Learning to Love My Children After Abuse
I did not grow up feeling loved, validated or cherished by my mother. It is difficult for me to pour these words out because I desire to honor her. She died in 1998, along with my father in a car accident. I believe, with all my heart, that my mother did the very best she could. She had deep wounds, herself, and could barely manage to give any of her daughters what they so desperately needed . . . we needed her attention, her love and (more than anything), for her to be able to handle our negative emotions and help us navigate through life. By the time I was 11, I no longer wanted to live. I ached for her to see me. She was distracted by her own fears and struggles. I understand that, now. But, oh! What a difference her love would have been to all of us girls! If we all knew we were loved and cherished by our mother . . . I feel certain that the nasty comparisons and abusiveness would never have gone on among us. I remember being in loving households. I wanted so bad to have parents like some of my friends had! I wanted to feel treasured! Not criticized or scorned! I simply wanted to be loved . . . without having to perform. When I was seven, I experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a neighborhood ice cream man. I told my parents when I was 16. My mother walked out of the room. She looked the other way. Oh, Mother! Please look at me! Please don’t just walk away! We never spoke about it again.
When I boldly asked my mother if I was pretty, she remarked sharply, “Beauty is as beauty does!” I never asked her again. I never felt I could win her approval. She worked us hard . . . ballet lessons, piano lessons . . . she made sure our English was perfect and that we were highly impressive to the on-looker. I lived out her own anxiety. It seemed everything she did was out of fear that we would not be acceptable . . . because I am sure she did not feel acceptable, deep down inside. I come from a long line of insecure women. My mother struggled with her mother . . . my grandmother struggled with my great-grandmother . . . and on back it went. We were picked on for how we talked. We were carefully watched and nastily scolded in that angry-whisper-voice when we did not meet with her satisfaction. If I came home upset about something that happened in school, my mother would say, “OHHHHH!” in an exasperated tone. She did not want to hear it. So, after a while, I did not share anything with her. When I became a woman, she seemed irritated by it. She frequently commented on my figure . . . how her’s USED to look like mine. I felt ashamed of myself. Ashamed that I could make my mother feel so bad just because I was alive. I felt sure she would be happier if I were gone and she did not have to look at me. I was emotionally neglected. Deeply wounded.
About three years ago, a friend came to visit. He was the same friend who first pointed out how abusive and dysfunctional my ex was. At some point, during that visit (or after, I cannot remember), he said, “I charge you to love your children.” “What?!” I said, “I DO love them!” I was insulted. The friend said, “No . . . I mean really love them.” I did not know exactly what he meant but I did remember the emptiness and cruelty of my own childhood. And I knew I did not want that for my precious four. And all I knew was what I had grown up with and what I had married into. I was sure something was dreadfully wrong but I was at a loss as to how to fix it. I was great at making home made bread and dressing the kids and doing “motherly things”. But, much was missing. As I have a thousand times in the past 3 years, I went on my knees and admitted my inadequacy. “Teach me to love,” I pleaded with Jesus, “I don’t know how. I admit I don’t know how.”
How do we learn to parent when we suffered as children? How do we learn to parent when there is only one of us? When we have come out of trauma and are in the middle of crises ourselves?
I don’t know the answer to that for everyone . . . but I will share my own journey. After my prayer, I began to be more conscientious. This is super humbling to admit but, I had to make myself learn to hug my children. This was completely foreign to me. I had never received any non-sexual affection from my ex. And my parents were not affectionate with me beyond babyhood. I would self-talk. “There is a child in the room, turn around and hug him.” Or, “Don’t let her walk by without kissing her cheek.” It all seems very basic but it just shows how much I had to learn. Now, it is second-nature to show affection to my children! (And any other children that happen to be in our house!) In fact, the rule now is that every child in this house hugs this mama when they wake up.
Next, I had to learn to listen to the children — really listen. Look them in the eye; pay attention.
I learned to encourage my children. The girls will always know that I think they are beautiful, beautiful creatures. The boys know they are handsome. They all know that I treasure them. When they accomplish something, they are praised. I also praise their natural gifts. I fill their little love cups until they do not need to hear it anymore. I have watched them bloom.
The most difficult area (that needed the most work) was being able to handle their negative emotions. If my son or daughter gets into the car after school and immediately shares a relationship-struggle or something painful that happened during their day, my heart still races a bit . . . but I can now listen, talk them through it, and give wisdom. I can validate them. (That is huge) “Oh, son. That is tough. That would have upset me, too.” I can talk through things with my daughter. She tells me everything! I am still working on this, though. I panic a little . . . what will the other kids think about what he did? What will the teacher think? That is how I grew up . . . but I am starving out that little fear of man. Because my children are valuable.
When I first left my ex, I went very easy on my children. I felt guilt. Big time, stifling, false guilt. Not only had I brought them into this world . . . into a bad, bad marriage . . . but I then shook their worlds further by leaving their biological father. I let them get away with far too much. A friend pointed out that I was doing them no favors. Sadly, I told the children that I was failing them by not disciplining them and then I began to pull out that Warrior-Megan that was down deep . . . that Megan that had to discipline like a mother-father. And I had to do it correctly. In love and not in anger. All single moms know how exhausting that can be. When my daughter was angry and would not look at me in the bed, I would sit by the bedside until she was ready. I simply insisted on health between the two of us. “Sweetheart, I am the only mom you have and the only parent you have right now. I will not allow you to break down our relationship. Believe it or not, you need me! And . . . I need you.” Things got better.
Mary DeMuth helped me tremendously in the past three years. She wrote a book called “Thin Places”, a memoir about how Mary was sexually abused as a child and how her mother could not handle it. It is a true story about how Mary finally grew into a mother who loves her children. Another helpful book by Ms. DeMuth is called “Building the Christian Family You Never Had.” I highly recommend these resources for moms who are not sure where to begin.
Loving proactively is work — good work. I want it to be the very core of my nature. And it is getting easier. God is pouring out His grace on every little baby step. I still have a long way to go and, fortunately, my children are very forgiving. They know we are taking a journey together. And they have grace for that. And, in a way, I hope that my mother in Heaven is honored by the fact that I am choosing to break the cycle of distracted, emotionally neglectful motherhood. I pray that her name is honored when my daughters do not have to fight the giants I have fought. That, to me, is the best way to honor her now.