My ex-husband, whom I co-parent with, has always painted the picture that he’s some great parent. Despite the fact that he was high for the first year of our twins’ lives, he told me/insinuated I was a bad mother often throughout our relationship together. He gaslit me constantly, which kept the focus off him and his insane behavior, and made me think I was the bad one, the crazy one.
The other day, as soon as I got to my children’s daycare to pick them up, my daughter smacked my son in the face with her water bottle, making him bleed.
I texted their dad and asked if he’d seen this kind of behavior before.
“No,” he texted back. “They don’t even fight. They’re great with me.”
This is ridiculous. My twins are two. My ex-husband doesn’t have some goddamn magic trick that quells sibling fighting. Of course they fight when he has them. But, he wouldn’t dare tell me that.
Eventually, through text, he admitted that they do fight. “A little,” he actually said.
Of course they do, you fucking liar, I wanted to snap back, but didn’t.
I was irritated much of the rest of the night.
“Why are you letting it bother you so much?” my partner asked me. “Obviously he’s lying.”
“Because I hate that he makes it out like he’s amazing and I’m some bad parent.”
“Why does it matter what he thinks? You’re not,” he said.
“Because he told me all the time I was,” I said.
“Jesus, why did you stay with that awful guy for so long?”
“Because I believed him,” I said, and the honesty of that statement felt like a kick in the stomach.
I’ve always worried I would grow up to be like her to my own children. I never even thought I’d have children for this exact reason. Best way to avoid being a bad parent, right? Not be one at all! The worst kind of emotional abusers (which my ex-husband was) will drag your inky black fears into the light and nurture them to grow.
My mother always seemed half full, the slightest thing, like loading the dishwasher wrong (silverware had to point up) or talking back (which could mean saying something — anything — or saying nothing at all), could fill her up and then it’d be on. And on looked a lot of different ways: yelling, slaps, threats with a raised tennis racket, or the time she beat my forearms with a metal mop.
When my children were young and I was still allowing her around them, I’d watch her spoon-feed them, cradle them sideways against her chest like she was about to breastfeed them. I wondered, how can you contain both the ability to cradle a baby’s head so tenderly yet also have beaten your own daughter with a metal mop? How can one person contain both those truths?
She has never acknowledged those things happened. Not really. She’s told me before she did “the best she could,” which we all know is the worst kind of bullshit excuse. It’s something we say to let others or ourselves off the hook or maybe because we’ve reached some level of empathy, but everyone can always do better. I know when I could be better, and I’m comforted by the fact that I’m trying. I read books, I talk to other moms. I apologize to my children even though they can’t even fathom what I’m saying yet. If you beat your kid with a mop, you didn’t do your best. You fucked up.
One afternoon, my mother and I were walking into IKEA. She was holding my infant daughter in a particular way she liked to, sort of a chokehold, the baby facing forward, her arm locked over her torso with no other support.
“I don’t like the way you’re holding her. I don’t want you to hold them that way anymore,” I told her.
“I held you and your sister like this all the time and you’re fine.”
“We aren’t fine. We survived. There are things you did that I don’t want done to my children.”
“You want to go there?” I said, smiling at my own jab.
“Yes,” she snapped.
“Like beating us. I won’t do that to them. Never.”
“You just wait,” she said.
And there was my fear, hanging out there. My dear mother, that I might become just like you, and my children will have to learn how to survive me too.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve thought often about how I can minimize what my children will have to work through on a future therapist’s couch. Their parents are divorced, both drug addicts (with maybe only one recovering), and their father may or may not go to prison for his criminal activity. I’d never want to add to that the long-lasting damage of physical abuse because I know too well the cost.
Studies on the effects of punishment found that the more physical punishment children receive, the more defiant they are toward parents and authorities, the poorer their relationships with parents, the more likely they are to report hitting a dating partner or spouse. They are also more likely to suffer mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems, and less likely to empathize with others or internalize norms of moral behavior.
My children will be three in August. I’ve searched their sweet faces before and wondered how on earth I could hit them, how on earth I could bend down and slap them fully across their face like my mother did in one of my earliest memories.
But I still have that negative self-talk:
“You’re a bad parent. You will BE a bad parent. You are going to end up just like your fucking mother,” that nasty voice of my fear will whisper in my ear.
I have to counter that voice with giving myself credit: I left my abusive ex-husband when my babies were little, even though my own parents didn’t support it. I have in no way resorted to abuse. I employ time-outs instead. I am incredibly patient and gentle. I do well at intuiting how to handle situations, and when I can’t figure something out, I ask for help. My partner cheers me on all the time: “You are SO patient, woman! My goodness!!”
I work every day on breaking that cycle because my fear that violence resides in me is based on science.
A study published in Child Abuse and Neglect revealed an intergenerational cycle of violence in homes where physical punishment was used.
Parents who had experienced frequent physical punishment during their childhood were more likely to believe it was acceptable, and they frequently spanked their children.
I counter that too by saying my fear aloud: “I worry about beating my own children.” Putting it out into the air makes it dissipate like smoke. It sounds so preposterous hearing it. You have tools today, Tara Mae. You’re not a shitty person like your mother was. You ask for help. You get help. You aren’t alone, my friends and my partner have said to me.
I have said to myself:
You don’t have to abuse your children like your mother abused you. You can make better choices. You can be the kind of mother you wish you had.
Every day I try to get better. I try so vigorously. For me, for my children, for my children’s children.
I make plenty of mistakes as I go, but some mistakes I work hard every day to never make.
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