A Mother is supposed to be a safe haven, a place where we’re assured love, acceptance, and understanding. She’s a source of wisdom and gentle guidance, without investment in whether we follow along. She’s the one we come home to.
A Father is supposed to be a protector and guide, teaching us all kinds of things, from making critter-shaped pancakes, to writing our names, to driving a car. A tower of strength, always ready to wrestle danger to the ground so we don’t have to. He’s nurturing and trust-worthy, and central to our emotional and psychological well-being.
But what if it doesn’t go this way? What if our parents are the perpetrators in our #MeToo experience?
One of my friends grew up with a sexually abusive, alcoholic dad. And it was as gruesome as it sounds. But she managed to get out with her sanity, just not without lasting effects.
One of her sisters left home at 18, dropped out of art school in spite of serious talent, and essentially went to bed for five decades as a hypochondriac. The other sister got pregnant at 16, was a serial bride through a series of violent marriages, and attempted suicide more than once. But she eventually managed to lift herself out of her low life conditions by getting a good job and marrying a good man.
My friend was the youngest of the three daughters. At age 60, she no longer needs to cross the street when passing a man she doesn’t know. But she’s still afraid of the dark and sleeps with a light on sometimes, she still has OCD issues and phobias, and she still struggles when relating with unknown people.
The dad and the older sister have already passed away. But what’s happening now is that unresolved issues with the mom have resurfaced. It began about six months ago when my friend’s sister began having flashbacks and nightmares. She needed to talk it out, so she began emailing my friend, and it all came back to my friend as well. Then they tried to talk to the mom, and she freaked out.
In her 20s and 30s, my friend saw multiple therapists and counselors. Back then, professionals and the related literature leaned toward mom-blaming. The overall thinking was: How could her dad get out of bed and go get in bed with his daughters for eight years and her mom not know?
The mom swears she never knew. She says that her first knowledge of it came much later, when the older sister blew up one day, blurted out what had happened to her as a child, and then drove off and didn’t come back for five years. After the sister left, the mom called my friend in her university dorm and asked whether it was true. My friend said yes. And her mom said, “Then I have to divorce him,” and hung up. My friend says it’s difficult to describe the depth of relief she felt from that phone call. But weeks went by, and nothing happened, and no one talked about it, and it went back to being a secret that wouldn’t be discussed. Which was crushing.
My friend always accepted that her mom didn’t know, not wanting to believe the worst. Today, the literature has changed. Studies of families indicate that most mothers don’t know. They also say though that when mothers discover the truth, most of them take immediate and appropriate action to protect and heal the children and to hold the abuser accountable including removal from the home and due punishment. My friend’s family stopped short of that.
For decades, the only way for my friend and her sisters to be active in the family, and seemingly to be cared for by the parents, was to pretend that nothing had happened. They were effective at it for years at a time. And then one of them wouldn’t be able to do it anymore, and she would spin off and go missing for months or years. The other sisters would admire her for having the guts to act on her feelings. And the parents would see her as a difficult person.
My friend says it resurfaced in her 30s, and she insisted to her parents that there be a conversation about it. Instead, she and her parents stopped talking for 18 months. Finally, she decided that it was more important that her children have interaction with their grandparents. So she wrote them. The response was an angry letter from the mom telling her that a letter was on its way from her father, which she had told him not to write, and that my friend was terrible for making her father suffer this way. The letter from her dad arrived and he had written: “I don’t remember what happened, but whatever I did, I’m sorry.” That helped some. She had always assumed, or hoped, that he was too drunk to know what he was doing. But again, there was no resolution, no discussion. And my friend stuffed her feelings back down.
Now it’s resurfaced again, and the mom’s angry that the sisters are making her life miserable. She’s telling them, “Let it go!” And they’re saying, “That’s what we’re doing. And it’s hell!”
My friend and her sister are asking their mom for honesty and transparency, and maybe even some accountability. Not necessarily an acknowledgment that she knew what was happening at the time, but rather that she should’ve taken some action to help them heal. For the first time in their lives, they’ve joined together and decided that, for the sake of their health and well-being, they won’t stuff the pain and rage down anymore.
But the mom is telling them that, because they’re Christians, they should forgive and get on with their lives, saying that they’re not spiritually evolved because they haven’t forgiven yet.
1in6 is an organization, founded in 2007, to provide information and support resources to individuals who’ve experienced negative childhood sexual experiences – particularly men, because the site says that one in six males is affected. And clearly, everything written here also pertains to men who’ve been sexually abused by a parent, whether it’s by the mom or the dad. Here’s what 1in6 says about forgiveness in these instances:
Some acts of forgiveness are… truly emotionally, morally and spiritually beneficial for everyone involved. But others are not. Unfortunately, forgiveness can be false and destructive. This happens when it is demanded or forced – by outside pressure from others, including those who mostly want to avoid conflict and genuinely dealing with the problem, or by internal pressure, including a feeling of obligation to forgive in order to be a good person.
Also, unfortunately some people strongly but incorrectly believe that a (seemingly) sincere apology, especially when accompanied by a promise not to repeat one’s harmful behavior, is enough for everyone to “move on.” Tragically, the pressure to “forgive and forget” can be a powerful obstacle to protecting children effectively from harm. Finally, giving in to such a demand for forgiveness also means dismissing the feelings of those who have been harmed, and for them it usually feels, rightly so, like an extension of the abuse.
The mom is also telling my friend that she should be ashamed for “enjoying playing the part of the victim.” She doesn’t get it that my friend is still affected by her childhood experience, in spite of her very best efforts to be normal. “Normal” for sexual abuse survivors regularly includes poor self-esteem, negative body image, phobias, eating disorders, difficulty with relationships, drug and alcohol problems, challenged sex lives, fear of life, and the need to hide self.
MOSAC, Mothers of Sexually Abused Children, is an organization offering information, resources and support following disclosure. Here’s what the site says about the effects of sexual abuse:
Child victims of sexual abuse may demonstrate a range of symptoms that include: stealing, lying, nightmares, bed-wetting, self-harm, inappropriate sexual behaviors, and eating disorders. It is important that mothers respond to these symptoms in supporting, caring, loving, patient ways, rather than with harshness, judgment, and punitive discipline.
Melody T. McCloud, M.D. is an obstetrician-gynecologist and an author of several books on “insights into physical, mental and spiritual health for women of color.” She wrote the following for Psychology Today concerning the effects of sexual abuse:
Sexual abuse of a child or underage youth causes tremendous damage to that person’s yet undeveloped mind and psychological processing. It greatly affects their relationships into adolescence and adulthood. Many have dysfunctional bonding or abandonment issues. They can be confused, not knowing who they can actually trust, and by whom they can and will be protected.
Victims can also develop an inconsistent self-image, not really knowing who they are, or what they are. And many blame themselves for being a part of something that they, on some level, know is not right.
My friend says that she never wanted to go through life as a victim. But there are some things that she hasn’t been able to solve. And she wishes her mom would realize that it’s not as easy as she makes it sound by asking, “Don’t you find it a bit tiresome?”
Here’s what 1in6 says about how long-lasting the effects can be:
Some adults also incorrectly equate sexual abuse only with violent rape, and don’t recognize that very serious harm can be caused by many kinds of sexualized interactions with children, including unwelcome touching, exposure to pornography, witnessing sexual acts, or even sexually demeaning and/or threatening comments. All of these experiences are unwanted or abusive betrayals of adult’s responsibilities and children’s trust, and all can have lasting negative effects on a child’s mind, brain, body, relationships, and abilities to succeed at school and work.
The mom is telling my friend that she should remember the good parts of her father instead of “morbidly dragging up the bad.” And that “he was not a bad man.” My friend says that she does have good memories of her childhood. And in them, she’s mostly alone, meaning without a family member. She remembers that her dad was often mean to her during the day and a predator at night. And that her sisters were constantly angry, and they took it out on her.
She has many memories of her mom being loving to her. And she admired her mom’s joyfulness and willingness to help others in need. She says there are many photos of her mom laughing and doing happy things, and sometimes she’s in the photos with her mom. It’s interesting to note that this was an upper middle class family, well regarded in the community and the church, educated, with respected state government jobs. The girls were well provided for and had good opportunities. It could’ve gone well. But the abuse kept them in a state of desperate survival. So happiness is not their dominant memory.
The mom is telling my friend that she and her sisters should’ve told her what was happening at the time. And she can’t understand why they didn’t.
The organization, Stop It Now!, founded in 1992, aims to prevent sexual abuse of children by mobilizing adults, families and communities to take actions that protect children before they are harmed. Here’s what the site says about why children don’t tell:
There are many understandable reasons why a child victim of sexual abuse is not likely to tell anyone about their abuse. Often, the abusive adult will convince the child that they will not be believed or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it. The child may care about or feel protective of the person who sexually abused them and may feel they would be betraying this person by telling about the sexual contact and the abuser may use this information to help maintain the secrecy. Children also frequently remain silent to protect a non-abusive parent from upsetting information.
People who abuse children may offer a combination of gifts or treats and threats about what will happen if the child says ‘no’ or tells someone. They may scare the child with threats of being hurt physically, but more often the threat is about what will be lost if they tell, e.g. the family breaking up or someone going to prison. In order to keep the abuse secret, the abuser will often play on the child’s fear, embarrassment or guilt about what is happening, perhaps convincing them that no one will believe them or that the child will be punished. Sometimes the abuser will convince the child that he or she enjoyed it and wanted it to happen.
My friend has tried to remember specifically why she didn’t tell her mom what was going on. And she says it’s difficult to bring back the thoughts and understandings and motivations of herself as a child. She looks back at that poor thing, and she feels sad for her – that she didn’t save herself somehow.
My friend isn’t letting her mom talk her into feeling guilty though. She doesn’t believe it’s possible for a child to make such an adult decision – to go against, and even betray, the dream of “family and home.” Nor does she believe it’s possible for that child to step outside the marinade of terror and shame and abnormalcy, in order to find someone to talk to.
Another element is that her parents practiced physical punishment. She remembers being spanked with a belt by both of them, and being slapped in the face by her mom for saying the “wrong” thing. She says that the first time her mom slapped her in the face, the option of speaking up about what her dad was doing went out the window. She learned to be a person who doesn’t speak up and who stays silent.
Plus, my friend questions whether her mom would’ve done anything anyway, even if one of the girls had been able to speak up while it was happening, because she didn’t do anything when she did finally find out. Instead of taking some kind of constructive action, the mom took the side of the dad for the next forty years.
Here’s what McCloud wrote on Psychology Today about mothers siding with the abusers:
Sticking up for a spouse is mostly understood. But in the face of overwhelming evidence – in a courtroom, or in private discussions – should wives continue to defend their husbands when it is clear they engaged in mammoth wrongs against children? One can only hope that… the wives will stop discrediting the very people who were violated by their husbands. These victims protected the husband’s and family name for decades, and only recently sought to speak out. They deserve some end to the rehashing of such painful violations to their very person and soul.
Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychologist specializing in trauma and depression. She wrote the following for Psychology Today concerning adult responsibility:
Trauma, by definition, is the result of exposure to an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms a person’s coping mechanisms. An important aspect of an event (or pattern of events) is that it exceeds the victim’s ability to cope and is therefore overwhelming. A child should not have to cope with abuse. And when abuse occurs, a child is not equipped psychologically to process it. The adults in their lives are meant to be role models on how to regulate emotions, and to provide a safe environment.
And now the mom is blaming my friend and her sister for not telling her what happened, demanding that they “take some responsibility.”
Stop It Now! says this concerning whether children are responsible for the sexual abuse they experience:
A child may feel that they permitted the abuse and should have been able to stop it. Remember that there are no situations where a child is responsible for any sexual interaction with a more powerful child or adult.
That’s been the toughest for my friend to get her head around. She can only guess that her mom has spent the last almost fifty years trying to keep a horrible secret hidden. And now toward the end of her life, here come the daughters, wanting to drag it up again! She wants to exonerate herself, and she probably feels desperate to keep the secret hidden. So she came up with the almost incomprehensible idea to throw the blame back on her daughters.
Here’s what MOSAC says about the mother-victim relationship in these situations:
Healing the mother-victim relationship and re-establishing a sense of trust is critical to the victim’s recovery. It is important to understand that, as mothers provide security and as trust is re-established, attachment increases. The mother-victim attachment bond is one of the most critical predictors of reduced consequences to sexual abuse.
My friend wants honesty and transparency, not blame. But clearly, her mom can’t do it right now, if ever. And getting stuck in wanting her mom to do something that she can’t make her do will leave my friend feeling powerless. Sharing what’s going on inside, and explaining what she would like to see change, usually works better. But so far, not in this case. So what can she do?
MOSAC says that reconciliation is vital, reunification is sometimes possible, and that forgiveness is the way out of the pain and resentment:
Reconciliation in the case of sexual abuse requires the perpetrator’s full ownership and responsibility regarding the abuse. It requires the presence of openness and honesty, and the absence of denial, rationalization and justification. No excuses, no blaming, no minimizing: full responsibility … Reconciliation may be important so that family members can move forward in their lives. It does not mean that the family is put back together. It has to do with overcoming the negative thoughts and emotions that keep mothers, victims and other family members stuck in the crisis and stuck in the pain.
Reconciliation and forgiveness are linked. Many scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of forgiveness. A common misconception about forgiveness is that it involves pardoning the wrong done by the offender or freeing him from guilt. Actually, forgiveness is a gift that the victim gives herself. She is freeing herself from the negative emotions and pain.
Refusal to forgive harms you, not the offender. As long as you hold onto the offense, you are under its power and controlled by the negative feelings you hold towards the offender. You are not free.
The site goes on to say that forgiveness comprises four elements: someone who’s been hurt and feels resentment; a choice by the person to overcome the resentment; a choice to respond differently, with compassion; and absolutely no sense of obligation to do so.
The site also lists some positive benefits of practicing forgiveness: better physical health, since refusing to forgive is associated with higher heart rates, higher blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and chronic pain; improved emotional health, which results in improved relationships and increased self-esteem; and decreased levels of depression and anxiety.
Sounds good. But, as my friend responded to being told she should let it go: “That’s what we’re doing. And it’s hell!”
And yet, the mom is partially right – in what she said, but not in how she said it – about the power in holding on to a better feeling thought and the role of forgiveness. My friend wants to be in charge of her own feelings and to be free. And she knows that she feels better when she focuses on what’s going well in her life, in spite of this tragic part of her past. But she doesn’t want to be told what she should do.
She and her sister need for their mom to be a “mother,” so they can all get through it together.
She says that, right now, she’s giving herself a lot of permission. Since there’s no reconciliation happening, she doesn’t want reunification. So she’s giving herself permission to take some distance, even though the considerations are big – her mom’s in her 90s.
She’s giving herself permission to stop judging herself, to stop comparing and measuring herself against what she could’ve been if she’d had a supportive childhood, and against what Life has told her she should be.
She’s giving herself permission to not like her mom. And she says that the morning she figured that out, about two months ago, she was suddenly filled up and trembling with relief and peace.
She’s giving herself permission to not have a mother right now. To be her own parenting figure, giving herself love, acceptance and understanding, wisdom and gentle guidance. She’s being her own safe haven, her place to come home to.
She says she’ll take it slowly, and just wait to see whether forgiveness comes in its own time. And sometimes, that’s the best any of us can do – and it’s enough.