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I’d like to have a child but my mother was abusive. Will I be like her? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My mother was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive towards me and my siblings. She also hated us laughing or being happy. I had a better relationship with my father, but he died very young. After his death my mother became depressed and neglectful. We were banned from talking about him.

Like my siblings I got a part-time job when I was at school so I wouldn’t have to beg for money for the school bus, clothes, toiletries, school materials etc.

We are now all in our 30s and none of us has children; we are not close to each other or our mother. I am thinking of starting a family but terrified that I will turn into my mother. I have a long history of anxiety and depression and did not want to inflict my issues on to a child.

I have seen how happy my friends are since embarking on parenthood. It has been a real eye-opener seeing how willingly these small children run to their mothers when they hurt themselves. I cannot imagine turning to my own mother for comfort and reassurance.

I struggle to comprehend how my mother could have treated us so badly when I see how small and vulnerable children are. I can’t imagine beating them with a stick while telling them that they are stupid, useless, ugly.

Should I have a child or accept that I shouldn’t because I might be a horrible, cold, abusive mother?

I have a lovely partner, a stable job, and a nice home. My current partner isn’t sure about having a child. I have been struggling with intrusive memories of my mother. I find it very hard to handle my feelings, preferring to be numb and emotionless. Lately, though, I find myself crying at stupid sentimental things. I feel so pathetic.

You are not pathetic. You have survived a childhood of horrific abuse and made a success of your life. But the one question you ask me, I can’t answer: I can’t predict what sort of mother you will be. You mentioned in your longer letter that you have had some therapy; I would advise you to try to access, again, some sort of talking therapy (see links below).

I contacted Naomi Stadlen, psychotherapist and author of two books about mothers, who reiterated this. “Nobody can make this decision for you,” she said. “No one can predict what sort of mother you’ll become. Some apparently maternal women can find they don’t take to it [and vice versa].” Stadlen pointed out something key, which is that your mother did not want you, as a child, to be either happy or sad. “It sounds as though, even now, you do not feel it’s safe to have spontaneous feelings.”

I think it’s not surprising you are so confused: every time you feel something, you block rather than explore it.

Stadlen was firm about one thing: you are not your mother. “No one can turn into her mother. Your mother made her own choices and they are unique to her. But this is a common worry. It’s true that women sometimes notice that they repeat parts of their mothers’ behaviour. But these similarities are superficial.”

Stadlen thought it was promising that you see how happy your friends are with babies. “This shows an ability to learn and to let yourself enjoy that.”

She thought the intrusive memories sounded like post-traumatic stress “which is inherently healing, but you have to go through it. By allowing yourself to go through [these emotions] now, perhaps more than you could before, their power may lessen.”

She also noted that you weren’t sure if your partner wanted a baby and we thought you needed to address this, as it’s “a two-person decision”.

When you have had a very bad childhood, without good mothering, it is not unusual to think you will, as Stadlen puts it “pass on the badness”. The only “close up” example you’ve had of a mother was your own, and you find that terrifying. But as you are now starting to see, there are other types of mother.

The fact that you are thinking about all this is a positive step.

I think you know what you want, but are afraid to voice it. I think you need to find a way to mute your mother’s voice and let your own take over. Talk to your partner, find someone – a therapist – you can talk to safely and rediscover who you are and what you want. You are not your mother.

Napac.org.uk; Bacp.co.uk; psychotherapy.org.uk


This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 10 January 2015.