Editor’s Note: This essay has been written under a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.
There were many things I swore I’d never do as a mom before I became one, most of which flew out the window once I actually had kids and realized how little I understood about parenting. There was one thing, though, that I’ve stuck to — something I swore I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and won’t ever do, and that’s spank my children. I won’t do it because I can’t. If I ever hit my kids, I might not be able to stop. In an instant, I could become the mother I swore I’d never be — my own.
As a single parent, my mom really struggled with raising three girls on her own. She had some legitimate reasons to be angry and frustrated — raising kids is hard under any circumstances, and it’s easy to occasionally lose your temper and contemplate spanking them. But my mom didn’t stop at spanking. When she got angry, she lost control, spewing terrible insults while she hit us, pulling our hair and, occasionally, kicking us. She devised strange punishments and added them to her repertoire. You didn’t like what she made for breakfast? Well, you had better eat it or you’d wear it.
I made lots of promises to myself back then — about what not to do in the hopes of avoiding my mother’s wrath, and also of promises to my future children of things I’d never do to them. I don’t think my mother was self-aware enough to recognize the pain and emotional damage she inflicted on us. To this day, she remains unable to acknowledge the true nature of her actions. Whenever I’ve broached the subject of my childhood with her, she sarcastically says, “I know … I know … you think I was Mommie Dearest.”
Still, growing up, I didn’t think of my mother as a monster, because she was often very loving. Ultimately, this was one of the most difficult things about living with her: We never knew which mom to expect. She’d flip-flop between an extremely passive parent who acted more like a friend to a cold, abusive authoritarian who raged for no discernible reason. It was scary and sad, but all I wanted to do was be a good daughter and please her. Thus, throughout my childhood, I believed that if I could just be better, different, smarter, prettier, more talented, my mother would stop hurting me. That need to please has followed me into adulthood, leading me into some truly unhealthy relationships that I’ve had to fight my way out of.
That’s the thing about parents — they shape us more than anything else, and, if that shape’s not good, we need to work really hard to change it. Over the years, I did that work, distancing myself from my mother as soon as I could. I went to therapy — in fact, I became a therapist. I studied theories on abuse, developed support groups for abuse survivors, and mourned the mother I never had. I learned that I was resilient and that I could reshape myself and move forward.
All along, I swore I’d never be like her, but I had no idea how hard it would be to break the cycle of abuse when it came to my own children. And make no mistake here: Abuse is a cycle. My great-grandmother hit my grandmother, my grandmother hit my mother, and my mother hit me. What I learned from my mother was so deeply ingrained in me that, despite my awareness, I would still have to fight urges to hit my kids on a regular basis. I wasn’t prepared to find that I, just like her, have the capacity to go from 0 to 60 in a flash, and whenever I feel myself start to rev up, I’m terrified of what I might be capable of doing.
Because, as ashamed as I am to admit it, when I reach the furthest limits of my patience, the thought of striking out at them invokes some kind of primordial desire in me. The utter release I imagine I might feel, the one I used to see in my mother’s eyes when she unleashed her fury on me, is horribly, terrifyingly appealing. Whether in spite of or because I recognize that impulse in myself, I can control it.
I never want my daughters to fear me. I do want them to understand that I’m not their friend; I’m their mom — their most influential teacher and protector. I want them to feel safe and loved by me, and to respect me because I’ve earned it, not because I threatened or beat them into submission. I make it clear to my kids every day that, while I’m in charge, I’ll always listen and try to help them find their voices. I’m honest with them — they know a lot about my childhood and of my commitment never to hit them.
But I’ve come dangerously close. One time I raised my hand and told my younger daughter I wanted to hit her because she had an epic tantrum and ripped up a book; another time, I grabbed my older daughter by the arm and pulled her out of a building and into the car after she loudly refused to go into the dance class she had begged to take. After both incidents, I immediately took responsibility for my anger and impatience. Then I went to my bedroom and cried uncontrollably at the thought of what it would’ve meant for me — and for them — had I lost control.
My intent is not to impart the message that as long as you weren’t an abused child, it’s OK to spank your kids. In fact, my hope is that parents who use physical discipline will reconsider once they understand the potential effects it might have, regardless of their intentions. Just because you aren’t the one who needs to break the cycle doesn’t mean you can’t be the one to start it. I’ve had many heated discussions with friends about their choice to spank. Inevitably, they point out that although my mom crossed the line, I “still turned out OK”; I’m polite, generous, and loving, and am frequently praised for my resiliency — sometimes I’m even told that these traits are, in part, probably due to my mother. But is that because of how my mother disciplined me, or in spite of it? And at what price?
While those traits are lovely, they’re only the parts of me that people see. Because of the abuse, I’m constantly on guard and often withholding, since that’s how I learned to cope as a kid. Being resilient is a blessing and a curse because you can’t turn it off.
I don’t talk to my mother anymore — not because I’m still angry or I hate her, but because she hasn’t changed. She can’t get to me physically, but when given the chance she still comes at me emotionally. Cutting her out of my life was hard, but, ultimately, I had to do it, not only for me but for my girls. When she was in my life, my struggle not to become her was that much harder. Every time she’d verbally attack me, I’d find myself snapping at my daughters, wanting to take my pain out on them. My mother ignites this spark in me that I’m so desperate to extinguish. So, as sad as I sometimes feel, I stay away from her until she’s willing to change the way she treats me. I hope that day will come, but in the meantime, I’ll ensure that the cycle ends with me.