Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.
Melissa blogs at Permission to Live on Patheos.
I was putting lotion onto the eczema on my toddler’s back when without warning she flopped onto my lap, lying over my knees completely relaxed. Instantly panic rose in my throat, and I flashed back to a memory.
I was 9 or 10 and asking my mom for help with my clothes. The zipper on the back of my dress was stuck and I couldn’t reach it with enough strength to pull it open. It proved difficult for my mom too, and when she couldn’t get it open she asked me to bend over so she could see what she was doing better.
My body couldn’t do it. I heard what she was asking me to do, and my head told my body to bend over so she could get to the zipper, but my back went rigid.
I was afraid.
My mom repeated her request and I tried to stiffly move forward a little bit, she realized what was happening and laughed “I’m not going to spank you, just bend over so I can see the zipper.”
Rationally, I guess I knew she wasn’t going to spank me, I hadn’t done anything to disappoint her. But my body still fought. I did the best I could, but I could hardly move and the whole time she was fixing the zipper. Every muscle in my body was clenched in anticipation of being hit.
My mind told me that I SHOULD trust my mom, but the muscles in my body told me that I COULDN’T.
In contrast, my toddler trusted me completely. When she flopped over my knee I went stiff from the memory of many spankings from long ago. She, on the other hand, was relaxed, knowing that I was going to help her and not hurt her.
I have many memories of my parents.
I remember my Mom making me a birthday cake. She taught me how to do a backbend and how to brush all the knots out of my hair. Sometimes she sang “Home! Home on the range!” And sometimes when she was happy she danced a goofy little dance. I remember watching my Mom curl her bangs with a hot curling iron and put on blue eyeliner with a little pencil.
I also remember her hitting my bare skin with a flexible switch from the magnolia tree. She taught me that I was wrong, and she was right and that I had no power, no right to protect myself from harm. Sometimes she made me hold up my own skirt while she spanked me, sometimes if I moved she hit me again. I remember watching my mom break an orange spatula on my sister’s bottom.
I remember my Dad making us omelets on the weekends. He taught me how to tie a square knot and let me watch while he changed a tire. Sometimes he gave us a piggyback ride up the stairs to bed and sometimes he got out crackers and spreadable cheese and shared it with us. I remember watching Dad kiss my mom in the hall and bring her flowers for no reason other than he loved her.
I also remember his calm cold voice as he told me I must bend over and touch my toes and hold perfectly still while he spanked me. He taught me that he was bigger and stronger and more powerful than me and that I deserved to be hit when I made mistakes. Sometimes he squeezed my arm really hard to hold me in place while he hit me, sometimes he made me hug him afterwards. I remember cowering in a corner, hands planted firmly over my ears, trying to drown out the sound of him spanking my siblings again and again and again. I wished desperately that they would just say whatever dad wanted to hear, like I did, because I knew my dad would never ever “let them win”.
I know my parents did good things for me. I know they worked hard to care for me and provide for me. I know spanking doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to them. I was just a child after all, and what child enjoys being punished? I sometimes wish I could forget the bad, but I can’t help the way my back tenses if they use that tone of voice. I can’t help feeling somewhat panicky whenever they don’t agree with me. I can’t help but worry about ever leaving my kids with them alone. I can’t change the many memories of conflict, I can’t erase the fact that they are the people that hit me for the first 16 years of my life.
I can’t change how wrong and bad they made me feel. And I can’t change the fact that they disagree with and discredit my experience.
Ooh, this hits very close to home for me. Especially the last paragraph–I could have written almost all of that. I have been trying to bring up things in the last couple years from earlier in my childhood and teen years and have felt dismissed almost every time. First of all, it’s getting them to admit that what I’m sharing even happened. Usually it’s “Well, I don’t remember that,” and with them, if they don’t remember it, it didn’t happen and I’m just making stuff up. I tried to talk to my Dad when I was in college (and going through counseling) about his anger issues, and he dismissed specific memories I brought up by saying that I was just making up memories during my counseling sessions. Yeah, that shut me down for a long time. And now when I’m trying to fight to have a good adult-to-adult relationship with him by calling him out on his behavior, I’m just exaggerating and making too big a deal of the issue. Also, once I confront him or my Mom about negative aspects of their behavior and how it’s impacted me, it never gets mentioned or brought up again. I saw this quote in an article this past week and my stomach just immediately twisted into knots because I was like that’s my experience! “Abusers deny and minimize what they’ve done, and if they can’t deny it, they’re so sorry, and once you’ve expressed forgiveness, you can never bring it up again.”
Even to this day, I have such a strong physical reaction to conflict of any kind, because my parents made anger and arguments so scary. I will literally tremble and shake when I sense strong negative emotions from others.