When women become mothers, they don't stop being someone's child. The past lives within everyone, and the effects of an abusive, toxic, or otherwise damaging mother can echo down through generations. New mothers hoping to parent differently have a tough, strange, and ultimately life-changing road to travel. These seven parenting things you don't realize you're doing because you had a toxic mother only scratch the surface of the possible unconscious impact of emerging from a troubled family, so when in doubt, seek the advice of a therapist as you embark on a future colored by the past.
"There is an axiom in family therapy known as repeat and repair; you either repeat the same mistakes or repair them," explains Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., LCSW, a family therapy professional who practices in Manhattan, in an interview with Romper. "Either you mindlessly keep the same cycle going that you experienced as a child or you decide to be the one to make the change ... "
To stop a hurtful cycle in its tracks, you have to understand what about your childhood worked, and what didn't. Then, says Smerling, you can educate yourself about healthy parenting practices, and put your knowledge to work each day as you endeavor to "break the cycle."
Sure, you'll mess up sometimes, but Rome — and good mothers — aren't built in a day. And it's worth the effort. Because really, what's more satisfying than becoming the mother you always dreamed you could be?
1. Letting The Past Creep Up On The Present
"Many people vow, 'I will never be like my father, or I will never be like my mother,' but they end up being surprised when they find themselves saying and doing many of the things they vowed would never happen," explains Sarah H. Krcmarik, Psy.D, Clinical Director of the Center for Personal Development in Chicago, Illinois.
People are often surprised, Krcmarik tells Romper, at just how quickly they begin to re-create negative patterns in their new family, "without much conscious thought." The past is a part of you. The way you're parented influences psychological and emotional development, emotional self-regulation, and your ability "to move about in this world with purpose, ease, and comfort," she explains.
Such roots influence almost everything in our lives — and often go much deeper than people think
Scary? Yes. Impossible to change? Absolutely not.
When mothers have had a negative experience with their own moms in the past, they often try to overcompensate, notes Smerling. But trying to be the perfect parent all the time is incredibly stressful, and sadly, doomed to fail.
Whatever your past, you should let yourself breathe, and not be too hard on yourself when you make a mistake. As long as you're self-aware, compassionate, and intentional, chances are you'll get it right when it really counts.
3. Letting Anger Get The Best Of You
When anger and abuse are involved, Smerling says that past history can stay with you for the rest of your life — though that of course doesn't mean you're doomed to repeat it. The trouble with parenting is that it's high pressure, emotional, and reactive — it's just so easy to act without thinking, no matter what your intentions are at calmer times.
If your parent had a hair trigger and was quick to anger, Smerling advises working to be as mindful as possible each day, and addressing any issues as a new parent, or possibly, even sooner.
"I feel as though it’s better to do preventive work on yourself rather than wait and then do it when it’s too late," explains Smerling. "Hopeful parents should be willing to explore their tendencies, triggers, reactions to stress, and moods ahead of raising a child — it’s tough work."
4. Forgetting About Self-Care
As difficult as it is to be a parent shouldering a toxic past, it's important to remember to make time for self-care. Yoga classes, therapy, artistic pursuits, and hobbies — nothing that makes you feel more centered or more fulfilled is a waste of time.
Also, try to stay hopeful, even in the face of mistakes. Smerling says that a toxic relationship with a parent, while challenging to navigate, can also make you a better parent to your own children in the long run. "For example, if your parent wasn’t attuned to you, you might make it a point to be very attuned to your own child so that they don’t have the same traumatic experience you had," she says.
5. Leaving Old Wounds Untended
Sometimes, a toxic history is painful to confront, but if you want to become a better parent, it's important to raise your level of self-awareness, and come to understand and accept the past, which is tantamount to accepting yourself. For Krcmarik, working towards healing "can shift the balance" of your life, so you don't repeat mistakes in the future.
"Being hurt by our mothers creates deep wounds of hurt within us," writes Krcmarik. "And until those wounds are tended to and healed, many mothers struggle with taking care of themselves in loving, kind, and intentional ways, and therefore, struggling with taking care of their own children in those ways."
6. Not Parenting Intentionally
"Being self-aware, emotionally regulated, and resolved as a parent are excellent buffers to not repeating toxic dynamics," explains Krcmarik. "Living consciously is the key."
As the days roll by, remember to stay mindful. Unconscious forces are powerful, but so are you. To better understand yourself, your past, and your parenting, visit a family therapist. If you have a toxic caregiver in your past, it will be well worth the time.
7. Waiting Too Long To Ask For Help
Being a parent is hard in and of itself, and yet more challenging for those with a toxic caregiver in their past. According to Krcmarik, new parents with such histories can feel pushed to their limit, emotionally and physically, as they try to do right by their children.
Nevertheless, she advises, don't wait until you reach this point to ask for help from a therapist — instead, try to see someone as soon as you start to feel unwell.
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