From Child Abuse Survivor to Parent

water droplets“I can’t do it. I can’t spank our children anymore. I just don’t know how to do it in a healthy way. I don’t know where the line is between spanking your children and beating them. I was never spanked; my parents beat the shit out of me. And they were angry when they did. I’m worried that I will do the same thing to our kids. I’ll get angry and I won’t stop when I’m supposed to. I will beat our children out of anger and not even know it. You know what healthy spanking is like, so you need to do it. I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it anymore.”

This was a defining moment in our parenting relationship. A moment that broke the we-know-what-we’re-doing spell. Jessica had been wrestling with this for a while, and I had known that it was a struggle for her, but this moment was when she decided that she was not going to continue trying to apply a conventional parenting practice that she believed would end up hurting our children. And it wasn’t because she thought the parenting practice was wrong. It was because she recognized that she was too broken to do it well.

This wasn’t her Anti-Spanking Manifesto. This was much more personal. This was a confession about how she was a broken parent. An unfit parent. The possibility that this made her a bad mom really tore her up. At the same time, she knew that crossing the line and beating her children would also make her a bad mom.

At this point, I still thought I knew what I was generally doing in terms of spanking. We discussed whether it was even possible to spank without anger or frustration. And if that wasn’t possible, how did we KNOW that we weren’t crossing a line when intense emotions could so easily distort our perception of reality? (aka: cloud our judgment, for Star Wars fans out there)

It was the beginning of our undoing in terms of spanking. We restricted spanking to very particular body-harming situations. And we restricted all spanking to me, which ended up being a problem for me. Something would happen while I was away. It would warrant a spanking. It would wait until I got home. I would then carry out the spanking, hours after the transgression actually occurred.

It felt very old-fashioned, very “Wait until your father gets home.” And very wrong. The transgressor was 2 yrs old. Maybe 3. Whatever it was that she did happened eons ago according to her perception of time. And I was the rule enforcer, the punisher, the parent who brought the pain.

It didn’t last long. Other forms of torture (from the child’s perspective) discipline replaced spanking, methods of obtaining compliance, of controlling our children. Because that is what we understood was necessary and healthy in parenting.

Why did we think this? Because that is the truth that we grew up with. We all learn the culture we are born into and accept it, because it is the only thing we know. And when we wonder about something different, it challenges the culture and others instinctively shut it down. Different is bad and wrong.

Jessica grew up in a culture that normalized child abuse. They didn’t see it as child abuse. Her parents loved her; there’s no doubt about that. They believed that disciplining their children was a part of how they demonstrated that love. With belts, and 2x4s, and dragging them by their hair, and pouring bleach on them, and slamming them into the wall.

I grew up in the perfect family. Except for the part where my brother emotionally tortured me. He verbally and emotionally abused me. My parents tried everything they could to stop him, but he would not be controlled. They were at a loss. They didn’t know what to do. So they basically quit trying. I grew up in a culture that normalized child abuse too.

We both grew up with well-intentioned parents that believed that their faith, their God, set the world up so that women were inferior to men, that men were to rule over them, that children were inferior to adults, that children are to be controlled or they will shame their parents and may end up in hell, and that shaming and corporal punishment were expected to control and teach children.

Is this representative of the culture at large? Does the broader culture condone child abuse? No. But as kids, we only know what is immediate to us, so thanks a lot, Broader-Culture, you weren’t there for us.

I know we’re not alone.

Statistics alone tell us that 1 in 4 females will have been sexually assaulted before they reach adulthood. 1 in 6 for boys. And that says nothing about other forms of abuse. In a culture that encourages people to hide their imperfections, and one that frowns on the need for therapy because we still haven’t normalized mental and emotional health issues, I think it’s safe to say that many of us are broken. Maybe we weren’t abused as kids. Maybe many of us were and we still can’t recognize it. Some of us realize it once we have our own kids and we’re about to do something to our kids that we thought was normal, but it rips us apart, disembowels our enchanted memories of childhood, and we realize in horror that we were abused. But we’re torn, because how could our loving parents do THAT to us? We must be mistaken. Maybe things got out of hand from time to time, but it wasn’t abuse? Fine, your parents meant well, but you still wouldn’t do THAT to your own children, would you?

If you would call THAT abuse for other kids in other families, then it’s abuse for you and me too.

Recognizing that so many of us are child abuse survivors, or at the very least survivors of our particular family’s culture, what kinds of parents would we ever hope to be?

We are broken, warped, and programmed to repeat what we know. Won’t we just end up being broken, warped, and abusive parents ourselves, with broken, warped, and abused kids?

No.

The logic is sound but it doesn’t have to work that way. The math doesn’t have to add up like that.

Abuse doesn’t have to lead to abuse. We can go against our programming. We can rewire our brains.

Jessica and I have been rewiring our brains for 20 years now. It is work, but it is possible. It is riddled with moments of self-doubt, stumbling around blind, but every day we bask in our children’s glow, the full life and joy that they can enjoy, free from the history that was supposed to scar them just as it scarred us. Our hard work spared them that.

But not completely. Rewiring our brains takes time, especially when you realize that the one wire you started messing with is tangled with 3 others that are also connected to another 5 each. We tried to control our children at first, because it was hard-wired deep within us, which meant that it was good and right. That approach has had long-lasting effects on them and our relationship with them. It took us quite a while to recognize that control was the motivation behind our entire parenting approach. We had to make many changes in how we treated our kids before we had dug deep enough to even see it.

Because rewiring is a lengthy process, we have parented each of our children a little differently than the last. We have been good parents all along, but we’re even better parents now – for all of our children. We also recognize the value of therapy.

Here are a few things we’ve learned from our deliberate shift away from the parenting approach we grew up with:

  • It takes time
  • It takes a lot of conversation
  • It’s a lot easier to go through the change with your partner
  • It takes deliberate effort
  • It takes humility and vulnerability
  • It takes forgiving yourself
  • It takes research: keep learning about parenting
  • It may cost you some friendships
  • It helps to connect with other parents willing to challenge tradition
  • Therapy may be helpful to gain a fresh perspective on your childhood
  • It takes personal healing from our own experiences (therapy may help with that too)
  • We are all shaped by our experiences, especially our early childhood experiences, but we are not bound by them to pass those experiences down to our children.

It’s a choice we all face, but never as intensely as when we look our little one or two year old in the face. We can parent them the way we were parented, because they’ll probably” turn out ok,” just like we did. Or we can take the harder path of change with the hope that they will not just turn out ok, but better than we did.

~ Jeremy

Jeremy headshot cropped.

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Jeremy Martin-Weber is the proud father of 6 inspiring girls, and is 19 years into a love story with his partner, Jessica Martin-Weber.

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