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For nearly a decade, from my mid-teens to my mid-twenties, I tried everything I could think of to ‘undo’ the childhood sexual abuse that a family member had inflicted on me for years.
As soon as I was of legal age, I covered my body in tattoos, in some kind of attempt to claim it back as my own. I went to counselling. I self-harmed. I shaved my head and dressed in baggy clothes, hoping that my asexual androgyny would dissuade people from taking any kind of interest in me
It worked to some extent, and I remained a virgin through most of university, but when I reached my final year and realised that despite all those efforts I was still as much of a mess on the inside as I was on the outside, I decided I might as well see what life was like at the opposite end of the spectrum.
I don’t know the name of the first man I slept with, nor do I know the names of the next dozen. I lost count of the number of apartments I fled from in the middle of the night after awkward, embarrassing, drunken experiences.
“Are you sure you’ve done this before?” asked one guy. “Because that was really crap. The worst sex I’ve ever had.”
On it went. And on. And on. I suppose my rationale was that if I was going to have bad experiences then they should at least be bad experiences I chose to have, rather than bad experiences I had imposed upon me.
But then I met my husband. The first person that I ever felt comfortable enough with to say, sober, on the second date, “I’ve got a lot of baggage. A lot of history. I think there’s a pretty awesome person inside of me, but you have to help me find her.”
He did. He held my hand and walked right beside me as I started the journey of healing. He gave me the confidence for the first time to open up to friends and family about what had happened, and to get the abuser out of my life.
Most crucially, he taught me for the first time that sex is not about power, or manipulation, or control. Sex is about love. It can (and should!) be fun. Sex with the right person is awesome.
But… sex is also about making babies.
Although I didn’t talk about it at the time, I was very nervous about the prospect of pregnancy, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about having my body almost under the control of someone else again, even if that someone else was a much wanted baby.
As it turned out, I had the occasional mild freak out about the little person who was kicking and squirming inside me, but for the most part I felt physically, mentally and emotionally very healthy.
The biggest issue was the birth. Despite my outward calm for the nine months of pregnancy, the prospect of giving birth filled me with fear. Not fear of the anticipated pain, but of having numerous strangers looking at and touching my body. I lay in bed at night, my stomach churning with dread at the thought of being in a room, flat on my back, with my feet in stirrups and a doctor I’d never met before examining me. Eventually, I decided to have a home birth, thinking that I would have a far easier time in familiar surroundings, with a midwife that I knew.
If I’m honest, I also envisaged a natural, intervention-free home birth as the ultimate way of asserting my strength as a woman, reclaiming my body, and 'undoing' what had been done to it years earlier.
Of course, life doesn’t work like that. I needed a whole lot of help to give birth, and I ended up with pretty much every intervention I'd hoped to avoid. I don't know how I would have felt if I'd not even tried a home birth and just gone straight for the hospital, but trying at home and not being able to see it through was awful. I felt like a failure, like my body was back to being my worst enemy, and that I must have done something wrong if I couldn't manage to do what millions of other women had managed to do with ease before me.
The birth of my beautiful son was followed by several months where I cried pretty much every day at the memory of it. It took much longer than I expected to feel like I'd bonded with him, because I resented what he'd 'done' to my body. I breastfed for nine months, but hated it, because it felt like my body still wasn't my own.
And then something clicked. About six months in, when we were all finally getting enough sleep, and his personality was really starting to develop, and his wonderful, happy laugh could be heard bouncing off the walls of our house… I finally realized that he was exactly what I needed to complete my healing. Being a mother makes me happy and fulfilled in a way that nothing else can, and every day I can try and pass that good feeling on by making the right choices as a parent. I can create, for my son, the safe and loving space to grow up in that I never had myself. Hopefully I can encourage him to feel confident in his mind and body, and to respect both himself and others.
He is now two. We have a very close, physical relationship. He loves to snuggle in bed between my husband and me in the mornings. But if he doesn’t want to, we don’t make him. He has never been made to kiss a grandparent if he hasn’t wanted to. If we are in the middle of some tickling game and he suddenly asks me to stop, then I do. It is his body, and he has the right to decide what happens to it, without negotiation.
I sometimes wonder how I will explain to my son when he is older that there is a member of his family who isn’t around anymore. I feel like I owe him the truth, but I also know that my childhood abuse is not his burden to carry. There is plenty time to consider that, and I am hopeful that like so many of the other important answers on my journey of healing, it will just come to me at the right moment.
Meantime, I am going to focus on being the best Mom I can possibly be. I am so grateful to my son for making me happier than I have ever been, and I will strive every day to do the same for him.