Growing up in a toxic environment impacts you in an overwhelming number of ways. While it might be difficult to understand just how an unhealthy home can influence you, I'd argue that it becomes uncomfortably clear when you become a parent. Your children's lives start to highlight the failings of your own childhood, and, try as you might, all that toxicity threatens to impede your parenting. As a result, there are some parenting truths you don't realize because you had a toxic father, and it takes some serious, often exhausting personal reflection and growth to separate your unhealthy childhood from the childhood you're trying to give your children.
I didn't know what kind of mother I'd be if I didn't grow up in the environment I did. To be honest, when I was a kid I didn't think that far into my future. In fact, I wasn't sure I'd have a future. Bleak, I know, but it's true. Even before my parents divorced, my environment was extremely toxic. And while my parent's separation helped each of them deal with their own adult issues personally — issues I should've known nothing about — it did nothing in terms of providing me with a stable, healthy environment in which to grow up in. My mom has owned up to the part she played in my often tumultuous upbringing, but my father never really has. His inability to at least acknowledge how he hurt me, to this very day, hurts.
Every parent makes mistakes. Hell, I make them all the time. But the difference between a toxic parent and a parent who is simply doing their best, is that I aim to do better by my kids. I want to learn from my mistakes. I am cognizant of when and how I mess up, and make the necessary adjustments so that those mess ups don't continue. A toxic parent, on the other hand, does not. So with that in mind, here are some of the parenting truths I never realized as a result of growing up with a toxic father:
You Have To Learn To Reign In Your Fears
Some of my deeply-rooted issues didn't surface until I became a mother. I'd suppressed a lot throughout my child and young adult life, and the result was an acute inability to really deal with certain situations. In other words, I didn't know how to manage the constant fear and worry that comes with being a parent.
I was always afraid for my kids. And, looking back, I don't think it had anything to do with the way I wanted to parent them. Instead, it had everything to do with how my childhood experiences have manifested within me. It's taken a long time to separate rational fears from irrational worries that I've subconsciously attached to my children. In fact, I still struggle to separate my past from their future. I'm working on it, but it's work I will probably be doing for the rest of my life.
Your Kid's Dad Is Not Like Your Dad
I constantly have to remind myself that the way my husband parents is very different from the way my father parented me. For example, when my husband raises his voice a touch too high, or his mannerisms and random comments remind me of my father, I become concerned. I am immediately triggered and sent back in time and it's difficult for me not to be overly-protective of my children.
I know I need to give him space to parent in his own way, because he's a wonderful father, but sometimes it's the most difficult thing for me to do.
Your Fight Or Flight Response Is Manageable
When my kids are arguing, screaming, or throwing tantrums over nothing, I can feel this tug to just run away. It's like I'm a kid again, responding to scary, loud noises by running away or hiding under the covers.
As the result of living in constant conflict as a child, my instant response to anything unsettling is to turn away, run, and hide. I didn't realize how often I did this until I had kids, because I'm faced with conflict every single day and I cannot just, you know, run away from them.
So yes, you can manage your fight or flight response. You can handle the things you never thought you could handle. It just takes time, and practice, and you just need to be kind to yourself throughout the process.
You Can't Unpack Your Issues In Front Of Your Kids
I've learned that I'm not above making many of the mistakes my parents did, now that I'm a mom. Growing up in a toxic home during your formative years has a lasting impact, after all.
Lately, and now that my daughter is entering puberty, I'm hyperaware of the times when I yell or shut down or make a big deal out of something that, well, isn't really a big deal. In other words, I notice when I'm acting like my father. It's really, really difficult to take a step back and remember that whatever's ailing her isn't a personal attack on me. She's 11. My issues aren't her problem, and I can't make them her problem.
It Can Affect Your Parenting
I used to think that I was above it all. Before I had children, I promised that I wouldn't make the same mistakes my parents made, or do some of the things my parents did. But that's, honestly, wishful thinking.
I've accepted that, as a result of growing up with a toxic father, I will always have some issues that will need my constant attention. I know my perspective has been undeniably changed, and how I parent is, for better or worse, impacted by the trials and tribulations I endured as a kid. But the difference between how I was raised, versus the way I'm trying to raise my children, is that whenever I mess up I talk it out with them so they know it's not them. It's me. I'm open, honest, and vulnerable in a way my toxic father never was. I know that will give my children a leg up.
It's The Little Things That Mean The Most
My dad didn't spend a lot of time with me. I didn't play a sport like my younger brother, and I always felt as though I could never live up to his expectations. My biological dad wasn't part of my life either, so I always felt short-sided by all my parents.
Because I was essentially neglected, I used to think that I had to make these grand, overzealous gestures to my children so they knew how much they meant to be. But that's not necessary at all. All they really need is consistent love and attention. So, every single day, I try to be more present for my kids so they never have to question whether or not they're important to me. It's not the big things that matter. It's the little things.
Your Past Doesn't Have To Dictate Your Future
Everyday, when I open my eyes, I have to remind myself that I'm in the now. The past is over. The future is in front of me. It doesn't always get rid of those lingering memories of my toxic childhood, but when my babies greet me in the morning, wide-eyed and grateful I'm here, it becomes more and more impossible to look backwards.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.