Child Is Father To The Man
by A Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse
I have thought about looking at this issue from a clinical point of view and battled with the feelings arising from that so in order to show how childhood sexual abuse affects men in later years, more importantly at parenthood, I have decided to look at it from a personal standpoint only. Therefore, I offer the story of my life to you not as a legal analysis or treatment model but as a way of preparing you for some of the difficulties you may be confronted with which can arise around the birth of children when the father is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and offer some suggestions as to how I might have benefited from advice or intervention, from the people involved in my wife's pregnancy in the anti- and post natal stages, who I believed noticed.
The first time I realised the enormity of my childhood sexual abuse was on receiving the news that I was about to become a father. I had actually successfully avoided the subject of parenthood throughout my courtship and subsequent marriage to my childhood sweetheart. I had always been a career man and children would deny me that opportunity to succeed. I had made many attempts to give countless reasons why not having children was preferable to having a family. This "Great Expectation" filled me with dread and plunged me into months of despair and depression for which there appeared no apparent reason nor any relief. The psychological harm and emotional consequences repressed since the abuse were beginning to emerge.
When my wife told me she was pregnant my immediate thoughts were of termination. How would I cope with the added responsibility of another mouth to feed? The expectations of fatherhood terrified me. I had never experienced men in a caring role so how would I care for and raise my own son? I had presented myself to everyone as a man capable of doing anything he set his mind to. I was in control of my life and had everything I needed, a good home, a good job, a good wife - everything. Life was perfect. We were the perfect couple. But parenthood, being a father, I had no idea how to manage and if I was going to do it then it had to be perfect.
Soon after my son was born I packed my bags and left home. I felt alone in a house full of baby admirers. I was taking flight instead of staying to fight. I was experiencing flashbacks of myself as a young boy. I should have been overjoyed yet I abandoned my own family, in the same way my own father had done to his wife, (my mother), and me, in an attempt to establish a reason behind these strange feelings. Why did I not want this "bundle of joy", this "gift from God", these "precious little reminders of my own abuse?" I soon returned home wracked with guilt and a reinforced sense of failure to fulfil my responsibilities as a caring parent. We managed, though only just. I knew I was changing and my wife believed another child might help but after my daughter was born life became intolerable and unbearable. I was confused about my own identity now and was keen to be back in the family role I had held when it was just my wife and I. I wanted to be the child again. I wanted some love and affection. I felt rejected and unwanted, second to the children and no longer important to my wife. This sounds selfish but I was terrified.
I had always been determined to be a faithful husband to my wife and good father to my children. My own mother had been unable to show love to us but focussed more on her work and co-dependent relationships. Her longest marriage, one of several, was to a man who systematically beat me to the screams of my mother pleading with him to stop. Often she would shield me from his blows but was hurt herself in the process. I would never do that I had told myself; I would never hit a woman. Another of her men was an abusive alcoholic who scared me rigid. I was determined that my marriage would work. I was going to be the one to break the cycle of abuse. I knew I could cope, I had to after all, I was a survivor.
I had not known that the effects of the abuse would continue to haunt me throughout adolescence and into adulthood eventually taking me to face it head on at the birth of my first born. And this had been my secret. A secret I had only shared once with a man I considered to be a friend who then took advantage in the same way. When I had disclosed to my mother she had not believed me and accused me of spreading malicious gossip to end her relationship. She always reinforced my feeling of being second best yet I always felt more at ease discussing personal issues with a woman feeling less threatened than I would if with a man. The abuse had begun when I was less than five years old and continued until I was fifteen. Not with one familiar abuser, a friend of the family, but with others too. Relative strangers, acquaintances and later, a stepfather, had continuously sought me out as someone who was needy. Even the head boy at school had a go. These were people I had been brought up to respect and trust. They had seen how I was desperate for love and attention and they had targeted me. They had watched and waited, patiently grooming me until they had gained my trust and then they gave me what I needed, a hug and some love. Of course I didn't resist because this felt right yet I've learned since how it was so wrong. I had been vulnerable and felt overwhelmed by this new affection but my rights of childhood had been taken away, my boundaries broken.
After the birth of my children I was forced to reflect on my childhood and this started the process of painful realisation that my memory of the abuse was not going away. My relationship with my wife began to get worse and after several months of psychotherapy, which was unable to uncover these hidden feelings, I took a massive overdose and ended up in an intensive care unit of the local hospital on a life support machine. When I was discharged it was to the psychiatric hospital secure unit. I was locked up. Locked up alone with the memories of how I had become a victim of sexual abuse. Of a child so desperate for love from his mother and a father he could respect. What had been allowed to happen to me had actually left me scarred and insecure. I could not trust anyone. My mother had abandoned me for other men several times, my wife was rejecting me for our children and all my childhood fears of loneliness had come flooding back. The birth of my children had opened up a Pandora's Box and there was no place to hide now.
Because those that abused me were adult males who played a significant role in my life I felt confused. I was in a dilemma because my abuse had left me not knowing the difference between what was honest nurturing, love and care and what was invasive, inappropriate and abusive. I struggled to get close to my own children terrified that any touch could be seen as sexual. Often I'd heard that survivors of abuse went on to abuse and I lived in fear that I might have the capacity to do this. Even changing a nappy left me filled with guilt and shame though I had done nothing. Nothing. To the extent that I often avoided him. I isolated. I detached from my family to protect them from me and to protect myself from them. In doing so I was told that I did not care. I became moody and quiet and nobody noticed. Well, some people noticed and said I was "Attention seeking!" Everyone was wrapped up in the "new boy." I was no longer wrapped up but left naked with my memories rekindled, raw and open.
As a result of the behaviour that followed I went on to lose all of that I'd achieved. Everything I had striven to achieve slipped through my fingers. I began a life filled with depression, drug abuse and self-loathing. In order to escape the feelings evoked by the birth of my son I began to use drugs to change the way I felt. First it was prescription drugs but soon I found Cocaine. This became my blanket. This drug wrapped around me like the hug I needed. I based my relationships on other people's needs rather than my own and detached completely from my family believing I was not worthy of them. I engaged in abusive relationships and experimented with homosexuality as a way of avoiding the failure of my own marriage and any requirement to father more children. I began to work as a male prostitute allowing myself to become further abused yet somehow maintaining an element of control. I was in fact losing control. I had lost my job as a policeman, the very career I had used as a mask to hide behind, I lost my home, lost my wife and lost my children, the latter two, to my best friend. The very birth of my own son had left me feeling betrayed, hurt and abandoned. I felt a failure. I had been the one who wanted to do the "father-thing" perfectly and break the chain of abuse and here I was sabotaging any chance of reconciliation with my wife or children. What sort of role model was I?
I reached a point when I realised that I was killing myself through drug and alcohol abuse and self-neglect. I hated myself for what I had done to my family and for abandoning my wife and children. I wanted so desperately to be in touch with them but to avoid the pain of my own abuse I "Let them go." I agreed that I would have only written and telephone communication with them but my self-destructive behaviour soon stopped that. I longed for the day when my son and daughter might contact me and just say, "It's okay, Dad. It wasn't your fault." But while I continued to destroy myself there was no hope of this. Instead I found recovery. I began to find ways to survive and rebuild my life. I became a rescuer of others and started work in the caring profession following the experience and success of my own personal therapy. I began to grow up. The child within me was allowed to feel the feelings, identify them, accept them and work through them, moving on to counsel others with similar stories.
As a survivor I learned to identify how my abuse had changed my perceptions of others, my expectations of myself and interactions within relationships. I had not told my wife of the abuse for fear that she would not believe me as my own mother had failed to do when I had tried to tell her. I believed she would reject me. I had repressed the memories in order to survive the loss, the pain and the hurt and attempted to forget. But the man who has survived still has flashbacks. I still grieve the loss of my own childhood, the loss of my children, my wife and my dreams of having the perfect family - the cycle of abuse having been broken just that little too late.
By letting you know about my pain I hope that support for the fathers will be recognised as a real need. Too often they get left in the dark with their own fears of parenting and the focus remains with the mother and newborn child. If a professional involved in this process was made aware of some of the symptoms experienced by a survivor at the birth of a child then they could direct them to a relevant agency where help could be sought. Had I have known that other men who had been abused went through similar challenges and that I was not alone with the feelings I may have been able to survive this struggle too. There had been a lack of available resources and appropriate aid was not forthcoming. I had believed that the unresolved feelings of my abuse were dealt with yet despite my reservations continued with the birth of my children. It was my very own child that plunged me back into my own childhood. A childhood, which was abusive, will take years to repair but by allowing men the opportunity to talk about the abuse then the process of healing can begin. I existed in the darkness of my own secrets and shame. The birth of my son made me open my eyes and now I have moved out of the darkness there are new people, new opportunities and a new beginning.
The midwife's role in helping fathers;
Recently, awareness of the impact that childhood sexual abuse has on women during their childbearing experiences has grown. Midwife's now recognise the need to inform themselves regarding this complex and sensitive issue in order to give appropriate care and support to their clients.
As midwife's care extends to other immediate family members and in particular to the woman's partner. We recognise the need to welcome each new born into the best possible social circumstances and are aware that close, supportive relationships, particularly between partners, can act as a buffer against exhaustion and post natal depression, which can blight a woman's early parenting experience.
Within midwifery literature, however, very little has been written about the impact that a father's own history of childhood sexual abuse might have on his experience of childbirth and parenthood. In recognition of the important and equal role that men may play within parenting relationships, midwives must become sensitised to the possibility that for men as well as for women, childbirth may evoke painful memories, whether repressed, denied or acknowledged - of sexual abuse. These memories may severely affect the man's ability to be a supportive partner and an effective parent.
Until the birth of their child, a woman may have been unaware of her partner's history and remain so if her partner is unable or chooses not to disclose the facts. The unlikelihood of disclosure is exacerbated by the commonly held view that abused children become abusive parents. Such unvoiced yet felt emotional turmoil may manifest itself, however, in the inability to actively participate in parenting activities, withdrawal, depression and ultimately the breakdown of the relationship.
Often the best way to gain an understanding of such a subject, which perhaps falls outside the boundaries or usual midwifery knowledge, is through the lived experiences and stories of those who have faced such situations.
From the personal experience recounted above we can see the destabilising and devastating effects that childhood sexual abuse can have on men as partners and parents. Gaining insight into such a situation may help recognise the indicators that may be suggestive of such a history, although, as with women, this should never be assumed.
Rising rates of male depression and suicide point to a need for greater awareness of the consequences of family events on men and their mental health. Such considerations would also benefit women, children and families as a whole. It is clear that while midwives cannot hold the answers in such complex situations, no other professional is in a more privileged position to identify maternal, paternal and child relationships from the very outset. As midwives there must be appreciation shown in this regard.
An awareness of some of the symptoms which sometimes manifest around childbirth may alert the midwife that a man is facing "ghosts from the past" concerning childhood sexual abuse. By being open to this possibility and willing to discuss the matter in a facilitative manner, a midwife may be able to direct a man in this position to appropriate help, thus supporting him and his family should they want it
Derek Lainsbury MRSH is now a Counsellor and psychotherapist working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and addiction. He has been making himself available to counsel and educate other men through facilitation of workshops, support groups and one to one counselling.
He has also spoken out about his sexual abuse at conferences and seminars with the sole aim of giving other people the opportunity to hear that they are not alone which hopefully will give them the courage work through their own issues of abuse.
Jill James-Philp who assisted Derek with the writing of the article is a Research Fellow in Midwifery who is particularly interested in midwife's work with fathers and partners, an aspect of care that she is hoping to see incorporated more into midwifery education.