Will I mistreat my child?

My family was full of abuse. Am I destined to repeat it?

By Cary Tennis

Published October 25, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

This year my husband and I welcomed our first child.

I'm grateful to be mother to my little boy, more every day as I watch him develop into his own person. I'm writing because becoming a mother has dredged up some emotions, and I'm not sure how to act or feel. I am really confused.

As an adult I have developed a really close relationship with my parents. Things were a bit strained when I was a teenager, and I always assumed that was normal. However, during a recent visit, my mom brought up an ugly incident from my childhood, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that I have sanitized my childhood, because the distance I gained when I moved out allowed me to do so. The incident involved a heated argument in which my father, at the behest of my mother, punched my brother several times. This was not an isolated incident, but it was the worst of many violent arguments with my parents that we dismissed as "not abusive" because nobody's nose was broken and no teachers saw any bruises.

I know that my mother regrets what she did. I know that my father has prioritized peace in his marriage over doing the right thing, but as the victim of his own emotional and physical abuse, I don't fault him for it. Part of me believes they are different people now. However, I can't stop thinking about the way they disciplined us, and the realization of how terribly, terribly wrong it was haunts me. I look at my little boy, and I can't imagine screaming obscenities at him, calling him a "little b***h," a "bastard" or a "f***ing idiot."  I think about somebody doing that to my son, slapping him, hitting him with closed fists, pushing him into walls, chasing him around the house, and I realize that what my brother and I experienced goes so much further than "having strict parents."

I'm also disappointed in myself. My brother and I are estranged. I was the younger child, and through watching the arguments from an early age I became much more adept at avoiding the abuse. I realize now that my brother might harbor some resentment toward me for getting off easy. I know I haven't supported him enough in the past. I'm at peace with his leaving our family behind, and I wish him the best. He's entitled to do whatever helps him heal, and I'm fairly certain he doesn't want me to be a part of that. I still wonder if I have a moral obligation to make my parents confront what they did and atone, even though my brother will never know.

I fear for what kind of mother I will be. I've never been prone to anger. In the five years I've been married to my husband, I've never even raised my voice. However, I know that my mom didn't begin her life with anger issues. She was once the meek daughter of an abusive mother. I worry that as my son grows and he becomes capable of frustrating defiance, I might not be able to keep my cool. I saw a therapist in the past for anxiety issues and depression. I don't feel emotionally unstable, but I wonder if I should go back as a precaution.

I'm dreading Christmas this year. I still love my parents. I don't expect them to be perfect people. I just don't know how to feel about them, how to be around them anymore.


Afraid of My Emotions

Dear Afraid of My Emotions,

Your idea of going back into therapy as a precaution is a good and humane one.

You sound like you are not coming apart or about to snap, that you have reserves of strength to draw on. Still, the coming years will be hard, and you know you will need help. So please do arrange for it. Now is the time.

Do you mind if I make a little digression? Will you follow me a little way down a path? It has to do with what we commonly think of as memory. There are memories, it seems to me, and then there are the shattering things that have happened to us. I think they are different. Maybe what I'm getting at is trauma. I mean to say that there are memories and then there are traumas and they are different. Traumas from the past are not just discrete images in our minds which we can go and look at if we choose to, as if we were browsing in a museum. Traumas are more like contending devils. They are living things. They are alive.

They are working on us all the time, guiding us away from approximations of repetition, warning us away from areas of concern.

The reason for that distinction is that what you have to do now is begin letting these traumas, or "memories," become more vivid, and to do that you cannot just gaze at them; you must re-feel them.

You should do this in a guided way. You can't do this alone. You will need somebody to help you. Someone who specializes in post-traumatic stress might be the right person; perhaps EMDR would help. I've never done EMDR but have spoken to people who have found it effective.

This will not be easy work. You will have to resolve a contradiction. The contradiction is the one you could not resolve as a little girl standing in a doorway or looking from under a table or just paralyzed, cold, mute, frozen against the wall, or holding your mother's skirts, or rushing into the fray to pull your father off your brother, or running from the room crying and hiding under your blanket. This frightened, pleading, sad, lonely, powerless little girl wants to stop what she sees but does not know how; this little girl  knows that her father is wrong and yet knows somehow that what she knows is unknowable, inadmissible, and so she is stuck with unknowable knowledge. She tucks it away somewhere so it will not cripple her motion as she goes through life.

The potentially crippling knowledge is this: She knows her father is wrong and yet also knows her father cannot be wrong unless she changes her conception of him and she is powerless to change her conception of him because she is only a child and does not have that adult ability to evaluate character, to understand motive, to accept complexity. So everything freezes there; she no longer considers her father at all; she freezes him; she no longer has a fluid, living relationship with him. Things just stop there and she moves on in a way without a father, without a father she can give herself to in that wonderful, full way we can give ourselves to a parent who does not frighten us out of our wits.

She also sees how her brother plays a role in the abuse, how he sets it off, disobeys, does not cower, does not hide but defies them and is beaten as much for his defiance as for his transgressions and so her relationship with her brother too must freeze there, as she cannot fault her brother for being the victim yet she sees clearly that there are protective measures he might take -- those measures she herself has taken to save herself. For which, of course, she feels a measure of guilt.

So this is some pretty awful knowledge. You have protected yourself against this knowledge your whole life. The protections you learned to use when young are still in force. You will not give them up easily. But it will be necessary now to break that shell and release what is held in it. There will be terror and pain when that shell breaks but you will survive it because you will know, now that you are an adult, that the terror and pain you feel are from the past. It will be upsetting and perhaps at times feel "destabilizing," but in the end, if you can go through this journey, you will be able to see how you adjusted to these things, how you made certain decisions that served you well then but now must be gently reconsidered, and you will develop skills to cope with the feelings as they come up from time to time.

Arriving at peace within yourself may help you eventually in dealing with your mother and your brother but they are not the focus; you are. Your mother and brother may remain largely opaque to you. Unless and until they go through a process similar to yours, you will have no shared language with which to discuss what happened.

Strangely enough, many people seem to prefer not to deal with such issues at all, but to live in that anxious ever-vigilant state of guardedness against the echoes of trauma. Hell if I know why. But many people seem to prefer to pretend nothing happened, and until they stop pretending, you will not be able to talk with them meaningfully about it.

But that's not the important thing. The important thing is how, by coming to terms with your  own memories of trauma, you can avoid passing on a legacy of violence to future generations.

Cary Tennis

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