Parenting With PTSD: There Are Good Days, And Bad Days

by Sara Wagner
Mother with PTSD hugging a sad girl with pigtails.
Nastia11 / iStock

There are many things about being a mom that are challenging. Early mornings, playing personal chef to two picky eaters, and keeping my cool when there’s Play-Doh on the carpet for the hundred thousandth gazillionth time are among the many challenges that comprise a single day in the life of a mother.

When I first began my parenting journey, though, I didn’t know that another challenge I’d face would be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — and dear sweet Jesus, what a challenge it is.

When I was younger, I had what is becoming a more standard childhood — traumatic incidents punctuated by parents who were not able to get me the proper help I needed. At the age of 10, I considered committing suicide for the first time, and a month before my 12th birthday, I began to cut. I didn’t know how final suicide was. I just knew that the pain I felt was so intense that I couldn’t imagine living anymore. I was a child.

Help wasn’t an option. I lived through my teenage years completely unsure why I kept replaying the traumatic incidents I had experienced in my mind. More traumatic incidents piled up, and the hits just kept on coming, even into my early 20s. By the time I had become a mother for the second time, I had made the difficult decision to get a tubal ligation, convinced that my increasing mental instability was due to postpartum depression and anxiety, not to something more permanent.

For two years after my youngest was born, I struggled. Doctors kept telling me I was “just” depressed, an idiotic downplaying of an already-serious illness. My husband, overwhelmed by trying to take care of two young girls and me while working a physically demanding full-time job became detached from me. My behavior, increasingly erratic and destructive, peaked on December 22nd, 2012, when my written plan to commit suicide on January 1 was found in my backpack by a nosy co-worker at my job. I was removed from work in an ambulance that day, and before I left, I called my husband.

“They’re taking me away. I don’t know where I’m going,” I cried to him. There was silence on the line.

“Sara, I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore. You’re on your own now. I hope they send you somewhere. I hope you don’t come back until you’ve gotten help. I have to take care of these girls. Good luck.” The line went dead. He was gone, and so was I.

I didn’t go away that night. After seven hours of waiting in a room by myself, the hospital gave me a 15-minute evaluation and decided I wasn’t a credible threat. They released me to my mother, and I stayed with her until Christmas Eve, when my husband agreed to allow me to come home.

Even sitting here, typing this, I can feel the numbness tinged with a deep sorrow that I felt on that day. See, PTSD doesn’t just give you flashbacks. It gives you fear of life, or experiences, and will even occasionally rob you of your ability to remember the things that made you happy.

Although I knew that I loved my daughters, I could not get close to them — something I still struggle with five years later. Sometimes still, when they come to hug me, I will pull away. Every once in a while, when they try to be affectionate, I become angry and withdrawn. On the surface, I know that they are my children and I crave their love and success. But underneath, my subconsciousness reminds me that I have felt that craving before with the only outcome being abuse and pain.

I’d like to tell you that there is some way to turn this off, but if there is, I haven’t found it yet. All I’ve found in five years of deep searching is that even when my mind doesn’t remember how to love, or how to be loved, my heart remembers. Even when my mind would convince me that I am not worthy of a hug from my beautiful daughters, or worthy of affection from my husband, my heart knows I am worthy. Some days, I am able to indulge in the happiness that family and marriage bring; other days, I’m a broken ship adrift in rough seas, an empty vessel that is cracking at the seams.

I don’t expect that my struggle with PTSD will ever come to a complete end. I look to the future optimistically, trying to stay realistic and hopeful at the same time. I see my children graduating, and the happiness I will feel at their success. I see my husband coming out of his shell and becoming more confident, and the happiness I will feel seeing him shine. I see grandchildren, thriving daughters, the white hair of my husband and a sunset reflected in his blue eyes, and I realize that perhaps today was rough, but tomorrow will be better. I am nothing if not living proof of that.