While I wouldn't be quick to go back and re-live my childhood, I can tell you that I learned a lot because of it. Growing up in an abusive home, with a toxic parent that was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive, didn't give me much hope for the future. In fact, I spent far too many years trying to find a "reason" why my mother, my brother and I were forced to endure such an experience. I don't think I'll ever find one, honestly, but I can say that surviving an emotionally abusive relationship can make you a better mom.
When you have a child and nostalgia overwhelms you and you look back at your own experiences (and how they're currently shaping your child's) you can't help but dig and claw and endlessly search for a silver lining. The positives to growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, witnessing an emotionally abusive relationship and, in turn, experiencing a few of your own as an adult, are few and far between (read: non existent). However, I can say that the lessons I learned as a result of that abusive are invaluable and, thankfully, are making me a better mother to my son.
I hate saying that I'm "lucky," in that I'm now in a wonderful relationship with someone who is supportive, nurturing, and just an all-around decent human being. That shouldn't be "luck," that should be the very minimal amount of respect someone is shown in a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Still, having watched my mother suffer at the hands of my toxic parent, and having experienced a few abusive relationships of my own, I know that for far too many women (and men) that is "lucky." I know that one in three high school students are in an emotionally abusive relationship. I know that so many people don't even know they're in one, because our culture has conditioned people to think that abuse is only "abuse" if it's physical and a visible mark is left behind. I know that emotional abuse often leads to other forms of abuse, and 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence.
I also know the lasting affects of an emotionally abusive relationship, first hand, and they don't have to leave a bruise to be painful. That's why the knowledge I carry with me every day, makes me a better mother. My mother's experiences, while tragic and horrific and something that pains regularly, made her a better mother. I am thankful every day for her resilience and strength and resolve, and I'm thankful that I can pass that on to my son through the following ways:
You Know The Signs...
If I hadn't of grown up watching an emotionally abusive relationship, I never would have known what one even looked like. Now, that's not to say putting yourself (or keeping yourself) in that kind of situation is the only way you'll know to look out for certain signs that you're in an emotionally abusive relationship (because that's definitely not true), but I can say that I knew what to look out for, because I saw them day in and day out.
...And Your Quick To Teach Them To Your Kids
Of course, it wasn't enough to simply exist in that kind of environment. If it wasn't for my mother, telling me that what I was seeing and experiencing wasn't OK, I would have grown up thinking those kind of romantic relationship are "normal" and acceptable. It was my mother who taught me what to look out for, what was OK and what wasn't and what I shouldn't tolerate, even though she was living through it herself. She might not have been able to demand better for herself in certain moments (and for a number of years) but she made sure that I would know how to demand better for myself when I did meet someone.
You Don't Try To Police Someone Else's Emotions
There has never, and I mean never, been a time when I went to my mother to tell her how I felt or what I was experiencing, and she made me feel stupid for it. She's never told me that what I was feeling was "wrong," or that I was being "dumb" or that I shouldn't feel whatever it was I was feeling in that moment. Even if she knew my young, unrequited love was going to be fleeting and even if she knew that my "crisis" was really something small and minuscule, she never made me feel like my feelings didn't matter, or that I was fundamentally flawed for having them.
You Know The Power Of Words...
I've been told I am nothing and worthless. I've been called a bitch and a whore and a slut. I've been told I'm stupid and that I will never amount to anything of value. I have also sat in a corner, listening to my mother hear much of the same. I am acutely aware of how powerful and, at times, debilitating words can be. I will never, ever, call my son a name; even out of frustration. I will never tell him he is meaningless or that he doesn't have value, even when I'm angry and he won't listen to me and he's throwing another tantrum or telling me he hates me.
My mother never made me feel like I was worthless, and I know that's because she was made to feel worthless almost every day she was married to my toxic father. I will be passing on the example she set, not the example my father set.
...So You Watch What You Say, And How You Say It
Even if I'm not talking directly to my son, I watch what I say around him. I watch what I say about other people and what I say to other people and how my partner and I talk to one another. I make sure that the example I am setting (and we are collectively setting, as a parenting team) is one of mutual respect. I make sure that the words I use towards my son, around my son, about my son and about others, are always uplifting and encouraging. Do I fail? Of course. I'm not perfect, but I make a constant effort because I know what it's like to hear one human being tell another human being that they don't matter.
You Build Your Children Up...
I spent the majority of my childhood in an environment that made me feel worthless, not worthwhile. I didn't have two parents that were constantly building me up; I had one that tore me down on a regular basis, and one that tried to fix the damage as best she could.
As a result, I make it a point to never, ever talk down to my child. I build him up daily, even though he's only a toddler and has this beautiful confidence that I hope he doesn't lose. I tell him how smart he is and how capable he is; how proud of him I am and how much I love him. I never, ever, want him to doubt his worth or how I feel about him. I don't want him to think that he has to do certain things or make certain decisions or be a certain way, in order for me to love him. I know what that feels like, and I've seen what my mother went through, and that's the last thing I want for my baby.
...And Encourage Them To Cultivate And Celebrate Their Independence
My toxic parent never appreciated who I was, as an individual. He didn't like to be questioned; he didn't like it when I disagreed; he didn't like it when I did something he wouldn't have done or thought something he wouldn't have though. I wasn't supposed to be my own person, I was supposed to be the person he wanted me to be. The same went for my mother. She couldn't be who she wanted (hell, she couldn't even have her own friends). She couldn't have her own thoughts or opinions, she just had to agree with my father on absolutely everything, otherwise she would be yelled at and called names and hit.
I want my son to think for himself. I want him to question me, even when it drives me crazy. Even now, as a toddler, I see him pushing boundaries and figuring himself out, and that means that (from time-to-time) he pushes against my authority. Is it annoying? Yes. Is it frustrating? Definitely. But is it worth it, if it means my son cultivates his own individuality and figures out how he really and truly is, separate from his parents? Absolutely.
You Won't Tolerate Bullying
You don't have to be the victim of any kind of abuse (emotional or otherwise) to know that bullying, in any form, shouldn't be tolerated. However, when you've grown up in an emotionally abusive relationship, or have experienced one as an adult, you know what bullying leads to. So, as a result, you won't tolerate in any way, shape or form. You won't accept your kid being a bully, and you won't accept your kid being bullied. It doesn't matter if you have to talk to parents, call the school, set up meetings or anything in between; you will do what you have to to stop abusive tendencies before they become learned patterns of behavior.
You Don't Believe Your Kid Has To Earn Your Respect
My father would constantly tell my mother, my brother and myself, that we had to "earn" his respect. That respect isn't given, but something that we had to prove we deserved. It was horrible, as I found it impossible to live up to whatever fictitious standards my father arbitrarily decided made my mother, my brother or myself, worthy. One moment I thought I had my father's favor, only to realize I could lose it just as quickly. As a result, I never felt worthy, and I've witnessed my mother continuously try to find her own self-worth, after surviving and enduring years of someone telling her she has none.
My son has my respect automatically, because he is a human being. Could he potentially lose it? Sure. I can actually think of numerous instances in which my son could lose my respect (like hurting other people, for example). However, there will never come a time when I tell my son that he is starting at "zero," and working his way up. He is a human, and as such, he deserves my respect. It's honestly that simple.
You Will Never Shame Your Child For A Choice They Make Or Who They Are
When I was sixteen years old, I was called a "slut" by my father because I was put on birth control as a way to curb my hellacious, horrific period cramps. He saw a choice that I had made (and that my mother had helped me make) as something shameful.
I watched my mother be shamed for so many different things; making dinner in a manner he didn't appreciate, thinking something he didn't agree with and disagreeing with something he thought or felt or believed in, not having sex with my father as frequently as he wanted, or simply thinking for and about herself. My mother was constantly shamed for who she was and what she felt and how she thought, to the point that she was afraid to be or feel or think.
It was in that moments, and many since (especially as I continue to talk to my mother about the things she's been through), I've made a promise to never shame my son for who he is or what he does. I can be disappointed in certain decisions he makes, but I will never shame him. I can disagree with him, but I will never make him feel like there's something wrong with him because of a decision he has made or a feeling he has felt.
You Won't Manipulate Your Child, You'll Be Straight Forward (When You Can) And Tell The Truth (In An Age Appropriate Manner)
My toxic parent was a master at manipulation, and could get us to do things his way by making us feel horrible about ourselves if we didn't. It wasn't helpful, it was hurtful. It was deceitful. It was vindictive. It created an environment in which I never felt trusted, and never felt like I could trust anyone else. It created a living situation in which I didn't know who or what I was; just who or what my father wanted me to be. It really messed up my dating, because I saw that flowers really means control and fancy dinners really mean a I "owe" someone something.
I don't want to do that to my son, and I'm so lucky that my mother worked hard to undo the damage my father did on a regular basis. She always told me the truth; she never made me feel guilty for knowing the truth; she never tried to force me to feel a certain way about a certain thing. I want to do that for my son, so I will always be upfront and honest with him (in a way that is age-appropriate, of course).
You Make Sure To Take Time For (And Care For) Yourself
It was heartbreaking to watch my mom be beaten down physically, mentally, verbally and emotionally almost every day of her twenty-something year marriage. It was even harder to see her think less and less of herself, to the point that she didn't think she needed to be cared for or loved. Now that my mother is divorced and she is her own human being, free of abuse, I see her taking care of herself in ways I have never witnessed as a kid. She takes herself on vacation and treats herself to pedicures and manicures and buys herself nice things that she has worked hard for and earned. These things seem small, to be sure, but my mother now values her own self-worth and knows that she deserves to be taken care of, above all by herself.
I have carried that lesson with me throughout my entire life and well into motherhood. Now that my son is two, I am acutely aware of how important it is that I take time for and value myself. I must take care of myself. I must love myself. I must talk kindly about and to myself. I must do all the things that my father failed to do for my mother (or his children) and all the things that past lovers didn't do because I was looking for someone, unfortunately, like my father. I want to show my son that his mother matters, independently of himself or anyone else. I wan to make sure my son knows that he matters, too.