Each day of deliberate survival as a new stepmother of 3 children under 10 whose husband deployed to Iraq, was filled with self-reflection. I had been seeing a licensed psychologist and family counselor, Kathy, about once every two weeks with my husband before he deployed to make sure we were ready as a family, for that transition. Not to belabor the facts, but to tell you that I had a lot to “unpack” from my childhood while trying to be a good mother and an effective prosecutor, was energy-crushing. During sessions, anger always edged in just enough to put me in tears of frustration. Every item I unpacked was attached to some thought process or common reaction of mine and most times, I was just wrong. I was wrong in how I thought about things, how I acted, and the assumptions I made about others. While I could cook, clean, and give hugs like a champion, I was wrong about almost every discipline method I knew or used when it came to raising children. I had ripped off the “bandages,” feel the pain of being wrong, break it all down to fix myself.
Immersed in work and motherhood, my counselor, Kathy, became the critical architect in my life that allowed me to build and grow while carrying the load. I’m not sure how she managed to identify all of my unseen issues and hold me accountable, week after week, but she took notes and had an excellent academic network that she consulted to “crack the code” of helping me cope with my challenges. In short, while I had no clinical diagnoses per se, I had behind me, a lifetime of trauma, baggage rooted in my father and mother’s choice to raise us in a religious cult. The worst thing they did was to allow our cult leader to abuse all of us children – brutal physical abuse, searing verbal abuse, and intentional infliction of emotional and religious terror. We as a family suffered a lot and broke apart for years. It left lots of mental scars, deep wounds that still hadn’t healed in me, and some emotional disabilities, frankly.
That backdrop and a few years of cognitive therapy immediately after I was excommunicated from the cult and most of my family at age 22, resulted in my developing an extremely emotional intolerance of negligent or bad parents and a disgust towards misguided religions. That deep childhood trauma and my strong beliefs as a result of therapy contributed to my stance just 9 years later as a fierce and opinionated mother who probably was a lot to handle for my three stepchildren – not to mention my vigilance based on what I knew of the world from a prosecutor’s perspective. That backdrop hit me in the gut when I became a stepmother. I now was faced with parenting choices and was immediately slapped in the face with thoughts that did not seem to be mine. That is when I vowed that the cult and its negative effects were never, ever, going to touch my children. That became my mission, above all else.
Therefore, I worked with Kathy to unpack my mental baggage and addressed my learned behaviors. I consciously knew that my immediate mental “instinct” in response to my children’s misbehaviors or failures – to want to hit them, humiliate them, or verbally abuse them – was seriously wrong, and my mental war with those instincts when they hit me, was brutal. I felt like a criminal when I had split-second thoughts and urges of that nature. I exercised all of my willpower and never once acted on those impulses which sometimes left me shaking with adrenaline and in tears with frustration and self-loathing. Over that year, as Kathy taught me more parenting skills, the art of age-appropriate conversation, how to be emotionally available to them, and how to engage with children after they made mistakes; I practiced those. I wrote myself notes and referred to them almost daily.
Without cognitive therapy and my desire to change the course of my violent upbringing, I would not have been able to deconstruct the foundation on which I was raised. My children were none the wiser, but I recovered and began to enjoy the daily parenting challenges and how often my children came up with creative solutions to address their own mistakes. We were coasting along nicely when without any warning, my children’s biological mother married our neighbor and moved in next door, just 15 feet away.