Friday, June 27, 2014

Parenting After Violence

Annie over at Motherhood and More wrote a post for Scary Mommy's blog sharing myths she'd observed about parenthood.

You can read it here.

I was particularly struck by #4 because I too have been comforted by that very same story Annie's mother told her about once having (and resisting) the urge to throw her crying baby out the window.

Annie writes that as a child who had never experienced abuse, she was surprised by such thoughts, by feeling unrestrained toward her own child, by those moments when she set a child down too firmly or squeezed an arm a little too tightly. Her mother's reassurance, that it's common for mothers to be prone to terrible thoughts about their children, has gotten me through some very difficult parenting experiences.

See, I was abused as a child. I knew violence first hand.

I thought I had processed it all and had healed from my childhood until I happily became a mother to two pre-school aged children who had joined our family through adoption out of trauma -- and then was immediately pregnant with a third.

Parenting my wonderful, beautiful, children, two who'd known their own trauma, 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 perseverating over every move I'd made. Was I gentle enough? Did I spend enough time with them? Was the story too scary? Did it bring up their trauma? 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 wailing 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, 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, 3 years old at the time, who had (understandably) cried a good portion of her waking hours (and some of her sleeping ones too) since she'd been home, 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 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, so lonely that we might forget that, though we cannot continue the path that led us to that place, 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 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 our dear friend Julie, who'd also had 3 children in a short span of time, under the guise of creating an educational experience for the kids when, 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, 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, a dear friend, one 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 have to share them. Though, as I later learned from a neuropsychologist, my method of scrawling them out and flushing them, can literally alter the brain, aiding in resisting those urges, 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 and, 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.


Judy in CA said...

Paula, this a a spectacularly beautiful heartfelt expression of love. It reflects the actions of God, helping us in those ways that sometimes surprise us a how subtle they are. I will share it here in Bakersfield where it is dearly needed and I know it will spiral out to others in many wonderful ways.

Paula F. said...

Thank you, Judy. What a special comment, especially coming from the woman who first spoke those important words that comforted both Annie and myself. It's wonderful how one mother's words can have such a great effect on so many other mothers.

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