April is sexual abuse awareness month. This is a topic that those who have been impacted need support on. Considering about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse, it’s safe to say that many moms out there deal with this.1,2 Whether it’s something you’ve spent years in therapy for or have kept buried away, childhood sexual abuse can creep into many aspects of life. I can only speak to my own experience, but I was shocked to find how much it impacted my life as a mom.
As parents, there are generally understood feelings we all have: wanting to keep our kids safe, making them feel loved, and so on. For those who have experienced abusive childhoods, some of these can take on a new meaning. Here are some ways childhood sexual abuse has affected my life as a mother. Perhaps you have experienced these emotions as well.
Note: These are not meant to be all the ways childhood sexual abuse affects parenting. Nor do I think any of them are exclusive to those who have suffered through this.
Safety for Your Children
Honestly, the most important thing to me is that my kids never experience anything like what I went through. There were other traumas in my childhood that I also want to protect them from. But sexual abuse can feel more out of your control since it can happen outside of the home.
Because of this, I allow pretty much nobody to watch my kids. My fiance’s parents are the only ones ever allowed to babysit. There are many others that I can wholeheartedly say I trust. But for some reason, I still can’t let go of that fear enough to trust them watching my kids. Perhaps it will change as they get older and can articulate experiences more easily. But I haven’t felt comfortable allowing anyone else for the last five-and-a-half years.
Stress About Normal Child Curiosity/Occurrences
I remember when my daughter told me her private parts were a little sore. Writing out this feels a little dramatic now, but I went into a complete internal panic then. I tried to analyze any situation where she could have even momentarily been left with someone. It turns out she wasn’t wiping herself properly, but my mind went to a scary place.
Similar experiences can happen when your child starts asking normal questions about their bodies and other people’s bodies. After my son was born, my daughter wanted to know why he looked different. I think she even touched his private parts once out of pure curiosity, and I was horrified. I immediately had to search online whether or not those were age-appropriate curiosities or if she was likely exposed to something. You can probably guess that it is entirely normal, especially given a new baby who looked a little different from her. Normal and innocent, but trauma can quickly take your mind to scary places.
Fear of Touching Them
This one seems odd to me. Nevertheless, it’s something that I have thought about. There have been times when I felt uncomfortable touching my kids out of fear that they would find it violating. I’m talking about your average occurrences of helping to wipe them.
As I mentioned, my daughter was a little sore because I probably avoided helping her wipe sooner than I should have. And when I was wiping her, even as a baby, I would verbalize what I was doing and why to make sure she always knew it was only to clean her. This always felt strange because any form of abuse was the furthest thing from my intentions. Yet, I was worried it would be perceived that way.
Wanting to Teach Them Very Young
Shortly after my daughter was talking in complete sentences, I started teaching her about anatomy and proper behavior towards it. It was important to me that she knew the correct words for her private parts and to emphasize what appropriate or inappropriate touching was. I’ve also spent a lot of time explaining to her that she has the right to say no if anyone, even family, makes her uncomfortable. And to always come to tell me about it.
Thinking back on my own experience, my parents had no clue what was going on. I didn’t either. I finally told them it was because I couldn’t sleep because of it. But there was no clear direction given to me beforehand to know it was wrong and worth telling them about immediately. Especially considering the grooming that often takes place, it felt extra important to secure that protective knowledge in my children’s brains.
Concerns About Breastfeeding
When I was pregnant for the first time, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. But I was very concerned it would trigger me. To this day, if someone touches me by surprise (even on my shoulder), I jump out of my skin. So naturally, I was worried that would hinder my ability to nurse.
I was so happy to find that it wasn’t an issue at all. Nursing and being touched lovingly and innocently by my kids has been incredibly healing. I will still jump if an adult touches me, but my kids are easy to be close to. It’s a good thing, too, since kids are constantly crawling all over their moms!
Complicated Family Relationships
Surviving childhood abuse can put you into one of two boats. Either you will be at odds with anyone who questions your safety choices or struggle to do what you feel is right due to complicated family relationships.
I was thankful to be able to stand my ground. But it wreaked a lot of havoc on my family. When I told my parents that my abuser was never allowed on the same property as my children, I was told I was tearing the family apart. I didn’t care. (And yes, I had to live with him being around my whole life despite everyone knowing about the abuse. The messed up way some families handle sexual abuse is another story!)
The other side is feeling totally uncomfortable in situations, but your deep-seated fear makes it feel impossible to take action. This is how I was around my family until my daughter was born. Without therapy and the strong support of my significant other, I’m not sure if I would have been able to stand my ground.
Look for Validation in Your Children
I have noticed that I tend to look to my kids for validation. I don’t mean I need them to tell me how proud they are of me. Instead, I feel I’m trying to redeem my childhood by “getting theirs right.”
Two things here. The first is that it’s never our children’s job to fix our issues, whether directly or indirectly. And second, it doesn’t work anyway! As parents, we will always mess up at times. If we’re counting on our ability as a mother to counter our own negative experiences with authorities, we’ll always end up let down. It’s not a healthy dynamic, and as much as my mind wants to go in that direction, I try very hard to stay away from that thinking.
Overall Low Self-Esteem
This last one can seem like a catch-all, but low self-esteem shows up differently for everyone. Myself, I tend to be extremely harsh with myself. Consequently, I sometimes find myself spiraling into periods of self-hatred. Low self-esteem can also cause us to lose our tempers more, lack motivation, or even go to the other extreme of constantly serving well beyond our capacity.
Of course, many people suffer from low self-esteem and its fallout. In our case, it just happens to be from childhood sexual abuse. In any case, this is another important reason to seek help. It not only affects us personally but also our children.
These have been some of my experiences as a mother after childhood sexual abuse. Everyone’s experiences and reactions are different. So, you may or may not relate to the specifics listed here. If you are a mom struggling in unexpected ways from childhood sexual abuse, I hope this at least lets you know you aren’t alone.