I don't hit my kids

Maybe I should get a bumper sticker that says it, eh?  Can you see it in the Costco parking lot? "MY KID IS AN HONOURS STUDENT" "MY SON IS A MARINE" "MY OTHER CAR IS THE BATMOBILE" and then, on my Ford Focus: "I DON'T BEAT MY CHILDREN".

I don't talk about it very often, and when I do, it's in the company of good, trusted friends and usually after a few healthy servings of liquor.  It's not something one brags about, you see, but I think it's about time I boast:

I was beat up as a kid. A lot. Kicked, hit, slapped, punched a few times. Shoved, screamed at, embarrassed in front of friends and neighbors and sometimes complete strangers. It started when my mom married my stepfather, and continued until I was big enough and old enough and brave enough to fight back. The scars I bear are all in my head, I was lucky enough to never need stitches or a cast. The only doctors I needed then, and still need today, are the kind that try to mend broken minds.

My mind isn't completely broken, but I do have my own set of limps from the beatings I endured.  If you look up "Symptoms of adults who were abused as children" you'll pretty much find my eHarmony profile:

"Hi! I'm Jenny. I'm a divorced mom of four with low self-esteem and severe trust issues.  I like to eat and drink my feelings, and my feelings usually taste like inadequacy and panic.  I don't like to be touched but OMG do I love dogs!  If you're looking for a mate with strong family ties and great interpersonal skills, you might want to skip me.  However, if you have always wanted to be with someone who can't remember most of her childhood, I'm your gal. Plus I make a great bowl of lentils AND I love action/adventure movies. BOOM."


I didn't even remember what had happened, literally had no memories of it, until I had a chat with a close friend after one of our high school reunions.  She had been unable to attend and wanted the deets. As I filled her in on who looked fabulous, who got fat , who was bald, who left with whom, she chimed in: "I still can't believe you turned out okay, Jenny." I laughed, a confused and nervous laugh.."What are you talking about?" I asked her.

"I mean, the way you were beat up all the time. It was awful. I remember the couple of times it happened in front of me, and it scarred me, Jenny. I can't believe you're as normal as you are."

I pressed her for more details, and as they spilled out I felt so detached, almost like I was listening to her read aloud from a book. A book about a girl who army-crawled out of a room, trying to avoid the punches and the kicks of a madman. A girl who sought refuge under her bed, looking for big feet under the hem of her Laura Ashley comforter while she sobbed big silent sobs.

After we said our goodbyes and made promises to meet up for lunch or dinner, I sat on the edge of my unmade bed.  The kids were at school and I was alone,save for my sweet dog Walter. I sat there, quietly, for what felt like days but in reality was more like ten minutes. I remember shaking myself out of my fugue and getting on with the tasks of the day: the laundry, the cleaning, the facebooking. On with my normal life.


That night I woke up screaming. My dreams had morphed into black nightmares full of pain and sorrow and big fists and a red face, beaded with sweat and screaming at me. Images of my mum, watching. Standing in the background with her own, smaller, fists clenched.  Doing nothing until it was over, and then I heard her voice: "Go apologise to her" she'd said.  A man's voice, still choked with anger:   "I'm sorry."

I'm sorry.  You know what? I'm sorry too. I sometimes wonder what I would have turned out like if I hadn't gone through those scary times. Would I be different? Would I be happier?  More well-adjusted?

I bet I would love massages.

I can't get massages, you see. Something in me recoils at the thought, and up until that phone call with an old friend I laughed it off as one of those "Crazy Jenny Things".  Now I kind of understand why I don't like them. I understand why I have trouble trusting anyone, even the people closest to me. I understand why I sometimes find myself paralyzed, unable to move from a spot because my mind has decided to take a break. Like it did when I was younger, after I pulled myself out from under my bed, dried my tears and winced as I put on my nightgown and tried to finish my homework.

I remember now, how I used to go about my days like everything was hunky-dory, like the biggest concern in my life was whether or not my hair made me look like Belinda Carlisle, not whether or not I was going to have the shit beat out of me later that night. I dealt with the teenage crap like most of us did, and even though I wouldn't call myself the Poster Child of Success I'd like to think I did okay.


But the biggest test, by far, was motherhood.  Of course, the fact that I had successfully blocked out 99% of my childhood memories gave me a leg up on the whole "cycle of abuse" thing but it's not all about memories. Feelings can't be forgotten, they get stored away like Christmas decorations.  I remember holding my first newborn as he cried for hours on end and feeling helpless, feeling stupid and feeling something else...rage.

The anger I felt as a mother was something of epic proportions. Never before had I felt such a seething hot surge of emotion, roiling and crashing into my head.  Looking back, now I see that one thing I never learned to handle was the anger I felt as a young girl. I was furious. Furious that someone was hurting me, furious that nobody would help me.  I did a great job of burying that fury, but having kids unearthed all of it.

But here's the kicker:

I don't hit my kids.

Do I get mad?  Hell yes. You know the trite old saying, "I see red"?  I really do see red. Like Red-O-Vision. My pulse quickens, my face gets hot, and sometimes I look down and see my own pale hands clenched into tight fists.  A good shrink would tell me that the anger takes me back, back to fifth grade, back to the day I first got hit and looked at the giant red handprint on my ten year old thigh, looked at it with an almost comical disbelief. "He hit me!" I remember thinking.  I remember my childish indignant anger.


That anger is still with me, and sadly it's still somewhat childish and still very indignant.


I yell sometimes. I swear. At my weakest, I slam things. I say things to them that I probably shouldn't, things that we talk about after the clouds break and the air in our house has stabilised. Oh, yes, there was that one time I took a swing at Charlie with a spoon but in my defense, he's over six feet tall and it was school holidays.

I don't hit my kids.

What's the point, Crazy?  Is that what you're asking yourself, if you've read this far?  I do have one, aside from my need to tell you that I DON'T HIT MY KIDS.

My childhood didn't turn me into a monster. It could have, oh so easily. I could have grown up into a horrible child abuser, or become a runaway or I could have tried to find safe love by having a baby of my own when I was 15.  But I didn't.  By the grace of God, or a guardian angel, it didn't destroy me.  Maybe because the abuse didn't start until I was 10? Maybe because it stopped when I was in high school?  Who knows.

I do know this: right now, this very second, there is a child being hurt. Someone you know, maybe a kid from your child's school or your church or down the street...they are being abused. Maybe a stepparent is punching them, maybe a mom is hurting them, maybe the stereotypical creepy uncle is touching their privates.  Maybe you were hurt when you were little and innocent and defenseless. Maybe your spouse was abused.  Child abuse is epidemic, and we don't talk about it as openly and as honestly as we should.  And that's a shame.


It occurred to me, this morning. Molly is doing her Final in Culinary Arts and we woke up early to package up her supplies for the meal she's making this afternoon.  I showed her how to julienne her carrots and we laughed about that old Saturday Night Live skit where Dan Aykroyd played Julia Child and cuts his finger (I've cut the dickens out of my finger!).  As the kids left to catch the bus, they called out "Bye! Love you, mom!".

My kids have known grief. They've no doubt felt anger, too. But my kids have never felt that fear I felt, they've never fled a room in terror like I did.  They've never had to face an adult who has just violated their rights and listened to a pathetic apology.  They've never looked at my handprint on their bodies, rising up as an angry red welt.

I want those kids who have been hurt to know this, and I want the people who love them to know this: They will be okay. This will not ruin them. Get them some counseling, love them extra hard, be there for them. But believe me when I say, this will not wreck their lives.

You want to know how I know this is true?

Because I don't hit my kids.

Jennifer Ball is a proud mom, a writer, a teacher and a big fan of martinis. She is also an ex-wife who happens to be pear shaped. She blogs about divorce and martinis and being pear shaped at The Happy Hausfrau.