When You're A Parent Trying To Break The Cycle

by Melinda Fowler
Originally Published: 
A young woman sitting at a table and writing notes on a paper
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To some extent, I think we all spend a fair amount of time comparing our own upbringings to our children’s. How could we not? We see our childhood selves in our children’s faces. Maybe we seek wisdom from our own parents about how to get it right. Or we decide that our parents didn’t make the best choice about a particular aspect of raising us, and we make a point to do things differently.

But if you come from a broken home – if you were raised by parents who were emotionally or physically abusive, or had a childhood marked by pain, loss, or turmoil – the comparison game can get very intense, very quickly.

Now, there are people who come from childhoods like these who simply raise their children exactly the same way they were raised. This is tragic, and while hard to imagine, it’s understandable to some extent, because breaking the cycle of pain and abuse is hard AF.

Many of us, though, are on a mission to change the narrative of our lives, to tackle the mental health issues and toxicity that run through our family. Many of us are doing everything we can to give our kids a childhood markedly different than our own. And oh my goodness, I applaud this. I am one of you, and I know how much courage it takes to get to that place of deep self-reflection, of positive and active change.

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Yet I also know there is a downside to all of this. It’s called pressure. And guilt. And stress. It’s the feeling that you are constantly failing your kids. That maybe you won’t actually break the cycle. That the image of what you desperately hoped your kids’ childhood would be is totally different than reality.

It’s the realization that maybe you won’t ever be able to afford the house of your dreams in the kind of “white picket fence” neighborhood your struggling parents could never afford. It’s seeing your child battle with the same mental health condition or addiction that you have, that your parents had, that runs straight down your family line. It’s shouting, stomping, and yelling at your kids and hearing your mother/father/abuser in your voice. It’s realizing that your marriage is failing just like your parents’ did. It’s realizing that you married an abuser, a narcissist, an addict.

When my kids were little, I did everything I could to give them the childhood I never had. A dozen years later, I see so many ways that I succeeded. My kids have two loving parents who would never hurt them. Their lives are stable; they have everything they need.

But we struggle with money in much of the same ways my own parents did. I always desperately wanted to be able to afford to buy house for my kids. That was something my single mom could never afford. This year it became clear that is really never going to happen for us. And I have mourned it deeply.

One of my daughters seems to have inherited my anxiety disorder. I see her struggle with perfectionism, insomnia. Her anxious tummy has caused her to miss school more than once. I look into her eyes as I see a panic attack set fire to her soul, and I wonder: “Why couldn’t I have saved her from this? Did she pick up on all those times I struggled with anxiety when she was little? Did I cause this?”

Sometimes the grief and guilt of it all is too much to bear. I go over in my mind where I could have done better, in what ways I might have repeated the cycle of pain, loss, and abuse inflicted on me in childhood. I wonder if my daughter’s life has somehow been as unstable as mine was even though she didn’t move dozens of times, her parents didn’t bitterly divorce, and she didn’t experience verbal abuse from a stepparent.

But I also see the way she and her sisters are thriving. I see how they are happy, how much they love their lives, how real and honest and damn authentic they are. And I see that they are resilient – even when things are difficult for them, they bounce back, they persevere. Each night my kids pour their hearts and souls out to me, so I also know they have a safe place to land, something I didn’t always have growing up.

Besides all that, I know that no childhood can be perfect. That’s impossible. And anyway, experiencing zero pain or struggle is not what we want for our children. They need to know how to get through tough times. No one is immune to that.

I think the thing to remember is that simply by making a choice to make things better for your kids – by acknowledging that you are working on breaking the cycle – you are doing so much for your kids. So much.

Many of us who come from troubled or toxic homes were given the message that we are less than, that we are always going to mess something up. Maybe that’s why so many of us put this excruciating amount of pressure on ourselves to make perfect childhoods for our kids.

What a gift it can be to realize that you are enough, that you’re doing everything right – and that your kids have everything they could possibly need, and are going to be just fine.

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