When Childhood Trauma Comes Back as a Parent

I’ve written poems and essays that delved into the death of my father. There’s trauma which is visible and that which is not. My father died by suicide when I was five or six. I say five or six, because there’s the point at which he asphyxiated himself and brain activity ceased and then there was the point when my mother had him removed from life support months later. I was five. Or, I was six.

Regardless, I was the age that my eldest daughter is now.

When you experience trauma as a child, you hopefully, get through it as you enter adulthood. Whether that’s through therapy, time, expressive writing, I’m not sure. I think I talked to a therapist as a child, but I think I tried not to talk as the therapist asked me questions. What child wants to answer questions from a stranger about how they’re feeling after their dad’s died? I remember pushing my friend off the sunken steps in the school library and the teacher asking questions about what I was feeling. I don’t recall why I did it, but it flares in my memory, the two steps, the nubby green carpet.

I remember moving. Kids calling me a faggot for holding my older brother’s hand as we walked to our new school. I remember moving from the beautiful house in the country to a smaller house. And, there’s my mom, the stress of life, having to sell her house, losing her husband and, a few years before, her father, finding out that her husband spent their savings and took on debt. Her stress was like a shawl that never lifted from her body, a weight which was always constant.

When I look at my daughter, I see a distorted image of me.

I see the happy, carefree kid with two parents. I see the kid who doesn’t have to worry about death or food. I see a child who doesn’t know anger and sadness, a child who doesn’t struggle with the inability to express everything they’re feeling.

I see the life I could have had if my dad hadn’t ended his life and thrown his family in turmoil.

And, I see the child I was, silent and shy, going from upper-middle-class to poor in the amount of time it takes for the brain cells to die as cerebral hypoxia occurs.

I’m not always sure how I made it through my childhood trauma. I write and tell stories. I read and I draw. I escape and compartmentalize. Being a parent has upended my compartmentalization. I’m thrust into the world of five-year-olds and three-year-olds. I see how much more mature they are than I remember being, the depth of experience and life. I see the whole realm of possibilities and it hurts, because I’m better able to understand how much I must have hurt, how much I must have been affected.

There’s no fear that I’m my dad.

The fear is that I’m the child, but also the parent. The fear is everything that went wrong in my childhood reflected back by all the good I try to do for my children.

At times, it’s like two positive ends of magnets pushing each other apart as they try to come together.

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