How Can I Be a Good Mom in an Emotionally Abusive Marriage?
She was going to be the best mom. She had all her parenting books (read and underlined) on the shelf by the brand new crib in the corner. She had taken the Baby-Wise and Growing Kids God’s Way classes at church and picked the brains of every godly mother who had a baker’s dozen of well-behaved kids creating a nice neat row in the first third of the church worship center.
She was ready. She had a vision of lying on her death bed at the age of 103, surrounded by countless children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren sharing blessed stories of how she had faithfully prayed, baked whole wheat bread from scratch, and homeschooled for thirty years, all while making her husband of 75 years the happiest man on planet earth.
They would rise up and call her blessed, and then she would peacefully slip into eternity knowing that everyone she left behind was bringing God glory by either being a pastor, pastor’s wife, missionary, or missionary’s wife.
Everything she did for the next twenty years was with that vision in mind. She worked. She prayed. She loved. She conceived. She prayed. She birthed. She worked. She nursed. She volunteered. She loved. She sacrificed. She prayed. She spanked. She taught. She raised. She loved. She baked. She worked. She scraped. She forgave. She prayed. She cleaned. She tried. She groveled. She worked.
And twenty years later that vision was a faint memory.
She mistakenly married a covert abuser who used the Bible to control and manipulate her mind.
Some of her children didn’t believe in God anymore. They thought Christians were hypocrites.
Some of her children were immoral. Some used drugs. Some over-drank. Some disowned her. Some had personality disorders. Some were physically abusive.
All were traumatized.
This is not just my story. This is the story of hundreds of thousands of women all over this world. I’ve heard them over and over again. Same song, different verse.
I can hear some people already. “Well maybe her family fell apart because she swears…” Because you know – then all you have to do is make sure you don’t swear, and the vision is yours. I get it. I used to think that way too. I had my list of things to-do and not-to-do to ensure success. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I was not a swearing person in my perfect, Best Mom years, and it still fell apart.
I now have some insight into what happened, and by God’s grace, I am able to take what I’ve learned from my millions of mistakes and have a “do-over” with my younger kids. The biggest difference is that I no longer expect perfection from myself or them. My focus is not on perfection. My focus is on love. Love and acceptance.
It’s messier, I admit. But it’s so much better. Richer. Authentic. Honest. Raw. And Real.
For the most part I’ve avoided the subject of parenting on this website. Not because I don’t have any experience with it. I do. More than most. I was parented. And I’ve parented nine children for the past 26 years. That pretty much covers my lifetime. But mainly because I’m still figuring it out. Not the method to raising perfect children. But the way to deeply love and accept and enjoy the imperfect children I’ve got.
One of the things I’ve been struck by in my escape from an abusive marriage that was enabled and encouraged by an abusive religious cult is that Jesus was never about the law. He was all about love. He WAS love. And He came to establish His Kingdom of Love on this earth through His people.
So what would happen if we applied this to our parenting?
How Can I Be a Good Mom in an Emotionally Abusive Marriage?
This is what I’m studying, researching, and learning about right now. Plus I’m practicing on my own younger kids who are still living with me. And I think it’s a much healthier approach that will have a healthier outcome.
So today I want to write about kids and parents and trauma, because my readers are mostly women of faith in emotionally abusive marriages, and most of them have children.
If you are like me, you and some of your children have perhaps been diagnosed with PTSD. And if you haven’t been officially diagnosed, you likely have most of the symptoms. (You can read more about complex PTSD HERE.) This means you’ve not only got regular parenting challenges, but you’ve got kids who need special parenting geared toward helping them with their trauma, AND you have to offer that to them even while you, yourself, are dealing with your own trauma.
Which comes first? Helping your kids? Or helping yourself?
You can’t help your kids until you’ve helped yourself. So you need to get on top of this first. The good news is that as you are getting help and healing for yourself, you will be able to simultaneously offer that same help to your children. But if you stay stuck, your children will suffer with you.
I highly recommend getting the education, support, and coaching you need. I believe it is imperative. I offer my own method through the Flying Free Sisterhood which opens up every spring and fall. You can find out more and get on the waiting list HERE. Otherwise, there are other resources, perhaps locally or online, that you can use. But do SOMETHING. And don’t wait. Your future depends on your taking this seriously enough to invest the time and money and effort to work hard on your healing and personal development.
We absolutely need to have a healthy self-regard before we can most effectively parent traumatized children. In other words, get the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then you’ll have the life and strength to put it on your kids. Here’s how Heather Forbes puts it in her book, Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: Volume Two:
“The past is the past and only exists as a memory in your mind. The future is only a thought in your mind; it is never a reality. Nothing can ever happen in the past and nothing can ever happen in the future. Life only happens in the present moment, and your children need you in the now. To live in this moment, it takes loving yourself and accepting yourself at a deeper level than you have ever been able to do in the past. It takes going beyond just being comfortable in your own skin but becoming your own best friend. Developing this loving and healthy relationship with yourself is the key to developing a healthy relationship with your child. You will be opening up the space within you to be present with your child, which will simultaneously be creating the exact environment he needs to change his brain, his mind, his heart, and ultimately his behavior.”
When children are traumatized, they have a lot of experience with extreme emotions. One of our goals will be to provide a peaceful, safe environment for them to emotionally rest in. We want to reduce the opportunities they have to experience conflict and extreme swings from deep fear to rage to euphoria. We want to regulate their environment and then teach them how to regulate their inner world as well. One of the most important ways we do this is through empathy.
“Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the perspective of someone else, essentially walking in another’s shoes. There is an emerging field within brain science called social neuroscience. Social neuroscience focuses on how the brain functions in social interactions and studies the circuitry in two people’s brains that become activated while they interact. Scientists have determined it is our “mirror” neurons that are responsible for our ability to feel what others are feeling. Mirror neurons “reflect back an action we observe in someone else, making us mimic that action or have the impulse to do so.” This gives us the ability to be empathetic with someone else and literally feel them at a neurological level. Studies are showing that it is indeed our default wiring to be empathetic and to attend to the needs of others. What throws us off track from this natural state is stress. When we are stressed out, we are self-absorbed and we can focus only on ourselves which keeps us from being able to make use of these mirror neurons in human relationships. We lose the ability to empathize with others and with our children.” Heather Forbes
When a person is stressed, their amygdala (part of brain that reacts by fighting, running, or freezing) goes into overdrive, shouting so loud that the prefrontal cortex (the logical, thinking, reasoning part of our brain) shuts down temporarily. All kinds of stress hormones like cortisol are released into the bloodstream, and these hormones affect all the other body systems.
When a child is experiencing this kind of stress on a regular basis, they lose their ability to regulate themselves. They don’t even know what it feels like to be regulated. Their stress tolerance goes waaaaay down, which means they constantly live just a few seconds away from falling apart.
Your challenge as the parent will be to help your child learn how to regulate his body. They need to learn how to keep their amygdala calm. When you understand that this is actually a physiological issue and not something you “spank out of them,” you’ll be encouraged to keep working on this with them.
“We must remember that a child caught in this place of survival cannot partake of or value a parent’s point of view more than his own. The road to healing comes in the parent first valuing and partaking in the child’s viewpoint, no matter how illogical or irrational it may seem to the parent. For the child, it is his reality, thus it is his truth. Validating him, understanding him, and respecting him (notice agreeing with him is not listed here) will create the path to moving the child from fear to love. As the child experiences these qualities, he is learning how to do the same for others. He is experiencing a shift from survival to relationship. This type of experiential knowledge far out-powers a parent lecture on how and why he should be caring about others or why he should be doing what he was told.” Heather Forbes
In order to help rewire your child’s brain, you have to rewire your own brain first. If you can keep YOUR amygdala calm (regulated) when your child’s amygdala is freaking out, you will have a much better chance at helping him rewire. But when we react in our own fear by yelling, shaming, giving vengeful type consequences, or emotionally abandoning him, he will not be able to safely rewire his own brain. The rewiring of his negative programming will only happen through his relationship with you. Otherwise, the cycle will continue.
“You no longer have to accept the negative thoughts and programming you absorbed as a child. These do not work for you anymore, and they certainly are not working for you in your relationship with your child. Beliefs are nothing more than feelings of certainty based on your experiences or what somebody told you; you always have the opportunity to create new positive beliefs within yourself and programs that work for your life. Ask yourself these questions: “Whose life am I living… my thoughts and beliefs or somebody else’s?” “Am I going to accept the limitations and the false interpretations put on me, or am I going to take a different path to happiness, harmony, peace, and love?” “Am I going to choose the path of the victim who suffers and struggles, or am I going to choose the path of transformation to be the best parent I can be?” It takes training yourself just as you would train to run a marathon. It takes self-discipline and self-awareness to tap into the power within yourself. It starts with your thoughts because your thoughts do matter. Your thoughts create your reality.” Heather Forbes
Always remember that the behaviors you see LOOK LIKE anger, disrespect, and rebellion. But underneath all of that you’ve got a person who is afraid. A human being who is crying out for unconditional love, validation, and acceptance. This is what we need. And this is what our kids need, too!
Do you see how important it is to heal ourselves? To be able to regulate ourselves? We can only pass on what we, ourselves, have acquired and practiced.
HERE is a list of resources to help your child grow his/her emotional resiliency skills.
I have a course within the Flying Free Sisterhood education and support group that teaches more about what our kids need from us to help them regulate their emotions. I’d love to have you work with me and other women of faith on this same journey. You can learn more about this opportunity HERE.
Until next time, fly free!