They say most people can date their earliest childhood memories back to somewhere between the ages of 2 and 6. I have scant memories from those years, but to be honest, I really don’t remember much from before the age of 8.
I think I was happy. I think I had a mostly normal childhood up to that point. It’s just that very little of it actually stands out.
The things I remember more distinctly came after. I remember my parents sitting my brother and I down and telling us they were getting a divorce. I remember knowing what they were going to say before they said it, and feeling like I wanted to run from the room before they could get it out.
What followed was messy and complicated and sad. Both of my parents did the best they could, but they were each broken in their own ways. And in that brokenness, my mother stopped seeing me and eventually checked out of my life completely. My father, in his fear of ever being alone, chose a woman as his next partner who would spend years making it very clear to me that I was an unwanted intruder in her home, and within her family.
I was a good kid with good grades who didn’t drink or do drugs and never got into any trouble. Yet when I turned 18, she packed up my things without telling anyone and laid down an ultimatum: For their relationship to survive, I would have to be on my own.
My father stayed; I went — never welcome in their home again.
I hadn’t seen my mom in five years at that point.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as “the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” NIMH also includes emotional abuse and neglect in their list of adverse childhood experiences.
And that was how I grew up. Those are the memories I carry.
By the time I reached adulthood, I was pretty broken myself. A perfectionist at heart, constantly trying to prove to everyone that I was worthy of their time and love, I developed a substantial eating disorder and a history of self-harm.
But eventually, I got help. And over years and years of working on myself, I started to grow stronger. Healthier. Closer to some version of whole.
Don’t get me wrong — at 35 years old, I still have issues. But don’t we all? I like to think I’m at least self-aware. And I’ve never hesitated to march back into my therapist’s office (no matter how long it may have been since I last saw her) to work on improving whatever area of my life I may be struggling in.
Most recently, those visits have centered on who I am as a mother — on how desperate I am to give my daughter something better.
My daughter is 5 years old now, quite literally the love of my life. And the closer she gets in age to where I was when things started to get hard, the more I find myself doubling down on this desire to give her perfection.
There’s this old voice in my head that still sometimes speaks up, telling me I’m not enough, that I don’t deserve her, that I’ll make all the same mistakes my parents did and one day I might just forget to see her.
And it terrifies me. Logically, I know that voice is a liar. A remnant from a past in which I had no control, trying to break into a present where I do.
So I shake that voice away by being even more present. By listening to her. By loving her. By constantly ensuring she knows just how wanted and safe she is.
It’s an interesting dynamic, parenting through the lens of childhood trauma.
On the one hand, part of me is grateful for this opportunity to almost rewrite my own history. I get to do things differently with her. I get to be the parent I grew up wishing I had.
But there’s also this panic I feel rising within me as my daughter grows closer to the ages I remember most. Because sometimes I worry about having to relive it.
When she turns 8, will I see myself at that age in her eyes? Will I recognize the hurt and confusion and have it all come rushing back?
As she enters her teen years, will I be reminded of how lonely I was then? How desperate for love and belonging I felt?
Because I adopted my daughter as a single mom, I wonder — will I be forever single for fear of choosing wrong and hurting her in the process?
My daughter has never met any man I’ve ever dated, and over the last two years, I’ve given up any semblance of a dating life completely. When friends ask why I’m choosing to remain single, I tell them the truth: My priority right now is simply to be a good mother, and I’m afraid dating would just interfere with that.
But what it comes down to for me is this: I’m looking at a little girl on the cusp of what became for me some of the hardest years of my life. And I’m determined to give her something better.
When I meet other people now parenting after their own childhood trauma, I feel like I often see them go one of two directions. Some veer the same way I do — toward this desire to do everything different, to give their kids the childhoods they wish they’d had.
Or, they go in the other direction, repeating what they know. Creating an environment much like the one they grew up in. Failing to break the cycle.
I’m terribly afraid of being that parent.
Of course, in the end, I think we all screw up a little. Because there’s no such thing as the perfect parent, or the perfect childhood, no matter how much we wish there was.
But I hope and pray that the path we’re on will prove to be the right one for my little girl. I know she won’t enter adulthood completely unscathed, but if I do nothing else right, my greatest goal is for her to have the one thing I never did: A parent she can count on to be in her corner. A mama who sees her, who loves her, and who will never stop being her safe place to land.