The Dark Side of Quest 2015
This #Quest2015 prompt from Todd Kashdan has been for me by far the most difficult and riskiest one to answer. My response (gulp) lives below. But how might you respond?
Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having? Afraid that others might find out?
How could you spend this year trying to be open to the emotional window that allows you to be courageous?
It rarely feels good right before we do something courageous, but these moments are the most meaningful and treasured.
I don’t know a mom alive who doesn’t have a few regrets.
In fact, many of us live in a world of “if only’s”
If only I hadn’t put my daughter on an escalator when she was four, expecting her to navigate the return ride down.
If only I hadn’t decided to boot my son out of his bedroom as an adolescent and into a basement bedroom.
If only I hadn’t left my daughter crying at camp that time she called home in tears, begging to come home.
As a mom who hadn’t yet dealt with her history of sexual abuse as a child, I mothered the best I could, always with an unspoken memory careening around the darkside of my brain, the memory of a time when an old man fondled me as a child of ten. Close at the heels of that memory followed a storm of questions: Did the memory have anything to do with anything? My depression? My introversion? My willingness to be at times what Sue Williams Silverman once described in Because I Remember Terror, I Remember You, Father–a dangerous parent?
Like that day at Macy’s when I put one daughter on an escalator, the daughter who was begging to go for a “ride” when I had a stroller with her baby sister and her 5-year-old brother in tow. What was I thinking? Was I just at my wit’s end? Why couldn’t I just say no? Why did it take another mother to look at me with judgment and a reprimand that little girls had no business riding escalators on their on. The top was a very scary place. How did I think she would manage to step back onto the moving downward steps? This mother escorted my daughter back down as I helplessly watched, hands gripping the stroller, my face red with shame.
Or what was it about sending my son to a basement bedroom when he was just about 12, thinking the space would be good for him when in reality I just needed to separate two daughters who were sharing a room before they killed themselves or drove me insane. I never asked what his thoughts might be on the idea of being two floors below us at night, sleeping in a dark, lonely basement. I just banished him. He grew quieter after that. More reclusive, more introverted. Coincidence? I don’t know since we’ve never talked about it.
And then there was the time when my youngest called home from church camp. It was her first time away from me. She sobbed over the miles of phone lines, “Come get me! I want to go home!” And while I knew I needed to ask her if anyone was hurting her, anyone touching her “down there,” like someone had done to me, I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t because it felt like a small bird trapped in my chest had flown into a panic, and I couldn’t do anything but reassure her that she was fine and that we’d see her in a few days.
For me, the list of motherhood regret is endless. Guilt. Shame. Embarrassment. Fear. Why hadn’t I gotten help with my depression sooner? Why hadn’t I asked someone if there was a connection between depression and childhood sexual abuse?
But there is another question that has been steeping in the dark recesses of my mind for quite a while. It was a question posed to me just a few years ago by my MFA writing mentor Jill Christman, a terrific writer who also experienced sexual abuse as a child and wrote about it in Darkroom: A Family Exposure. Jill’s question to me was this:
How does a mother mother when she herself is hurting?
I still don’t have good answers to this question, rather only experiences with which to respond:
You either overprotect or under-protect your children because you don’t want to be viewed as too protective or too cavalier. You usually err on the wrong side.
You’re afraid of failing motherhood, so you read everything you can about discipline, time-outs, childhood development, and you don’t even think of picking up a book on childhood sexual abuse to see if you might see yourself on those pages. Maybe you’re afraid to see yourself on those pages.
You have panic attacks that feel like a caged bird in your chest trying to beat it’s wings through your ribs to escape, and you blame them on yourself because after all there is something wrong with you; you just don’t have a name for it. These panic attacks cloud your judgment and lead you to risk your children on escalators and to take their own chances at church camp.
You don’t want to talk about tough things. You don’t know how to talk about tough things. If you did talk about tough things (like moving your son to the basement because if you hear your daughters fight one more time in their room over clothes and space and toys you will lose it), you’re weak.
You can’t win.
You mother as if you are constantly trying to step out onto that top step of the downward escalator and the step keeps disappearing, melting into the ground. Your foot meets air.. You tumble a lot.
There are some people who would say that all of the above experiences of mothering have nothing to do with being abused as a child, or of being an adult woman who kept silent about the abuse for decades. Some would argue that all of this could also just be part and parcel to the “normal” motherhood feelings of inadequacies, that all mothers make mistakes, have regrets, mess up. And to some extent this may be true.
But I don’t know how it might have been different had I sought help earlier. I don’t know how much richer my children’s childhoods might have been if I had been less depressed, less worried about what was wrong with me. I loved my children, and I still do, but maybe I would have loved them more, enough to listen more and react less if only I had been brave enough to break the silence and ask for help.
Now ten years into therapy, anti-depressants, yoga, and writing a lot about my dark years, there is an emotional window opening, an opportunity. It’s a window I choose to open onto myself, one where I am ready to bare and bear all, to say, “Look, my children. I am your mother. I’m ready to listen to what growing up with a depressed mom was like for you. I’m ready to offer apologies to you about how I failed you, put you at risk or into a dark basement. I love you.
The above was written as a #Quest2015 response to questions posed by Visionary Guide Todd Kashdan, authoer of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self–not just your good self–drives success and fulfillment (Hudson Street Press) Kashdan heads up the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University and travels the globe to speak to business executives, organizations, schools, and health professionals. He also adores his two little girls.
– See more at: http://trackingwonder.com/quest-2015/
PS: As I wrote this, a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back began playing in my head. I share this as an act of humor and healing, with love to my son.