Can Adult Survivors of Child Abuse Enjoy Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day is an occasion that always gives me pause since I spent most of my childhood struggling to survive in a household ruled by a monster (AKA my abusive mother). For anyone who thinks my descriptor is a bit harsh, I can assure you it’s not. What my sister and I endured while growing up was quite horrific in regard to the constant abuse we suffered—along with the lies we were forced to cover-up on behalf of dear ol’ mom.

I have a vivid memory of a time I tried to report the abuse to the police. Because it was many years ago (and because we, as a society, didn’t know better at the time) they dismissed my claims (since the bulk of the abuse wasn’t physical) and refused to investigate. Imagine a young teen hanging up the phone and turning to said abuser (my mother in this case) who had just heard me make the call. I get chills thinking about incidents like these. But still, I’ve made a vow to never suppress them or pretend as if they didn’t take place.

I spent most of my young life morbidly obese. I started to gain weight around first grade and by the time I graduated college weighed over 450 pounds. I imagine some mental health professionals might attribute this to creating a layer of protection to shield me from any relationship that I thought might cause me more—or continued—harm. This is not to say I didn’t struggle to lose this “layer of protection” throughout my childhood (even though I knew it made my mother livid to have an obese child given her penchant for telling people I had a disease that caused weight gain as opposed to simply confessing that I overate).

Once a young adult living on my own, I eventually realized that I had to let go of the mental weight (mostly comprised of memories of abuse) before I could let go of the physical weight. But even though I accomplished the goal of shedding the excess weight (and have remained a healthy weight since), I never want to forget what my sister and I went through. This is not to say I have a victim mentality. I wouldn’t encourage that in myself or anyone else. But an attitude of “acceptance” has proved most healing.

This happened. The abuse happened. It was real.

These days I can go for long periods of time without thinking about the abuse that my sister and I suffered (even though some of its after effects have been far reaching). But when “holidays” like Mother’s Day roll around, I can’t help but get a pit in my stomach when I see commercial-friendly media images that show mother and child (infant, toddler, teen or otherwise) living their happiest moments on screen or in print. I never knew this kind of relationship with my own mother. The concept remains foreign to me even to this day.

As for my mother being a “monster,” in hindsight I’ve come to accept that my mother was likely mentally ill given her outrageous behavior—which makes the real monsters other family members who, even though well aware of my mom’s actions, left my sister and I alone with her to raise us. I share this not out of spite, remorse or even sadness. But in an effort to let others who’ve had similar experiences know they’re not the only ones.

Many people breathe a sigh of relief when they learn what my sister and I lived through—because they were raised under similar circumstances. To talk about these issues doesn’t mean our goal is to demonize our parents. But abuse is abuse. And underage children often have no choice but to endure it—and to hopefully survive it. But even as adults—even when free from our abusers—we sometimes still have to make a conscious choice to continue to survive it. Especially on occasions when many are celebrating their mothers, which can potentially leave many adult survivors of child abuse feeling like we are weird, undeserving or, perhaps, as if we were in some way responsible for our tragic circumstances.

So yes—the occasion of Mother’s Day makes me somber. But it also reminds me that my sister and I—and so many of you—are survivors. We have all faced major challenges in our lives. Some on the outside, some from the inside. But we can continue to overcome these challenges (even the ones that still sometimes haunt us).

These days, when shopping for Mother’s Day cards, I pick up several. One card is for my sister, who’s managed to break the cycle of abuse and is an amazing mother to two beautiful children. And the additional cards are for other nurturing influences in my life who’ve taught me that a mother’s love can arrive in many forms (and from many different people). My self-defined version of Mother’s Day is definitely worthy of celebration. And yours can be, too. As long as its observed in a way that honors your fortitude—in addition to paying heed to moms of all kinds (perhaps even those, like mine, who were mentally ill and, maybe—just maybe—doing the best they knew how to do).

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