Trigger warning: This article discusses physical abuse and childhood abuse.
I can recall my first memory vividly; I was five, wearing a T-shirt and overalls and sporting two very long pigtails that swayed side to side as I ran towards the door in our house that led to our backyard porch. I was running from a parent who was furious about something I had done—a mess I had made, I am sure—and would have eluded them had it not been for the lock. I just couldn’t turn the doorknob in time.
I remember a very powerful hand grabbing me by the back of my overalls, spinning me to face them as another powerful hand became a tight fist that struck me on the cheek. I remember a stinging, burning, and a ringing sound in my proudly-pierced ears, and then my five-year-old body falling to the wooden planks of that dreaded porch—the one that didn’t turn out to be my sanctuary, after all. I remember wetting my overalls as I laid motionless, hoping one blow would satisfy my parent’s rage so I could change my clothes without anyone noticing the embarrassing way my body had failed me.
And then I remember, thankfully, hearing the door close—the last detail of a recollection that, 28 years later, has yet to fade.
Rarely do I allow myself to revisit that very first memory. Now that I’m a parent to a five-year-old and a one-year-old, I am more concerned with the moments they’re retaining and how they could inevitably shape their futures. My kindergartener swears he can recall his first trip to Sesame Place (he was two) and how, yes, how very big, very pink Abby was scary at first but ended up giving the best hugs. (He also claims he can remember his first home in Seattle, WA, although we moved to New York City when he was one.)
What I do know is that my sons’ first memories will involve laughter, and sloppy kisses, what we have come to call squeeze-hugs, and feelings of comfort and safety. In fact, that is the only thing I can definitively say I am confident in when it comes to my ability to parent; that their first memories’ will in no way resemble my own. But my confidence, unfortunately, begins and ends there.
Because when my sons do what children are prone to do as they push boundaries and and learn to navigate feelings they have yet to name—like hitting and throwing and biting—I become that scared, five-year-old girl lying on her back porch again. I am unable to run fast enough to evade the memory of the person who hurt me over, and over, and over again when I was a child. And when I fail and those memories recapture me, my sons’ first memories no longer seem to matter, as mine begins to grab a hold of them, too.
Nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the United States, according to the National Children’s Alliance, and in 78.1% of those cases the perpetrator is a parent. Adults who experienced child abuse are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from major depression and 6 times more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than adults who did not, according to one 2009 study. And, of course, many of those adults also go on to have children.
I would like to think that I was prepared (insofar as any one person can possibly prepare themselves for parenthood) to have a baby. I read the books, I asked the right questions, I took the classes, I ate the “right” foods and I bought the “right” baby-related items. I even joined the “right” online groups. But it was entirely impossible for me to be prepared for how the abuse I endured as a child would revisit me when I had one of my own.
When my toddler throws a fit because I gave him a blue cup instead of a red cup, and subsequently throws the cup at me to demonstrate his disapproval, I experience a flashback, what Joyelle Brandt describes in her book Parenting with PTSD: the impact of childhood abuse on parenting, which she co-authored with Dawn Daum, as “an experience [that] takes you back in time to relive your abuse. In the first kind of flashback you become your child self again. An example of this could be having the physical sensations of breastfeeding remind you of your abuser touching your breasts. Or your toddler slaps you in the face while having a tantrum and you are transported back to your childhood experience of being hit by an abusive parent. These are everyday moments that for people without childhood trauma are completely innocuous but for an abuse survivor are laden with anxiety and fear.”
When my child slaps me in a fit of rage or haphazardly throws a toy that just so happens to strike me in the face,I am no longer the “parent” in the room—not in my mind, anyway. I am a child again, cowering in fear, trying to fight a force much larger and much stronger than I am. Only this time, it’s not a parent three times my size, but the memory of them. I have to fight to remind myself that I am not back in my living room, being choked to the point of near-unconsciousness for disagreeing with my parent over a call in a football game. Or in my childhood kitchen, being pushed up against the fridge and slapped repeatedly in the face for talking back. I am not being thrown down my stairs, shoved to my living room floor, or being punched in the nose.
I am standing in front of a small human who lacks the ability to self-regulate their emotions, and I have to fight to remain present so that I can help them hone the very skills that, in that moment, I lack.
It’s impossible for me to feel like I am capable of caring for two small children when my 1-year-old’s tiny but oh-so sharp teeth can make me feel so infantile. I struggle to feel as though I have any authority over even the most mundane things, like bedtime, when I can’t help but cower in the nearest corner after my 5-year-old accidentally hits me across the face as he tests the laws of gravity on our couch.
I can’t seem to move forward and forget what my abuser said to me, how they hurt me, and all the promises they made to me—like how I’d never be enough and no one would love me and I deserved to feel worthless because I was and always would be—when my precious, beautiful, kind, loving, incredibly sweet children whose only fault are doing child-like things, remind me of them.
I’ve been in therapy, in some form, on and off, since I became a mom. And acknowledging, through the help of therapists and psychiatrists and medication, how my past is dictating my present and will likely impact my future is helping me be a more mindful, more present parent to my two sons.
I learned that just like my 5-year-old legs couldn’t carry me away from my abuser, I cannot white-knuckle my way through PTSD triggers that send me back to a time when I was not safe. I had to grow, literally, into an adult in order to escape the abuse I endured as a child, and now, as a parent, I have to continue to grow as someone who is navigating the mental health ramifications of that abuse.
And in order to leave that 5-year-old behind—the girl shivering on that porch, waiting to pick herself back up and go on with her life as best she can—I have to acknowledge that, in many ways, she is still there. I am still there. Waiting to fully heal.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse and need help, you can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to speak to a trained counselor.