How I'm overcoming my abusive childhood to become a loving, patient parent

November 1 | Guest post by Robyn
A drawing of my (finally!) sleeping daughter.

Ah, the bedtime ritual. Oh how I love the constant interruptions of a good movie, dinner, or maybe even a make-out session because my little one has decided to defy sleep. Something happens to her sleepy body when I leave her bedroom. My absence acts as an amphetamine for her. I put her down, I leave the room, she gets out of bed. Sometimes she fakes exhaustion to get her little game going, and I fall for her deception every time.

Generally, I'm snuggled up on the couch with a trashy magazine, a book, or my partner when I hear what sounds like Darth Vader in the hallway. The loud sucking sound of her pacifier gives her away and when we spot her, she always, always has a proud smile behind her pacifier.

The other night this went on for two solid hours.

I find that the "first time" phenomenon is one of the most difficult things to deal with as a parent. There's a first time for everything — like for when she screeched "No!" at me in broad daylight in front of hundreds of eyes that are watching and waiting for my response. Also like the first time that she bolted from me while I carried groceries that weighed me down during the chase.

Sure, I sometimes have my doubts about how I'm advising or responding to her, but I hang on to my golden parenting rule which is to exude confidence, no matter what. She'll find me out some day, but until then I'll fake it until I make it.

On the night our daughter delayed bed time by two hours, we pulled out all the stops in the following order:

  1. Carried her back to bed and rubbed her back for a few minutes.
  2. Stood at the doorway and waited for her to climb back into bed, then closed the door.
  3. Didn't wait for her to get into bed before we closed the door after she walked (well, more like strutted) into her room.
  4. Didn't get up from the couch and just told her to go to bed.
  5. Ignored her.
  6. Threatened to take away The Trifecta (pacifier, blanket, doggie). She handed them over. Happily.

This is when we knew we were in trouble, because we realized that she would never sleep without The Trifecta, and we had to figure out a way to give them back without her thinking that we had caved. The truth is, I was mildly entertained by her chutzpa. The commitment was impressive. I'm banking on it translating into her being a goal-oriented, high achiever who commits fully to the task at hand.

At last, she fell asleep.

Rehashing the night's events, I gave myself a pat on the back. I was firm, respectful and consistent (excluding my giggle session, omitted from the above list because it was an obvious slip up). I didn't yell, say mean things, or threaten to hit her. In fact, it never occurred to me to say something mean or to raise a hand to her. To a parent who never experienced violence as a child, this may seem like I'm patting myself on the back for something that should just be. But it runs deeper than that.

Growing up, it never occurred to me that my brother and I didn't deserve the yelling, threats of or use of the belt when we couldn't go to sleep. I accepted all of those things as completely normal courses of action. Convinced that it happened in every house, I understood that it was just what was done when children didn't sleep on command.

The instability of my childhood has in some ways made me feel unstable and uncertain of what I'm made of. There are certain strengths that I recognize in myself, but becoming a parent is, for me, the ultimate test. Before our daughter came into our lives, I was terrified of a repressed inclination toward violence that would emerge when I became a parent. Anger has historically been my go-to emotion when I feel vulnerable. (Note: This is what the Healer Lady says and I've come to believe her.) It's an emotion that I know very well and its execution is easy.

So, on the night of my daughter's hopping out of bed for two hours, my rejection of violence is something to write about. It was a symbolic moment that distinguished my parenting from my parents' parenting. It was me breaking the cycle of violence in our family. I realized that I'm not made of anger. That instead, I'm full of love for my child and I'm able to appreciate the preciousness of her and all that our relationship offers to my own growth.

So when she looks at me with that huge grin, psyched about her ability to challenge me, I can't help but to hug her, then send her to bed.

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  1. Yeah, I totally filled up when I read this. My dad was also abused very seriously as a child and he has been the most loving father anyone could ask for (Strict? Sure. Violent? No way). It warms my heart to read experiences like this where the abuse isn't carried on. If my father had behaved like his own father my childhood could of been so very different. You SHOULD feel proud of yourself.

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    • Thank you for sharing this. Hearing that other people know about their parents' experience of abuse as children is something that is sort of unexpected for me. It is crazy, but true that I hadn't thought about how my daughter will shape her view of me as she comes to learn about my experiences (when she's much, much, much older). It's something for me to think about. Really.

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    • Your story reminded me of my father, too. He also grew up in an abusive household. He was a stay-at-home dad when I was little, and never once for a second was anything less than the best parent a little girl could ask for. He still is the best man I know. I knew from a fairly early age (6 or so) about his abuse, as it was the reason I did not know anyone on his side of the family.

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  2. thanks for this. I too am learning to parent without using physical punishment as my only means of disciplining a child. I was raised in a home where any and all infractions were met with verbal abuse and angry spankings. One of my earliest memories is of being force fed and then spanked for not eating voluntarily. I remember my brothers face being shoved into a plate of food after he had said no, when he couldnt have been more than two. I have PTSD and acute anxieties, surrounding my abuse and my therapist and I often go over the ways I am not like my own parents and wont make the mistakes they made ( I will make other mistakes, though). How even if I feel like yelling or hitting, what sets me apart from them is that I DONT.

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    • YES! It's amazing to read about another parent who has a similar experience. I frequently have the same conversation with Healer Lady and my internal dialogue is basically on repeat with that message. It has to be. Initially I felt VERY ashamed of the fact that I had to tell myself that I wouldn't hit Nugget, that I wouldn't be verbally abusive to her, etc. The very fact that I had to say those things to myself in order to feel sane made me feel inferior as a parent. I'm getting over it, but it's a long road. Thank you for your comment. Made my day.

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  3. This was beautiful. Good luck to you in your continued efforts to be the awesome parent that you're managing to be.

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  4. "Anger has historically been my go-to emotion when I feel vulnerable… It's an emotion that I know very well and its execution is easy."

    This hit home for me. It is so true for me that I was a bit shocked I didn't realize it before. Thank you for writing about this, it is exactly how I look at my own parenting experience. I want to remove the violence and verbal abuse that was in my past, and change things for the better when it comes to raising my family.

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    • agreed, agreed, and more agreed. Thank you. both of you, robyn and alexandria. this hit home so much for me also, that i understand things i never have before. i believe this to be simple yet complex on so many levels. my daughter, my relationship, and perhaps my future, so i do not carry on the past, and will be changed, forever. i know this may seem strange and vague, but with the trouble i have had for the last how many years, i see now. and i want my family to be as mentally healthy as i am not (due to the go-to emotion of anger). or the vulnerabilities. and i now see me for what i am. i am and will continue to be the best mother i know how to be, plus some. thank you.

    • To be honest, that quote was the most difficult sentence to write. It reveals the worst of me and it was tempting to edit it out, so thank you both for letting me know that it struck a cord. Truly. It will always be a reminder to be as fully honest as I can stand.

      Not that I enjoy shuffling off to Healer Lady on a weekly basis, but in truth, she's my own personal guru of sanity. I mean, although I may not have been abusive toward Nugget without the help of Healer Lady, I think I would have operated on the edges of crazy making behavior. And I don't say that lightly. At the very least, the circus in my head would have remained and the concept of peace would have alluded me. How could I have evolved as a parent? Only recently have I begun to feel normal. Thank the goddesses mental health parity!

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    • This exactly. I usually phrase it as "anger is my most comfortable emotion". It's been my default "feeling" setting since childhood, because all the other ones (vulnerability, pain, insecurity, guilt, helplessness, and (maybe especially) hope) are so difficult to live inside of.

      I never considered having children until recently. I have always been so paralyzed with fear of the "monster lurking just beneath the surface", as a commenter says below… so sure that my mother would leap out of me and I would become the thing I most fear. There were two distinct things that changed my mind: first, a play by Adelina Anthony (called Bruising for Besos) that my wife worked on a few years ago. I got to go to a talkbalk session where Adelina talked about writing the play as a catharsis to cleanse herself of the cycles of abuse in her past so she could begin to prepare for having a child. This idea of taking control of your abuse – of looking it in the face, acknowledging it, calling it by name, and then letting it go – this shook me to my core. I have spent two years now actively preparing emotionally for parenthood, and I finally feel able (or at least, on the brink of able) to say "I will not make your choices." Because I finally feel like it is my choice. I will never have the luxury of stumbling through parenthood – every interaction will be a choice not to default to the abuse I experienced. But it's MY CHOICE.

      The other factor that changed my mind about my ability to parent is my partner. She has such a solid, loving, unquestioning compassion, and I am trusting heavily in that to keep me grounded and aware of my emotional state. We have an extremely loving, respectful, communication-based marriage, so I have to believe if I could build that relationship despite the instability and abuse reflected in my parents' relationship (and their individual relationships with subsequent spouses), then I can build equally positive parenting relationships with my children.

  5. What I love in addition to the strength that comes through so honestly is that you laughed at her! You actually see how this annoying and troublesome behavior if channeled in a helpful way will help her become a more interesting and successful adult.

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  6. This may be a bit off topic, but how do those who have survived abusive parents relate to those parents today? Do you still have contact? How do they act around their grandchildren?

    • We (myself, my husband, and my son) don't see or speak to my dad at all. He was physically abusive when my siblings and I were kids, and it morphed into a really weird emotional abuse as we grew up. I finally got sick of it when I was pregnant, and cut him out totally after Jasper was around 6 months because I didn't want him to ever have to deal with it.

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      • That took a lot of courage. For people who haven't experienced the complexity of an abusive relationship, especially in a parent/child relationship, it's just not simple to cut someone out and yet it is all at once. Good for you, Stephanie. Really. It's inspiring to read.

      • My mother grew up in an incredibly abusive house (physically/sexually/mentally) and cut all ties when I was 6 months old. I am thankful and impressed that she was able to do it. I can only imagine what she went through and am SO glad my siblings, myself and my son never have to feel unsafe because of them. They are truly the most horrible people.

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    • …and I clearly have no problem sharing my personal history! Whoa. 😉

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    • I do not speak to or allow my children access to my parents.

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    • My fiance's mother was physically abusive for a few years during their (his and his siblings') childhood, but it stopped when they all got older, about high-school-age. At the time of the abuse, she was living with four kids from ages 6-10, and her husband was away on six-month deployments, so she was basically a single mom. I think she went a little insane. That's not an excuse by any means, but she feels terrible about it now and apologizes regularly, and dotes on her grandchildren.

      It's really hard for me to understand how she could get to the point of hitting her kids at all, or how they could forgive her or trust her again, but, well, they've all gone to a lot of therapy. A lot a lot of therapy.

    • Funny you should ask. I'm really struggling with how to maintain a relationship with my mom (my father died in '08). As of right now we're not speaking. It's in part because of her lack of respect for my parenting and in part because her grand-parenting is just a shade different than her parenting. I fear that too much exposure will prematurely send Nugget into therapy. (Yes, I think therapy is inevitable, but I secretly hope it's not.) Plus, I'm in the thick of thinking about her role in all that happened. She's kind of a downer right now, so I'm steering clear until my expectations of her are ZERO and I don't revert to a 7 year old when I speak with her.

      Kudos to all you have either worked through enough to maintain some semblance of a relationship or for having the eggs to cut them off. I don't think that either is an easy path.

    • I had an abusive mother and father and I have not had contact with them in ten years.

    • It really depends on the family. I had a relationship with my mom's parents when I was growing up despite her challenges with them. (Of course, we only saw them every couple of years…)

    • I recently cut off my mother completely. I have mostly avoided contact with her for the last ten years, but guilt and family pressure (and more weird sick guilt that I should. not. have.) have kept us in peripheral contact. There was an incident last year where my cousin left her five year old daughter alone with my mother for a few hours while she ran to the store, and when she mentioned it to me a had a literal panic attack – hysteria, constricted vision, shallow breathing – sheer panic. Her daughter was fine, thank god, but I realized that I could not continue any kind of contact. There is no situation on this earth in which I would be ok with my children being alone with my mother, and the only way to ensure that is to cease all contact.

      It's been 8 months now, and especially as the holidays arrive and family pressure mounts, it's hard to not cave. But for me, I think it is an essential commitment. Not to mention, my own rage issues surface lightning-quick around her, and I don't like the person I am when she is in my life. So for my own emotional health (and my ability to parent emotionally stably), I think total separation is essential.

      As for what we'll tell our kids… "dead" was my go-to, but I'm close to other family members who still speak to my mother, so I fear we'd be found out sooner rather than later. Otherwise I'm leaning toward reading Hansel and Gretal – between the father, the stepmother and the witch, there has to be a child-appropriate lesson about abusive relatives in there somewhere.

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  7. Congratulations on choosing to be an awesome parent and thank you! It's exactly what I needed to read today. My mother is abusive, and she's no longer in my life or allowed around my children because she attempted to continue her abuse with my children including threatening to have them taken away because she disagrees with our parenting methods. Sorry, but we're NEVER going to teach our kids to hate others. I may have to see her soon, as my paternal grandpa is dying but I will be standing firm on my decision.

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    • Here, here to your parenting and for standing up to your mom. Seriously. I felt the stress of possibly having to see her in the near future. I get it. I completely get it. Hang in there.

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  8. This hit home for me as well. For a long time I didn't want kids simply because I was sure I would break them as I had been broken. I had similar proud moments during the first few years of my son's life, but fount the first half of my second child's life very very hard. I was quicker to anger, less patient and not as understanding for either child as I had been the first go around. I like to blame the lack of sleep for degrading all of my good parenting supports, but sometimes I worried. Once I started getting more than 3 hours of sleep a night (which only started a couple months ago and my daughter is 1) things got a lot better. I just had to remind myself that I wasn't angry, I was tired. It's okay to be tired. It's okay to have a short temper because you are tired. Just don't act on it.

    • That permission is hard to accept. If I'm not spending time with her while we're home together, I feel like I'm ignoring her the way my father did me. If I'm frustrated with her, I fear that she senses my anger and it will permanently harm our relationship. The list goes on and on. Logically, I know why I have these fears and they're understandable, but my heart isn't there.

      I needed to read your comment that I don't have to be perfect in order to deflect the residual impact of my childhood in relation to my daughter. Just typing that I don't have to be perfect literally provides some relief. I haven't been in touch with that concept. I think it will be my new mantra. It's ok not to be perfect.

      Thank you.

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      • I need to hear that too, and I'm not a parent yet. My cat jumped on my back the other day and stuck his claws in deep enough to draw blood- and I shouted some choice swear words at him and chucked my book on the floor. It scared me. I felt like I'd turned into my dad, and I sat and cried because I took that to the logical conclusion that I shouldn't even think about having children.

  9. For someone who's chosen to parent without physical punishment but has never seen such a thing modeled, what are some good online resources?

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    • You got me. It's actually THE reason why I started my blog. I found zilch after poking around for a while. There's all kinds of stuff about being an adult child of abuse, but good luck trying to find something about being a parent who was abused as a child. Kinda odd given how many of us experience abuse and that the catchy phrase of "breaking the cycle" is the hallmark of the anti-violence movement. The relationship between an adult child of abuse and their children is the linchpin of one generation to the next. It's where the rubber meets the road if you want to talk about "breaking the cycle," so I'm personally dismayed by the lack of resources.

      Generally, I find John Bradshaw's website and books to be helpful. Also, I've recently picked up Nancy Napier. I don't fully subscribe to what either of them say and some of what they cover doesn't apply to me, but each have helped me reframe a lot about how I've interpreted my own experiences, thus helping me to become a better parent.

      One other thing that's been helpful is that I surround myself with other parents whose parenting I recognize to be healthy. That, and my partner is a damn good parent. I learn from her as well.

    • Not that this speaks directly to survivors, but the book that helped me figure out better ways of handling my own issues and my kids by showing patient parenting was, "Adventures in Gentle Discipline." (Hilary Flower)

      Also, the Nick Jr. show, "Little Bear," of all things. Mother and Father Bear are great parents!

    • I love the book "The Secret of Happy Children" by Steve Biddulph. It does note that having firm boundaries and discipline are important for children, so we use timeouts and 'quiet time' along with helping the girls to calm down themselves through gentle instructions. Afterwards, we explain why they're in trouble and how to avoid it in future. We all apologise for hurt feelings, and there's no sense of 'winning' by being the last to say sorry. We never use the "I love you, but… *your behaviour makes it hard to love you, God doesn't like you when you do this, no one could ever love you unless you behave exactly the way I tell you to.*"
      We only use postive language and empowering sentences along with empathy. People change, so it's not the be-all and end-all, but it's helped me not fall into the verbal and behavioural patterns that my mother used as a form of control and abuse. Right now, we have happy, polite, intelligent, independent and secure children who are learning empathy and respect, which is how we know it's working.

  10. thanks for this lovely piece. i totally understand your extra attention to creating a non-violent household. i, too, worry about becoming like my abusive parent. but, i believe that just being aware as you and i are helps a lot. take care.

  11. This hit home for me as well. My mom experienced more emotional abuse than physical and she really tried not to convey that on me. She wasn't the most gushing loving mom (she didn't know how, can't blame her)and she was strict, but she did everything she could for me and I love her for that. She just didn't want me to experience what she did as a child and I think she did a pretty good job. Now that I'm getting ready to have my first child, she feels like she can finally be gushy and I can't wait to see her in action.

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    • First, congratulations on your first child. Very exciting!!!

      What you stated about watching your mom "gush" over your child resonated with me. My niece was born 4 years before my father died. He cherished her. It was through his relationship with her that I was able to see his more caring, tender side. I began to recognize the human part of him. Perhaps if we had more time together and I would have had more time to bear witness to his humanity, it would have mended some pain. Regardless, I'm glad to have seen it.

  12. This is actually something I'm really worried about, I have 5 siblings and all of us except the youngest were physically abused by our dad as children, although emotional abuse took it's place and my mom joined in as the two middle kids became teenagers, we are a close family and it's hard for me to imagine keeping my kids (future, don't have any yet) away from them although I don't even feel comfortable leaving my dog alone with my father, I love him, and even though he's (finally) getting some therapy and hasent been violent to a human in a very long time, just knowing what he is capable of makes me very hesitant to trust him.

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    • Thank you sharing this. I'm overwhelmed by the various comments on this post. Reading that other parents have the same fears or that people have hesitated to have children because of their own childhood experiences reveals and validates that I'm not alone. It's the articulation of that reality that has been absent in my process to heal and evolve as a parent. My friends who, luckily, did not experience abuse as children understandably can't relate and at times that difference between us -as parents-is isolating. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  13. Because of this very fear of carrying the abuse forward, I have been terrified to have children and have thus far avoided it like the plague. Seeing my sister grow as a mother, however, has begun to soften my heart. She grew up in the same home as me and yet she is so much different in her parenting style than our mom. She gives me hope. So do you. Thank you.

  14. My mother was (and is) severely mentally ill and my father was her enabler. She was mentally, physically and emotionally abusive. I worry every day if I am going to end up like her. Our son is six months old, and it's been the longest six months of my life – I ended up with major depression because I worry so much about my past and I stress myself out trying not to end up like her. It's hard. I have started to overcompensate and I have yet to find a happy medium between over indulgence and moderation (with my son). My therapist and I talk about how different I am than my mother – I just have to keep reminding myself of that daily.

    Your article touched me deeply and I might just print it out and put it on the fridge.

  15. Thank you for posting this. I come from a family of people who horrifically abuse their children. I left home as a teen and went through a short period of living on the street and being very self destructive before making the decision to have a better life. After that things got good – I went to college, became successful in my field and even cultivated a healthy committed relationship with a wonderful man. I felt like I should never ever have children of my own. It wouldn't be fair to put someone else at risk on a gamble that I could function normally in that way. However, after several years of domestic happiness, purchasing a home together, and long negotiation on the subject we decided to get pregnant. I thought I was ready until I saw that plus sign on the test a day after my 33rd birthday. All I could think was "what have I done?!". After many weeks of crippling terror I got myself in to see a therapist, and she diagnosed me with PTSD. I haven't developed the euphoric anticipation i see in other people, but I can tell I'm moving in the right direction. My daughter is due in a few weeks. I still have no idea what a loving mother daughter relationship looks like, or how to have one. But I do have the determination to figure it out. It is so, so helpful to read that other people are making it work.

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  16. Thanks for this. I also have a willful little bubeleh (seven months old and full of fire), and must remain mindful of my behavior. I have felt the too-familiar anger bubble up when I'm a frayed knot, and it scares me that I can feel such things around (if not at) her. I am working through it one day (sometimes one hour or minute) at a time. I am finally reaching out for help, realizing that I must articulate my needs to those around me.
    As for my contact with the abuser (my mother's husband), I left home (for the most part) at fourteen, after seven years of daily violence. I left home for good at seventeen, and started visiting again at twenty-three. My mother is still married to him, and though I have not yet brought Alice to their house, I assume it will be inevitable eventually. He is not (nor will ever be) her grandfather. I strongly doubt that I'll ever allow him to hold her.
    My husband is a little sad about the loss of the grandparent – his father died a couple of years before Alice was born, and I have no contact with my biological father. Though he understands it in a way, since he has had no similar experience in his life, he'll still make noises about grandfather-ness from time to time.
    Thanks again for writing this, and I'll hold your example in my mind.

  17. "There are certain strengths that I recognize in myself, but becoming a parent is, for me, the ultimate test."
    In many ways, I'm grateful for the strengths I've acquired as a result of my abusive upbringing: independence, strength, durability, toughness, and so on. But for me too, parenting is the ultimate test. I'm constantly terrified that I will, without noticing, morph into the kind of parent my mother was. Terrified that the simple act of my daughter leaving her shoes out will somehow incur the same irrational rage in me as it did my mother. Terrified that folding the towels wrong will stir-up the same unyielding rage in me as it did my mother. I realize that my mom and I are not the same person. I love my daughter more than anything and I work every day to be patient, kind and soft. So far I've mostly succeeded (I'll admit to mildly losing my temper a handful of times when E was being particularly bratty… I wonder where she got it?) A long time ago in therapy I heard that people have the uncanny ability to recreate the past. Horrifying. I know I'm a good mom, but that monster is always lying beneath the surface, waiting.

    Thank you for your wonderfully honest post. Loved every bit of it.

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  18. As someone who works in a domestic violence agency, I applaud you for the effort you are making to break the cycle of violence in your family. All too often I see the cycle continue despite our best efforts to intervene, and it becomes disheartening. Stories like this one give me hope and faith in what I do.

  19. May I ask what the other mamas think about how to answer questions from our children? How much disclosure is appropriate, and at what age? I actually considered telling her that my mother is dead (bad, I know).

    • Our answer to Jazzy (5) is: "Sweetheart, we don't see Nana R anymore because she doesn't know how to be nice to other people. She tried to be mean to you and your little sister, and Mummy and Daddy won't let her do that. It's sad, because there might be something broken in her head that is making her act this way, but it's best that we don't see her because you two deserve to be happy."
      (Jazzy doesn't remember it, but the last time my mother came to visit, Jazzy walked around looking sad and calling herself stupid for two whole weeks. She was only 3, and it still makes me teary.)

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  20. Thank you for sharing this. My mother was abusive when I was young, and while I feel that I can keep the emotional and psychological abuse from repeating, I am still worried that I will slap my future children. It is great to hear that it's possible to break the cycle, and to overcome learned examples. Thank you

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