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Motherhood Brought My Buried Rage To The Surface

“Retraumatized” is the word my­ therapist offered. I cling to it like a raft.

by Eugenia Leigh

No parenting book prepared me for the feeling that would most engulf me as a new mom: rage. Astonishing rage. Troubling rage — the kind I thought I’d buried with my chaotic younger self who slugged too much liquor then lashed out at boyfriends so turbulently that neighbors called the cops. “Buried” being the key word. Not disintegrated, not dissolved. Shoved down. Then motherhood floated my anger to the surface. Motherhood made my rage unsinkable.

Unlike me, my son was born into privilege. He is 4 years old now, an only child, and cushioned by stability and love every which way you look at his life. If he were to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test, he would score a 1. His one adverse childhood experience being me: Before your 18th birthday, was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

By the time I was my son’s age, my ACE score was a 7. It would become 8 when, before my 18th birthday, a household member — my father — would go to prison. First for domestic violence, then again for domestic violence, then finally for domestic violence plus kidnapping across state lines. I was the one kidnapped, along with my middle sister.

We know assessments like the ACEs quiz are never precise or without bias. But I’m struggling to explain that the fury that found me with motherhood was less because of my new reality and more because of the reappearance of my old reality: my dysfunctional childhood was replaying itself, day by day, month by month, in tandem with every stage of my son’s life.

“Retraumatized” is the word my­ therapist offered. I cling to it like a raft. It keeps me above water when my eyes can see nothing horrible is happening in my son’s safe and manicured world, but my brain can’t stop seeing everything horrible that happened in mine.

During those first postpartum weeks, I sobbed on the verge of panic whenever I was left alone with my newborn. To a certain extent, fear is expected. A regular reaction. The bombshell of having to keep alive a helpless infant strikes many first-time parents, but being alone with the baby, for me, awakened decades-old terror. By the time I was 6 years old, I was often left home alone with my two younger sisters, ages 5 and 2. I couldn’t lock the door chain without climbing a chair, but it was my job to keep the kids safe. Once, we braved a legitimately dangerous situation. The kind that led to six stitches on my scalp in the emergency room. Pressing a towel to my bloody head, I called the restaurant where our mother worked and asked her to come home.

The fury that found me with motherhood was less because of my new reality and more because of the reappearance of my old reality: my dysfunctional childhood was replaying itself with every stage of my son’s life.

My mom, a college dropout, worked multiple low-wage jobs, and my dad — well, this part of my memory is murky. He was sometimes a minister, sometimes unemployed, but mostly he was not available to watch us. He would trash the apartment and then tell us to clean it before he got home. This is how one of his exercise weights wound up in the 2-year-old’s hands and then on my head. If we failed to clean exactly as he’d wished, we would be in trouble. And “trouble,” when your father is violent with unmanaged mental illnesses, is not the same as a timeout.

On the rare occasion I put my son in timeout, I perch him on the couch with his doggy lovey and set a timer for four minutes, one for every year of his life as the CDC recommends. When the timer ends, I sit him on my lap to have our long talk. He loves our talks. He asks me to repeat myself as I remind him that a bad choice does not mean he is a bad boy. That I love him the same always. But for the entire four minutes before his sentence is up, my son wails and flails as though he is being physically tortured. “No, Mommy, please, no,” he cries. And I hear my voice, my little sisters’ voices, begging my father to stop.

The first time I endured one of these CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) flashbacks, my body temperature surged. I was shaking. From crying, but also from staggering anger. If anyone spoke to or touched my son even a fraction of the way my father verbally and physically abused my sisters and me, I would light them on fire. This realization widened the range of my rage. Why, I finally asked myself, did my mother never stop him?

Every time my son throws the kind of tantrum that triggers this time travel, I become infuriated with my husband. He is kind and optimistic, hardworking and conflict-avoidant. Much like my mom. For many months after our son was born, my husband bore the brunt of my storms. I didn’t realize I was raging at my mother. That I was seeing her face in his.

My mother urged me to be angry at God. “He can handle it,” she insisted. Likely because she could not.

“PTSD is a memory disorder,” my therapist tells me. The traumatized brain does not know what year it is. In my sleep-deprived postpartum state, I often called my son by my youngest sister’s name. I endured regular nightmares about my sisters dying under my care. Not my son. My sisters. My brain forgot how old I was, and in doing so, it kept forgetting who I was to this baby. I was not left home alone with him. I was his mother. At home with him.

The child brain creates narratives — excuses — for her caregivers’ abusive or negligent behavior because it can’t face the possibility that the people she relies on for survival might be unreliable. Until I was 34 years old with a newborn, my rage splattered everywhere except on my parents. The boyfriends, for example. My sisters. Myself. My mother urged me to be angry at God. “He can handle it,” she insisted. Likely because she could not.

I have never been in a romantic relationship with an abusive man. I don’t know what it’s like to fear my partner, to believe he could kill my child if I don’t comply. I also don’t know what it’s like to have my mother’s brand of unwavering faith. She believed God would redeem my father and make our family whole. She believed this enough to keep going back to her abuser.

My father’s uncontrolled mania plus my mother’s prosperity gospel meant my sisters and I were raised to believe in pipe dreams. My father cut out magazine pictures of mansions with circular driveways and taped them to our bedroom walls. My mother printed positive Bible verses removed of all context and taped them to our bathroom mirrors. I was promised money. Miracles. A dad. But my father’s mind became increasingly unhinged in prison, and then he was eventually deported to South Korea. Then my parents divorced. I made my own money, used it to buy a car in high school, then to pay for college. I took out loans with no thought as to how I’d repay them.

Then when my youngest sister’s life got swallowed up by her own mental illness, my mother convinced her to choose prayer over doctors until it became too daunting to backtrack. When I think about my sister and her deteriorating mental health, my anger becomes almost deranged. Like a mother’s. Except I am not her mother. She is an adult with agency even without a rational mind. And besides, she lives with our actual mother who, still, freezes in the face of fear.

I am angry at my mother, and I am angry for my mother. Becoming a mother made me feel like I earned the right to fury.

In popular media, women are most allowed to be angry when they are mothers grieving their children. Not allowed — expected. But I never saw my mother get mad. It makes sense to me now why I tormented her as a teen. I was trying to drag a reaction out of her. My mother’s lack of anger meant I felt no one was outraged by what had happened to my body, to my mind, to my life. It meant I felt ashamed of my own anger, and I had no model for how to express it. No model except my father’s violence.

When my mother visited me across the country last October, she slipped down the bottom steps of my stairs and injured her back. She hurt it badly enough to remain mostly immobilized for the remainder of her trip. Then I said something. Something innocuous or sympathetic, something like “I’m sorry you have to go to the doctor.” Laughter shocked open her face as my mother exclaimed, completely sincere, “Oh it’s fine! I love going to the doctor. Really! What a fun experience so out of the ordinary!”

I stared at her in disbelief. My mother’s inability to face her negative emotions triggered my wrath, and I snapped, without thinking, “That’s a very automatic coping mechanism you’ve got for when your body experiences pain. You pretend it’s a good thing.” My mother looked startled, then embarrassed. We were having dinner with my husband, my middle sister, and my brother-in-law. All my mother’s young grandchildren were present. I wanted to punch myself in the mouth.

What my mother suffered throughout my childhood, I can’t even begin to fathom. She was 20 when she got pregnant with me and married her abuser. A girl who couldn’t even order a beer, whose developing brain couldn’t yet assess long-term risks. She had to rewrite the narrative of what was happening to her body and to her mind — and then to her children — simply to survive it. In doing so, she wrote anger out of her story. She was neither right nor wrong in doing this. She was human.

The mother in me is angry for that girl who dropped out of college to have a baby and a shotgun wedding. Angry she had no prenatal care for all three of her babies. I am angry at my mother, and I am angry for my mother. Becoming a mother made me feel like I earned the right to fury. And I am finally the parent who can be outraged for me.

Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet and the author of Bianca and Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, TIME, The Nation, Poetry, and Ploughshares. Leigh serves as a poetry editor at The Adroit Journal and as Valentines Editor at Honey Literary.