Maybe I should get a bumper sticker that says it, eh? Can you see it in the Costco parking lot? "MY KID IS AN HONOR STUDENT" "MY SON IS A MARINE" "MY OTHER CAR IS THE BATMOBILE" and then, on my Ford Focus: "I DON'T BEAT MY CHILDREN."
I don't gab about it very often, and when I do, it's in the company of good, trusted friends and usually after a martini or two. It's not something one brags about, you see, but I think it's about time I talk about it.
I was beat up as a kid. A lot. Kicked, hit, slapped, punched. Shoved, screamed at, embarrassed in front of friends and neighbors and sometimes complete strangers. It started when my mom married my stepfather, and continued until I was big enough and old enough and brave enough to fight back. The scars I bear are all in my head... I was lucky enough to never need stitches or a cast. The only doctors I have ever needed are the ones who tinker with injured psyches.
My mind isn't completely broken, but I do have my own set of mental limps from the beatings I endured. If you look up "Symptoms of adults who were abused as children," you'll pretty much find my make believe eHarmony profile:
"Hi! I'm Jenny. I'm a divorced mom of four with low self-esteem and serious trust issues. I like to eat and drink my feelings, and they usually taste like inadequacy and panic. I am nervous about being touched but OMG do I love dogs! If you're looking for a mate with strong family ties and great interpersonal skills, you might want to skip me. However, if you have always wanted to be with someone who can't remember most of her childhood, I'm your gal. Plus, I make a great bowl of chili AND I love action/adventure movies. BOOM."
I didn't even remember what had happened, had almost no clear memories of it, until I had a chat with a close friend after one of our high school reunions. She had been unable to attend and wanted the details. As I filled her in on who looked fabulous, who got fat, who was bald, who left with whom, she chimed in: "I still can't believe you turned out OK, Jenny." I laughed, a confused and nervous laugh...
"What are you talking about?" I asked her.
"I mean, the way you were beat up all the time. It was awful. I remember the couple of times it happened in front of me, and it scarred me, Jenny. I can't believe you're as normal as you are."
I pressed her for more details, and as they spilled out I felt so detached, almost like I was listening to her read aloud from a book. A book about a girl who army-crawled out of a room, trying to avoid the punches and the kicks of a big, mad man. A girl who sought refuge under her bed, looking for giant feet under the hem of her Laura Ashley comforter while she sobbed big silent sobs.
My friend talked. I listened... and remembered.
After we said our goodbyes and made promises to meet up for lunch or dinner, I sat on the edge of my unmade bed. The kids were at school and I was alone, save for my sweet dog Walter. I sat there, quietly, for what felt like days but in reality was more like ten minutes. I remember shaking myself out of my fugue and getting on with the tasks of the day: the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking. On with my normal life.
That night I woke up with a scream wedged in my throat and tears on my cheeks. My dreams had morphed into black nightmares full of pain and sorrow and big fists and a red face, beaded with sweat and screaming at me. Images of my mother, watching as it all went down. Standing in the background with her own, smaller, fists clenched. Doing nothing until it was over, and then I heard her voice: "Go apologize to her" she'd said. Then, a man's voice, still choked with anger: "I'm sorry."
I'm sorry. You know what? I'm sorry too. I sometimes wonder what I'd be like if I hadn't gone through those scary times. Would I be different? Would I be happier? More well-adjusted?
I bet I would love massages.
I can't get massages, you see. Something in me recoils at the thought, and up until that phone call with an old friend I laughed it off as one of those "Crazy Jenny Things." Now I kind of understand why I don't like them. I understand why I have trouble trusting anyone, even the people closest to me. I understand why I sometimes find myself paralyzed, unable to move or talk or even think for a few seconds because my mind has decided to take a break. Like it did when I was younger, after I pulled myself out from under my bed, dried my tears and winced as I put on my Lanz of Salsburg nightgown, then tried to finish my homework.
I remember now, how I used to go about my days like everything was JUST FINE, like the biggest concern in my life was whether or not my hair made me look like Belinda Carlisle, not whether or not I was going to have the shit beaten out of me later that night. I dealt with the teenage crap like most of us did, and even though I wouldn't call myself the Poster Child of Success, I'd like to think I did okay.
But the biggest test, by far, was motherhood. Of course, the fact that I had successfully blocked out 99 percent of my childhood memories gave me a leg up on the whole "cycle of abuse" thing, but it's not all about memories. Feelings can't be forgotten, they get stored away like Christmas decorations. I remember holding my first newborn as he cried for hours on end and feeling helpless, feeling stupid and feeling something else... rage.
The anger I felt as a mother was something of epic proportions. Never before had I felt such a seething hot surge of emotion, roiling and crashing into my head, my heart, my very soul. Looking back, now I see that the one thing I never learned to handle was the anger I felt as a young girl. I was furious. Furious that someone was hurting me, furious that nobody would help me. I did a great job of burying that fury, but having kids unearthed it. Every last, acerbic bit of it.
Here's the kicker:
I don't hit my kids.
Do I get mad? Hell yes. You know the trite old saying, "I see red"? I really do see red. Like Red-O-Vision. My pulse quickens, my face gets hot, and sometimes I look down and see my own hands clenched into tight fists, smaller, paler versions of the fists that used to rain punches on my back. A good shrink told me that the anger takes me back to 1975, back to the day I first got hit and looked at the giant red handprint on my 9-year-old thigh, looked at it with an almost comical disbelief. He hit me, I remember thinking. I remember my childish, indignant anger.
That anger is still inside me. It's still somewhat childish and still very indignant.
BUT I DON'T HIT MY KIDS.
I yell sometimes. I swear sometimes. At my weakest, I slam things. I say things that I probably shouldn't say, things that we talk about after the angry clouds break and the air in our house has stabilized.
I don't hit my kids.
What's the point, Crazy Lady? Is that what you're asking yourself, if you've read this far? I do have one, aside from my need to tell you that I DON'T HIT MY KIDS.
Here is my point:
My childhood didn't turn me into a monster. It could have, oh so easily. I could have grown up into a horrible child abuser, or become a runaway or I could have tried to find safe, sweet love by having a baby of my own when I was 15. But I didn't. By the grace of God, or a guardian angel,o r mayhap just a tough-as-nails constitution, it didn't destroy me. Maybe because the abuse didn't start until I was 9 years old? Maybe because it stopped when I was in high school? Who knows.
I do know this: Right now, this very second, there is a child being hurt. Someone you know, maybe a kid from your child's school or your church or down the street from you, they are being abused. Maybe a step-parent is punching them, maybe a mom is neglecting them, maybe the stereotypical creepy uncle is touching their privates, maybe the woman at daycare is shaking them. Maybe you were hurt when you were little and innocent and defenseless, like I was. Maybe your spouse was kicked around as a kid. Child abuse is an epidemic. We don't talk about it as openly and as honestly as we should. And that's a shame.
It occurred to me, one typical morning this past spring. My daughter, who was a junior in high school, was doing her Final in Culinary Arts. We woke up early to package up her supplies for the meal she was making that afternoon. I showed her how to julienne her carrots and we laughed about that old Saturday Night Live skit where Dan Aykroyd played Julia Child and cuts his finger (I've cut the dickens out of my finger!). As all of the kids left to catch the bus, they called out "Bye! Love you, mom!" I answered, as I always do: "I love you too!"
My kids have known grief. They've no doubt felt anger, too. But my kids have never felt that fear I felt, they've never fled a room in terror like I did. They've never had to face an adult who has just violated their rights and listened to a pathetic, hollow apology. They've never looked at my handprint on their bodies, rising up as an angry, red welt.
I want those kids who have been hurt to know this, and I want the people who love them to know this: They will be OK. This will not ruin them. Get them some counseling, love them extra hard, be there for them. But believe me when I say:
This does not have to wreck their lives.
You want to know how I know this is true?
Because I don't hit my kids.