A couple weeks ago both of my kids got the stomach flu. I’m telling you, there aren’t many things that I rank higher in the “hellish experience” department than being a single working mother of two young children with the stomach flu. Missing work (i.e. a paycheck) so that I can spend my day covered in barf, Lysol, and wading through laundry, just kills me. I am convinced that if I die and come to consciousness wearing no shoes while the road to the gates is paved with jumbled up Lego’s, and vomit is somehow involved, I will instantly know that I am in hell.
With that being said, do you know what I rank as an even higher hellish experience than two kids with the stomach flu? When I get the stomach flu and still have to mother two small children. After being up round the clock for several days straight, I suddenly found myself near passed out lying on the cold, slate tiled, bathroom floor. Fun times. At one point I remember stumbling to the couch, looking at the clock, and realizing it was only 4pm. I still had to make dinner, give baths, get the kids to bed, and I could barely hold my head up. The next thing I know I’m looking at the clock and its 3am, all the lights in the house are off, I’m still on the couch, and it is very, very quiet. OH MY GOSH ARE MY CHILDREN EVEN STILL HOME??
I run upstairs and there is my boy child, snuggled into his crib with his snuggie and pacifier. There is a chair next to his bed, he is wearing mismatched pajamas, and a swim diaper. I look into my girl child’s room and she is in her bed, night light on, books on the nightstand, and is sleeping peacefully. As I’m trying to wrap my head around what is going on, I start to wander around the house to see if I can jog my memory and remember taking care of them for the evening. Ok, toothbrushes are on the bathroom counter, so teeth were brushed. Did I feed them? I go into the kitchen and dishes are on the table. Ok, it looks like they had waffles, bananas, and applesauce. Why do I not remember doing any of this?? Great, now not only am I dehydrated, vomiting, and feverish, I am also apparently losing my mind. I go back into the girl child’s room and wake her up.
“Baby, did I make dinner?”
She rubs her eyes, looks at me and says “Oh. You’re not dead. We thought you were dead so I made dinner and put him to sleep. I put waffles in the microwave just like you showed me. I pushed a three and an eight and made sure they weren’t too hot for him. I couldn’t lift him into bed so I got him my desk chair and he climbed in. I read him a story and made sure he had all his things for sleeping and we said our prayers. I even turned all the lights off too because I thought you were dead so you didn’t need any lights on.”
Ok, first off, I think I need to talk with her a little bit more about calling for help if mommy dies. Secondly, I am so proud of her. Third, I am so proud of myself.
Several months ago my friend called me and told me that she was coming to my house, she was bringing someone with, and that they had something for me. I had no idea what was going on and when they showed up, I was shocked as hell. Apparently the woman that came with my friend works for a jewelry company and for the holidays they were running a contest to present a deserving woman with a customized necklace. The day the nominations opened my friend nominated me using my story as my nomination reason. After the woman read my story she immediately stopped taking any more nominations, even though she was supposed to be accepting submissions for a few days. Together the two of them designed a necklace for me that represented my story. Well if that wasn’t surprise enough, I about fell over when I saw the necklace. There was a charm that said “warrior,” symbolizing how I’ve never given up and there was a charm that said “hope” to represent how I always move forward, but the one that got me, the one that took my breath away, was the ribbon charm. My friend looked at me and said “this ribbon is special, it’s the ribbon that’s given to people that have survived child abuse.”
My heart nearly stopped.
Child abuse. I survived child abuse. I know that I did, I mean I’m not an idiot, but I’ve always just sort of skirted the edges and said “my parents were abusive.” I put the focus on my parents by saying “they were abusive” and take it off of myself by avoiding the term “child abuse.”
You see, one of the first questions that I get asked by people when they find out that my parents were abusive, is if I ever fear that I will be abusive towards my kids. I think some just ask out of curiosity, some ask out of poor taste, and I think some ask for fears that they harbor from their own past. They usually mention something about the abuse cycle and ask if that scares me. For a long time, I didn’t know how to answer. It’s embarrassing to be asked that. It instantly makes you feel as if you are being judged in the worst of ways. You are asking me if I would ever abuse a child. Are you asking me if I am a monster? Of course I always say “no, I would never hit a child,” but deep down, where all the ugly lives, with everyone always asking me, I started to wonder if one day I might. I couldn’t imagine doing it and I am by nature a calm person, but still, what if? What if I have been so damaged by my past that I will turn into my mother?
Here I was, holding a beautiful necklace so lovingly gifted to me that boldly stated that I was born of a monster and could very well be damaged because of it.
My friend left and I sank down on the couch, thinking about my parents, my past, and my kids. I wondered if I wore the necklace what people would think of me. I look at my own mother and I know where she came from. Her father was horrifically abusive, so much so, that her own mother hung herself while my mother, at three years old, napped in the next room. By a horrific twist of fate, my mother’s father married a woman who was equally as abusive as he was. Together they abused my mother until her stepmother murdered her father (or so the story is told) and my mother disowned her own family. When I was born the cycle was continued with me. She took everything she had learned growing up, and she unleashed on me.
Now here I am, with two small children, no role models, no husband, and for the most part, no idea what I’m doing. I wonder, all the time, if I’m doing ok. The odds of feeling like my kids are going to turn out ok are stacked against me. They are daycare babies, which makes me feel guilty. I feel like I’m running from sun up to sun down and constantly feel like they don’t see enough of me. I worry that they have no male role model. I worry because I can’t always financially provide them with what they need. My biggest fear though has always been that I will turn out like my mother.
Then things happen. Reality runs over you like a semi truck in the way of the stomach flu and you realize that it’s ok, that the kids are ok. That you are doing ok. I realized that I, am doing ok.
I am not my mother and I never will be. If I was going to turn out like her, it already would have happened. I challenge a good majority of people to compare stress with me over the last few years, because my experiences will kick the ass of most in the general population. I don’t know many people who have gone through as much stress as I have in the last couple of years, and yet even in my worst of times, none of it was ever taken out on my children. I would spend my day scrubbing houses, watching bills go unpaid, being stalked by ex, feeling worn down with everything that was in me, and yet little mouths would be fed. Books would be read, snuggles would be had, heads would be kissed, and children would be loved.
My daughter has always been empathetic towards every living creature, but when I found out that she had spent the night taking care of her little brother, it hit home. “Mom’s dead, I guess it’s just us now, at least I know what I‘m doing!” Not only did she make sure that his physical needs were met, but she had read him a book and tucked him into bed with all the things that make him feel safe. When I saw that, I knew that we would be ok. She is learning from me. She has been watching me and learning what things are important. She knows that it’s not just the feeding and the diapering, but it’s the loving. It’s the books and the pacifiers, it’s the nightlights and the prayers. At five years old she took charge feeling fully confident that she knew what was important and she pulled it off flawlessly.
The cycle has been broken. It ended with me and it will not continue. When my daughter was born I thought long and hard about how I was going to discipline her. I had no baseline on what was and was not appropriate, the only thing I had was the knowledge of how I felt as a child. The only thing I knew about discipline, was that I never wanted my children to feel the way that I did as a child.
I run a tight ship about here. I am strict to the core and my kids know it, and yet all is calm, there is no yelling. I vividly remember what it felt like to have the force of my parent’s words coming down over me from their grown up height, several feet above my head. I don’t remember anything that they were saying, but I remember the feelings associated with the forcefulness of their words. I don’t think my message will come across clearer to my children just because it is coming across louder. If anything, I think it will be drown out, so there is no yelling.
Discipline is handled with phrases such as “I am not happy with the choice that you are making” and “I know how smart you are and I know that you know better than this.” My daughter knows well the phrase “I love you very much, but I do not like how you are acting.” There is also a lot of “I’m sorry that you are upset, I’m upset too. I really wanted you to be able to do that, but you chose to make a bad choice and now we can’t.” There is never any “bad boy,” or “that was stupid,” or “you don’t deserve to do that now.” I refuse to tear down the people that they are, but rather point out the flaw in their actions. So far, it seems to be working. My kids don’t throw tantrums and they rarely act out. We have reward charts for good behavior and “reflection times” when someone needs a time out. Privileges are earned and lost as necessary and I am far from a pushover. I’ll be the first to admit that my kids are far from perfect, they have an energy level that can be difficult to manage, but discipline is handled with a firm gentleness.
I am often told by other child abuse survivors that they are too scared to have children of their own out of fear that they will become abusers themselves. I am proof that the cycle can be broken. Don’t look on your past as a curse, but as a lesson. Not many people have the advantage of remembering what it felt like to be nothing.
Parents these days are busy. There are more two parent working households and single parent families now, than there ever have ever been before and with it comes more stress. It’s easy for parents to get home from a long day at work feeling emotionally drained, overwhelmed, stressed to the max, and feeling daunted by the fact that they still have little lives to watch over for the evening. I get it, I’m right there with them. But what I have, the advantage that I have over people with typical upbringings, is that the feelings that I had as a child are burned into the core of my soul. I have the unique perspective of understanding from a child’s point of view what it felt like to be a burden. What it felt like to be unwanted and in the way. I remember and as much as I want to forget, I can’t, and so I’m using it. I’m taking the unwanted lessons and I’m using them to parent. I may not have the parenting answers that typical upbringing people have, but I have something better.
I have an insight that has been uniquely gifted to me and that’s special. All the other stuff that I need to learn I can read in a book, but the insight that I have gained is priceless. As much as I want to forget how I felt as a child, it gives me a connection to my children that is unique to abuse survivors. I know what I wanted to hear as a child and I make sure to tell my children those things on a near constant basis. I know how I felt as I was being torn down, and even when the day has felt twenty eight hours long and I can’t imagine answering the three hundred and sixty fourth question from the five year old, I refuse to make her feel like she is in my way because I know how much it hurts to feel like a burden.
If you remember from my original story, I have whispered in my daughter’s ear every night of her life since the day she was born “You are amazing. You are precious. You are smart. You are beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently and don’t ever forget it because you are loved." I want nothing more than to burn into her brain the knowledge that she is important, worthy, and loved.
Both of my children know above and beyond that they are loved, and as I watch my daughter grow I’m starting to feel better about the job that I’m doing. I see her cheer her friends on, I see her compliment them and tell them they are doing a great job, and as any mother would be, I’m proud. But I’m not just proud in a bragging mom kind of way “oh good my child listens and has manners,” I’m proud because I’m seeing my fears slip away. At five years old she knows that it feels good to be proud of yourself and she wants others to feel the same way. I’m not failing her, I am teaching her the lessons that no one ever cared to teach me and that many people doubted I would be able to teach my children when they rolled me into a statistic and lumped me into a “cycle.”
I’m going to wear my necklace and I’m going to be proud. I survived child abuse and I’ve broken the cycle. I won’t abuse my children and I am proud of the way that I am raising them. I hope people look at my necklace and understand my path. I want them to look at my past and learn my lessons, look at my children and see my victories.
As abuse survivors we have all been uniquely gifted with insights that a typical person simply cannot possess. We are survivors, we are strong. I am better, not in spite of my past, but because of it. My parenting skills are not “less than,” they are “better because.” I may not have all the answers, but I have the most important ones. I survived child abuse and my children are thriving because of it.
I was born of a monster, but I will not become one. As I’ve referenced before, beauty blooms in the cracks of life and new life grows from the ashes. I look at my children, born of destruction, and I see it. They are growing and thriving and blooming from the cracks of my broken life.
So no, I don’t think that I will abuse my children because of my past. As I watch them grow I am affirmed in the knowledge that my children are thriving, not in spite of my past, but because of it.
Photo Credit Stunned Guy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/somegeekintn/
Photo Credit Heart Strip: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/