I've Never Felt Nurtured, And Other Things I've Learned Parenting After Complex Trauma

I am not depressed, and I don't even have anxiety, although I certainly deserve to after what I have survived. Sometimes I wish that I did, because depression and anxiety can be treated.

I've been a mother for nearly 18 years now. In a few months, my oldest son will become an adult, at least in the eyes of the law. I've learned and grown in many ways as a parent through the years, and I no longer lay awake at night fretting over the decisions I've made. If there is such a thing as achieving peace with my own parenting, I have reached it.

But, at the same time, I am recovering from complex trauma. I suffer from PTSD-like symptoms as a result of both individual isolated childhood traumas and the relentless experience of growing up in an abusive home. It has only been in the last few months that I have begun to recognize that I simply do not know how to nurture anyone, much less myself. I ache and yearn deep inside for the experience of being nurtured, and I've spent my adulthood looking for a mother. And as much as that has hurt me, I fear that it has hurt my children, too.

I began my personal journey in therapy almost five years ago. In the beginning, I thought that I needed help communicating with my then-husband. I thought that I could fix what was wrong with me and proceed through my life without so much as a single scar. I thought that I could do anything and be anything, and that my past didn't define me. My life was my own, and I was determined to conquer it.

Therapy led me somewhere entirely different. In therapy, I finally recognized the failures of my relationships that had nothing to do with me. I learned to stop taking on the pain of others and to establish healthy boundaries. I walked away from toxic and dysfunctional relationships, and for the first time in my adult life I embraced being really, truly single. I savored the freedom of making my own decisions and feeling the power of owning my own shit, while simultaneously cherishing the process of throwing off the chains of problems that were never mine to begin with. It was a hopeful time, and deep at the heart of that hope was the belief that someday I would be not just OK, but I would be strong, emotionally healthy, and at peace with my past. Someday, I was sure that I would be "fixed."

It was that belief that I clung to when I moved too fast in therapy and was plagued by flashbacks and body sensation memories for six months. Every night, I curled up in the fetal position on the cold bathroom floor and told myself that I had to survive these moments to move past the memories. They eventually began to fade, but my chest felt like it had been replaced by steel every time I tried to feel the pain of my memories. I learned to breathe through the panic and the crushing sensation inside my chest. Eventually, when I acknowledged that I have never formed the kind of attachments that children need to thrive, I told myself that I would become my own mother. I would learn to nurture myself.

I would be lying if I said that I haven't made progress over the last five years. I would also be lying if I said that I still believe that, one day, I will put this all behind me and move on, healthy and happy. I recognize now that these wounds cut to my core. Even once they heal, they will leave deep, ugly scars. And some of them may never heal at all. Not every story has a happy ending, and mine may end simply with progress.

Society doesn't have much patience with progress, though. We're fans of the quick-fix approach. But there is no quick fix for healing complex trauma. Hell, my therapist says that it can take decades. And, even then, she tells me that the pain will shift. Shifting the pain is the best I can hope for, and that doesn't sound very comforting on days like today, when it seems impossible to feel like this for another day, much less decades.

Before I went to therapy, I married a lot of men, had a lot of children, and worked myself to the bone to achieve career success. If I wasn't happy, it was easy to blame that on my alcoholic, cheating husband or raising a tribe of kids or even working too damn much. My external life swirled with chaos and it protected me from confronting the simple truth that a part of me, deep down inside, is empty and broken, and it may never be filled and repaired.

Today, my life is simple. There's no tornado lurking around every corner, waiting to thrust me into chaos. There is just my own relentless pain, reminding me that where other mothers naturally nurture their children, I repeat words like a script and set daily goals for myself. One "I love you," two hugs, and a pep talk a day is how I try to break the cycle with my own children, but it feels empty and strained, and I don't know whether it will be enough. I don't know whether I am enough, and I wish that the answer was as simple as following whatever regimen someone decided will make me a good parent this week.

If I am broken because my mother never confronted her demons and simply couldn't parent me how I needed her to parent me, then it's clear that doing our best isn't always enough for our kids. I console myself with the belief that I am doing more, and doing better, because I have devoted myself to healing. I tell myself I am not my mother, and I cling to it, but I don't always believe it. How can I, when I see that hole inside my heart and know that it is there because she couldn't fill it?

I am not depressed, and I don't even have anxiety, although I certainly deserve to after what I have survived. Sometimes I wish that I did, because depression and anxiety can be treated. They are relentless, terrible conditions, but they speak more to brain chemicals than gaping holes in development. With complex trauma, there is no pill that I can take, and there is absolutely nothing I can do except learn to live the life that I have. Even when it feels impossible, even when my need for nurturing threatens to overwhelm me, and even when I am consumed by the desperate need to avoid doing to my children what was done to me.

I can't go back to hiding my pain behind layers of success and turbulence anymore. I've come far enough now that I recoil from men who encroach on my boundaries, and my friendships are mutual and strong. I no longer fear that I will conflate my need for a mother with a romantic partner, and I am happy to be single until and unless I meet a man who can truly be my partner. And, despite my fears that I have failed my children, my teenagers remind me on a daily basis that I have done many things right. This is progress, even when it's excruciating, and I recognize that.

I don't know what it will feel like to shift this pain or what my future will hold, but I have hope that it will get better day in and day out, and that even if I am never entirely whole and healed, I will find joy and peace along the way. That hope may have shifted along the way, as much as my journey itself has changed, but it's hope, and I will cling to it tightly and nurture it — and myself — every step of the way.

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