Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Elizabeth’s Story

My one recurrent prayer in high school was to live long enough to move out of my parents’ house. Every night at bedtime I had wanted to kill myself. Images of me dead, ways of dying, and an overwhelming sense of oppression invaded my nighttime thoughts. By day I was a straight “A” student in high school – someone others respected and knew well, or at least thought they knew. I was the only one who understood my double life. For as far back as I can remember, I had the sense of leading two incongruous lives: one on the outside of my family’s front door and one on the inside.

My last birthday was one of celebrating living away from my parents longer than living with my parents – a celebration of survival! It has been a year of change and struggle, the years before leaving my parents’ house seeming always to influence those after. In honor of my struggles and my survival, I dedicate this story to all those who are my friends, colleagues and family and to those souls I may have hurt in my attempt to find out who I am and to love myself. I hope that all truth will help others be free.

I am the older of two sisters born to a woman who grew up in a family where physical punishment was common and where she was sexually molested, and an immigrant father who lived through the work camps of WWII, was also physically abused as a child and probably has borderline personality disorder (a new, recent, realization for me), as well as being an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler in my childhood.

My younger sister is now one of my most cherished friends, but this was not always the case growing up, however. My father was a binge alcoholic for my entire childhood and most of my adult life, until approximately six years ago. He was a compulsive gambler who lost all of our family’s savings several times over, as well as being an inventor with many patents in his field, but who always wanted to be a physician. My mother was a teacher of emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children until an early retirement was necessary due to her disabling heart disease. Both my parents smoked one to two packs of cigarettes per day and had multiple conflicts between them while I was growing up. I remember my mother saying out loud repeatedly how she should divorce my father when I was a child, but she never did. My sister and I were overly compared to each other and were forced into an almost competitive relationship as children. She and I had almost no privacy at home, with my father and sometimes my mother not knocking on doors and trying to keep us busy most of the day. Reading was one of the few things we were allowed to do for pleasure. I was not allowed to date until after graduating from high school, when my parents had little control over me in college. This lack of basic dating constraints and forced avoidance of almost all normal social activities left me unprepared for the freedoms of college life at age 17, when I matriculated into college and left my parents’ house, never to live there again. For example, I was never allowed to attend even one football game or dance in high school, even if I asked to go with girlfriends. I was valedictorian of my high school class of 800 and received many scholarships to college, even winning my father’s company college scholarship, which included students from all over North America. No matter how “good a girl” I was, how many “A’s” I received in school or how many scholarships I won, I was not allowed to be trusted with normal teen activities.

The exception to the “No to anything I asked to do rule” was that my mother would let me and my sister participate in activities that my father would not, if we would not “get caught”. Therefore, my mother, as the only way that her children could get to do anything that was “normal” for kids, always condoned lying to my father. However, the consequences for getting caught were severe, so that we became very adept at not only lying, but also covering up the lies completely and covering for each other, so that no one would know the truth. It seemed that even our mother did not want to know the truth at times, so she could take my father’s side and say that she did not know what was going on, and subsequently, not get into trouble herself. This set up a terrible, insidious pattern of lying in my personal life that I have just recently overcome through therapy and my Christian beliefs, but still have to be constantly on guard not to replicate in small ways in daily life.

My mother seemed jealous of my doing well in school and would often put me down for doing well. I never knew if my mother had some role to play in me not getting to do certain activities, even though she let my sister and I participate in others. My sister and I somehow managed to survive, but each minute in our parents’ house seemed one of survival. We were severely physically punished as young children as well as psychologically, alternately neglected and wounded. Because my father was so volatile much of mother’s energy was spent in trying to “keep him happy”, while working full time and trying to raise two girls. Because of this particular situation, many of our needs as children were overlooked or were not as important as my father’s needs. We always served him as the king of the castle as children. We washed all the dishes and clothes, mowed the yard, polished his shoes, fed him first, and anything else that we were told to do as soon as we were old enough. About the only thing that might take precedence was schoolwork, but not generally before house chores.

As for the physical punishment, it was not restricted to my father. I was tied to chairs for long periods of time with ropes (for not keeping my shoes on as a one or two year old), beaten with belts, hair brushes, and fly swatters and had soap shoved in my mouth. Many of these memories are clear, but with others I just remember hiding, shaking, and being so afraid. I remember one incident clearly when my father was drinking heavily and my sister did something to annoy him (she was 3 or 4 at the time and I was two years older.) He started to go after her and hit her in a particular corner of the room that I remember well from having been in the same place as my sister often. She was screaming and crying, huddled in the corner. At a break point when he had moved away momentarily, I placed myself between him and her and told him not to hurt MY SISTER. This enraged him and I got the worst of the severe punishment that day. Although I remember the pain and hurt, I cannot remember if it was a belt, hairbrush, hand or something else. I am crying with a well of emotions as I write about this.

I even remember being slapped in the face while I was home visiting from college and I was dating my future husband. We were deciding to stay together or not and I was out late one night talking to him until 3 or 4am, which was typical for me as a college student when I was away from home. My father called me a prostitute and slut and was convinced that I was having sex that night, even though I was not. He could not understand the need to talk so late. It was also customary to call my sister and I those degrading names if we asked if we could use lipstick or nail polish or look feminine in any way. Even after we had both lived away at college, he could never think of us as being adult women, making our own choices. Instead he treated us as children for the longest time and therefore something ugly would always happen when we came back home.

The standard at home was that it was acceptable to lie to my father. It was in the context of meeting with friends that my mother allowed seeing my first “boyfriend”. He and I had become friendly and had a dating type of relationship, although I wasn’t allowed on any dates at all, really. We would sit together at speech meets and see each other at lunch. I told him in no uncertain terms that I did not want a full sexual relationship with him, since I wanted to wait to be married to have intercourse. I was very clear and adamant about the limits of our interactions. Nonetheless, he raped me the first time when I was 15 years old in a public park. I did not share the information with anyone at the time. I was too scared and ashamed. My fifteen year-old brain then constructed the scenario that I had to marry him, since we had had intercourse. He also said he wanted me to marry him (he was age 16 at the time). My mother actually took me to his house when he moved out of town so I could see him. I was still thinking that I had to marry him. While she and his mother were having tea inside, he raped me in the woods outside his house. My mother failed to notice my tears and the blood on my shorts as we drove home for an hour. I don’t remember how many times I was raped, but somehow it dawned on me that I did not have to continue to be hurt and marry the perpetrator. This pattern went on for about six months. I never filed charges, nor did I tell anyone for two years.

I told my sister that I had been raped when I was 17 and asked her not to tell anyone and she did not. I could not tell of her of the multiple rapes, however, because again, I was too ashamed. During those high school years, which were hell to start with much of the time because of my family, I became suicidal. I felt like a split personality - the straight “A”, innocent student by day, pleasant and successful in school and the young girl who ruminated every night about suicide and felt unclean, unworthy and hopeless. My nighttime prayer before sleep was that I would survive until I finished high school and go off to college, where I would have the possibility of a real life and happiness.
Later after I told my sister and she was confidential with the information, I got up the courage to tell my mother, asking her not to tell anyone about the rape(s.) Within 24 hours she had told my father. I felt raped again. My father became very upset, talking of killing the person, putting a curse on them, etc., but no one really seemed sympathetic towards me. No one suggested filing a police report or getting me into counseling. My father called it my fault because I acted like a prostitute and did not tell him right away. No one comforted me or said they were sorry (except my sister) and I felt more violated than ever. Obviously, telling the truth got me nowhere.

I left home at the age of 17 and finished college in three years matriculating into a prestigious medical school at age 20. I had always told other people that I completed college in three years because I was paying for college mostly myself. I had tested out of classes and by attending summer classes for two summers, it was cheaper. Recently, in my therapy with a psychologist whom I have seen for the last three years, I have come to understand that I chose to go to college year-round to not have to be with my parents as much as possible. I did not go home, nor has my sister, for more than a few days, in our adult years because of how unpleasant it always is at our family home. I have now lived in one house that I finally feel very comfortable in, especially since I’ve made it my own in the last few years. Before that I always felt as if I never really had a point of reference or permanent home. My sister has even spent up to 5 years at a time not setting foot in the house my parents live in, because of the increase in abusive incidents that continue to happen while in our parents presence, even when they visit my home. My mother enables my father’s behavior and acts like a battered woman as well as the wife of an alcoholic. She may be both.

Since I was 20, I have been married and divorced twice, with three children from my second marriage. I am a board certified obstetrician/gynecologist, a faculty member at a major teaching institution and now a single woman for the last three years. My research and teaching interests focus mainly on interpersonal violence.

In college I attempted to get help in my recovery from the rape(s) and my childhood home by seeing a psychologist, but did not get very far in therapy for some reason. Then, I was almost fatally injured in a car accident on the way to finals during my third semester at college. I took my finals a few weeks later and continued to study, barely slowing down. Being at home for two weeks over that Christmas break was nearly unbearable. Since that time I have only spent a few days in my parent’s presence at a time. I also saw a therapist at the beginning of my fourth year of residency, when I had intense suicidal ideation and almost committed suicide. I gained little insight into my situation, however.

In my current long-term therapy I came to understand my suicidal ideation as anger directed toward myself, rather than outwardly where it belonged, but where I was afraid to have it be, because of the severe consequences. My suicidal ideation has been gone for one and a half years and I have stopped hitting my children for almost as long. I would only spank them only occasionally, with one spank, but this was unacceptable to me. After noticing when I would get the most upset, I realized it was when one of the children hit me first. My spanking the children was a deep and ingrained self-defense mechanism to survive. It was as if I was the child again being hit, and I had to defend myself by lashing out. I am the adult now, not the child, so I could release the behavior as unnecessary. Now, if one of the children hurts me, I can cry or say, “Please stop, it hurts.” It is no longer necessary to fight back or be scared. What a long lesson it has been to learn. I can love my children and myself so much more fully now.

How did my experience of multiple rapes affect me? How hasn’t it affected me? How did those first violent, sexual experiences shape my births? How can I tease apart multiple aspects of my past to know? I have chosen to have three unmedicated home births with midwives present, all close to a hospital in case of emergency. I have chosen them for my sense that they would be best for each baby and for me. This approach has minimized the need for unnecessary intervention, allowed for my control of who would be present, and allowed for natural labor, unrestricted immediate breastfeeding and the inclusion of many family members. I have done this three times with three different states of mind: first, as a medical student with no professional birth experience, unmarried and poor; second, as a physician who just completed her residency, married and seemingly happy and; third, as an unhappy married woman and board certified obstetrician/gynecologist.

I have never had any physical difficulties from my abuse that I know of. I have had no problems with intercourse, pelvic exams performed by men or women, or my births, which were all fairly uncomplicated. I did have an overwhelming sense that I might die during my first labor. I had a longer first labor and hemorrhaged after the baby was born. No transfusions or transport was necessary. I wanted to be induced after 41 weeks in my second pregnancy because I was moving. I hemorrhaged again after a short third labor, but was exhausted to labor after working 10 hours that day.

As part of what I think is important in a healthcare setting, I screen for violence in the lives of my patients and try to help them make meaningful connections between their past experiences and their current physical and mental health concerns. I write, teach, and conduct research on violence, especially against women. It is at once therapeutic to be a bridge for my patients and colleagues and is exhausting always being focused on violence in some way.

Having asked about many violent histories of women, the large variation of long-term responses in women is striking. Some women in labor feel out of control – they and their baby are “dirty and polluted” having a vaginal birth, finding C-section more appealing, because of less vaginal contact. Others find that C-section recreates their violent pasts by “being paralyzed, naked, and strapped down while other people are there.” Some women completely dissociate and have no pain in labor whatsoever, while others are indistinguishable from their non-violated peers. Breastfeeding responses are similar and varied, with some women having a great aversion while others are very comfortable with the process.

One of the many possible impacts of the rapes on me were my decisions to marry who I did when I did, as well as getting pregnant, where and how to birth, breastfeed and mother. I’ve always felt that I was running through my life. I was always busy and doing, always busy and doing, ever since I can remember. I didn’t understand why I was busy and doing all the time, but I remember always being that way.

I realize now that I knew what I wanted to do when I was a teenager in a lot of ways. It is extraordinary to see my clarity as a young woman, especially as I now look back at how divided I was in other ways. Part of me always wanted to be either a midwife or go to osteopathic medical school, because I aligned myself with more natural kinds of approaches to health and illness. I also knew after considering going to these more alternative occupations that I would probably not get the full respect that I needed or wanted in order to do what I wanted to do. I knew when I was 17 that a person could say the same things, but get respected and heard very differently if she or he had standard medical training.

I just assumed that everyone was like me, being busy all the time. Just recently, through my therapy, I realized that most people are not as busy as I am. They sleep 8 hours each night. They watch television and movies. They sometimes don’t do anything at all and just “be.” I still always seem to be on a mission about something, even writing this story. My trick is to slow down even in the midst of three children and a full-time career. I now realize that part of my busi-ness was running away all the time. I was very good at school. It was a way of feeling good about myself, because I had so few other ways of feeling good because of the physical and sexual abuse in my past. It legitimized my not dealing with a lot of ugly stuff with my parents and others. Now I spend as much time as possible with my children and try to focus on them. I am trying to be less busy at work, at home, and inside. I have stopped needing to run incessantly and am trying to make each day more meaningful, slower and complete, with God’s help.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Kathleen's poems

Mother’s Law

I do not know why my mother
Chose to hurt me;
How her life was twister
Or why her love so painful.

I only know that by every law
Sacred to all mothers
She betrayed her daughter.
My mother broke my heart.

Perhaps her mother also betrayed
And even back through
Ten or one hundred mothers
It is possible that trust was broken

I have inherited the Child’s
Pain from all These mothers of mine
Who with malicious hands
Did sooth and then hurt

I pull their needles One
by One out of my body
Soul freeing my self Releasing
Pain that was pushed in.

I reach back into my genetic
spiral code through my own cellular
Memory to a host of Mothers
Who kept the sacred law.

I open my Soul and spirit
To these light mothers of mine
And they reach forward in time
Touching my heart ever so gently

I know that I can mother my daughter

Sedimentary Geology

I have pushed down
In layers
The organic material
Of the Psyche
fear, anger, memory,
pain, humiliation, guilt,
love, betrayal
I have held these dead
Matters of the Give Away
Under great pressure
For Ever
They did not decompose
Change is made
In the waiting
Which is done
Carefully bringing it up
I find diamonds
Hidden in the shale
An Oil Well drilled
and tapped feeds me
I will burn
With a very bright light
For Ever

Monday, September 14, 2009

Claire's Story

I’ll tell you right from the start that this is a story that has a good ending. Well, a good enough ending. “Super mom,” I’m not. But my child is eight now, and, by my standards; I’d have to say that he’s having a normal childhood. And he seems to think I’m a normal mom. Isn’t that great?

I’ll tell you the story of my childbearing year, but you have to know that understanding about the incest and other abuse and trauma came a few years after the birth. It was mostly my sinking efforts to mother a toddler that eventually made me seek help from a therapist. Only well into the process of coping with the posttraumatic aftereffects of the abuse in therapy did I have it come clear how me and my pregnant body worked out a way through the minefield of the maternity year.

We planned to get pregnant. We’d been married nearly a decade, and it seemed like it was time. The day my period should have come, the nausea started. Except for rare moments of distraction and during my sleep, it didn’t leave me until the 22nd week of gestation. It was my 24-hour companion for about four months. It is the main reason I will never be pregnant again. Carsickness or a bout of stomach flu always confirms for me that I could not tolerate another moment of that awful sensation—not by choice. I didn’t vomit except twice. I just had the sensation that swallowing my own saliva or food would make me vomit. I could drink. And anytime I got the slightest sense that I might be able to eat, I did. Often I could accept food if I was watching a good movie or eating out in a restaurant.

Things got easier in the fifth month, and they stayed that way until the seventh month. Then I started to contract. Since I was at 34 weeks, a point where the baby would be okay if my contractions became labor, my caregivers did not intervene with medications. I just took it very, very easy for a few weeks because it made me feel that I was giving the baby the best chance to be born near term. I was especially motivated to do this because I had planned to give birth with nurse-midwives in a freestanding birth center, and if I went into labor before 37 weeks, I would have to deliver in a hospital.

The contractions only made me worried, but they didn’t hurt. By this time my baby was dancing around all the time, and I felt reassured by his everyday pattern of activity that he was fine. I cried a lot during this time. The Persian Gulf War had just started, and thoughts of suffering and war seemed to fill me with grief, especially because I could not help but wonder if I would someday have to surrender my first born son to war. I just cried and cried.

The 37th week came and went. I kept contracting. I assumed that my resting was keeping that baby in there, so, wanting to get this labor business over as soon as possible, I got up and got busy. I expected my cervix to open and let him out. So you can imagine how completely beside myself I was when my due date was 10 days behind me. I’d been contracting for 7 weeks. My baby felt huge. I had gotten to the point where I refused to think about labor. All I could let myself think about was holding that baby.

When I’d discussed feeding plans with my nurse-midwife at the beginning, I’d said that I planned to ‘try’ to breastfeed. She said that I shouldn’t be tentative about it. Either do it or not do it, but sitting on the fence usually means you’re looking for an excuse to stop doing it. That made me mad, and I blurted out to her that I’d been molested and ‘breast stuff’ was complicated for me, so I meant exactly what I said when I’d said I’d try: If it didn’t go okay, that’s it. End of pressure tactics. She wrote in pencil, discreetly, on the inside cover of my chart ‘history of sexual abuse’.

Oh. Is that what that was?

I’d been molested by an adult at a camp the summer I was thirteen. I’d remembered this twelve years after it had happened when, in a conversation with my husband, we’d been reminiscing about the awful times in gym class during puberty when we’d felt so very bad about our bodies. Remembered emotional state. Zap. Remembered experience of body and soul shame. As the flashback was happening, my husband saw it for what it was, and gently drew the story out of me. So when the midwife asked me about breastfeeding, I knew about that…episode. From this vantage point, I can call it an episode. It was only the tip of the iceberg, it turns out. But knowing about that night of abuse and how it had affected my relationship with my breasts, I was able to tell my midwife to back off and let me cope according to my own needs, taking the baby’s needs into account as best I could.

Turns out that breastfeeding was a challenge in the extreme, but he and I managed it for seven months. I consider it to be one of the crowning achievements of my life. A grueling victory snatched from the hands of a child molester. And an act of sweet generosity to my child and myself, full of warmth and comfort (after the sore nipple stage). I would not trade knowing and remembering that I nursed my infant for anything. I had no idea I had that kind of fierce perseverance in me.

But I jump ahead. Had I been the first woman to remain pregnant forever, you’d have heard of me. Of course I did finally begin to labor in earnest. (Just in case any of you are pregnant and experiencing pre-term contractions now and wondering how you’ll know if they become real labor…trust me. You’ll know.). The deep achy tightening of productive contractions came –welcomed—with a deep rush of adrenaline. My hours in active labor were wonderful. Challenging, but wonderful. I was the center of a small universe: midwife, nurse, husband, sister, bedroom, and bathtub. Finally it seemed my cervix was all gone, and they said I could start to push whenever I felt like I needed to. And I lay down on the big double bed on my back, and I drew up my knees to bear down, and…the paperwork about my labor says I pushed for an hour and fifteen minutes there. My husband and sister say I pushed for a long time there. I wouldn’t know. It’s a blank. But eventually they got me up to empty my bladder, and I was present again. The baby was born minutes later as I knelt on the bed. No more of that recumbent position. No. No. And the baby was huge and happy. And I was fine.

Over the next days and weeks, I had several follow up visits. Some were routine, but a few were because I just had a lot of trouble breastfeeding. Then too, I was glad of the contact with the midwives because I just couldn’t stop crying. I felt bursting with pride at this incredible thing I’d done, and yet all I could feel when I looked at that perfect little one was grief, grief, grief. I could not understand it. The emotions were so intense that I could not sort them out or make them calm down. I thought the tears would simply never leave me. I thought I’d float away, and he would miss his mama, but he would not be able to find me because it would all have gone blank as soon as I finally wore out my ability to tolerate the intensity of the grieving pain.

Eventually I wore out. I wouldn’t say I felt peaceful. I just felt like a dry autumn leaf. Resigned. Powdery. Lightweight. Just waiting to blow away or disintegrate. And, by turns, I began to feel normal things too. Like fatigue, humor, boredom, longing for grown-ups to talk to, longing to go to work again, longing for a babysitter. Reassuringly normal feelings.

It is true that there was a sort of gap between how I’d envisioned myself mothering and how I was managing in reality. But I think this is normal. I felt normal.

Until my boy started to get on toward a year or more. There came that time when they start to have a will of their own, and they sometimes cry in anger, asserting themselves. And it terrified me. I had to get him to stop. When he out and out cried like that I’d fill with adrenaline as though my life were in danger—as though his life were in danger. It all became very confusing. I was afraid I’d hit him or shake him to get him to stop it, so I’d find myself sitting outside on the front stoop while he wailed in the safety of his crib. I prayed that the social worker who lived across the street wouldn’t turn me in for neglecting my baby. But we were safer if I got outside where the piercing cry was muffled for me.

Other things start being obviously ‘not right’ then too. I sometimes would cry uncontrollably and feel nauseated. I’d spend whole days lying on my bed the whole time he was at daycare instead of working. I felt the gap between how I wanted to be with him and how I seemed to be as a mother widening. And then came some way, way stronger than usual reactions to things that were related to memories of being molested. Adrenaline rushes and strange sensations and panic and dread. I started to feel as though I was ‘losing it’. Or worse. Maybe I was becoming mentally ill, like my mother.


No. That would be intolerable for me and for my family, and I would NOT allow it.

It was time to go back to see that therapist who had helped me process the initial flashbacks of being molested at camp.

I did not know then that that decision was the first step on an odyssey of remembering and adapting and growth that has run right alongside all the other events of my life over the past several years. I understand now that when I was my baby’s age, crying like that…well, it WAS dangerous. Little by little flashbacks and body memories and emotional memories have come up to the surface enough for me to learn about my history what I need to know to heal. And what I need to know to mother my son.

The four months of pregnancy nausea makes perfect sense to me now. So do the endless contractions. I understand them as body memories and expressions of distress and anxiety, which came from a place in my knowledge of my life where there were no words. And ‘going away’ from the labor pain when I found myself in that awful position again…it was a well-practiced form of self-protective dissociating. And the ceaseless feelings of grief during the pregnancy and postpartum? That makes sense to me if I understand it as being ‘triggered’ by the feelings of bonding with my baby. I had long ago turned off all intense emotion because usually it was bad: terror, despair, and loss. So when the feelings of maternity started raging around in me, those wonderful feelings that seem to make so many other women ‘glow’… they made me wail with grief. It got all mixed up. Who is the baby/Who is the mother? Which role am I feeling? I feel motherlove, and it zaps me into feeling babyneed. Round and round. So much loss.

But the baby I mothered is a schoolboy now. He still freely expresses his needs for being occasionally babied a bit. Sometimes he curls up next to me on the couch to read. Sometimes he still holds my hand when we cross a street. Sometimes he asks if he ever had a pacifier when he was a baby. He laughs straight-out and simply when I tell him that he was never fooled by any size or shape of rubber nipple, and so, no, he’d had several given to him, but he’d never adopted any of them. This is a kid who flat out relishes having been a baby and having his mother nearby to give him tiny tastes of youngest childhood as needed during these rough and tumble days of elementary school where he is having to leave the joys of being mothered for more rare moments.

I was lucky. Mine was a wanted pregnancy. My partner was present and unquestioningly willing to carry the weight of caring for baby and mother when I was not capable of carrying my load. Many times he was able to give me the reassurance that meant the most to me, saying, “You feel like you are going crazy, but you are acting okay, and our son is fine and loves you just like any kid loves a good-enough mom.”

Being a ‘good enough’ mom is not how I ever would have described my goal for mothering. My therapist gave me that term; “No need to berate yourself for not being ‘supermom’. ‘Good enough’ parents will do just fine for most kids.” I sense this is true. And I know that all of the work that goes with being some ideal of a ‘supermom’ was not humanly possible for me. I had to spend too much time in therapy and learning to take care of myself to be able to achieve any pinnacle of maternal accomplishment. But I have kept my child safe, as far as I know. And he is not afraid of me. He has faith in me and expects that I’ll do what he needs me to do for him when it’s important. And I am strong and mostly good-humored. And I look forward to the rest of my life as his mom. I look forward.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Jennie's Story


I grew up in an alcoholic home, the second of four children (three girls and one boy). We were all one year apart in age. My father was violent and abusive, my mother extremely needy and passive. As a little girl I learned to take care of my mother; cooking, cleaning, nursing the wounds on her ulcer-filled legs caused by varicose veins, and soothing her emotionally after one of my father's tirades. Although we lived under the same roof, my parents, siblings and I lived in separate worlds. We kept many secrets; we had no voice. Needless to say, I followed the protocol of a child living in an alcoholic home where there was no connecting or bonding, only disconnection and confusion.

I can't remember my mother ever telling me "I love you." I do remember her always shouting at us "You kids are driving me crazy"! I'll never forget what she taught me about death. She said, "When you die, worms will come and eat up your entire flesh. Only your bones will remain in the coffin." We did not live far from the only funeral parlor in our neighborhood. Whenever we passed by it we would go in and she would make me kneel on the kneeler in front of the coffin and asked me to pray for the deceased stranger. Today I continue to struggle with some fear of death. I now know that my mother tried being a "good" mother according to the way I suppose she was raised. She would buy us new clothes for Easter and sacrificed a few dollars so we would have toys for Christmas. Today I know that for the most part only our custodial needs were met.

Growing up in this environment with the dynamics of my family life as a role model for living, I never questioned if we were a "normal" family. I never felt loved in my family. Love? What was that? I was too busy trying to survive. As I got older there was a part deep inside of me that said "There's something wrong with this picture." I began to tell myself that when I grew up and became a mother I would not be like her (my mother).

I was in grammar school, perhaps eleven years old, when a classmate of mine introduced me to his uncle who was thirty years old. I became enamored with him. He was charming and paid so much attention to me. I visited his apartment with a group of friends several times.

One night when everyone was gone leaving the perpetrator, his friend, and myself, he took me into the back room where he raped and abused me physically. He threatened that if I didn't let him do as he wished, he would have his friend do the same. This happened on more than one occasion.

The first time that it happened I was numb, in a daze. After it was over I went home. It haunts me to this day that I cannot remember how I got home. It was about one a.m. I had not arrived home from school because the perpetrator kept me prisoner the entire time. My parents thought I had run away so they were waiting up for me along with my aunt. They were all frantic. When I entered our apartment my father pounced on me, beating me. My aunt had to pull him off of me. In all of the screaming, beating and chaos, I don't remember what my mother was doing. Anytime there was violence and terror inflicted on us by my father, I can never remember what my mother was doing. As I see it today, I was violated by my perpetrator, then again by my father, all in one day. The next day I woke sore all over my body. I went to school as if nothing had happened. I dismissed what happened to me and buried it in the deepest part of my conscience. I never told anyone for years. Today, my mother still does not know.

During my adolescence I rebelled, skipping school, drinking, and attempting suicide twice. No one ever asked me why I no longer wanted to live. I was depressed and didn't even know it. I dreamed of the day I would meet my knight in shining armor who would take me away from the hell in which I lived. At the age of fourteen I met my husband, Roberto. He came from a family of ten children; a family who was also dysfunctional. We were the blind leading the blind. Two ships lost at sea.

At the age of eighteen I married Roberto. The one who rescued me. Although he loved me, like my father, he too was emotionally unavailable. Three months later I was pregnant with my first child. I was elated because I knew that with this child I would be the mother that my mother was not. From the time she was in my womb I whispered to her, "I love you. I love you." I was ill with this pregnancy with morning sickness and kidney infections. When I went into labor my husband dropped me off at the hospital, leaving me there and going off to work. He didn't even wait in the waiting room. Back in 1972, the fathers were not allowed in the labor and delivery rooms. I was very afraid.

When Amanda was born, my heart knew no greater love than the one I felt for her. The joys of motherhood those first few months had no measure. When Amanda was nine months old I enrolled in school to become a registered nurse, leaving her in the care of my favorite sister-in-law. Shortly after I began school I learned that I was pregnant again. The female obstetrician whom I had at the time had convinced me to try a new I.U.D. which was experimental at that time. I was not informed about this experiment. When she told me I was pregnant she was upset with me for ruining the experiment. She humiliated me, leaving me to feel used and lonely. After I got over the initial shock of the entire matter, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my new baby. When Alicia was born, I looked into her beautiful eyes and knew that this child was meant to be. She was a pure joy. At this time things were not well with Roberto and I, and I continued to suffer from depression.

In 1976 I graduated from nursing school and became employed. All was well until 1977 when I suffered a mental collapse; I was severely depressed, ridden with anxiety and in and out of hospitals for various physical ailments. That period of time was to be the beginning of a period pf psychotherapy, which included a string of therapists. I was treated with antidepressants and tranquilizers. Gradually the depression improved but I was left with the enormous task of facing many issues in my life.

I continued to battle the demons of depression and care for my two girls. I wanted to be the mother that mine was not. I used what little strength I had to drive them to school, dance classes and joined the P.T.A. in their school.

I 1979 I became pregnant again. Although I was ridden with tremendous anxiety, I wanted desperately to have a son. I was very ill with this pregnancy and spent most of the nine months in bed. On Dec. 6, 1980, God blessed me with a beautiful, healthy son. We named him Eduardo Roberto.

Several years later a scandal erupted in a day care center in our neighborhood. It was alleged that several of the workers had sexually abused many of the children there. I remember being filled with anxiety. I couldn't sleep. When my husband made love to me I felt as if he was raping me. I didn't know where the feelings were coming from. I mentioned to two of my therapists that I "thought" I might have been raped when I was eleven. They looked at me and changed the subject. Naturally, based on their reaction, I figured that the abuse was not the cause of my depression and that perhaps it was due to the fact that I was raised in an alcoholic home. For years afterwards I continued in therapy and read a lot of material on adult children of alcoholics.

In 1992, Amanda disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused when she was five by her cousin, who was age 16 at the time (my favorite sister-in-law's son.) I cannot put into words what I felt at that moment. In total shock, I felt the pain, mortification and despair that come from hearing news of immeasurable harm done to a loved one. I could only tell her how sorry I was. At that moment I wanted to lie down and die.

Amanda's disclosure slowly brought to the surface my own sexual abuse. I began to toy with the idea that perhaps what happened to me was not my fault, that I too was abused. I quickly dismissed that thought.

What ensued was an all-encompassing obsession with what happened to my child. I felt as if we were Siamese twins. I couldn’t separate myself from her pain. I grieved, mourned, cried out to God of the injustice that was inflicted upon my precious child. I declared vengeance upon the perpetrator. I wanted blood; I wanted death. My grief and my insanity was such that I pressured my husband into selling our deli business, putting our home up for sale, and moving to Florida in 1994.

Thirteen months later we returned, almost broke, as our home in N.Y. didn't sell and it was difficult paying two mortgages. In one year I buried a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law and my father-in-law. I was surrounded by the death of my loved ones and the slow death of my soul. I continued to grieve for the pain and trauma of my child.

I wanted Amanda to begin to deal with issues arising from her incest. I wanted her to heal; for I saw what a self-destructive path she had taken in life. I began inquiring about support groups for survivors. My efforts were rewarded when I received a flier announcing a conference for survivors, which was to be held in N.Y.C. in Jan. 1999, sponsored by the Incest Awareness Foundation. I immediately planned to attend with Amy.

The night before the conference I couldn’t sleep. Many questions were dancing in my head. "Should I attend the conference for myself?" "Am I a survivor?" "Can I face the pain of what was done to me?"

The first day of the conference I was there for Amanda, but by the second day the bubble of my denial burst and I came to admit the truth that I, too, was an incest survivor. By the last day of the conference I had set up a meeting with Amanda’s perpetrator’s parents, my husband's brother and wife and their daughter who was also molested by the same person. We disclosed to the parents what their son had done to our daughters. Today I do not have any contact with many relatives, who have formed a support group for the perpetrator.

With the strength and confidence that I received at the conference, I began seeing a therapist specializing in incest survivor therapy, attending a few 12-step programs, reading literature on the subject of incest and doing everything I possible could to help myself on my healing journey. Throughout this entire process my greatest source of strength came and continues to come from the higher power that I call GOD. I began to learn to separate my incest from Amanda's. I learned to detach, so that I could work on my recovery and she could work on hers. I FOUND MY VOICE, which was lost for the majority of my life. I spoke to all who would listen about what happened to Amanda. I told relatives, friends, and clergy. My two sisters have become my dearest and most loved supporters. I wrote letters. The shame surrounding this tragedy began to slip away. What a gift! The taboo of incest is being dispersed, although we have a lot of work to do as survivors. As I continue to tell my story more people are learning about incest.

Last year, due to the excessive stress of my struggle to find my voice, I became very ill and was hospitalized for almost one month. I was diagnosed with systemic lupus. Today, due to my illness, I am not driven as if I were on a treadmill to pursue justice for myself, Amanda and other survivors in a state of frenzy. Today, I peacefully work in a pro-active manner to share my strength, courage and hope with others. Healing has come from sharing my story. All of my life I have minimized the traumas of my childhood. It has taken me over forty-five years to find my voice. Because I have found my voice, I can help others do the same. I am currently working on starting a support group for mothers of survivors called "M.O.S.A.C. (Mothers of Sexually Abused Children)” and working on a newsletter, which I will call "Find Your Voice." Amanda is working hard on her recovery, attending 12-step meetings and reading literature on incest recovery. She's moving slow, but she's moving. I've learned that everyone's recovery must come on his or her own time.

Today I continue to work on my recovery with the guidance and strength I receive from God. I continue to grieve for the loss of a mother. Despite all of the pain, struggles and tragedies in my life, I rejoice today because I am becoming the person God created me to be. I've only discovered this through my healing from my abuse...what a way to discover yourself.

Because my husband has been in psychotherapy for the last two years, our marriage is becoming the union that God intended for it to be. I do love my husband very much. I rejoice and am grateful for my three wonderful and oh so different children, Amanda, Alicia and Eduardo. At times I lament about who I could have been if I had been born into a "normal" family, but I don't regret being a mother to my children. Motherhood has been the most joyful and fulfilling role in my life, a true gift from God. Despite any imperfections and mistakes I have committed, I believe I have been forgiven.

To those mothers contemplating motherhood I say, don't be afraid. Ask your higher power for strength and guidance. Much of your suffering will be rewarded with this tremendous gift. It will change your life. Your children's lives do not have to be like ours.

When I was a little girl I prayed to God, "Please let me be a good mother." Today I know that He has honored me with what I needed to fulfill this wish and continues to do so, one day at a time.