As a survivor of sexual assault and a mother to two young children, the prolonged effects of my rape touch every single aspect of my life–including the way I approach parenting. I know I’m not alone.
The statistical probability that you know a woman who has been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted is quite high: Nearly one in five American women, out of roughly 163 million, report experiencing rape at some point in their lives. Now consider how many mothers you know: As of 2015, the US government counted 43.5 million mamas. Then do some rudimentary math. The potential overlap between rape victims and moms is impossible to miss.
Indeed, research published in the 2005 edition of VISTAS: Compelling perspectives on counseling indicates that the long-term emotional consequences of sexual abuse are intergenerational. That means it’s not just the victim (mom) who is affected by assault, but her children as well. The aftermath of sexual trauma can affect the mother-child relationship in a variety of ways.
Not surprisingly, the first potential effect is emotional. According to Dr. Lisa Litt, a psychologist who specializes in trauma, having a history of sexual victimization may very well impact a mother’s ability to regulate her emotions in tense situations.
“The ability to tolerate feeling overwhelmed and distressed, which is so common when parenting, is sometimes compromised,” Litt tells Quartz. “Sexual abuse can derail normal behavioral and physiological processes for managing stress … [and] can make it difficult to respond calmly when a child is also dysregulated.”
Personally, I don’t know a mother who hasn’t lost her cool on occasion while dealing with a screaming child mid-tantrum. But this typical one-off response is not what Litt is referring to. A mother who has been affected by trauma may be more prone to responses that contribute to ongoing patterns of dysregulation, or impairments in the regulation of the psychological process.
“A parent may not know what to do to calm a baby or a child, and this can impact developing relationships and attachments,” Litt says. “Some mothers may withdraw emotionally from a crying baby or a child having a normal tantrum, behavior that makes it hard for the child to effectively learn to modulate her own emotions.”
In other words, the emotional trauma wrought by sexual violence has a domino effect. It doesn’t just stop at the victim. It can affect the development of her children’s coping mechanisms and interpersonal relationships as well.
Fortunately, I don’t feel as though my past experiences have influenced my children. At least, not in a negative way. If anything, I feel that my personal history has made me a more protective mother, almost to a fault. (Seriously, I put the “mother” in “smother”).
According to Litt, my response isn’t atypical, either. “Another struggle reported by women who have been sexually victimized is how to manage their own drive to protect/overprotect their children,” she says. “It can be very hard for a woman to separate out her own terrible experience from her fears for her child’s safety. Some mothers err on the side of trying to overprotect their children.”
I am certainly cognizant of my overprotectiveness. Heaven forbid I become a “helicopter parent.” The last thing I want is to interfere in my kids’ ability to form healthy relationships as they mature. I want them to have the freedom to grow and enjoy life without shouldering the burden of my past assault. So I make a concerted effort to channel my protective zeal in an empowering way by teaching age-appropriate consent.
For example, my husband and I do not force our preschool-aged daughter to hug or kiss relatives or friends, regardless of potentially hurt feelings. Instead we offer alternatives to close physical contact, such as high-fives or thumbs-up, to express affection. And we make damn sure she knows that nobody should ever touch her inappropriately, or even benignly, without her permission.
This is a two-way street. As vital as it is for our children to know that they shouldn’t be touched without consent, they also need to understand and respect others’ physical boundaries. We talk about this regularly with our daughter and plan to do the same with our infant son as he grows up. We firmly believe that the earlier we help our children establish a strong sense of bodily autonomy, the better.
Of course, my experience is but one example out of millions. No single assault is the same, and as such, impacts on parenting differ. According to Claudia Giolitti, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating female survivors of sexual trauma, there are numerous factors that influence the way survivors approach parenting. These include whether the mother has experienced multiple types of trauma (such as physical abuse or neglect), the extent of the abuse (an isolated incident or repeat occurrences), family history of mental health issues, and availability of support services.
“Trauma, in general, fractures our ego. Depending on the factors mentioned above, it could be a little crack or a complete fracture,” Giolitti tells Quartz. “The bigger the fracture, the harder it is to connect with others’ emotions and needs, and the harder it is to regulate our own effect later on.”
But survivors can still leverage their experiences to build positive, healthy relationships with their children. According to both Giolitti and Litt, the first step is being aware of the trauma.
“The more awareness that a mother has about her own emotional experience, the greater the opportunities she has to make good choices as a parent,” Litt says. “Recognizing if and when she is struggling, for example, and engaging in self-care or reaching out for help or support, is so valuable to being a good parent.”
Surviving sexual assault is not easy, and neither is parenting. But the trauma of abuse doesn’t have to rob you of the joy of raising children. I’m living proof of that. If you are a parent with a history of sexual victimization, heed the advice of professionals: Be aware, seek help. Being a survivor and being a good parent aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, by educating the next generation, we can work to ensure that our children will grow up in a safer, more empowered society–one that refuses to allow sexual trauma to flourish.