Before having my daughter, I could only intellectually guess at what I now know in my bones: Having a child can be, at times, unrelenting, exhausting, and trying.
And we are privileged.
My husband and I are incredibly privileged to be able-bodied, employed, and economically secure, to be White and not the target of racial aggression, to have done lots of personal growth work prior to becoming parents, and to have had reproductive rights and freedom to delay having a child until our mid-thirties.
Raising a young child without those kinds of privileges is a kind of hard I can only imagine.
So why am I sharing this?
I’m sharing this because I now know – through lived experiences – that being a parent and attempting to do it well is, by far, the hardest job on the planet, and parenting without privilege, and at the mercy of abusive social and systemic forces, is harder by leaps and bounds.
I’m sharing this because I know that the reason I am able to show up and be a good mother most of the time (not always) is that I was born when and where I was in time, able to take advantage of birth control , education access, financial freedoms, and political freedoms not afforded to the generations of women who came before me.
Parenting my daughter with mindfulness about my inherent privileges has given me a wider lens on “parental fault” and helped me understand how so many of the painful, abusive moments that my clients may have experienced were shaped by not just their parents’ stand-alone behaviors, but that those egregious behaviors were often the attendant impacts of abusive systems and forces that the parents themselves endured.
What do I mean by this?
I’m a feminist therapist and I strongly believe that we live in a world shaped by the forces of patriarchy, colonialism, misogyny, and capitalism. Those forces have shaped our systems and structures since time immemorial. They have subjugated women, people of color, the differently-abled, the neurodiverse, and anyone else who is considered “other” (in reference to cis, hetero, neurotypical, White men) and have led to some (a very small slice of humanity) receiving more while others (the vast majority) receive less.
Concretely what this means is that most of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors have been at the mercy of these abusive forces and therefore their own actions with their children were reflections of the forces they had to endure: slavery, racism, poverty, invasion, war, displacement, food deserts, internment, denial of reproductive rights, denial of education access, inability to steward their own finances, lack of social safety nets, abysmal parental leave policies, broken healthcare systems, and more.
With such abusive forces at play in their own lives (and the lives of their parents), their ability to be regulated, empathetic, loving, and logistically and emotionally present parents would have been greatly hindered.
I think about Kate Winslet’s character in the film based on the book Revolutionary Road, How stuck she felt and how she suffered because of what society dictated she could and could not do at the time and what was expected of her as a woman. I think about how her children may have witnessed this suffering, their mother’s anguish, and how it would have impacted them. I wonder if she dies at the end of the film after attempting a home abortion to, in a way, try to save her life—and I think about the tens of millions of housewives in the 1950s who were not fictional and who actually lived like this.
I think of the 20th-century Irish Catholic mother in small-town America who didn’t, in her heart of hearts, really want to be a mother but who believed she was required by her faith to abstain from birth control. I think of how she may have coped with postpartum depression and general suffering by drinking, how this may have impaired her behavior regulation, and then how her children would have witnessed her alcoholism or been on the receiving end of physical abuse because of her existential rage , and the impact that would have had on them.
I think of the cis, White, hetero young boy raised in the 1950s in a culture that communicated to him, “You’re the best and others are not, and you can own your wife’s body” and how these messages would have shaped him to perpetuate abusive dynamics with his wife, absolving him of personal responsibility for his actions, and how living with such a misogynistic, abusive father would have impacted the well-being of his daughters.
I think of a toddler torn from her asylum-seeking mother’s arms at the Texas border and the severe attachment wounding she will endure as she grows into adulthood, and how this might play out with her own children.
The context of the lives we live shapes who and how we are with our children.
People from healthy, functional, relationally responsible, and socially supported backgrounds don’t wake up one morning and spontaneously, willfully, and consciously decide to erode the safety, well-being, and dignity of their children; psychologically whole and healthy people do not do this.
But hurting people hurt others, intentionally and unintentionally. And many people are hurting because of the abusive, dominant forces that have shaped our world.
Hear me out: This post is not about absolving parents of their responsibility and culpability in perpetuating abuse with their children. I would never suggest that someone’s feelings and experiences are invalid or that you should “forgive” an abuser because their actions were shaped by the context of their lives; quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, this post is about widening the lens on what causes relational trauma as a psychoeducational component of our own recovery journeys.
If you would like help in your own relational trauma recovery journey, Psychology Today has a wonderful directory of trauma therapists who can help.