I grew up in a narcissistic family. I'm not having kids because I want the cycle to end

I'd never had a stable model for how to raise emotionally healthy kids. I realized I had to break the cycle

Published July 24, 2022 2:30PM (EDT)

Small siblings covering their ears while refusing to listen their parents arguing in dining room (Getty Images/skynesher)
Small siblings covering their ears while refusing to listen their parents arguing in dining room (Getty Images/skynesher)

When my grandfather passed away more than three years ago, I offered to write his obituary. I'd written two: First came the doting one, the version that I knew local newspapers would publish without issue. And then I wrote the honest one — the version of his life that I knew editors would refuse to run, regardless of how much money I offered them.

My grandfather was a good, honest and hardworking man. That much is true. But he was also the victim of a brutish marriage, the details of which still make me shudder and my heart ache. The challenges he experienced didn't stop at a toxic marriage; several of his children emotionally abused him, and in the hours before his scheduled cremation, one of them drove clear across the country to clean out his bank accounts upon learning of his death.

Even though I knew no one would run it, I attempted to post my grandfather's "honest" obituary to several local newspapers. In it, I'd described the narcissistic trauma he'd endured until his death at 84 years old. When editors refused, I shared the obit with several close friends instead.

The mental health issues plaguing my family are intergenerational, and the trauma continues to affect every generation born into it. My family members had historically shamed and punished those who dared to speak out about the dysfunction. 

My reasons for wanting to write — and share — the raw version of my loved one's obituary stemmed from my growing disgust for the secrets that narrated my family tree. Narcissistic abuse is defined by MedCircle as "the emotional, physical, sexual, or financial forms of abuse that a narcissist inflicts on others," including gaslighting, manipulation, emotional blackmail, a lack of empathy and a long list of other traumatizing behaviors. This was our family's dirty little secret, and with conversations about narcissism and narcissistic trauma gaining traction in the media and public imagination, I was tired of my family's generations-long investment in silence and appearances.

The mantel had grown too heavy, and the gig was up. I'd had enough, in more ways than I'd been aware of at the time.

Children born into narcissistic families know how hard it can be to share stories like these. The truth is, the mental health issues plaguing my family are intergenerational, and the trauma continues to affect every generation born into it (I'm currently in therapy trying to wade through the sludge). My family members had historically shamed and punished those who dared to speak out about the dysfunction. Afterall, I was "just" the granddaughter, and still—maddeningly—considered a child. Who was I to have an opinion? Despite being nearly 40 years old, with my own life and desires, I'd been villainized by a key family member for daring to share an unpalatable perspective of my grandfather's death, but most of all, daring to defy my family's expectations for obedient silence.

As a result of ObituaryGate, I found myself having to establish boundaries with this same family member, whom I'll call Adrian. Adrian was unhappy about my decision to air our family's laundry to my trusted inner-circle; I reminded Adrian that she was not the only family member with wants and needs that mattered—that I mattered just as much as she did, that I had a need to share, and that I was no longer a child. I'd reminded Adrian that she was responsible for managing her own feelings, particularly in reference to her lifelong pattern of chronically manipulating other family members into doing what she wanted. I'd told Adrian that I loved her, but would no longer submit myself to her outsized rage and random outbursts (ObituaryGate merely being the latest example to top a lifetime's worth of unchecked anger). My own mental health was on the line.

My request that Adrian receive professional help for her longstanding need to control other adults was met with crickets. More than three years later, Adrian's silence — a well-established weapon of war in my family — continues.

Thanks to my family's legacy of turning on each other and eating their young, I'd never had a stable model for how to raise emotionally healthy children. And so, I wondered: would having children of my own curse them to repeat the same traumatic cycle that I went through?

During that time, I'd had to make difficult decisions about my own future. Chief among these was whether to start a family. For the first time in my life, I was in a position to do so — at least in terms of logistics. My spouse and I were finally living under the same roof after we'd spent the first five years of our relationship separated by three states and two time zones. We had his loving family nearby, a logistical luxury I had not experienced in over ten years. We were financially stable, another characteristic that was relatively new to me.

But, thanks to my family's legacy of turning on each other and eating their young, I'd never had a stable model for how to raise emotionally healthy children. And so, I wondered: would having children of my own curse them to repeat the same traumatic cycle that I went through?

There was no way to know for sure. But in the end, I decided that the probability was just too high — both for myself and for any potential offspring. When you come from a dysfunctional family, it's hard to feel like you're capable of breaking that cycle. I couldn't bear the thought of another child being born into the web of narcissistic abuse that I'd spent my entire life trying to extricate from.

The stigma of having grown up this way was also the elephant in the room that helped me make my decision. For those of us from narcissistic families, the thought of the word "family" itself  can bring up negative feelings. I do not often talk about growing up because the details of my day-to-day life as a child are nearly impossible to articulate to those who haven't been through something similar.

This is especially true because, on the surface, I had all of my physical needs met as a child. Us children had clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs. We did well in school and our parents, to whatever extent possible, encouraged and paid for extracurriculars. Ours was a childhood where there were also good — very good — times. The toxicity was hard to see.

Those of us who try to explain these disparate experiences — that of having one's physical needs met while consistent emotional nourishment and efforts to instill healthy attachment were near nonexistent — are typically met with skeptical comments, like "How is that possible when you've obviously turned out fine?"

It turns out that the insidiousness of narcissistic trauma is just really hard to explain.

For that reason, I understand the inclination toward disbelief. We all know, intellectually, that there are a lot of unhealthy families out there. But to encounter someone who says they came up in such a construct requires us to come face to face with inconvenient truths about the world. It demands that we reconsider everything we believe about families and what they're supposed to represent — to be — to their members. These uncomfortable truths require us to consider that there is much we don't know about what goes on behind the scenes of any family, let alone those with unpalatable backstories. Perhaps these hard truths even force us to come face to face with who we are, and our own contributions to the family unit.

In my case, the narcissistic abuse that defined (and continues to define) my family is intergenerational — also a complicated construct to explain. But some of the trauma in my family, for instance, comes from knock-down drag-out fights over issues large and small; financial abuse; emotional manipulation; and — above all — a breathtaking lack of empathy for others' feelings and experiences. This was the norm for my family's dynamics long before I was born; hence, dysfunction was normalized and passed down by older generations like an heirloom.

In this way, I'd been the unwitting recipient of an unfortunate inheritance. Many of these same family members are still alive, willfully clueless as to the pain that their descendants carry with them to school, to work, to their friends' houses, and to their therapists' offices. The pain is like carrying around another limb — it becomes intrinsic to a person. And I didn't want to extend this to another child.

I'd seen firsthand how this flavor of family dysfunctional and resulting pain secures a vice-like grip around each and every family member born into the fold. To my mind, the only way to truly end the cycle is to stop reproducing into it.

Even recognizing the patterns of dysfunction that are so baked in, so entrenched into a family's DNA, is hard — and for some, impossible (which is often how such cycles continue). It had taken me more than 30 years to come to grips with my family's sickness. As I'd said, life on the surface was so pristine that there almost wasn't room for other interpretations — not even my own.

What really goes behind the scenes of a narcissistic household? While I can only speak for myself, my own experiences are captured within the professional discourse about what such environments often look like.

A narcissistic household often looks like children being relied upon to anticipate their parents' (or other adults') emotional needs. As journalist Julie Hall, author of "The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free," writes in an explainer for Psychology Today: "a narcissistic family is one in which the needs of the parents are the focus and the children are expected in various ways to meet those needs."

Having lived in this environment, I saw firsthand how this dynamic does not change, even as children grow older and become adults with their own lives to live. As Hall points out, "As in other kinds of dysfunctional families, there is abuse and corresponding denial of the abuse. There is also secrecy, neglect, unrealistic expectations, an impoverishment of empathy, disrespect for boundaries, and ongoing conflict."

I've spent the entirety of my adult life contending with the lasting effects of growing up in this sort of toxic family system. Looking back, I do believe that the ultimate deciding factor against having children was my diagnosis of PTSD. My therapist had noted just how much I continued to struggle as a result of my childhood experiences.

As it happened, I'd just read Kristen Brownell's piece in The Guardian at around the same time as my diagnosis. She wrote about the potential to genetically pass on addiction genes. The author had refused to have children for this reason. Around this same time, I'd come across researchers who were looking at how trauma might also be passed down through genes. While the jury is out and more research needs to be done (scientists admit that the field is moving slowly in this regard), it remains possible that a person's genes could have expressions of their parents', grandparents' and great-grandparents' trauma. Much like scientists are beginning to understand how addiction has the potential to express itself genetically, a 2019 study identified a clear biological basis for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sometimes I convince myself that I am equipped to consider motherhood. But the fact remains that I'm terrified of raising — and screwing up — children due to my lifelong struggles with emotional instability and post-traumatic stress. How could I begin to believe that my own children would somehow be spared the legacy that I've spent my life contending with? For these reasons, I feel that I am playing it safe by opting out of parenthood.

One day as I was writing this piece, I was curious as to what feelings come to mind when most people think of family. So, I did a search for "adjectives for family."  Common ones included adoring; affectionate; boisterous; brotherly; close-knit; cohesive; competitive; devoted; bonded; dutiful.

There's nothing wrong with people who can say that they come from families like this. But for many, these descriptors are not reality. The fact is, parents can do serious emotional harm to children. It's a gift that our culture is opening up to this reality, and that there are acclaimed mental health experts like Dr. Ramani Durvasula and Lindsey Gibson dismantling the taboo.

I applaud those parents who have found a way to overcome such legacies with their children. But my own legacy as a cycle-breaker relies on remaining childfree.

By Christina Wyman

Christina Wyman is a writer and teacher living in Michigan. Her debut novel "Jawbreaker" is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2023) and is a Middle Grade book that follows a seventh-grader with a craniofacial anomaly that's caught the attention of her school bullies -- including her own sister. She can be found on Twitter @CBWymanWriter

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Essay Family Mental Health Narcissistic Abuse Psychology Trauma