How Childhood Abuse Taught Me To Give My Parents The Love They Lacked As Children
Images from the author, editing by Marisse Caine. 

“Do you think it’s easier to build strong children or repair broken adults?” I asked my mum as I plonked myself on the edge of her bed.

She smiled, put her arms around me and whispered: “I don’t know.” 

“But you’re still my daughter and if I could turn back time, I would change so many things about my parenting style.” 

“It’s alright. You’re still the best mum I could ever ask for,” I said, leaning on her shoulder. She beamed from ear to ear.

This conversation may seem corny, but being this close to my mum—both physically and emotionally—was something I had always thought impossible. Probably because we’re Asian, and in our culture, it’s not easy for parents to say “I love you”; perhaps for fear of appearing vulnerable. 

Having learned to bottle up our feelings, it was not typical for us to share such heartfelt matters. 

And especially given how my mum had an estranged relationship with her dad when growing up, I believed that having a distant relationship with one’s parents was normal. 

When I asked why, she briefly explained.

My mum grew up in a home that was violent, to say the least. All she wanted was love and security, but was robbed of either as she witnessed her dad throw chairs across the hall towards his frail wife. 

Often having to come between her parents, my mum’s safety as a child was frequently threatened by her dad’s temper. Sometimes, she would end up taking the brunt of these beatings. This scarred her, and she swore never to become like her dad: physically, emotionally, and mentally abusive. 

But because my mum grew up in an environment that believed “打是疼, 骂是爱” (a Chinese proverb denoting that beating is a sign of affection and scolding; indicative of love), she soon learned to love me the only way she knew how—through violence. 

My earliest memories of my childhood weren’t the most pleasant ones. In fact, they appear to me as a mirror to what my mum went through. For the first 16 years of my life, I grew up in a household where caning was the default way of administering discipline. It seemed normal at first, especially since most Asian kids are brought up in this fashion. 

Things took a turn for the explicitly abusive when the beatings got harsher. 

One even resulted in me not being able to walk. My skin would burn and bruise, and I knew my mum had crossed the line only when my domestic helper begged her to stop. 

It was terrifying being around my mum. I lost count of the number of panic attacks I had when she was close by. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Sigmund Freud says that anxiety in children is originally nothing other than an expression of the fact that they are feeling the loss of the person they love. And I couldn’t agree more.  

Not feeling safe around my own mum made me feel as though I had loved and lost a maternal figure. As a result, I learned to distance myself from her. First out of fear, then out of hatred for what she did to me. 

Her harshness taught me to swallow my feelings, put on a mask, and appear happy, even though I felt dead inside. The turning point came when I became aware of how I had become like my mother: warm and friendly to others on the outside, but cold and bitter behind closed doors. 

Once, my mum came into my room to ask if I had eaten dinner, 

“You have no right to be my mum and ask about me,” I nearly spat. 

This had come from a place of hurt, but in that moment, I saw the acid in my words eat into her heart. Devastation written all over her face, she left in silence, slamming the door behind her. 

This incident made me confront the person I had become. It forced a reckoning with whether I wanted to continue what had become my own pattern of abuse. 

While I didn’t, there were struggles that held me back from moving on:

1. Being forgiving. What if I forgave her and she took advantage of that? Why should I let her off the hook so easily after all she’d done to me?
2. Overcoming my doubts and false beliefs. Kindness was a currency that was foreign to me. If and when it was given in my household, it was always conditional. What if this kindness was fake? What if it’s only temporary and would eventually be yanked away?
3. Dissolving anger and hate. Why couldn’t my mum deal with her own issues instead of taking them out on me?
4. Overcoming the fear of facing my pain. There was a part of me that didn’t want to revisit past traumas because, what if it was too much to bear? What if it just made me more bitter?

My instinct told me to “let sleeping dogs lie”, and being so used to suppressing past traumas, this was how I intended to resolve my internal struggles. Not only would stifling these issues be less painful and tedious than talking things out, it also minimised the risk of getting into a bigger fight with my mum.  

Child psychologist Haim Ginott said, “Children are like wet cement, whatever falls on them leaves an impression.”

Just as I was being drawn back into the restraint and avoidance that defined my relationship with my mum, I recalled how she recounted her childhood to me. Only then did I become aware of how similar we were as kids. 

“Hurt people hurt people,” as Pastor Rick Warren says. 

Understanding this helped me to see where my mother was coming from. 

While what my mum did to me wasn’t right, and never will be, I found myself feeling sorry for all the pain she felt growing up.  

She had lived through years of abuse in silence, experienced the same struggles I did, and walked down the same road of pain with her dad. It must’ve been heart-wrenching and traumatic for any child to live under the same roof as parents who, instead of protecting them, threatened their safety through abuse. 

Learning to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” isn’t easy, but the more I saw the brokenness of her heart, the more I wanted to love her. 

We got so close that my love for batiks influenced her too and sometimes we pair outfits for fun.
Since her dad was never one to say “I love you” or give hugs, I started to write “I love you” notes to my mum, putting them next to her pillow. Over time, her heart softened and her temper mellowed. She started to be kinder towards me through her actions, cooking for me or staying up with me to talk about heartfelt matters. 

The road towards reconciliation wasn’t free of obstacles: on numerous occasions my mum and I stumbled, leading to arguments. Through all this, the compassion I felt towards her helplessness gave me the strength to see her not as an enemy, but as a person who just needed more love than anyone else because of her past.

We only have this lifetime to be with our parents.

Over time, the fear of being around my mum dissipated and she too learned to compromise. I saw this in how she became increasingly attentive, receptive, and sensitive to my opinions.

While I’m sure not everyone had a painful childhood, most of us wish we were closer to our parents. 

Yet the reality is that we can’t change the past, and neither can we choose our parents’ baggage. All we can do is change our response towards them. 

Parents are supposed to be role models. But it’s also important to remember that they’re human and will, therefore, make mistakes—costly ones at times. In such instances it can be understandably hard to love and honour them, but having lived through a childhood where I often had to parent my parents, it helped to remember that they were doing the best they could. 

At least I trusted that they were. By being forgiving and showing persistent compassion and understanding, even the hardest hearts mellow, and from beneath, the brokenness will eventually emerge, revealing, above all, the desire for love. 

Reconciliation is not an overnight process. Change is slow. But we only have this lifetime to be with our parents.

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