The Kids

The Surprising Gift of Having a Broken Childhood

by Wendy Wisner

Photograph by Twenty20

In many ways, I would characterize my childhood as unstable and chaotic. By the time I was 12, I had attended seven different schools and had moved 10 different times, including across the country—twice. Each move was pretty impetuous on the part of my parents and I had little time to adjust to each transition that happened.

Not only that, but after many years of breaking up and getting back together, my parents divorced pretty abruptly when I was 8, with my father remarrying out of the blue just a few months later. A handful of years after that, my parents when to court over custody of my sister and me, and cruel words and accusations were flung from both sides, catching us kids right in the middle.

It was ugly, to say the least, and ended with wounds that were never really properly addressed or healed. My parents have not spoken for 30 years, and there are things that happened to all of us that have never been resolved and probably never will.

All of that, including certain traumas that I can’t really even talk about publicly, left me with scars for life and a panic and anxiety disorder that I expect to be battling for years to come.

I would never want to relive my childhood, but I do feel that experiencing the things I did make me a better parent.

I don’t like any of this, of course, and don’t wish my childhood on anyone else. I also know that in some ways, I had many blessings growing up. My parents, though imperfect in many ways, did show me love. I was never physically or sexually abused, and no one in my immediate family died or abandoned me completely.

However, I live with a feeling that life is tinged with loss, and that everyone and everything we have is impermanent. I have a "worst case scenario" narrative going in my head pretty much all the time, and find it hard to relax into the blessings I have. I’m working on it, but that’s the truth of my life.

But what I do know is that I can try to ensure the kinds of missteps my parents took when I was a child will not be repeated for my own children. Of course, I know that life often does not go according to plan (I know that better than anyone!), but there is something healing about recognizing what went wrong in my childhood and making a clear and concerted effort to make sure those sorts of things do not happen for my own kids, at least not in the ways that happened for me.

For one, it’s about giving my kids a stable, less chaotic life, to whatever extent I can. It’s about making conscious decisions about their lives and making sure that each change or transition they do inevitably experience happens slowly and deliberately, with kindness and nurturing on my part.

It’s also about making sure that my own problems, including any disagreements or fights that my husband and I have, do not become a prominent experience of their childhoods. I want them to know with certainty that they aren’t responsible for their parents’ happiness and that any of our problems are not their burden to bear.

Most of all, I want my children to be able to express their feelings openly and without judgment. My own mother gave me a space to do that, and it was so important for me to have a place where I could "let it all out." But there were certain other things I couldn’t express and kept under lock and key—traumas that hurt so deeply and shamed me to such an extent that I felt I needed to hide them from the rest of the world.

My therapist recently told me when we hold in traumas, they often become manifested in things like anxiety, depression and other psychiatric disorders. I feel certain that was the case for me, and I am still trying to unpack it all so I can feel better and more functional.

Sometimes, when one of my children is having a meltdown or some other kind of emotional explosion, I want to run and hide. I want to make them just stop. Kids have great BIG feelings, and it is so easy for their emotions to get under our skin and drive us bonkers. But I try to remember all the emotions that were bottled up inside of me—emotions I was sometimes shamed from expressing—and I remind myself that "holding it in" is absolutely not something I want my own kids to experience.

I would never want to relive my childhood and I wish I could erase some of the things that happened. But I do feel that experiencing the things I did make me a better, more conscious and careful parent. I am—by far—not a perfect parent (who is?), but I think I make an extra effort to parent my kids mindfully and intentionally. I carry the lessons I learned from my own childhood and try my best not to repeat some of the mistakes that were made.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that childhood wounds can sometimes make parenting that much more difficult, especially if you are a parent who suffers from anxiety or depression. But I think there is something to be said for how having children has the potential to be very healing. And if approached the right way, the traumas we experienced in childhood can actually be transformed into gifts for our children.

Explore More: advice, health, trauma
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