We did the best we could to undo the lessons neglect, physical and sexual violence taught us growing up. But no one told us that there would come a time when we’d have to start the work all over again, and that time would coincide with motherhood. The degree will vary, but survivors come face to face with a new kind of trigger once becoming a parent, and that trigger is your child. I’ve come to learn that for mothers like us, it’s not a matter of if our children will trigger us, but when.
We celebrate feeling “through” or “over” the abuse, only to be hit with flashbacks while breastfeeding, at the mercy of irrational rage when a child doesn’t listen or disobeys, feeling paralyzed when a toddler does normal things like hit, or left in tears because more than once you’ve considered whether the people in your life would be better off without you.
Our nervous systems are as bipolar as our minds.
We are the helicopter moms that won’t take our eyes off our kid for two seconds, not for fear that someone will grab her; but that someone will groom her. Every survivor of childhood sexual abuse I know, if able to say the words out loud, will tell you her abuser was a family member, or a friend the family trusted. We trust little to no one around our children.
We are the moms constantly in motion. Slowing down does not feel like self-care to us. We slow down, and thoughts and memories catch up to us. We are three steps ahead of ourselves regardless of how exhausted we are, because not knowing what will happen if we’re not is worse than our body’s cry for rest.
We are the moms that say yes too often because we were never offered choice, and because confrontation, even with a child, can shut us completely down. And we are the moms that too often say no for fear that our child navigating the world outside our realm of control is just too terrifying and risky.
We are raising our children in middle class homes, domestic violence shelters, condos with clean lines, doublewides, and infested “emergency housing” the government so graciously pays for when we have to succumb to asking for help to keep our families warm and safe.
We are the women labeled with bipolar disorder, “unexplainable” chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, obesity, PTSD, high blood pressure, major depression, addicted to food or avoidance or passiveness or perfectionism or alcohol or tobacco or the drugs prescribed to us. We are the moms that take the medicine, even when we hate doing it, because we’ve learned the hard way, more than once, that you can’t be the kind of mom you want to be while coiled under the blanket of depression. “Take this pill” they said. No other option was discussed. Nor was our experiences considered.
Our labels are our symptoms, not the disease. The disease is trauma. We are not the problem. The problem is ill developed attachment, a highjacked nervous system, a maladapted stress response, and an unacknowledged normal response to all that our body, mind, and spirit have endured.
Post traumatic stressors or triggers can lead survivors to use or fall back on once adaptive methods of surviving. These behaviors become maladaptive parenting methods. For a parent who is triggered, this may look like arguing, yelling or provoking the child; using substances; neglecting basic needs like bathing, diapering, or dressing the child appropriately; disengaged or detached reactions to a child’s attempt to connect; isolating the child from normal social engagements.
This happens not because we are weak or incapable of leading with love and competence, but instead because our dysregulated stress response systems go into overdrive when faced with situations that take our minds and bodies back to a time when we were the child; when we were trying to navigate an unsafe environment or experience, or tricks us in to believing that our child is in the same kind of danger.
Shift is happening.
We are becoming the experts on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and what trauma does to our brains and bodies, so that we can breathe new, healthier life into the roots of our diseased family trees.
We’re showing up to speak about or listen to unlikely professionals present information on what trauma has done to our systems, because we’ve learned our doctors and a large majority of mental health professionals do not have the same information.
We are coordinating or attending local collaborative task forces determined to help build trauma informed families and trauma informed work forces. We are having robust conversations in our communities and demanding that “best practices” be guided by the voice of the person the practice is created for. We’re talking about the experiences of being triggered as a parenting survivor so we can recognize the patterns in our histories that we are trying to eradicate. We are less afraid of what that will mean for us socially and/or professionally because what we gain will be a catalyst for generational healing.
We are parenting survivors working to shift the cultures view on violence against woman. Our boys grow up knowing there are consequences for jeopardizing a girl’s safety, and our girls do not associate the solution to the violence against them with wearing longer skirts and carrying car keys between her fingers.
We start having age appropriate sex talks with our sons and daughters around the same time we start teaching them their abc’s. Our boys know what consent is and our girls are assured that saying no is a right and should be said often, despite the impact on the other person. We are having the most difficult conversations of our lives with our children about what happened to us, so it won't happen to them.
We’re teaching our children that if they see an injustice done, you do what is within your power to change it.
There is 20+ years of buried research that validates why survivors are at a greater risk to be diagnosed with mental illness, chronic health problems, have unstable relationships, abuse substances, make attempts to take their life, and die on average 20 years before their peers. Parenting survivors are becoming the channels for which this information is beginning to come to light, and put to action.
Self-care is no longer a luxury, it’s the antidote.
The rise of the trauma-informed survivor is a game changer. When I started the work of raising awareness for parenting survivors I just wanted us to be heard and connect in a way that would help normalize what we were all experiencing. Now though, I recognize that it is more than being heard, but allowing our voice to influence policy, procedure and education is the goal. If we don’t start putting the oxygen mask on the parenting survivor first, cycles of abuse and dysfunction, within families and systems will continue. The buffer we need to be for our children cannot exist if we, the parenting survivor is not assisted in understanding when we are triggered, how we are triggered, and what to do about it when it happens. We can’t buffer against what we don’t recognize happening.
It took becoming a mom and settling into my own restless soul before I really started to see how and in what ways I could “not be like them.” Yes, throwing graduation caps in the air and building a career around using my empathy to my advantage was a part of that for me, but it’s been moments in which I am triggered as a parent and can acknowledge it, and use it that I can literally feel the breaks in the cycle. Triggers now liberate me, not trap me.
The next generation is less likely to wear predisposed shackles of trauma because as trauma-informed parents we are re-wiring the traumatically stressed DNA that was passed down to us. Radical transformation is taking place because, using education and awareness, a generation of survivors have learned how to radically love themselves.
We are standing up, speaking out, reaching out, and lifting our children out of the generational dysfunctions that previously we felt powerless to do. The rise of the trauma informed parent is empowering the systems that foster our recovery to re-think recovery as usual.
Shift is happening.
Using both her personal history and her professional experience providing trauma-informed care coordination and as the Program Director for a mental health and substance abuse recovery community residence, Dawn writes, speaks and delivers keynote presentations and informative workshops on Parenting with ACEs and Trauma-Informed Systemic Change.
Learn more about Parenting with PTSD and editors Dawn Daum and Joyelle Brandt at www.parentingwithptsd.com