Today’s guest post author has asked to remain anonymous.
I can still vividly remember the first time I hit my daughter. She was about eighteen months old and didn’t want to get in her carseat. I was frustrated by her wriggling and whining, and somehow my hand came up and slapped her on the cheek. Her eyes widened and filled with tears, and so did mine. I Iooked at her sad little face and vowed never to do that again.
But I did.
After that first time with my daughter and her carseat, I felt horribly guilty for several months. But then I got pregnant right around her second birthday and things started to slip out of control. I was tired, hormonal, stressed because my husband was working two jobs and applying for graduate school, and trying to figure out how to parent a very willful toddler. Then my son was born early with complications that necessitated an emergency c-section and I began a very dark period in my life. We moved to another state when the baby was only a few months old so my husband could begin a graduate program. I didn’t know anyone and now I had two small children to take care of while my husband went to school and worked.
Most of the time I did an OK job with parenting: the kids were always clean and well-fed, the house stayed in order, we went to the library and the playground. But I couldn’t seem to control my anger, and as my son became a toddler I often found myself vigorously spanking both kids, roughly slamming my grouchy toddler back into his bed when he didn’t want to sleep, and even sometimes slapping them as I had done that one time with my daughter. I never thought I would be an angry mom. I never thought I’d be the kind of mom that spanks her kids simply because she’s mad at them, or who gruffly yanks her kids by the arm and pulls them away from the playground when it’s time to go home. Each time I felt horrible guilt and shame; I knew I was a bad parent, that my kids would be damaged forever, and that I could do nothing to stop it. Sometimes I threw things or yelled when I was angry, and I even kicked a hole in the door of a closet in our apartment. The anger seemed to come from some place deep inside me; I didn’t always understand why I was so angry or why I couldn’t seem to make it go away.
Thankfully, one day I got up the courage to see a therapist. I didn’t dare tell him the truth about what I did to my children, but we talked about anger. Through his help, and a few other things, I managed to control my anger and became a better parent. It has been several years since I have ever put a hand on my children in anger. I now have a toddler again, and even though she can be extremely frustrating, I’ve never hurt her. I made a vow to never touch my children when I am angry, and even more importantly, I don’t feel as angry as I used to, so keeping that vow has become easier each passing year. Here are a few things I did that helped:
1. I learned about anger. My parents had a volatile marriage, and as a child the only lesson that I learned about anger was that it was scary and dangerous. So I vowed never to get angry; I become the ‘good girl’ that never bothered her parents, never talked back, and never spoke up about anything. Unfortunately I never learned how to do anything with anger other than to stuff it away inside. For the record, that doesn’t work. From my therapist and several books I read, I came to accept that anger is a normal human emotion. In fact, anger often is really an outgrowth of other, more difficult emotions like shame or anxiety. I learned that most of my anger at my kids was actually anxiety; I was nervous about being a good parent and I was worried about my marriage and my family’s financial situation. My son’s traumatic birth also triggered post-partum anxiety that manifested itself as anger (if I were to go back in time, I would make myself speak up about my post-partum feelings and I would get medication right away). I learned to listen to my body and my feelings, and to take a moment to identify my real feelings in a heated moment. Often just the acknowledgement of the fear or the depression helps cool things down.
2. I also learned better parenting skills. I read some books and I took some parenting classes offered through my daughter’s preschool. Before having my own children, I didn’t really have much experience with small children. Toddlers can be very difficult; in fact, rates of child abuse are highest between the ages of 1 and 3. Learning better parenting skills as well as learning more about child development and age-appropriate behavior reduced both my own frustration and that of my kids. One of the key things I’ve been doing, especially as my children have gotten older, is talking about our feelings and appropriate ways to express them. My children and I understand that feeling angry or scared or sad is normal, but we have to choose acceptable ways to express those feelings.
3. I started taking better care of myself. I learned good ways to speak up for what I need and to express my displeasure in constructive ways. I’ve also learned that getting enough sleep is vital, even if it means sacrificing some of my precious ‘me time’ after the kids are in bed. Exercising, eating well, and keeping up my scripture study and prayer habits help me not feel so anxious and angry.
4. I just decided to stop. This sounds simplistic, and it would not have been possible without the help of a therapist and some of the other things I mentioned. But, I did have to one day simply say “this is wrong and I’m not going to do it ever again.” Anger is addicting and feeds on itself. It can be habit-forming. When I first made the decision to never touch my kids when I was upset, it was really hard at first. I had to use great self-control to do it. But, as time went on, my angry responses to things lessened. As I quit expressing my anger inappropriately (including throwing things or slamming doors), I actually felt less angry.
I am certainly not a ‘perfect parent’ now, by any means. But, I can say I am a much better one than I was five years ago. I still deeply regret the way I treated my two oldest children and I’m not sure I’ve totally forgiven myself yet. But I also know that I didn’t have the courage to change until I realized that I could. When I assumed that I was just a ‘bad parent’, I didn’t think I could do anything about it. Then I discovered that there were reasons why I kept making the choices that I did, and that I didn’t have to act that way. A key moment in my decision to seek out therapy was when a woman in my Relief Society shared her story of dealing with a terrible depressive episode that left her hospitalized; another key moment was reading a blogger’s story of suffering from post-partum anxiety and recognizing myself in it. I’ve debated for a long time about writing this blog post, but I hope that sharing a little about my life can help others realize that they are not alone and that they can change.