Arrested Development - I Was a 13 year old Mother


One of the most insidious effects of childhood trauma is arrested emotional development.The feeling of still being a child when chronologically you are an adult. One feels like a child play-acting in an adult world. All our emotions, responses, and interactions are childish. It is a debilitating condition to be in.  You feel helpless, insecure and lack the confidence to deal with challenges because trauma anchored you in that time period when you were abused.

For me, it was 13 years.

I was 11 when my mother died. Though it was traumatic, my mother knew she had cancer and she was going to die. She slowly but unobtrusively trained me to cook, clean and in general, take care of things. I remember I would dress up in a sari (the attire adult Indian women wear) and would go about doing the housework while my mother directed me from her bed. I would go to the market, buy things, feed my mother if needed, make soup, clean her potty since she couldn’t walk to the toilet. It was a game, it did not feel taxing because it was playing to me., I felt proud to be adult and responsible. I was a little woman by the time she died.

My mother died probably thinking that I’d manage to take care of myself.

What she did not prepare me for was dealing with abuse, meanness, and evil. But then how could she know that persecution would come from people who had promised to take care her kids. Most of us find it hard to believe that it is the family that usually destroys a child. Not some bogeyman who comes from yonder.

And the fact that we were staunch Catholics further confused me about the abuse happening to me. How does one reconcile evil with a person who pretends to be deeply religious? To my family, I became a piece of furniture that could be pushed around without any consideration.

My life is split into Before my mother died (BC) and After my mother died (AD). From being a loved and cherished child, I was suddenly out cold braving the elements of evil.

Soon after my mother’s death, my father became even more violent physically and emotionally. Every day was like living in a war-zone. We did not know when there would be a strike or a bomb going off.

Then just a month AD a cousin 10 years older came to molest me. When my grandmother heard my screams, she just muttered to herself, 'just like her mother.' This molester went on to abuse for the next two year while I slept.

Then there was the blatant abuse of being made to take care of the kid cousins because their mom had a career and I was there available to exploit.  And there was this diabolic aunt who would come to my home and tell my father she was taking me to her home for the weekend. The first time I was overjoyed but after that time I got her cunning scheme of exploitation for cheap labor.  The vessels I washed in her house were more than I ever washed in my own home.

The last but the most traumatic event which finally put the brakes on my emotional development was when my favorite uncle began lusting after me. The looks became lingering and attention more obvious. When his wife caught on, her rage was directed towards me, instead of the errant husband. This was my mother’s sister who had promised my mother to care for my brother and me.  Then she accused me of being the seductress that too while my grandmother sad mutely witnessing the accusations, not protecting or defending me,  the shock was too much for a 13-year-old.

My mind just could not cope or process the tumultuous events - what the hell was happening. I conveniently blanked out the memories.  However,  when one blocks something,  we get stuck in that time and place. It was like closing the door and I was a prisoner to my past. I remained stuck in that room for a long time.

In the 2 years AD, instead of being supported and helped I went from one terrifying episode to another.

Subconsciously, the only way to protect me was to make myself small, to hide my growing breasts and body. It was the only way I could protect my self from danger. I developed scoliosis.

 Here holistic healer Jon Burras succinctly explains the cause of scoliosis:

Scoliosis begins for most at the onset of puberty. One might want to ask what is going on in a child’s life at this time? A child’s body is changing into an adult body. Puberty is a time of growth spurts and sexual identity begins to emerge as well. Nature is saying that it is time to become a man or a woman and leave the world of children behind. This is all well and fine except the fact that the child may not want to leave childhood behind. He or she may not be emotionally ready for these changes that are taking place. As nature is attempting to push the body up and out he or she is trying to hold it back in. The end result is that the body, and especially the spine, begins to form a curve.

Scoliosis was my protective armor.

The aftermath of my childhood abuse was depression, lack of confidence, codependency, scoliosis and the worst was being an emotional child dealing with the adult world. Studies have shown that abuse impairs the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex is implicated in a variety of complex behaviors and contributes to personality development.

Believe me, it has been a struggle not just personally but also professionally.

The only relationship I've had was with man 20 years my senior, because of my codependency issues, I needed a father figure to take care of me. Alas, he turned out to be a self-centered misogynist who further abused me.

All through my pregnancy, I believed that once my son was born, I would be flooded with maternal hormones and magically I would feel like an adult once I became a mother.

However, because of my partner's abuse, as a new mother, I was permanently triggered back to being 13 years coping with all the confusion and maltreatment.

Fortuitously, he died but left me in debt and the sole responsibility of caring for my 2-year-old son.

From then on till very recently, i.e. 49 years I was like a cripple struggling to play mommie to my son.

The little child-woman my mother left behind had to cope with the adult world. It was tough having the thoughts, emotions, and capabilities of a teenager. And the fact I have always looked younger than my actual age did not make things easier.

Though I managed to get jobs, I did not last very long because I just could not maturely handle interpersonal relationships. Every slight or minor rejection was enough to make me incommunicado, I did not have the skills to handle the workplace as an adult. I'd behave like a petulant child.

However, as a mother, I managed to be a good enough mother since I did have good enough mothering as a child. But it was more like playing house. I did not actually feel any love or joy. I was constantly overwhelmed with intrusive memories of abuse, and rejection.  I had to struggle to push down the rage and anger which were easily triggered. It was a constant battle to keep that hurt and angry girl from surfacing.

Oh, there were times when I’d blow out. But from a young age, my perceptive son (he did get enough of attached mothering, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding on demand for the first 2 years)  knew mommie only has me. So if I’d overreact he’d just reject me. Which was a good tactic because I could not tolerate being rejected by the only person in the world who I loved and who loved me in return. I'd immediately correct my behavior.

The last 2 years I have taken a break from work to heal my trauma.  It was a year ago, while on a brief vacation my son was confidently negotiating with the hotel manager that it struck me, 'Hey, that's my son.'  It was like watching a movie and strongly identifying with the characters, hoping to be in their shoes. Like a bolt of lightning I realized that it was real, that was actually the mother of that boy.  Suddenly, I was filled with pride and joy. The  other thought that went through me 'that's what my mother must have felt when she watched me competently helping out.'

It was like a curtain lifting from my mind,  the locked door in my mind slowly opened a crack. Like layers, my past trauma is gradually clearing. The closed door is opening wider and I am able to enter the next room. No longer are the repressed emotions keeping me a prisoner. Slowly that frightened little girl can breathe. She can grow up not just emotionally but physically.

My back which was twisted due to repression has become straighter. I don't think it is a miracle, but it is metaphysical.  Our emotions shape our mind, bodies, and lives. The late Dr. John E. Sarno in his book 'The Divided Mind" elucidates the mind-body connection. I hope soon scoliosis will be included in the list of diseases caused by ACEs.

I have written about my basic research on scoliosis in my blog.

Gradually, I  am beginning to feel the joy of being a mother, as I can actually feel love for my son.  I no longer have to play-act mommie,  emotionally I have become 'MOM'.  That 13-year-old frightened, hurt and confused girl has finally grown up.

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Yes, it feels great, particularly since my son feels he had an interesting childhood. He just turned 18 and was reminiscing about school, friends, etc.

Looking back I shudder at what I went through raising a kid while feeling an emotional kid.

Honestly, Liz, this was my first article in a public forum where I knew it would be noticed. I was really apprehensive about being ridiculed and scorned but I am glad I had the courage to expose myself here. This place has been my safe sanctuary and I have learned so much from the honest sharing of others. In many ways shame no longer defines me. Thanks for walking with me.

It was good to read this again Cheryl. It's not hard to understand why we have issues as adults when we didn't have good models to care for us or follow. I'm so happy for you that you are feeling more in control of your life and health. It's a long recovery process, but so worth it. I'm thankful we're walking together on this journey. Elizabeth

Thanks Liz, it really feels so good to have our experiences validated. What Alice Miller has said about having an 'enlightened witness' being crucial to our healing is so true. Particularly, when our family of origin refuses to acknowledge or accept our struggles. Internet has definitely helped in my healing. Knowing that one is not alone is healing. 

Thank you Cheryl for sharing your realizations. I connect with many of your points, especially arrested emotional development. It's never too late for us to fill in our gaps. Developing emotional awareness is one of my primary focus areas for personal growth. I appreciate hearing your story. As we risk sharing our challenges, we find peers. I definitely hear what you're saying and acknowledge your courage and insight. Thank you.