Have you heard the saying that if you want to find out what your wife will be like in 20 years, look at her mother? Whereas that might result in a chuckle for some people, that thought was terrifying for me. As an adult survivor of child abuse at the hands of my mother, the possibility of turning out like her, of abusing my child the way she abused me, stopped me dead in my tracks.
I promised myself at an incredibly young age that the cycle of abuse would stop with me. My mother had been abused by her mother, and in turn, my mother abused me. Today I am the mother of a rambunctious, loving, caring, energetic, sweet 7-year-old daughter. She keeps me on my toes every day, and I am proud to say, I kept the promise I made to myself and to my child.
How did I do it? There are 6 strategies that I have implemented that allowed me to be the mother I am today:
1-As a scared new mom, and even after all these years of parenthood, I often have NO idea what I am doing. If someone tells you they have all the answers, I have a bridge to sell you. Each day it is my first time being a mother to my daughter at that age. Children do not come with a “how-to” manual, and each child is different. What I do know is what NOT to do. I have a list of things that I will NEVER, ever do because those were horrific things that happened to me.
Awareness is key to implementing change. If you do not know what not to do, then how are you supposed to make sure you don’t do it? How can you stop the cycle of abuse unless you are willing to confront what was done to you head-on?
So, I did. I faced every horrific thing my mother did to me. I allowed myself to feel the helplessness, the sadness, and the pain by admitting to myself that what she did was abusive. If I allowed myself to stay in denial, or to convince myself that it was somehow justified, then how could I stop it from happening at my own hands?
I used my own childhood as a roadmap of where I would never allow myself to go. With awareness, I will not always make the right choices, but I have never made an abusive one.
2-For many of us, abuse is all we know. Do not take that lack of knowledge for granted. It is crucial that we learn new and healthy ways of parenting. Don’t be afraid to get help! Read those parenting books (and roll your eyes at the things you know wouldn’t work for your child), phone a friend (or two, or three) when you are having a bad day or you need some advice on how to proceed. Read that self-help book (or two, or three) that you’ve read so many times that it is hard to make out the words. Reach out to your spouse and your therapist. It is okay to ask for help. It is not okay to continue the cycle of abuse.
3-Take time for yourself. No, really! Kids will trigger the daylights out of you, and when you are stressed, it is only natural to turn to the familiar. The familiar in our case is not an option, so do not take your well-being for granted. I repeat, do not take your well-being for granted.
On particularly stressful days I make sure my daughter is safely occupied, and then I go into my bedroom, lock the door, and vent (sometimes to my husband, and sometimes I am a frazzled woman talking to myself). My daughter knows that sometimes Mommy needs a time-out too. We openly talk about our feelings, and she knows that feeling overwhelmed or frustrated is not something that only kids have to deal with.
As parents, we are juggling a ton of responsibilities and pressure, and sometimes that might mean giving your child an extra few minutes of TV or iPad so you can engage in some relaxation exercises (for example, deep breathing or meditation). You might feel guilty about taking time for yourself, but the repercussions that can come with not giving yourself that time is a lot worse. Parenting is hard for anyone, but we have it even harder because of the hand we were dealt with. Scream into a pillow. Write in your journal. Talk to yourself in the mirror. Be your greatest friend and ally. Take that time to work on healthy coping mechanisms, and cheer yourself on for all the progress you have made. Remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint.
4- We will all make mistakes. As long as we are not abusing our children, mistakes are natural, normal, and par for the course. Accept responsibility for your mistakes, learn from them, and grow from them. Be willing to apologize to your children and recognize when you have done something wrong.
Many of us grew up feeling that we had to be perfect or had a caregiver who never admitted any wrongdoing. I am definitely a work-in-progress when it comes to expecting perfection from myself. I associated saying or doing the wrong thing with shame because I was often shamed for my mistakes. I realized that if I don’t want my daughter to expect perfection from herself, I needed to set the right example that nobody (myself included) is perfect and that there is no shame in making mistakes. I can be a great mom and still mess up. I can be the parent and still apologize if I do something that I regret.
Our children look to us to provide them with guidance and teach them how to treat others. Be humble and show your children that is safe to make mistakes. Be open and honest about your feelings and emotions so that they feel safe to do the same. If your child feels hurt about something you said or did, do not minimize their feelings. We grew up not being seen and heard, and we know how important it is to get validation. The greatest gift you can give your child is the willingness to hear their feelings and make space for them. Model accountability for your actions while also showing yourself kindness and forgiveness and teach them to do the same when they do something wrong.
5- Just as our children need a parent, so do we. Many of us did not get the love and compassion we needed as children from our parents. If we did not receive love and kindness from our own parents, we need to be our own parents.
How do we do that? Talk to that little child inside of you. Think about what they need and try to honor those feelings. Tell your inner child everything you wish you had heard from your parents and validate your inner child’s feelings and experiences.
We must show ourselves the same love and compassion that we show our children. As you parent your child, think about yourself as a child, and send that same love to yourself. In order to love our children in healthy ways, we need to learn how to love ourselves.
6- Unconditional love. The two most beautiful words in the world (in my opinion). What so many of us craved, but never received, was unconditional love. Give your children that love. Love them on the good days, and love them and support them on the difficult ones. Give your children everything you needed, and you stop abuse dead in its tracks.
My daughter never doubts the love I have for her. She knows that no matter how I am feeling and no matter what she says or does, that nothing can ever change the love I have for her. She knows that to the point where she rolls her eyes when I say it to her. She knows that no matter where life takes her, I will always be waiting for her with open arms and an open heart.
Giving that kind of love to another person is powerful in ways that cannot be described. Loving my daughter unconditionally has healed me in ways that I did not know was possible. It helped me realize that the lack of love that I received was not my fault. As a parent, how can you not love your child unconditionally? What happened to me was a reflection of my abuser, not me.
Ian S. Thomas wrote, “Before your children came, they were told that you would love them, so whatever you do, however you treat them…to them, it is love.” Being a parent is the greatest responsibility one will ever have. We know better than anyone how significant our role is in our child’s life. It is the greatest challenge and the greatest joy to be a parent. Remember to honor both, and you will be able to navigate the bumpy road of parenting and end the cycle of abuse.
I am a native New Yorker, but I currently live in Atlanta with my husband, rambunctious 8-year-old daughter, our 2 cats, and our hyper dog. Writing has always been my outlet. I turned to the power of pen on paper to help cope with the hardships that took place in my childhood, and I have been published in numerous websites.
I believe writing helped me become the person and mother that I am today, and I created a blog (www.survivingmomblog.com) where I write about surviving abuse and the journey of motherhood. My hope is that my words provide support, validation and comfort to others in their own healing journeys.
Feel free to reach out to me! I have a Facebook Group, Surviving Mom Blog: Motherhood and Relationships, and I can be followed on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.