Post by Dawn Daum
Becoming a parent can unravel a survivor’s recovery. It’s important women and men know that as they become parents, triggers may arise that could effect their mental, physical and emotional health. Without that knowledge, he or she will not recognize what they are experiencing as symptoms of trauma, but instead may conclude that the experience is one of personal fault, like I did.
Motherhood pushed open a door that I thought I had managed to close for the last time. I, like most I believe, thought that a baby would be placed in my arms and I would be filled with so much love that the pieces of my broken heart, pieces I worked so hard to glue back together, would finally solidify. I didn’t expect new cracks to form. When they did, I was ashamed at what I was feeling. I was so angry at myself because I perceived these symptoms to be a sign that I wasn’t capable or healthy enough to be a mother, and my children would suffer because of that. My anger turned to despair. I started to rationalize that my children would be better off without a mom than one who was as broken, with edges so jagged as mine. I fought daily with the idea that my sheer existence was damaging them.
In order to survive, I downplayed my thoughts and feelings, telling myself to just suck it up. I was determined to not let the intrusive thoughts of what was done to me wreak havoc on my life all over again. I told no one about constantly being triggered by things that “normal” mothers ooh and ahh over like co-sleeping and skin to skin contact. I hid the fact that I was overwhelmed with anxiety when my husband helped my daughter dress, shower or showed affection towards her. I never let on to the feeling of sheer panic I felt while breastfeeding my son. Not because it was sexual to me, but because of the exposure and vulnerability that came with it. I remained a secret keeper for fear of how I would be judged if I admitted to the unwelcomed triggers. I buried it, having no idea the damage I was doing to my own spirit. In numbing myself, I denied myself the right to feel love and give love in return.
Something had to give. I knew I had to stop denying how I was feeling and the role my history of sexual abuse was playing in my ability to parent. I started writing about it. I never intended to publish anything on the topic. I was too fearful of how I would be perceived as a mother. That changed when I went looking for what others had written on the topic, and found nothing. It’s like Oprah says, “listen to the whispers.” I began feeling like I had to start this conversation. It became bigger than me. I wasn’t thinking about exposure for my writing but only about sending the message that experiencing motherhood as a survivor can be different from those who have not endured trauma.
Survivors have had to learn to cope with life differently than most, in the case of safety, trust, love, anger, healthy boundaries and the list goes on and on. Why then, do we not acknowledge that learning how to parent as a survivor is just as important. I believe it is paramount to raising healthy, safe and confident children. The idea that a person will have the ability to “get over it” once they become a parent is dangerous. Yes, we have to put little people ahead of our own wants and needs, but this piece of us that has worked so hard to recover from what was done to us has to be fostered, or else it will come undone.
We can’t leave survivors to figure this out on their own. We have to encourage each other to speak up and educate each other. Hopefully if we talk loud enough, those in a place responsible for caring for women through the stages of pregnancy and maintaining their health afterwards, will also see how vital their role in all of this has to be.