“Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” ~ Catherine M. Wallace
One of my earliest memories is my mother locking herself, my sister and me in the bathroom of our tiny apartment. She was talking soothingly and sweetly to us as our father, on the other side of the door, was drunk and in a rage. He was slamming cabinets and throwing things around, looking for more alcohol.
And I worshipped him.
My mother was raised in an upper class family, a world of debutante balls and cotillions. One night, her date ditched her at a party where she didn’t know anyone—a tall handsome man found her crying in the corner and offered to take her home. He was a Vietnam War Vet, a Marine who had earned two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star for Bravery.
And she fell in love with him. Hard.
But he was not from the same circles as my mother’s family and therefore deemed not good enough by her parents. (As my grandmother used to say about him, “Even a dog has a pedigree.”)
So it was with great shame that after five years, she divorced my father and went crawling submissively back to her family. (I wonder if she would have left him earlier if she’d had their support?)
The three of us moved in with our grandmother (my grandfather had a heart attack and died four months before I was born, which was something else my mother was blamed for).
My father pretty much dropped out of the picture; I was devastated. Everything took its toll and my mother became a shell of the woman she once was, always lost in thought and just going through the motions when it came to parenting my sister and me.
Consequently, I grew insecure and lost self-esteem which made me an easy target for “him.”
The first time he molested me was on a camping trip. Our mothers were best friends; I was five, he was 16 or 17. The grown-ups were impressed that he was “so helpful and attentive” with me and the other kids. He’d ride me around on his shoulders, give me piggy-back rides…and then come into my tent to fondle me when our parents weren’t paying attention.
He’d say, “Don’t tell anyone about this or your mommy will get very mad and give you a spanking.” My five-year-old self couldn’t risk my mother being mad at me—she already barely interacted with me as it was.
So I kept quiet. He was later entrusted to babysit my sister and me at night, when our mothers would go out together.
Now he had full access to us with no adults around for hours at a time.
I remember at night he’d come into the bedroom after we fell asleep. I never made eye contact with him when he did things to me—I’d just look over at my sleeping three-year-old sister, hoping so hard that she’d wake up because maybe he’d stop, but then at the same time wishing she wouldn’t, because I wanted him to leave her alone.
Still other times, he’d cajole his younger brothers into doing things to me.
I’d like to believe that my mother wasn’t aware of the sexual abuse, because I just can’t fathom not taking action if it were happening to my precious daughter. But my sister and I both recall a doctor’s appointment, where at least one of us was examined vaginally and our mother was crying while the doctor spoke to her.
I guess I’ll never know, because my mother committed suicide a week after my eighth birthday. The immediate blessing that resulted from her death was that the abuse stopped, because we never saw that family again.
If there was any advice I could give to parents who rely on other people to babysit their children for whatever reason, it would be this: As often as you can, stop what you’re doing and look your child in the eyes when they speak to you; it dignifies them. Encourage them to do the same—lack of eye contact can be a sign of insecurity.
Reassure them that they can tell you anything and you won’t get mad, no matter what.
And above all, don’t assume that your kids know you love them—tell them. Hug them. Every single day. A child that feels confident and secure in their parents’ love is less likely to become a victim of abuse…or keep silent about it.
Jennifer Townsend is an Author & Mindfulness Coach from Southern New England