By Tresa Edmunds
I have finally managed to steal a few hours while my son naps. He had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids a few days ago, and ever since, he has wanted nothing except my attention. No ice cream could tempt him; popsicles offered no thrill. All he wants for comfort is for me to hold him while he keeps a hand on my face; he uses that hand to push my attention back to him if I get too engrossed in a television show.
This is, of course, exhausting, and were it our standard relationship, we would have some problems to address. But in this time of pain and vulnerability, the fact that my child clings to me above anything else assuages a lifetime of fear. It is the final proof I need that my abusive childhood is not destined to taint me forever.
I became active in the Church as a teenager, just in time for lesson after lesson, activity after activity, conversation after conversation, about our future as mothers. A future which terrified me to the core. My parents were abusive, but we kept that family secret fairly well hidden during my teenage years. Or at least, just hidden enough to allow people to look the other way. In the few instances when I felt comfortable enough to confess my fear to my leaders, they never understood what was motivating me. They thought it was typical teenage moodiness or sensitivity that underscored my relationship with my parents—that it was teenage melodramatics that made me fear screwing up my kids.
I spent hours at the kitchen table of one beloved leader, surrounded by playing cards and sweating glasses of Coke as she counseled me through those dark years. As gently as possible, she would say, “I think that, maybe, you should work on not being so sensitive—for the day when you have children.”
I would scoff at the suggestion, flip my hair, fold my arms across my chest, and reply, “My children would never hurt my feelings like my family does.”
With a weariness born of battles with tweens and newly independent teenagers she would say, “My children have hurt my feelings worse than anyone else ever could.”
What our conversation lacked was the understanding that when I said “hurt my feelings,” I was really referring to physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and she was referring to the heartbreak of letting her children discover independence. But the result was that I was even more convinced that I was too broken to ever responsibly care for children.
For a middle school English assignment, I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. The novel tells the story of a teenage girl with schizophrenia, but I related to it with a depth that alarmed me. The main character has a private language and creates the word “ngangon” to describe the viral taint of her illness that she fears will infect “normal” people. I started using that word to describe my fears about raising children. The shame I carried as an abuse victim was so profound and tangible that I felt that people could see it on my face. It went beyond fear to certainty that this virus would be passed to any children I might have, leaving them to struggle in just the ways I did. Too traumatized to recognize abuse as a complex system of behavior that my parents had been guilty of, I thought of abuse as a disease, one I lacked the power to overcome. Admitting that I had power meant that my parents did too, which meant that I had to hold them accountable. I was not then ready to do that.
How an abuse survivor reacts to his or her abuse without professional intervention is of course as unique as each circumstance, but the reactions can be divided into two broad categories: repeat the pattern, or invert the pattern. Some abuse survivors will parent in the same way they were parented, including inflicting whatever violence, manipulation, degradation, and force was present in their relationship with their parents. In my own case, I was so terrified by the thought of inflicting the pain I had felt on someone else that my instinct was to relate in the opposite manner I had grown up with. My anger and shame turned towards myself to become anxiety and depression. Instead of imposing my will on those around me, I shrank inwards, my boundaries porous, my sense of self-worth non-existent. Had I become a parent in this condition, I would have had trouble disciplining productively, harming my child through an inability to provide structure and safety. I would have been so afraid of losing control of my temper that I would have done nothing to nurture my child in healthy, constructive ways. I would have been unable to develop an appropriate bond with him or her because of my overwhelming fear of the day I would snap.
Women with a history of childhood abuse are much more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol and to act out sexually. Adhering to the Church’s standards saved me from those traps, and for that I am grateful. Women who are abuse survivors also have high incidences of eating disorders, self-harm, depression and anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder—all of which I have personal experience with. The Church did not always offer tools to help me deal with those very real problems. Moreover, the Mormon emphasis on early marriage and procreation might have sent me straight into my fears and unprocessed behaviors. If I can find a way to be grateful for infertility, it is in the fact that it allowed me time to begin recovering from abuse before I had to factor the needs of a child into my life.
Even thoughtful abuse survivors, those who have taken steps towards recovery and have broken the initial abusive patterns, must still be wary of very serious pitfalls as they struggle to develop parenting skills at the same time that they heal themselves. Even with healthy models, parents can find it difficult to find the proper balance between discipline and love, freedom and boundaries. But with a distorted, abusive model, it’s like trying to find your way in the dark. Fearing they’ll repeat the physically abusive discipline they received, some survivors provide little if any discipline to their children. Fearing their children will encounter trauma similar to what they have, some survivors become so overprotective they deny their children a typical childhood experience and instill in them a fear of the world. Without a healthy relationship to imitate, the parental pendulum can swing wildly between extremes.
The Young Women leaders of my teenage years would often console me by saying that once I became a parent myself, everything would be forgiven as I developed a new understanding of the challenges and pressure my parents were facing. That advice is probably true for most tense teenage relationships, but not for those troubled by abuse.
When I was 20 years old, married for less than a year and only a few months past cutting off contact with my parents, I got pregnant. That pregnancy ended in very early miscarriage, but I still remember clearly the night I lay awake in bed next to my sleeping husband, my hand resting on my youthful belly. I was overcome with ferocious love for this tiny being. That ferocious love was closely followed by a burning rage at my own parents. I was finally in a position to appreciate how mistaken my Young Women leaders had been. All was not forgiven—far from it. There was still much I didn’t understand about my past or my future, but I saw very clearly how much love came with a child—and how distorted a person had to be to act against that love with violence or shame.
When I lost that pregnancy, I was not as sad as I would be for future miscarriages. It awakened in me a knowledge that I had work to do to be the kind of parent I wanted to be. I finally understood that abuse is not a matter of over-sensitivity or lack of understanding. That the charity I eventually needed to show my parents through forgiveness should not come before the healing. That abuse was not a disease I, or my parents, were passive in front of, but behaviors and processes that I was able to overcome.
I got some good therapy, I was scrupulously honest with myself, I created firm boundaries and stuck to them, and I educated myself on coping mechanisms and parenting skills. I have forced my husband to watch every single episode of SuperNanny with me, transfixed by the competency on display and wanting to learn proper, productive, healthy discipline.
I recognized that the loneliness and sorrow I felt in my fractured relationships with my parents was the shadow side of a fact that could give me great hope. It hurt because I wanted to love my parents, and I wanted them to love me. That is the nature of these relationships, and I let the depth of my sorrow give me faith in the day that my child would feel that longing for me, and I could meet it.
It took us eight years of infertility treatments to finally get our son, and I made sure those eight years were time well spent. By the time he finally arrived, I had shed much of the fear I carried. I had examined and overcome common emotional triggers that brought up reminders of the pain I’d suffered. I was more confident in myself and more experienced in a healthy world view. I could not wait to create the life for my child that I so desperately wish I could have given to myself.
But that is another pitfall. My son is not me. And what would have been best for me as a child is not necessarily what would be best for him. Seeing him as my own inner child might not be the worst thing I could do to him, but it denies his individuality, his unique path in life. This trap is something that many, if not most, parents fall into, regardless of the nature of their childhood, but making it a part of the abuse survivor’s healing process is an unfair burden to the child.
If infertility carried with it the silver lining of time to thoroughly recover before parenthood, my son’s prematurity and diagnosis of cerebral palsy carried with it the silver lining of eliminating that last pitfall of treating my child like myself. With his medical needs, there is no chance of creating even the illusion of a “perfect,” “normal” childhood. That last false hope was knocked from me as I realized that he would never be able to fill in as my surrogate. Watching that wish disappear allowed me to acknowledge the impropriety of it all.
Over the nearly four years I’ve been a parent, instead of creating the perfect childhood, I’ve become far more focused on finding balance: giving my son the affection I never received from my own parents, providing discipline in ways that won’t create fear, and allowing him freedom not merely to experience the world but to be himself. Working for this balance fills me with a pride and joy that I’m convinced could not come even if I were able to somehow go back and give myself the nurturing I’d needed in childhood. As I battle in the motherhood trenches, there is always a small part of me sitting back and marveling at how far I’ve come. The damaging voices of my parents are gone, and now the voice I hear in my head is my own voice, speaking with awe and gratitude as it says, “I am a good mother.”