Parenting After Abuse

“My mother once told me that she had the urge to throw my brother, who had been crying for a long time, out the window,” my new friend told me, as we sat on her fading yellow couch nursing our four-month-olds. I was shocked. Mostly, though, I was relieved.

I barely knew Annie (of Motherhood and More) when she shared her mother’s story with me. We had met through a parenting group and bonded over the matching ages of our girls. Annie explained that her mother’s admission was important to her because she was also sometimes caught off-guard by her own terrible thoughts and urges as a mother. Though she’d never acted upon them, they were especially troubling to her since she was not raised in an abusive household. She had erroneously assumed that only adults who had been abused as children would revert to such painful thinking regarding their own children.

Her mother’s reassurance—that it is common for mothers to have terrible thoughts about their children—has comforted me through some very challenging parenting experiences.

See, I was abused as a child. I knew violence first-hand. I waited to have children until I felt confident that I would not abuse my own children.

I thought I had processed all that I could and had healed from my childhood. Then I became a mother to two pre-school aged children who had joined our family through adoption. This alone, this fact that they were adopted, means that they had experienced their own traumas (adoption, especially non-newborn adoption, is predicated upon loss and trauma*). Within two months, I was pregnant with a third child. With the great joy of forming a family so quickly came stress and exhaustion, combined with the heart-breaking realization that I was in over my head.

Parenting, especially during those early, frenetic years, opened me up. It forced me to heal the places I never thought I could reach, those places I might otherwise have left broken.

Every single parenting move I made when they were new—from how I hugged my children to how I dealt with tantrums—was punctuated by both my history and theirs. So that while I assumed other mommies were putting their babies to bed and then relaxing (I now know they probably weren’t), I was obsessing over every move I’d made. Was I gentle enough? Did I spend enough time with them? Was the story too scary? When they got out of bed for the fourth time, was I too stern?

Worse, when I could feel a presence seemingly outside of myself, but clearly a part of me, shaking with exhaustion-turned-to-rage over another hour of a child crying in the middle of the night, I was sure that I was the only parent in the entire world who could possess such ugly thoughts and urges concerning their children.

I spent a lot of time in mommy time-outs back then in order to stop myself from acting on those urges. I’d quickly put the children together in my son’s crib with a few toys and some books, lock myself in the bathroom, and scrawl out my terrible urges in a notebook while sobbing snot all over myself. Then I’d violently rip up the page and flush it down the toilet. I was terrified of ever telling another soul, especially another mother, about those urges. I was repulsed with myself, ashamed that all those years I thought I’d spent healing had not prevented them. On some of those days, when my husband came home, I would hand him the children and, knowingly—God bless him—he would kiss me and tell me to take as long a walk as I needed.

Once, about eight weeks into my pregnancy, my son had been projectile vomiting through the previous night and that day, and I was waiting for the doctor to call me back to tell me whether or not she thought the intense pain I was experiencing indicated an ER visit to rule out ectopic pregnancy (it did not). Our church was also falling apart, shattering our social network with it, and we were far from any family. Meanwhile, my eldest, three years old at the time and going through a normal tantrum phase, was demonstrating her resistance to nap time by kicking and punching at me as I carried her up the stairs.

I reached the third stair when she accidentally kicked me in the abdomen. At that moment, I felt the presence again. Only this time, instead of shaking with rage, I could feel it wanting to ball my hand into a fist and pull it back to punch whatever or whomever I could. To stop myself from letting the presence dominate, I thrust my arms, with my daughter in them, far from my belly, dropped her onto the stair landing, and then fell onto the landing myself and punched the stairs over and over again.

That night, instead of taking a walk, I went to see a therapist.

She told me that under those circumstances, even a parent who’d never experienced violence herself might have reacted similarly.

I countered, “But a parent who has never experienced violence doesn’t have to deal with the presence.”

The presence isn’t an excuse for those feelings and urges, just as it wouldn’t have been an excuse had I acted on those urges. It is a layer of parenting that can feel impossible to peel off when one is in the thick of things. Though it does not have to define or control a parent, it can rear its ugly head in even the most healed of parents who have experienced violence.

It is a constant reminder that we are forging a path from that very spot where we are parenting. There is no path that precedes us, at least not one that we want to continue taking. We are the path.

It is a very lonely place to be. It is so lonely that we might forget that we can forge a new path than the one that led us to that place; that there are a multitude of paths approaching us from all sides that want to connect with us at the place where we are beginning anew.

I started to discover those paths after my youngest was born, a little over a year into my parenting journey, around the time I met Annie. By then, I was tired of being the only mommy I knew on my path so I confided in her about my terrible mommy thoughts, the presence, and my mommy time-outs. She told me the story her mother had told her and also the reason she’d needed that comfort—that she too had felt like she could hurt her crying baby.

And there it was: a path that had not begun with violence connecting with mine.

And there I was: no longer alone.

After that, I would take a phone into the bathroom for my mommy time-outs and after scrawling and flushing, I would call someone. “Annie,” I’d say, “I need to come over and I need you to parent my kids. I will bake everyone cookies.” I baked everyone a lot of cookies in those early, chaotic years.

We’d get together with another dear friend, who’d also had 3 children in a short span of time, under the guise of creating an educational experience for the kids. Really, we just wanted them to play so we could have a full cup of coffee, finish a sentence, and get to pee alone.

Since that moment when Annie told me that her mother had once thought of throwing her son out the window, I have tried to be open with other mothers, especially mothers who are parenting in challenging situations and out of broken paths. I tell them about those same urges I’ve had—about the time I punched the stairs, about those parenting moments when I didn’t know what to do with the presence.

One time, another friend, who had also never experienced abuse and whose own parents had been models for me, finished her story about her own terrible thoughts by sharing that she too worried about what others might think of her for having them.

We parents have been conditioned to live inside of ourselves; to deny connection, to feel shame for tangled feelings and open wounds.

We have to share these thoughts, though. We have to give and accept support. I later learned from a psychologist, that my method of scrawling out and flushing my feelings can literally alter the brain, aiding in resisting those urges. So I continue to do it and it continues to calm me. Nevertheless, I still believe that there is nothing so healing as feeling like you are not alone.

Had I never shared my thoughts that late fall day on Annie’s couch; had I never heard her mother’s story, I truly believe I would have eventually caved to the long path that preceded me. It was familiar after all; it was what I knew. Though I’d been lucky enough to see parents do it differently throughout my life, I still possessed the presence. Until I was able to merge my mothering path with those of other mothers who also understood that terrible thoughts do not necessarily make terrible parents, it possessed me as well.

*Not all adopted people experience the loss in the same way to the same degree. There are many factors contributing to how an adopted person experiences adoption.