This is a post that was difficult to write, but one I have always kept in my drafts to share when the moment felt right. Sometimes I wonder what value there is in sharing such personal and challenging things about myself online, but then I remember a time I read a blog post or article by another woman that made me feel supported, understood and validated, and I strive to be authentic and vulnerable because I want to do that for others, too.
I’m writing today about parenting when you didn’t have a picturesque childhood or had/have a toxic parent(s). As an adult, I continue to feel a sense of loneliness and shame about the fact that I have no contact with one parent and limited contact with the other. I still feel pangs of jealousy and desire when I see friends who are close with their families and siblings and I imagine what my life might be like if I too, had that kind of family. I also feel judged sometimes – I wonder if people who don’t know me intimately think there must be “something wrong with me” or why I just can’t “get it together” enough to have a strong relationship with my parents. Before I continue – I want to acknowledge the incredible family and friends I DO have in my life, and how grateful I am for them. I truly believe my life path took me where I am today because God knew these people are who I needed.
The truth is that when you have zero or limited contact with your parents as an adult, it becomes part of your identity (at least it is for me). I’m open about my childhood and upbringing, but it’s still painful to wonder about the what ifs…knowing deep down that there are no “what ifs” because you can’t change who someone is.
Before I had children, I remember always saying that when I became a parent, it would be my chance to do things differently. To give my children the childhood I never had. I strive for that each and every day and I’m so lucky that I have a partner to help me through the hard moments (and in todlerhood, as you know, there are many).
My struggles as a mother are so deeply interconnected to my childhood, but I didn’t realize this until a therapy session I had months ago. I’ve seen therapists on and off since I was about 17 years old (both on my own and some with my mother) and I have been in cognitive behavioral therapy for PPA/GAD for over a year (read more about that here). In that therapy session, I became emotional when I described some moments where I was not proud of my parenting or how I reacted to something. I even went as far as saying that it reminded me of how my parents would act, which horrified me.
My therapist explained that your childhood memories and learned behaviors are so deeply ingrained in you, that it’s not uncommon for adults who had parents that physically and emotionally abused them carry out those same behaviors when they have children – it’s all they know. It’s how they were taught by their own parents to react. They never saw what normal discipline or reactions were like because everything was explosive, dramatic and violent.
She also reassured me that what I was describing to her was in no way even remotely close to what I went through as a child – but that I might feel it is because I am so anxious about my parenting and my reactions when I have to discipline my children that I become extremely hard on myself if I yell or lose my patience or temper. We have never spanked or hit our children precisely because of the fact that my parents hit me (and not just a spank on the butt). We don’t believe it’s right for our children or family – I don’t want my children to feel like I felt – afraid and wondering when the next violent outburst would happen (and over what). There were days where I would pray on the school bus all the way home because I knew I would be hit for a bad grade on my report card (I was supposed to get all As, of course).
Like most parents, sometimes I lose my temper and I always feel horrible about myself when I yell at my children. My therapist said it’s a good sign that I feel a sense of remorse for my actions (something my parents did not feel and to this day will not in any way take responsibility for) and I, in turn, have apologized to my children if I over-reacted to something (something I also never experienced as a child – I cannot think of one apology from either parent for their behavior, that was genuine, and not prompted by my begging).
Parenting when you didn’t have good role models is incredibly complicated. It’s like a constant battle I have in my own head – I have to stop my reactions sometimes and take a moment to think before acting. As a child and teen, reactions to things like spilled milk, washing the dishes the “wrong way” or losing a sweater at school amounted to explosive screaming, horrible things said about me and sometimes, violent behavior. I will NEVER forget the kinds of things I used to get into trouble for because I couldn’t comprehend why they ever warranted such a reaction. I always knew that my parent’s reactions were irrational and not normal, but when you grow up in that kind of chaos, it also becomes your normal. I still feel the knee-jerk reaction sometimes to make a big fuss over spilled food on the floor or when something breaks – sometimes I’m successful in just cleaning up the mess or reacting appropriately (let’s be more careful, I asked you not to touch that) and other times, I have become angry and yelled.
For me, being a parent involves a constant merry-go-round of examining my actions and reactions, evaluating my response and then being hard on myself when I have the moments we all do – when we’re not proud of our reactions. Many mothers that grew up without emotional and physical abuse can have bad moments and tell themselves that tomorrow is another day, while I tend to dwell on it (though, I’m getting much better about it – read 7 things that make me a better mom, here). Growing up with parents who did not model appropriate parenting behaviors has made me both a better parent and a parent who struggles immensely. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make those memories and learned behaviors disappear, but I can’t. I can only continue to work to find the strength and support I need so that my children can have the childhood they deserve – filled with unconditional love and feeling safe.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that even though I’m over two years postpartum, I’m still in therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy isn’t an “easy button” to mental wellness. It’s a continual process of learning, challenging yourself to think differently and taking “baby steps” towards better mental health. I know that I will never be “cured” of my anxiety – it’s part of who I am – but having the support and tools I need to overcome challenges has been paramount in feeling like I’m doing all I can to be the best mother, wife, friend, etc.
If you’re struggling in this way, know that you’re not alone. If you look at my life and think it must be pretty perfect, remind yourself there are things you’ll never see and pain you’ll never know about– and that even these snippets of vulnerability sharing my oftentimes painful childhood, do not paint the full picture.
Thank you for reading and for showing your compassion and support towards content that isn’t easy for me to publish.