Dear Dr. Gil:
I saw in Moving Forward that you answer questions from husbands of survivors. I would like your opinion on the following: My wife was severely abused physically by her mother and father. Consequently, she has many fears about being hurt and she is very shy and stays away from people. She has one girlfriend but doesn’t see her much because she is afraid that she’s bothering her if she calls.
Four months ago we had our first child, a little girl. Since that time I have been worried about going to work and leaving my daughter alone with her mother. I’ve read that people do to their own children what was done to them. I get scared that my wife will hurt our baby (nothing she has done makes me think she has or could). Also, she sometimes seems shy even about the baby and gets jealous when I can quiet our baby down and she can’t. How do I stop worrying so much? I don’t want to police my wife with our own child. Thank you for answering my letter.
Dear Concerned Husband:
Thank you very much for your letter…. First of all let me say that many adults who were physically abused when they were children may feel frightened or worried about their own safety. Children who were abused live in explosive environments and, in order to protect themselves, they may learn to become defensive, scanning the environment, shying away from situations that might prove unsafe. Even after they are in safer environments, adults abused as children may feel reticent to trust others; they expect that others will hurt them. It takes great courage to reach out to others, form relationships, and make commitments. Many adults who were abused stay away from relationships altogether because relationships are associated with pain.
Your wife has made great strides in overcoming the impact of childhood abuse. She has established a relationship with you and has made a commitment to be your partner and a mother. She still may have some difficulty feeling free to reach out to others, and she still may harbor some negative feelings about herself. This, too, is common in abused children who end up feeling unlovable or unworthy of the attention of others. That may be why your wife may believe that she’s burdening a friend when she reaches out and why she often seems to prefer being alone. It’s difficult to break those patterns and expectations; yet, over time, she may learn to experiment with her friend and feel less shy about taking the risk of reaching out.
Regarding your worries about her hurting your child, it’s important for you to know that not everyone who was abused as a child becomes abusive. What the research shows is that many abusive parents have a history of being abused themselves, but no study has looked at what happens to abused children as they grow up. Some studies show that many abused children grow up to lead perfectly healthy, well-adjusted lives; they are good parents and work well in many different kinds of jobs.
Many adults abused as children become service providers — such as nurses, child-care workers, and social workers — and they help others. So you see, there is no reason for you to believe that your wife will hurt your child simply because she was hurt herself. You have to remember also that your wife is a new mother, and it’s difficult to be a new parent under the best of circumstances. I think the most helpful thing that you might do is be as supportive of her as you can be. Encourage her to see her own strengths by validating her whenever possible. Take time to notice when she does something well and compliment her. In particular, validate her care taking and nurturing skills so she might begin to acknowledge them herself.
Don’t be afraid to talk directly with her about your fears and concerns as a new parent. If you can talk about some of your feelings, it will encourage her to acknowledge or express her own. Every new parent has lots of worries about whether he or she is doing the right thing, responding in the right manner, and giving the child everything he or she needs to grow in a healthy way. Most parents worry that they’re not good enough or that they don’t know enough. It’s important to work together as a team because fears seem to diminish when they are dealt with together. You might mention to your wife that you want to be of help to her. Talk about what it’s like for you to get used to holding or diapering your daughter. Perhaps you may want to go to the child-care section of a local bookstore to find a book you can read together. There might be some good educational videos on child-rearing you can rent.
Remember that new parents can explore uncharted waters together. Talk together and lean on each other. You are right — it would not be fruitful for you to feel like you had to police your wife. Instead, work together to give each other your best support.
If your concerns continue, or if you notice that your wife seems to continue to feel uncomfortable as time goes by, you might think of consulting a professional to get advice about how best to be of help to her.
Eliana Gil Eliana Gil, Ph.D.,
Eliana is a certified marriage, family, and child counselor and has authored several books for survivors. Her most recent book is entitled Outgrowing the Pain Together: A Guide For Survivors and Their Partners.