We became a father consciously. We had–and are still blessed with–excellent communication with our spouse about co-parenting. Spouse led the way on how to raise children moment-to-moment, and we listened. Spouse has very sound judgment.
When the kids were little, our Good Dad part was created. His goals were very simple to articulate: (1) protect the kids from sexual abuse; and (2) always explain “why” when parenting them. Spouse was on board with these goals.
These goals turned out to be relatively easy to accomplish, and the cost of achieving the first one was quite high: one or fewer date-nights per year with spouse because we couldn’t trust anyone with our kids. Our relationship did not suffer, per se, as we both shared the goal. Still, in hindsight, more creativity could have led to more one-on-one time with spouse.
Shame and self-punishment were (are) definitely a factor in this lack of “us time.” Still, we believe we have so far succeeded in keeping the children safe from predators. We don’t regret the cost.
As for always explaining “why” when we denied the children something, taught them something, did something they didn’t expect or like, we also have succeeded. We did not want them to feel we dominated them simply because we were older, provided food/shelter/love, had power (physical, emotional, economic, etc.). The children may not always agree with our decisions–though they agree more than we could ever have imagined children could–and they know their parents always parent with the children’s best outcome in mind.
These are no small feats.
And then came our verbal abuse of children and spouse.
We did not see that coming. They did not either.
Probably when the kids aged to when we were first sexually abused, we were triggered. We saw ourselves in them. Soon we were blaming ourselves for everything that wasn’t perfect in their lives: scraped knees, tiffs with their friends, teachers they didn’t like, boredom, every complaint. The empathic tsunami of feeling their feelings instead of letting them feel their own feelings, experience life, and grow as people turned into rage.
We yelled at the children and spouse. Then we would apologize. Then we would yell. Our younger child was more like us emotionally, and so we bullied her more. Shamed her. Put our shame onto her.
These are hard faults to admit. And they are true.
We tried to curb the anger. Every year we remember setting a resolution to yell less, and every year we were still making the resolution. That must be a sign that we are not improving. When the kids were 11 and 9, we asked them and the spouse if they thought we yelled too much–maybe we should go to therapy to address our anger. They said no. We are just stressed. They know we love them. There is no problem.
Six months later, we asked them again. Don’t you think things are the same as when we last asked you–doesn’t it seem like we are too mean to you? No, they said again. We know how much you love us. You help keep us safe, you always apologize, you are good inside.
Enough, we said. No. You think this is normal because you don’t know differently. Spouse has not had another spouse. Kids have not had another dad. We are hurting the ones we are closest to. So we started therapy.
Life has gotten more complicated since then than we could have ever imagined. Because of the decision to go to therapy.
During the past three and a half years, we have admitted our own traumas, learned that the way we were raised influenced who we are, began acquiring diagnoses, slowly began to meltdown, wound up in two trauma centers, found ourselves unemployed and on disability, grew in isolation, rarely leave the house now, started trying to learn how to cope with who we have become. And, along the way, slowly began to yell less at our family.
It is rare by comparison that we yell at them now. Much of that change is due to therapy. We try to let others experience the ups and downs that make a person resilient: scraped knees, a poor grade, loss of a friend, striking out to end the game. We can often be there for support, advice (which we still give more often than we should; sometimes we need to just listen and be there). When we can’t, because we lack resilience, we can sometimes say it with calm words. Sometimes we still yell. We still hurt inside.
Is this progress for us and the family? For the family, less yelling and more expression of feelings feels healthier. For us, the epic deconstruction of who we are is impossible to describe.
We started therapy with the ostensible purpose of yelling at our family less. We wound up discovering the complexity of our childhood trauma and the discovery of multiple, fractured selves.
While we wish we hadn’t yelled at our family, we did. We have apologized. Everyone in our family has a therapist now. Everyone has support. Our children have a chance to develop into parents who are aware of their parenting goals and, as importantly, can admit they were verbally abused by their father.
It is safe to talk about your feelings in this family. It is safe to have and name feelings. That is something. We may have retained or regained credibility and trustworthiness as a parent and spouse. If so, it is from being honest, being sincere in apology and self-improvement, helping each family member and not just us, and having good intentions.
Humans are imperfect and being in a relationship means you will hurt someone and they will hurt you. As parents, the playing field is not equal. When you hurt children, they absorb more than the experience itself; they often blame themselves for everything. Children think they are the reason for everything that happens in the world.
Parents, the more you were hurt as a child, the greater the hurt you are capable of inflicting on your own children. By the same token, the more you have been hurt, the more you know how that hurt can permanently damage a child’s sense of self and, consequently, the greater your desire to be gentle to children.
So if you were abused as a child, please get help from professionals so that you can treat yourself and others better. Disclosure: there are side effects from therapy that are really the side effects of having been abused.
This story is not over. No Hollywood ending. We have suicidal ideation. Our life is complex, fitful, filled with unpredictable emotions like anger and shame that stay for weeks, months, without abating. We feel shame at the havoc we caused. We wish we could be like Elsa and use love to thaw all the damage we have created and that has been done to us. In real life, thawing a glacier takes millennia. Still, if we don’t start and continue, we will never get that damn glacier to budge.