I wake to the sound of dishes being taken out of the dishwasher and panic. My heart gallops and a lump in my throat is searing. My husband is being kind and putting the dishes away so why the hell am I freaking out?
Because it was the sound I used to wake up to before my mother’s boyfriend started launching the dishes across the house like they were skeet targets, followed by beating on my mother. I had a shitty childhood.
Now, before there is an internet brawl over how other people had it so much worse in comparison, stop. I get it. I know there are children out there that had it worse than me. Really, I recognize this. As a teacher, I’ve encountered students whose circumstances far surpass what I went through. However, this does not diminish my experience or the experience of others. It does not change the reality of my post-traumatic stress, panic disorder, and anxiety that followed me from my shitty childhood to my pretty freaking great adulthood. As Robin Roberts titled her book based on the advice from her mother, “everybody’s got something.”
My something was an alcoholic father that physically abused my mother but loved his children dearly. My something was that after the divorce, my mother’s boyfriend terrorized her, my brother, and I with physical and emotional abuse for over a decade. My something was this same man sexually harassing me throughout my preteen and teen years. I never knew if we would have electricity, enough to eat, or if this monster would actually kill my mother one of these times. My childhood was broken dishes, holes punched in the walls, kicks to the ribs, hate, fear, and panic.
For example, when I was seven and my brother was three, we were eating alone in the kitchen while my mother and her boyfriend ate in the living room. We were having pancakes for dinner that night, the kind of thick chewy pancake that you need copious amounts of saliva to choke down. I couldn’t get close to finishing mine. When he came into the kitchen, it was demanded I finish my dinner. I tried to force down another bite but it was like trying to swallow cotton balls. I didn’t feel well either and there was no chance of success. In reaction to my defiance, my mother’s boyfriend grabbed me and threw me into the shower with my pajamas on, where I preceded to vomit all of the pancakes that I had managed to eat. When I finally stopped heaving, he left me to undress and redress myself as well as to clean the chunks of undigested pancakes. I finally retreated to the room I shared with my brother, which had a doorway equipped with a laser across the frame that would sound an alert if either one of us left the room at night. If I had to go to the bathroom, I would be paralyzed with fear until morning. I developed world class bladder control. As a teen I was dragged across counter tops, called a whore and a slut, slapped on the ass when I walked by.
Not until high school did I realize that my life was not normal in comparison to my mostly affluent suburban classmates. Again, I am sure many of them had hardships and negative experiences, but it seemed as if no one could empathize with my struggle, not that I advertised it. My life was different. I was finally referred to the school social worker after the guidance counselors gave up on me and deemed my problems as beyond their expertise. That day changed my life. I owe my adult life to that school social worker. Without him I never would have developed a sense of self-worth, graduated high school a year early, or went on to earn two Master’s degrees.
Three reasons I survived are his intervention along with being blessed with above average intelligence and an exceptional grandmother. My grandmother, in the words of Harriet Jacobs, was the “light fleecy clouds over a dark and stormy sea.” I am what psychologists refer to as a resilient child.
Now that I am a parent myself and blessed with a family of my own, married to a good man with a 16 month old daughter and a baby on the way, I am scared for different reasons. I want my children to have everything I did not. Their basic needs, shelter, electricity, heat, bedrooms, and food to eat are taken care of. I want them to grow up in a home that is loving and nurturing with parents that make them feel safe, secure, and allow them to experience the innocence of childhood. I worry, as most parents do, about being a good parent. There is another fear that creeps up on me, however, in the darkness of the night.
I want my children to be resilient. I want my children to advocate for themselves. I want my daughter to be a strong woman. I never want her to tolerate being called a slut or a whore or slapped on the ass by any man. Ever. While I am haunted by the demons of my childhood and adolescent years, I also acknowledge they have made me stronger. Every horror, every scar, every night spent crying on a couch because I didn’t have a bed, made me a fighter. Will my children be devoid of this quality because I will have given them everything? How can I teach my children to be resilient while giving them a good life? I know someday, when they are older, I will have to figure this out and it terrifies me.
For now, I squeeze my little one close and smother her with kisses while I rub my growing belly and feel blessed that I can shelter them from the ghosts of my past. My shitty childhood will never be their life. They will have giggles, cuddles, and the fierce love of a mother who appreciates each moment of their innocence. To them the sound of dishes being put away will be just that.
The author of this piece writes under the pen name Jane E.