Being a mother is hard. Not least because it is the most important job in the world, and the most important job to get right. It’s also the only job in the world that everyone else feels qualified to judge and comment on. Even if they are not, or never will be, mothers themselves.
Mothering is even more difficult when you add the additional burden and complexity of sexual abuse. If your child has been abused, how do you – as a mother – cope? Research tells us that mothers who are made aware that their children have been sexually abused often react in much the same way as people react to a bereavement (Myer, 1984; Hooper, 1992), or they react as though they have been raped or assaulted themselves (Hooper, 1992; Winograd Leonard, 2013). Of course, not every mother is as capable of putting her children first. In my own case, when I disclosed about the fact that my brothers were abusing me, my mother’s response was to make contact with the Rape Crisis Centre. They didn’t deal with people under the age of 16, so I was referred to another facility. My brothers’ propensity for raping was never addressed, however. To this day, it still hasn’t been addressed.
At the time, I was told they were sorry and it was impressed on me that I needed to forgive them. (I’ve written up a few of my thoughts on forgiveness here). I was told that they were ‘great lads’, who ‘never gave a moment’s trouble’ and that ‘boys will be boys’. All this did was tell me that the oral, digital, vaginal and anal rape they perpetrated on my body was, somehow, of no consequence, because they were ‘great lads’; and that raping me on a regular basis was not to be counted as them ‘giving any trouble’. The harm they did me was not something to get too upset about because ‘boys will be boys’, and it is nearly to be expected that they will rape their little sisters.
Later, when I told my mother that my father was abusing me, she told me she didn’t believe me. Then she got me and him in a room and told me to repeat my accusations. I did. He said it was my own fault. She said it was my own fault. She was jealous of the fact that her husband was sexually attracted to her daughter. I remember feeling sick. I remember feeling that they were sick in a very, very twisted way. I remember feeling confused, dazed, gaslit (even though I didn’t know, at the time, that’s what it was) and thoroughly, utterly abandoned. I was, somehow, cast as a Jezebel for being sexually assaulted between the ages of two and 17 by three members of my immediate family. She may not have known at the time that it was happening, but as soon as she did know, my mother took the side of her husband and her eldest two sons against me. Sadly, this kind of victim blaming by mothers is not unusual. Especially when the mother is – like mine – a narcissist. (If you have been the victim of a narcissistic mother, I highly recommend this book as a good place to start understanding that dynamic.)
Later, for a woman who was sexually abused as a child, becoming a mother is difficult. I spent the first year of my PhD studies reading about just how hard it is, and was comforted and outraged in equal measure to learn that I am not on my own in this. Not least because intimacy is such a difficult area to inhabit. How do you surrender to an act that has, all your life, been about the other person and their gratification? An act that has been about secrets and lies? An act that has been about power and shame? An act that has had nothing at all to do with love? How do you then try to convince yourself that that same act is something that you can be an active participant in? How do you then try to convince yourself that you are allowed to enjoy such an act? That enjoying such an act does not automatically make you a terrible person?
If you manage to resolve that issue within yourself – and if you have managed to escape physical damage to the extent where you are actually capable of conceiving and carrying a child, then maternity care can be fraught with difficulties. Health care providers are often (usually) unaware of the damage that child sexual abuse has on women who have survived it. They are not aware of how to care for such women. As a result, may women report being victimised again during pregnancy, labour and childbirth. These events can re-traumatise a woman who has already been so horribly traumatised.
And then, if you manage all that – if you manage to achieve a pregnancy and give birth, and have a healthy baby, what do you do after that? How hard or easy is it to breastfeed? For some women, this feels like an invasion of their bodies all over again. For others, it is hugely empowering because they feel like – finally – their body is doing what it was meant to do. They are choosing to use their breasts for the main (though not the only) purpose those breasts were designed.
Still, motherhood is fraught with extra challenges for the woman who has managed to survive sexual abuse and who is trying to raise her child/ren. We have a tendency towards over protection – but we’re aware of that, so we sometimes over-correct in order to be ‘fair’, in order not to be the over protective, overbearing mama – and that bring on anxiety attacks.
We worry about the state of our mental health, and the impact that might (will?) have on our child/ren. We worry that, somehow, we have transmitted – in our DNA or through our birth canals – the elements of being a victim on to our children. We worry that they, too, will be abused and we worry about how to warn them, how to teach them to look after themselves, how to know a perpetrator when they see one, how to escape from danger. We worry that these precious children of ours might be better off with someone else: That because of the damage done to us, that because we are so damaged, that our children would be better off with someone else. Someone whole, someone better. Because, when all is said and done, deep down somewhere, we secretly believe what our mothers told us, when they told us it was our own fault.
Hooper, CA, (1992) ‘Mothers Surviving Sexual Abuse’ Routledge; New York
Myer, M. (1984) ‘A new look at mothers of incest victims’, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 3: 47-58
Winograd Leonard, E. (2013) ‘Expecting the unattainable: Caseworker use of the “Ideal” mother stereotype against the non-offending mother for failure ot protect from child sexual abuse cases’, NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 69(2), pp. 311–356.