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How to Be A Parent When You Never Had One

Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.
Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.

I was repeatedly abused as a child and was passed from one foster home to the next. Now I am a mother to a young child, and I am intensely afraid that I don’t know how to parent. I don’t know what is normal and what isn’t. I don’t know how much touch is normal, what is considered nutritional, or what is traditional.

Congratulations. Just asking the question is a sign of your willingness to learn on the job, which is essentially what all parents must do. There is no formula for good parenting, although engagement with a child is a sine qua non. Every child has different needs, and parents learn what those are by observing and listening—sometimes to a wildly screaming child. In public.

Some children come into the world needing more touch, some need less; all need some. Some require more of a push to be activated, some need more restraint. Some need an extra dose of encouragement in many tasks, others need none at all. All need attention and support on a gradually diminishing schedule and a gradually lengthening leash, although the need for attention and emotional support can flare unpredictably any time, even after fledging.

Of course, parenting is the ultimate floating crap game: Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, your child shifts into a new stage of development and you’re back flailing at the bottom of the learning curve.

New motherhood is an intensely emotional experience, and, for most aware people, running right alongside the joy and promise are humility and the fear that one is not up to the task. Please be aware that one of the well-documented long-term effects of an abusive and/or neglectful childhood is to make you feel ineffective as a parent. So even when you’re doing a good job, you still may be questioning what you know and what you are doing as a parent.

Sad, isn’t it, how the cruelty visited on you seeks to withhold from you whatever pleasures you can wrest from parenting? But forewarned is forearmed, and you now know that whatever doubts may crop up stem not from your acts of parenting but from the echoing failures of the previous generation.

It is also important for you to know that while perhaps only a small number of children are actively abused, very many people arrive at adulthood after parenting that was nonexistent or far enough off course to offer no guidance in childrearing. And there’s nothing like becoming a mother yourself to make you feel the absence of the parenting every child deserves to receive—further chipping away at feelings of adequacy as a parent.

Here is the best anyone can offer you, and I say these words with the added endorsement of personal experience: Wrap your baby in your arms and, with as much compassion for yourself as you can muster, tell your child all your hopes and dreams for him or her as well as your fears and concerns. That act of love will become your instruction manual for parenting.

You don’t always have to know what to do. Books can advise you about nutrition. The love you allow yourself to feel will be your first guide. Of course, you will need much more, but if your heart is in it, and if you’re paying attention, and if you allow yourself a healthy dose of curiosity about development, your child will lead you from there.

For someone who received a lot less than optimal parenting, being a mother has the potential to be the most thrilling, most instructive—and most healing—experience of your life. In parenting your child, you will be parenting yourself, and you have the bittersweet opportunity to become the parent you always wanted.