Untying the knot of emotional abuse

My mother sent me a letter when I was pregnant with my first child. After reading it, I screamed and tore apart my living room. Her note accused me of being an ungrateful, exploitative daughter who had plotted to take large sums of her money. Every word was a complete fabrication and somewhat paranoid. But while her contempt was upsetting, it wasn’t surprising.

Much of my childhood was spent waiting for my mother’s temper to erupt again. Even minor transgressions, like forgetting to hang up my jacket or putting the milk on the wrong shelf, would bring her stomping in, hurling a barrage of insults at me. I strived to be perfect but she always managed to find something to pick on. By my teens I was so on edge that I would hear angry screams echoing through the house when, in actuality, no one had said anything.

In Mum’s words, I was a “useless piece of rubbish.” At school I was regarded as bright, well behaved and hardworking but at home I was considered dopey, disobedient, and lazy. She sneered at my interests, achievements and appearance, and blamed me automatically if anything in the house broke or went missing. I was such a disappointment that she declared repeatedly, “I should have drowned you at birth!”

Knowing my own mother regretted my existence made it nearly impossible to develop any self-worth. I grew up timid and insecure, never trusting my thoughts and feelings. Depression and anxiety have been on-going problems since high school and, as an adult, I’ve struggled with alcohol abuse and self-harm. It all made me wonder what type of mother I would be. Although I wanted to be a loving parent, I didn’t know if it was possible. I feared I was destined to become like her.

Sometimes I wonder what drove Mum to hurt me. Did she suffer from a mental illness? Was her anger caused by the pressures of being a stay-at-home parent with little help from my workaholic father? Maybe it started when she was growing up as one of 12 children in a poor family. I don’t know much about my maternal grandparents who both died when I was an infant, but I know my mother’s relationship with them was strained for years before their passing. I’ve seen their faded images in family photographs, and my grandmother possessed the same pudgy face and stern expression as my mother. It’s easy to imagine she raged at her children in the same way Mum did with me.

After throwing out my mother's letter, I vowed that I would not be following in her footsteps. To do that, things had to change. Emotional abuse could no longer be a normal part of my life. I wrote back to Mum and explained how much pain she has caused me and that I had to sever ties in order to move on.

But that wasn’t enough to break free from her anger, which plagued me once my son was born. When I collapsed while recovering from a difficult childbirth, I heard Mum sneering about how hopeless I am. Her scornful laughter rang in my ears every time I failed to soothe my crying infant or had difficulty breastfeeding. Eventually her presence in my head became so overwhelming that I could barely focus on caring for my newborn and felt disconnected from him.

Every little mess or mishap had me in tears, convinced I was a failure as a parent. I rarely left the house and stopped calling friends. My husband began to dread coming home because I was constantly picking fights with him. By the time my child was five months old, I’d been diagnosed with postnatal depression.

With the help of my spouse and GP, I found a good psychologist. Through therapy I realised how abuse had instilled a deep-seated self-hatred, which was affecting my ability to nurture others.

Overcoming this has been a long, hard process of learning how to stop the negative chatter of my inner voice, and retraining my mind to stay positive. My son is now five years old and I still see my therapist once a month, but the hard work is paying off. I’ve kept depression at bay for years and I’m emotionally available to my family. On most days I feel strong enough to handle the chaos of parenthood with lots of smiles and hugs. And my husband and I love being parents so much that we had another son, who is now three.

Mum has contacted me only once since we became estranged. She wrote another nasty letter filled with name calling and irrational accusations. This time, though, more than being hurt, I felt sorry for her. She clings to her anger so tightly that she can’t enjoy being a mother. And I’m glad I took action early in my parenting journey to avoid becoming like her.

The story Untying the knot of emotional abuse first appeared on Essential Baby.

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