The Past Reminds Me; It Does Not Define Me

As I laid my sweet baby boy in his crib one night, I wept. This perfect, tiny human was my world. I would do anything for him.

We had spent the day with some friends who were fostering a young boy who had been removed from his home. The stories of neglect from his short life prior to entering the system were heartbreaking. When he wrapped his tiny 18-month old arms around my neck while playing on the floor that afternoon, his deep-seated need for affection was evident. I wanted nothing more than to fill this void in his life that, for whatever reason, his parents were unable to fill. I sought understanding, but for me there was none. I could not understand how, as a parent, anything else could matter but this little life in my hands. My heart ached at the thought of it.

When I came downstairs after putting our son to bed that night, my husband asked why I was so upset. The foster boy’s story was obviously sad, but I couldn’t quite articulate why it touched me so deeply. It wasn’t until a few months (and a few thousand dollars worth of therapy) later that I processed it enough to recognize that this little boy’s story and the void in his life echoed around in my head with a startling sense of familiarity.

Looking Back In Order To Move Forward

I have few memories of my childhood. But I distinctly remember the feelings of it. Fear. Sadness. Pain. Stress. Isolation. Loneliness...and hope.

There were parts of my life that became my version of normal growing up, but now, looking back, I realize they were anything but...

There was fear in my mom’s eyes when she reiterated that she would pick me up from visitation; that I was never to tell my dad where we lived. I thought she was overreacting to their divorce, but now I can see that she was terrified of him. I used to sleep in my clothes on the couch with my purse, keys and shoes at my side. I used to tell myself it was just more convenient, but now I can see that I had no sense of security and being always at the ready was just part of my way of life. I assumed the revolving door of visitors to my dad’s house were just friends popping in to hang out, but now I can see that the whispers around town about the drug dealing were dead on. I figured the yelling in the middle of the night was my mom scolding my brother about some dumb thing he had done, but now I can see that he was actually scolding her for her repeated poor choices that were now landing her in jail. She never told me she was going to jail, by the way. One day she was just gone. She left that lovely task up to my big brother. And while my friends were hanging out, going to parties and shopping for prom dresses our senior year, I was working a full-time job after school and living with a boyfriend because I just couldn’t go home anymore. I turned 18 half way through that year, so I rationalized it, but it’s now so clear that no senior in high school should ever have work full time to support themselves.

Although I didn’t talk much about what was going on, I’m sure it showed. I was so afraid that this sad world I was living in would be exposed for what it really was, when in reality that might have been the best possible thing to happen to me. How different my life might have looked if I’d been removed from that situation... Instead I put my head down, worked hard, and tried like hell to fly under the radar.

Although I may not have fully understood what was happening around me, I could feel that it wasn’t right. This wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I was meant to do more; be more. I needed to get out. I thought, if I could just work my butt off and get the hell out of there, I could move past it all. Everything would be ok. I would be ok.

Graduation day was a momentous occasion, for reasons far bigger than most of my fellow high school alums. To me, it was a one-way ticket out of that place. I wanted a reprieve from that tumultuous world in which I’d grown up. I left for college that fall - having no idea how in the world I was going to pay for it - without looking back. Being criticized by family for leaving never wavered my choice to do so, but rather solidified it.  

I got out. I got to start a new life and make it whatever I wanted. I spent years not thinking about the trauma I came from, but looking forward to what possibilities lay ahead of me. I’m certain that the realities of my childhood have impacted me throughout my adult life along the way, but it wasn’t until getting married and having kids that I began to fully realize the impact my childhood has on me:

  • Growing up in an environment where feelings were never talked about or accepted has left me struggling to know how to effectively communicate them now as an adult - and how to model that to my kids.

  • Having never had a decent model of a healthy relationship - marriage or parent-child - I definitely know what I don’t want those relationships to look like, but I’m not really sure how to make them look like what I do want.

  • The uncertainty, fear and isolation stripped me of any sense of security in my life. As an adult, I’ve learned to enjoy the positive and seek it out, but I sometimes still carry that feeling that the sky may soon fall (because in my experience growing up, it regularly did)

  • I felt repeatedly irrelevant, disliked and shunned by my own family, which has left me with a lifetime struggle of never feeling good enough. Imposter syndrome stifles my confidence in my life both in and outside of the home.

But I can also see now that I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the strengths that come with overcoming that childhood too.

  • Living in a world of uncertainty taught me to adapt. As an adult, adaptability has allowed me to bend under pressure, instead of break, and ultimately be stronger for it.  

  • Having survived in crisis mode for so long, I am better equipped to handle just about anything that comes my way.  I keep our house stocked with extra necessities, I always know what’s happening with our budget, we have fire extinguishers on every floor. If there’s a crisis looming, I’m prepared.

  • As the child of alcoholics and an addict, I learned how to be responsible and take care of myself and others. I am certain that I can keep our household running, take care of everyone else, and be that duck that’s paddling like hell under the water but calm and cool above it.

  • Leaving home in high school taught me to be a survivor. I no longer settle for less than I deserve and I’m not afraid to take risks to improve my situation. That tenacity served me well in college, in my career, and now as a wife and mom.

Despite my therapist’s assurances that what I experienced was truly traumatic and my resulting, lingering challenges being valid, I’m still guilty of occasionally invalidating them. Have you ever done that? Try to convince yourself that perhaps it wasn’t really that bad? That so many had it so much worse so you should just be grateful? That maybe you’re complaining about nothing? I uttered something along those lines in therapy one day not too long ago...To which this very wise woman directed me to consider the possibility of going home that afternoon and treating my children the way I had been treated by my family of origin as a child (and even as an adult child) - and she then asked how that thought made me feel. The tears could not be contained at just the thought of it.

That single statement gave me a lifetime’s worth of validation.

Moving On

As I started to put it all together, I had to explain to my husband that I wasn’t quite ready to foster or adopt, as we had planned. I had to take a good hard look at myself and recognize that to pursue that path at that time, although likely very healing, would also have been retraumatizing for me.

Someday I hope I’ll be ready to revisit the foster and adoption conversation with him. It is something I feel so profoundly called to do. But for now, I’m going to keep working on my stuff and keep loving on my kids the best way I know how.

Regardless of the state of your family of origin, we all have stuff we bring with us into new relationships and I wonder - how does that family of origin impact your chosen or created family? As an adult child of a traumatic childhood, how much does that family of origin truly impact your created family? When you never had a good model, how do you break out of that mold and find the path to be the partner and parent you actually want to be, not just the one you witnessed?

I know am still learning to recognize what my difficult childhood has brought to my life, both good and bad. And I know there are still depths of it that I haven’t yet uncovered. But I’m showing up everyday and doing my damn best to break the cycle and be a better parent than I ever knew.

And as I walk along in this journey of parenthood, which is still so new to me, I'm discovering the power of awareness - the power of recognizing what you bring with you from your past and how it impacts your present - so it doesn’t become your future.