You’ll face your past when you become a parent, whether you like it or not.
I know I did. More accurately, I faced it for the first time when I was 22 and babysitting for a friend’s 2-year-old daughter. I changed the baby’s diaper before bedtime, and she burst into a tantrum and wails as I cleaned her up. My first reaction, like a ghost from the past, was to think, Oh my God, what have you done to her, you monster? The answer, of course, was nothing. She was having a toddler tantrum. But her response reminded me, against my harshest self-contempt, that I was a victim of real and monstrous sexual abuse as a child, no matter how much I wanted to forget it. It lurked in my subconscious, and an innocent interaction with a child brought the abuse back like a flood of memories.
National studies indicate that one in three girls are sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood. I’m one of those statistics, and I’d actually conjecture that the rate is much higher. I’m in countless relationships — both personally and professionally — with women who were sexually abused as children. And I’m here to tell you that our journey into adulthood, and particularly motherhood, is often haunted by our childhood traumas. It haunts us in experiences like my own, or in terror when our children approach the age of our own trauma or in horror when we catch our children experimenting with their sexuality.
Generally speaking, unaddressed childhood trauma surfaces in motherhood in one of two ways. Moms (and dads) either become overprotective and deny that their children are sexual creatures, or they vilify the natural sexuality and curiosity of their children. Both responses are shame-based, and both deny children the right to learn about sexuality in a healthy way. Surprisingly, the shame that surrounds both responses actually puts children at greater risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, because they don’t have the tools and the parental trust to talk about dangerous relationships and traumatic experiences as they approach or occur.
That’s the double tragedy. Our unaddressed childhood trauma actually increases the likelihood of our children experiencing the same. There’s no way to stick your head in the sand about the issue — and responsible parenting demands that we love our children enough to look at the reality of our traumatic experiences.
If you’re not sure where to turn, or if you’re having flashbacks about your childhood trauma, please reach out to a therapist or social worker for help. At least one in three moms are in your same position and struggle with your same feelings. You’re not alone, and you’re not a monster. You do, however, need to act.