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Snapping Off My Branch of the Family Tree

Broken tree branch.

One aspect of this to-have-or-not-to-have kids ambivalence that may be more unique for those of us who come from backgrounds of childhood neglect, abuse, or trauma, is the fear that, if we become parents, we’ll inevitably mess up our kids as much as we feel like our parents did to us.

–by Annie Wright, LMFT

Expecting Children

Giving birth in the seventies was as American as apple pie and the stars and stripes. But for me, this societal expectation was fraught with uncertainty and apprehension.

The Women’s Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s heralded greater freedom for women, which included control over their bodies. In 1960, this notion was practically reinforced with the FDA’s approval of an oral contraceptive known as the pill.

In 1974, I was 25 and unmarried. On the pill and searching for a husband, I pondered the question of whether to have kids eventually. For me, it was a tainted issue, weighed down with memories of maternal child abuse—verbal, emotional, and physical. Could I treat my kids differently and remain a loving mother, or would I fall back on learned behavior?

Since my personality was like my mother’s, I worried I would inevitably show the same character flaws. I imagined myself frustrated with a child and automatically lapsing into verbal berating. How could I change this ingrained behavior pattern?

As a planner, I wanted to firmly and objectively decide for or against before meeting Mr. Right. I wanted to be prepared, armed with rational and defensible reasons.

Regretting Her Kids

On my 20th birthday, Mom visited me at the boarding house where I lived during the summer after completing my junior year at college. We sat on the pink chenille bedspread in my room and talked. Mom seemed depressed.

Then she said, “I wish I’d never had children,” as if she were conversing with an adult friend. But she told me, her daughter, on my birthday that she wished I’d never been born. Shocked, I said nothing.

Flashing Back

My mother had two personas—the public and the private. Her public persona always answered the phone. No matter her mood, she responded to that ring-a-ling with lightness and sunshine in her voice, even if, and especially if, she had been berating me a moment earlier. This abrupt tone switch—from nasty to sweet—was a façade, an emotional coverup. I knew the reality, but the caller did not.

The private persona only appeared inside the house when my Dad was absent. Then, she was free to project her anger, frustrations, and hurt onto me, the oldest child of three.

Aligning with Dad

One afternoon, when Mom wasn’t home, Dad and I discussed Mom while sitting on the living room couch. In my senior year of high school, Dad and I bonded over our complaints about Mom—he as her husband and me as her daughter. We had forged an alliance, Dad & Dot vs Mom. At 17, I conversed with Dad about Mom’s historical and ongoing antics.

Dad told me that after he and Mom were married for two years, he recognized her emotional instability. He asked her wealthy father if he would pay for Mom’s psychotherapy. Grandpa Hicks refused to invest in his daughter’s emotional and mental stability. Perhaps he was in denial about her mental status, or possibly he didn’t believe in therapy. Maybe he didn’t want the stigma of mental illness applied to his daughter. Although psychotherapy was available in the late ‘40s, society believed that mentally ill people were dangerous and unpredictable.

Despite decades of mistreating her three children, my mother never sought therapy to explore her destructive behavior.

Passing Trauma

Studies show that trauma can pass from one generation to another via learned behavior. My father told me that my maternal grandmother had a problematic relationship with my mother. That fact helped me partially understand why my mother had a convoluted relationship with me. My mother’s behavior toward me was learned from her mother.

How and when was this damaging intergenerational behavior going to stop?

Breaking the Branch

To help answer my dilemma, I participated in the Los Angeles Big Sisters program. Matched with two disadvantaged girls, ages 5 and 7, we went on outings to the local beach, park, zoo, and amusement park. The girls were cute and fun, but I was always relieved to take them home.

After Big Sisters, I firmly decided against having kids. Honestly, I had never been genuinely enamored with children. And I most emphatically did not want the financial or emotional responsibility. I viewed them as a burden as my Mom viewed us.

The only way to ensure that the abusive behavior did not continue intergenerationally was to break off my branch of the family tree.

And so, I did.

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