How Child Abuse Shaped Me As A Parent
When I was 17, I was rounding up supplies for a teacher who was going to an elementary school to talk about personal safety. I didn’t think much of her talk because it seemed akin to the D.A.R.E lectures I sat through as a kid. Her topics included bullying, good touch vs. bad touch, and abuse. Abuse didn’t pertain to me. Abused kids were starved for days at a time, beat with live wires, or something else equally horrific. That was my thinking anyway.
I picked up one of the children’s books from my teacher’s supply box and flipped through the pages inspired by nothing more than boredom. I was waiting for her to get back from a meeting and had nothing else to do until she returned. Imagine my surprise when I learned for the first time that what I was dealing with at home was not normal. That realization didn’t sink in right away. It came as such a surprise that I wasn’t prepared for it. But then, I had to think about it.
I spent my entire childhood afraid to go home after school. Punishments in my house made no sense; they were seldom connected to any actual wrongdoing. I often found myself soaking my legs or arms in a cold tub, totally mystified as to why my father started hitting me with a belt or throwing me across the room. I was desperate for his affection and approval because it always seemed far out of reach. I was completely frustrated with myself for never being able to earn it.
Naturally, I had come to accept that there was something wrong with me. No matter what I tried, no matter how nice or endearing or good I thought I was acting, I never could get a positive reaction from my father. To him, I was a nuisance, a pest, a parasite. Maybe, I reasoned, I just didn’t understand what nice, endearing or good was. Maybe, I reasoned, I was defective and didn’t deserve love or approval.
I looked at the last page of the book for a minute. I felt nothing, and yet the tears began to trickle. I don’t know if I was relieved that my feelings all those years were normal or from anger at my parents. There was hope too. Doors began to open up for me. I had been telling myself up until that point that I would never get married. I would never have kids. What good was getting married if all you had to look forward to was a husband who slept with a bunch of other women, demanded to be waited on hand and foot, and beat you and the kids senseless? Who wants to be threatened on a constant basis or to have your friends and family threatened by the person you married? Who wants to be a slave to some man’s whims and moods? What kind of life is that? No, thank you, I’ll just be single for the rest of my life. Besides, I wasn’t capable of loving or being loved, so it fit together.
My father’s violent temper had managed to drive a wedge within my family. He had scared away most of my extended family, caused a drift between children, cousins and grandparents, and drove family friends to keep their distance. From the perspective of a child, though, all of these people ran away from me. They left me alone with him. I didn’t understand why they avoided me. It fed my fears that I was unlovable, and I grew up feeling rejected by everyone I cared about. I wouldn’t understand why they left until I was an adult and had learned more of the story.
I never imagined myself in the role of the mother, because from the time I was a little girl, I knew it wasn’t for me. Hell no. But, that book meant for 6-year-old children changed my entire perspective. I very slowly warmed up to the idea of becoming a parent one day. My boyfriend at the time, who would later marry me for reasons I will never understand, insisted that I would be a great mother one day. I never believed him.
Secretly, though, I wondered what it would be like. Could I really be a mother? I imagined someone’s life of playing in the backyard with giggling children, hugging a crying child, cleaning boo-boos, feeling loved and loving back. Did I really deserve such a fate? Was I even capable of doing that?
After avoiding the topic of having kids with my husband for as long as I could manage, we started to put together plans. I wasn’t convinced of my ability to rear kids at all. I was terrified that I would turn out to be too broken to manage it. What if I wound up being an abuser too? I didn’t want to inflict the kind of hurt or pain that I endured. At the same time, I worried that I would overcompensate for what I went through and turn my children into spoiled brats. I had no compass. How the heck was I supposed to know what good parenting looked like?
My sense of urgency was kicked into hyperdrive when I became pregnant after exactly one month of trying to conceive. I kind of figured Mother Nature would grant me a little more time to mentally prepare, but it wasn’t so. This fuels my suspicion that pregnancy only happens when the timing isn’t exactly convenient. I was excited, of course, but I was scared shitless. So, I set about doing some kind of research. I needed to prepare myself for what I was sure was a task that I wasn’t up to.
I decided that I needed some kind of preparation. I started reading every parenting blog I could find. I picked up several thousand parenting books to read through. I even watched every episode of Nanny 911 for some pointers. I learned about the Ferber method, the attachment parenting method, how to do a proper time out, and even how to manage my own anger while doling out a heaping dose of nurturing to difficult children. My husband didn’t say anything, but I knew he thought I was a lunatic.
The more I researched, the more paranoid I became. What if I get too aggressive with finger-wagging, and I poke the kid’s eye out? Ok, finger-wagging is out. What if none of the punishments I give work? Will I be able to handle that kind of frustration? The more I worried, the less I talked to the people around me. I started feeling isolated. Everyone was cooing over this new baby, and here I was, on an island, housing this little person, not knowing what the future had in store for us. I couldn’t bring myself to tell all of these excited people that I didn’t think I could do it. They’ll think less of me, I worried.
I stayed awake at night and touched my growing belly, feeling my daughter fluttering around. Sometimes, I felt as though I was getting it, and I was going to knock this parenting thing out of the park. Most times, I just stared at my belly and felt so sorry for this baby that they would have the great misfortune of having me as a parent.
Then something odd happened that I think I understand now. I had spent years behind a tough facade that discouraged others from coming close to me. With the pregnancy came the prospect of a new little person, full of imagination and energy, and my loved ones’ excitement for this new little person beckoned them to come closer to me. It changed me a bit, too. I realized that the biggest thing I wanted for my daughter was to be surrounded by people who loved her. I wanted her to have the things I so desperately wanted for myself.
It was scary reaching out to loved ones again. I was terrified that they would reject me again. I made it clear that I was playing for keeps and gave them so many ways to flatly reject my offer of regular family gatherings. To my surprise, they communicated back with me. Some of them shared with me their concern that I would reject them, that I didn’t ask for help and they felt that I didn’t want them around. It shocked me. Someone was worried that I would reject them? It opened up the realization in me that I needed to chip away that facade, that I needed to allow people to come back into my life.
What I learned was that, in the right circumstances, a baby can change everything for the better. I waited until I had my life back together to try for a baby, but I never realized just how lonely I had been all this time until people wanted to come back into my life. Long-standing feuds between family members have since been dissolved since the news of my pregnancy spread. People I’ve known for years have surprised me with the lengths they are willing to go to become a better person. I’ve surprised myself in much the same way. This wouldn’t have been true five years ago, but I can honestly say that having my daughter was the best thing I’ve done for myself.
All of the fears and anxieties I’ve had are still very much present. I still grapple with anxiety and depression on a daily basis. I still have a long way to go in terms of my own mental health. But, I look at her little, smiling face and listen to her grunts and hiccups, and I’m amazed at how much she has already accomplished in her short life. She has brought together friends and families. She has inspired a dozen people to change their bad habits—all of this rising out of her mere existence. I can only imagine what she will be capable of in 10 or 20 years. Where I felt adrift in an ocean without a direction, I now feel the world opening up for new adventures.
I share this story not because I believe everyone will have the same feelings or experience as I do, but that others who have been victimized in the past will know that they have more options available to them than they realize. Being a parent isn’t for everyone, but a difficult past doesn’t mean that it can’t be an option.
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