I Grew Up in an Abusive Household, And When I Had My Son, I Realized All My Parenting Instincts Were Wrong

I’m aware that my instincts are wired incorrectly, and I have a desperate desire to do it right. To give my son the love and encouragement I didn’t have, in an environment where he feels nurtured and safe.
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I’m aware that my instincts are wired incorrectly, and I have a desperate desire to do it right. To give my son the love and encouragement I didn’t have, in an environment where he feels nurtured and safe.

When I wrote an essay for xoJane about my experiences with attachment parenting, I confess to lurking in the comments. I was curious about people’s opinions and reactions. It was fun to read the responses that the piece sparked, but some of the comments in particular stuck out to me. Comments that asked, What about common sense? Or talked about how the commenter followed their instincts in parenting, trusted their gut, or had a good example.

Well, what if I told you that when my son is yelling at me, defiant, over picking up his Legos, my first instinct is to slap him across the face?

I grew up in an abusive household. My father’s extreme Christianity justified any form of physical discipline. It was his role as spiritual head of the household to ensure that I followed in the path of Christ. If I back-talked, he slapped me across the face. If I acted out, or questioned his judgment, he’d spank me with his hand or a wooden spoon. 

Not only would he spank me, but he would force me to sit in his lap afterwards while I cried and tell him that I understood why he’d spanked me and forgave him.

As I grew older he had to approve my clothes before I left the house for the day. I wrote my prayers on 3x5 index cards for his review. He recorded my sister and mine’s phone conversations and would make suggestions on how to talk to boys.

I wasn’t trained to make my own decisions; I was trained to always go to a man for his approval of them. If I didn’t, and they resulted in negative consequences, it was my fault for not ‘honoring my father’ by consulting him. It took me over ten years of therapy to break free from what I’d been taught, to learn to make my own decisions and to cut him out of my life.

When I got pregnant there was one thing I knew with 100% certainty: I was not raising my son the way I’d been raised.

The problem that left me with, as it does many survivors, is that once you’ve realized that you were raised in an abusive environment, that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to do it right. “Don’t hit your kid” is a low bar. I’m aware that my instincts are wired incorrectly, and what’s more I have a desperate desire to do it right. To give my son the love and encouragement I didn’t have in an environment where he feels nurtured and safe.

My ex-husband had also been raised in an abusive environment. His mother’s second husband hit him. When his father found out and got custody of my ex at thirteen, his dad became my ex’s hero. Which meant that my ex refused to acknowledge that perhaps his father had issues, too. A verbally abusive man who picked fights on Easter that culminated in him yelling, with wagging finger, at a thirty-seven-year-old man, “I’m your Father, damn it! You have to respect me!” his father had serious anger management issues.

Neither my ex nor I had much in the way of parenting skills or examples, and we both had similar baggage. And the moment we brought our son home from the hospital it was like I’d flipped a switch. The supportive husband I’d had during a difficult pregnancy became 1950s Man. If I took an aspirin for a headache, he responded with, “Can you take that when you’re breast-feeding? Did you call the doctor?” Every decision I made was criticized, “Is he old enough to use a bouncer yet? Are supporting his neck?”

I’d chosen to stay home with our son – the privilege I mentioned in my other essay – but hadn’t realized this meant I’d be completely on my own. When he came home from work, my ex would disappear into his office and play video games. If C was fussy he’d accuse me of not setting a schedule or not even trying to put him down for naps (for the record I tried, every day, at 10am and 1pm). I’d spend my days desperately trying to get C to nap or face non-stop criticism and accusations of being a bad Mom, or of indulging C if he acted out or cried when my ex came home.

It only grew worse as C grew older. My ex refused to read anything about child development. He wanted to put a one-year-old on a five-minute time out. His parents made pointed comments about ‘back in their day’ when people weren’t afraid to spank their kids.

Commenters on my last piece noted that my ex-husband might not have been on board with attachment parenting. He wasn’t. But he also wasn’t on board with being firm and setting boundaries. If it was his turn to put C back to sleep in the middle of the night when he’d crawled out of his bed, my ex would just bring him into our bed. This didn’t help with my efforts to wean him, because then he’d want to nurse.

When I tried to set a nighttime routine to help with sleep issues and end bed-sharing, my ex undermined it. “Let him skip brushing his teeth tonight,” or “I don’t have time for this,” and he’d stalk out of the room. I tried to get out of the house, to get some space, but I couldn’t trust my ex to look after C properly.

One night when C was around a year and a half I went out for an activity with friends. When I came home, my ex complained, “He’s been awful, whining and begging, a real brat.” I sat down on the couch and C ripped at my shirt to get at my breasts. 

“Did you feed him dinner?” I asked, knowing that children at that age can’t always identify their needs. 

“No,” my ex replied. It was seven-thirty. C wasn’t bratty, he was hungry.

Another time, after I’d gone back to work, my ex stayed home with C when he was sick one day. We’d split the day and I’d gone into work in the morning to get my laptop, but when I came home after lunch C was crying and complaining about his foot hurting. 

“He’s just playing politics,” my ex told me. 

“Well, did you check his foot?” Of course not. When I sat C on the couch and turned his foot over he had a huge splinter embedded in his heel. It had been there at least three hours.

Even after I went back to work, one hundred percent of the cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking fell on me. On one memorable occasion my ex came home, walked through the kitchen, past the mop, and said to me, “The kitchen floor is really dirty and needs to be mopped.”

Left alone as a parent, with nothing but criticism from my partner, I struggled with both how to parent and how to change what I’d been doing when it didn’t work. It’s not like I could ask anyone in my family for parenting advice.

Assuming that everyone has the same toolkit, or resources that they can consult, when it comes to parenting ignores the wide swath of childhood experiences that shape who we are as parents. I’ve figured out a lot by trial and error, including dumping my ex-husband, and my son and I are doing all right.

This Thanksgiving we were at a friend’s house. He’d never been to her house before but when he saw that there were other kids playing in the backyard he ran off without a backwards glance. When I came to check on him an hour later he gave me an annoyed look, said, “I’m fine, Mommy, go away,” and buried himself in a pile of leaves.

If there’s one thing I do think every commenter on my last piece got right, it’s that no matter where we come from, or how we became a mother, we’re all in this together. So how about less assumptions, more wine? And if your friend’s house is dirty, her kids are screaming, and that substance in her hair isn’t gel, maybe offer to mop the floor? She probably won’t turn you down.

Image credit: Flickr/CC