Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C., 1990). It is amazing to me that more practitioners are not talking about the relationship between complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) from sexual trauma and being triggered by one’s child. No one told me that this may happen to me if I raise a child and this is how I should handle it. Once I sought help and figured out the language to communicate what I was going through, only then did it all make sense of the way I was reacting to my daughter.

I eventually was not able, due to the severity of my past abuse, to maintain custody of my daughter. I was repeatedly being triggered to the point where it was recommended that I place her for adoption. I do not know if I had been warned about the possible triggering whether I would have still chosen to have children. I do not know if I had had a boy, would I still be raising my child?  I do not know if I had had earlier intervention if I would have been better able to adjust and recover from the triggers. Maybe I was not meant to have a child. Maybe our relationship was doomed from the start.

I do know moms with C-PTSD deserve a chance like every other woman to bring a child into this world and raise them if she so chooses.  I wanted a baby so bad. Someone to love me and for me to raise in my own image. To lose that is devastating. I am separated from my daughter now and I still want to mother. That did not go away with losing her. I ache for the day I can mother her again. My mother did not lovingly mother me and I do not want that for my daughter. I do not want that to be our legacy.

“More than five million children in the United States have a parent with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Contrary to popular belief, adults with an SMI (Serious Mental Illness) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are just as likely to be parents. In fact, 68 percent of women with an SMI are mothers and 57 percent of men with an SMI are fathers; further, 73 percent of women with PTSD and 68 percent of men with PTSD are parents” (Nicholson, Biebel, Katz-Leavy, & Williams, 2004 as cited in Social Work Today).

The odds are stacked against us though. “Women with serious mental illness lose custody of their children more frequently than do those without psychiatric illness,” (Joseph, Joshi, Lewin, & Abrams, 1999).  However, I feel that with the proper preparation and support, this does not have to be the case. We can be competent and capable of raising children and deserve it even if society needs to step in and help us be great parents.

From my experience I recommend that women:·

  • Believe yourself!
  • Do as much self-exploration as possible to know your past and how that experience is informing your present.
  • Find a competent and capable treatment team (preferably trauma experience) that is well versed in supporting women who are raising children and who have mental illness.
  • Discover your motivations for having a child and what you are trying to accomplish by doing this.
  • Make sure you have social and financial support so you can have respite and treatment ongoing.
  • Read, read, read and read some more. Be an informed parent and patient. Read parenting books, books about child age appropriate sexual development, books on sexual abuse and other books pertaining to your experience. Also read inspirational books by other women who have been where you are and have thrived.
  • Practice basic self-care. It does not have to be at a spa; you can take a hot bath or do your nails. Or on some days just take a shower if that is all you can muster. You must set yourself up as a priority if you are going to get through this.
  • Believe your inner child who is expressing her memories. Do not fight her. Give her space to come out and get the care she needs.
  • You are enough!

From my experience I recommend practitioners:

  • Believe her!
  • Broach this important subject with your patients of childbearing age. The sooner they can explore these possible issues, the better.
  • Practice trauma informed care.
  • A patient may present for the first time with PTSD symptoms and have no recollection of sexual abuse. This is where your training comes in and you become the detective to explore whether sexual abuse explains the symptoms.
  • Make a welcoming environment to bring up their struggles so they feel they will be heard.
  • Many will feel you want to take their children away, so you must broach this subject with caution. Also know that the symptoms may be worse than presented for fear of scaring practitioner into taking children away.
  • Look for child-triggered PTSD/dissociation as a possible exacerbation of your patients’ symptoms, both physical and emotional.
  • Help your patient learn about age appropriate child sexual development.
  • Recommend parenting classes/groups or use your time together for parenting education.
  • Reassure them they are not alone and that they can survive this.
  • Involve Child Protective Services if you know that a child is being abused or neglected.

From my experience I recommend loved ones:

  • Believe her!
  • Understand this may be an issue that can come up and your loved one may be ashamed to tell you about it. It is OK for you to bring it up and share this article and encourage them to get help even preemptively.
  • As much advance warning as they can have the better. I wish someone had told me what I could expect.
  • Provide respite care. She will need breaks. I had a friend who would take my daughter for overnight on weekends so I could rest and refresh; it made all the difference.
  • She will need reality checks. I often asked my friends how they were coping with their children at different stages since my knowledge base was all from an abusive past. I could not see what was normal.
  • Read all you can about child abuse and how it manifests throughout the life cycle. Know how you can be supportive and a good listener.
  • Listen to her story without judgment and encourage her to get professional help as soon as possible. This problem will not just go away on its own. Some women experience the triggering throughout their child’s childhood or at least through the ages they were also abused.
  • She will not feel that she is enough or deserving of having a child. That is where you come in and reassure her that she is indeed worthy.

I placed my daughter for adoption when she was 4 ½; she is now 14 and is being raised by her adoptive family. She is doing very well and is an active and healthy teenager. I struggle with feelings of failure, grief, shame and guilt. I made an active decision to bring her into this world. I promised I would raise her, but instead I had to give her to someone else to care of her. I owed it to her to raise her on my own, but it turned out that I needed a village to get the job done right. I will always be broken.

We are in an open adoption and I see my daughter once a year. When we started doing visits about two and a half years into the adoption I really struggled with being triggered and usually ended up in the hospital around that time. After an extensive amount of therapy, I am doing better, and the after effects of the visits are a lot smoother. I have not been hospitalized in four years.

Now I spend my time working with groups supporting birth mothers. I am a mental health advocate and an advocate for birth mothers with mental health conditions in order to help women retain custody of their children and help birth mothers get the support they need to survive losing a child.

Getty image by digitalskillet

Originally published: July 6, 2020
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