How My Neglectful Childhood Affects My Children

My husband is a lover… and a yeller. He is thoughtful and understanding; sweet, kind and funny as hell; but his temper is short. When my daughter “acts out,” he immediately raises his voice. Of course, his response sounds harsh — at least on paper — but he does show restraint. His words may be short and sharp, but they are not derogatory. He never puts her down, and there are times when a stricter tone is necessary. I also have no problem stepping in (and speaking up) if I feel he is out of line. But inside, I am panicked. My hands tremble, my legs quiver and my heart begins to race. I am nauseated and numb because his response reminds me of a darker time.

I was (well, am) the product of mental and emotional abuse.

From the outside looking in, my childhood seemed solid. I had two “loving” parents, a cute cocker spaniel, a younger brother — who I doted on, and fought with — and more things than you can imagine. My toy box was overflowing. My closet (and fridge) were always full. In short, I had a good life. A #blessed life. I came from a “stable” nuclear family and home, but behind the yellow walls of our single story Ft. Lauderdale home were secrets. So many secrets. The biggest of which was the neglect.

In our family, there was an absence of support, affection and love.

Of course, I don’t recall when “it” began. Emotional abuse is a complex issue, and there was no moment or mark to define it. Instead, it began slowly, insidiously — with a put down here and a disparaging comment there. But my mother’s mouth and mind games caused me a great deal of pain.

They affect me to this day.

You see, my mother mocked and ridiculed me often. She reminded me I wasn’t good enough, or smart enough. She said things like “I wish I never had you” and “you’re a mistake” and then she apologized. She spat each hate-filled phrase carelessly, flippantly and without an ounce of concern or regard.

She distanced herself emotionally. I envied friends who spoke with their mothers (about school, toys or boys) because, in my home, there was noise or silence. I was overwhelmed by our relationship or swallowed in the void. And, over time, her insults and absence worked. I believed I was stupid and fat, needy and dramatic, and I was a total fuck-up. I felt helpless, hopeless and completely alone, and then — at my most vulnerable — she isolated me. I wasn’t allowed to go out, to “hang out” (with neighbors or friends) and things like parties, dances, dinner dates and sleepovers were strictly forbidden. In short, I had little to no social life, and it remained that way for years.

Of course, you may be wondering why I didn’t “get out” or rebel — why I didn’t stand up and fight back — and that is a fair question. Hell, it is a good question. But the cycle of abuse is complicated. It is full of ups and downs, of great highs and crushing lows, and abusers use these tactics to break you. To control you. I felt like I had no value. I didn’t deserve love. And because there was no violence involved, I dismissed her actions. I saw my mother as harsh, cold and callous but not abusive.

It took me two decades, four counselors, three psychologists and one kick-ass psychiatrist to come to terms with my turbulent past.

But her behavoirs are now impacting my children, and her grandchildren, because I am so afraid to acting like her (or becoming her) I am extremely soft. The pendulum has swung in the other direction.

I am overly involved in my daughter’s life. I engage her, play with her and praise her constantly. I have a hard time saying no. I smother my young son. I hug and hold him and let him sleep in my arms or at my breast. He is so small and fragile. I do not want to let him go, and I struggle with discipline.

I rarely raise my voice.

And while there is nothing wrong with being an active, loving parent, I will be the first to admit I am a pushover. Discipline is a point of contention between myself and my husband. I cannot stand conflict, even though disagreements can be healthy. They help our children learn and grow. And both tension and tears cause me anxiety.

I cry when my children cry.

So how do I move forward? How do I cope? I work closely with my doctors. I regularly discuss my apprehensions and fears, and I have learned the power of forgiveness. I have let my mother (and myself) off the hook. And while things are far from perfect, I still struggle with boundaries, discipline and my self-esteem, I keep going: for myself, my husband and my two beautiful kids… because they deserve a good mom. A happy, healthy, loving mom.

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