I still remember standing at the window each morning, watching my Dad drive away to work. I’d watch the clock, counting the hours until he came home again. Watching, waiting, praying I wouldn’t make her angry. Knowing that it really wasn’t in my control, but still holding on to hope that today would be a quiet day. No yelling, no hitting, no tears- a day free of abuse.
My parents divorced when I was five, and my Dad remarried immediately. We began to split time between households, and my parents shared custody. Things with my step-mom were rocky from the start. I don’t think she knew what she was getting into with a ready-made family, and she was resentful of my brother and me.
I don’t remember the first time that she hit me, only that it began very quickly and went on for many years. She called me worthless, and other names I can’t share here. I was hit so hard that my glasses flew across the room and I learned how a single look can force a scared child into silence.
For a long time I told no one, keeping the secret until I was in high school. My brother began to see a counselor, and he shared some of the details of our abuse with her. As a mandatory reporter, she immediately told my Mom and reported the abuse to the local authorities. An investigation was done, but being so many years later, it was hard to prove anything. I didn’t see my Dad or my step-mom for three years after that.
Picking Up the Pieces
As it often does, time tried to heal the wounds. I became an adult survivor of child abuse, and I went to therapy to work through my lack of self-worth and depression. I tried to learn positive fighting words rather than regressing into screaming and swearing, and worked to repair the relationship with my family.
By this time, my Dad and his wife were back in my life, but I could never shake the fear when she was around. Every time the phone rang and it was her, I would regress back to childhood, wondering what she was going to yell at me about. Even as an adult, I feared this woman.
When my husband and I decided to start a family, I knew I had to break the cycle. I swore to myself that I would never hurt my children, and that if she ever overstepped with them, it would be the last time.
Last fall, my family was in town for my older son’s birthday, and she started in. First it was just me – making faces at me from across the room like she did when I was a child. Commenting just loudly enough that I could hear about my stress, or how I had planned the party. When she started with my children, I became Mama Bear. She told my infant son to shut up and left my 3-year-old curled in the fetal position on the floor, crying. Our visit ended with a fight, and we haven’t spoken since. For the first time in my life, I feel peace.
It’s not easy to break a cycle of abuse. As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, “People put you down enough, you start to believe it… The bad stuff is easier to believe.” It’s easier to rely on the negative coping skills and language that were imparted to you as a child. To yell, rather than keep patience. There are times I’ve had to take a time out and give myself a break. I leave my sons to play in a place I know they’re safe and walk away for a minute. I catch my breath, re-find my calm and my center.
Doing Better for the Next Generation
Breaking the cycle of child abuse is hard work, and it’s ongoing. The abuse impacted every area of my life- friendships, romantic relationships, my work. It created self-doubt, fear and a terrible image of myself. I work through it, and am raising my boys to be positive, happy children full of self-love. We talk rather than yell, and we have chosen not to spank our children. My husband and I have worked to create a strong bond and a positive attachment with our sons. We are together building a foundation for healthy young men.
I’ve had my doubts about my ability to be a good Mom. That is another thing abuse does as part of its cycle- it can trick you into thinking that you just rinse & repeat. But I am not her, and my husband is nothing like my Dad. We are a team, one that works to fill our home with positive moments, and we lead with love. As parents, we work to build our sons up, not tear them down. And when my older son looks at me and says “Mom, you’re my fave-wit”, I know I am doing something right.