No matter who you are, parenting can be a difficult gig.
As a woman, I know that I frequently worry about the way my parenting looks–am I being judged? Do I look selfish? Do I play with my kids enough? Did I talk on the phone too long? Will my husband be upset if I try to go on a run this morning? And on and on the thoughts go.
And these are thoughts on normal days. Motherhood, in my experience, requires a thick skin. It is easy to let other people’s opinions affect you–it is easy to be pulled into dumb cultural battles (think breast vs. bottle, co-sleeping vs. crib, working vs. staying at home)–there is so much pressure to do everything correctly, and so many different opinions on what the “correct ways” are.
Long ago, I made the decision to do what was best for my family. I also made the decision to tell anyone else to do what is best for them. And you know what? That is empowering.
Not all days, however, all normal days. Some days, the trauma of my own childhood can deeply affect the decisions I make as a mother.
From my childhood, when I was a young girl dreaming of becoming a mother, to now, I have always had the overwhelming desire to parent right–and, to me, parenting right means doing it totally different from the way that was done to me. It means that I try to be more gentle in my discipline–I talk, offer choices, and give lots of cuddles. I try to never use shame as a learning tool.
I try to connect.
I fear, often, that I am failing. That I will never measure up. That I am really, secretly, no different from my own mother.
But, above all, I fear that my little girl will suffer from the same pain and fear that I had growing up. Knowing the toll it took on me…knowing the insecurity and the lack of self-worth that I still struggle with…
It makes me want to protect her at all costs. My son, too, of course. But the responsibility I feel to protect her is exponentially larger.
Sexual abuse is a big trigger for me. I never realized how much this affected me until my own daughter reached the same age that I was when it happened to me. One day, right after I started counseling…right after I talked about that thing I had never told anyone before…the fear of something similar happening to her gripped me.
I was at a family event, in an unfamiliar venue. My daughter asked if she could go to the bathroom and, as a general rule, I always accompany her. However, this was a small building, and our extended family were the only people around. So I told her to go ahead–I thought the bathroom was in seeing distance.
As I realized this, I became overwhelmed with anxiety. I imagined a man, hiding in the bathroom, attacking her. I lost the ability to breathe and started panic. It is my job to keep her safe!! What was I thinking????
Yet, I felt glued to where I was. I couldn’t move. I looked at my husband and told him he had to go check on her. He didn’t ask me why…he knew the look on my face.
Last week, I took my girl to the orthodontist. A pretty normal occurrence. The clinic we go to is super kid friendly. When we got called back, I noticed that the tech that would be working on her was a male…totally not a big deal to me. However, he pointed at a chair for me to sit in and told me that he was going to take her back for an X-ray, saying it would only take a minute or two. So, I sat in the chair and waited.
A minute passed. Two minutes. Five minutes.
Suddenly, those feelings entered me. That panic. Again, the imagination started. I visualized this guy–a totally innocent, totally nice guy, I’m sure–doing unthinkable things to my eight year old. Every mothering instinct told me to get up…yet, again, I was filled with fear–doubt, shame–and glued to my chair.
Thankfully, in my next breath, my daughter came trotting out of the room, smiling. I smiled back and asked, What took so long?
They messed up and had to take it again, she said.
No big deal, except…the fear.
Will this worry ever leave? Will I always fear for her safety?
The mom in me says yes.
Worrying about my kids is one thing…but the worry I feel is bigger, more acute. The responsibility I feel is huge.
You see, not only do I never want anything to happen to them…I feel responsible for ensuring that nothing ever does.
And yet, if there is one thing I have learned as a parent, it is that it is impossible to control every variable.
And that is what makes this so very hard.
I have rules: No slumber parties. No play dates at unfamiliar houses. Always be with a friend when going to the bathroom without me. Never go in the front yard without mom or dad.
I have sheltered my kids. They know very little of sex, violence, and fear. I prefer this to what I knew, at much too young of an age.
I struggle with when. When do I teach them about sex? When do I teach them about scary things like kidnapping, murder, and pain? I can’t shelter them all the time–they hear the news. They hear other people.
I have worked hard to teach them about tricky people. To teach consent. To teach that their bodies are their own, and that only mommy, daddy, and the doctor can ask to see certain parts of it.
I hope it is enough.
I hope I can be there enough. I hope I can protect enough.
At age 8, I feel like I can. I can do everything in my power to make sure that she is never in the situation I was in. I ask questions. I talk to her. I let her know she can tell me anything, ever.
But what about later? What about age 18?
Will she ever be in that situation, like I was? Broken, worthless-feeling…an easy target for a handsome guy to rape?
Again, too vulnerable, too powerless to stop it?
Or can I build her up enough to stand her ground? To never find herself in that situation to begin with? Can I teach her defense strategies, responsible drinking, and give her the strength to report a situation if, god forbid, it ever did happen to her?
God, with all of my might, I hope so.