***TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the content in this post may be difficult for some readers because it is a story of sexual abuse. Please be mindful of your well-being.***
“I remember it like it was yesterday.
An orange, floral couch and wooden rocking chair were the only furniture in the family room of the house. Ms. Brown* sat on the couch, cuddling Jennifer*, a five-year-old of her home-based preschool. My five-year-old daughter, Annie*, was seated in the rocking chair, rocking back and forth, back and forth.
I sat across the couch in a rickety chair I had pulled from the kitchen table in the next room. Jennifer’s mother sat in another kitchen chair to my left.
Ms. Brown spoke first, “Something very serious happened today.”
“Ok,” I said, not knowing what to expect.
“Today on the playground Annie touched Jennifer in an inappropriate way.”
I listened to Ms. Brown as she explained the details of the situation. Unsupervised. Compulsive. Forceful.
I know what it is like to be the mother of a victim. I had been through that when Annie came to us a few years before. She had been touched by someone else, and it was heartbreaking. I thought it was every mother’s nightmare. Add now, my daughter was not the victim; she was the victimizer. Now, I was the mother of the person behind the cause of pain. I felt sick.
Jennifer sat on the couch, retelling the incident in her own five-year-old-words.
Annie listened to the story as she rocked in the rocking chair, emotionless. Robotic. I hardly recognized her. Who was this child?
And what of me? How does a mother come to understand and accept? How does a mother love a child who does this? How could my daughter do this?
Jennifer’s mother sat in her chair listening. I watched her, waiting for her reaction. I expected her to yell and cry, because that’s what I would have done.
Ms. Brown sat on the end of the couch, stroking Jennifer’s hair as she spoke.
Annie rocked back and forth, back and forth, staring at Jennifer like a robot.
When Jennifer finished with the story, her mother told her how proud she was that she had the courage to tell a grown up. Jennifer beamed.
Then she turned to Annie. I froze and I anticipated an attack, ready to protect my daughter—the daughter who just violated hers. But she didn’t. Rather she spoke just as softly and kindly to my daughter as she did to hers. She told her that sometimes kids were curious, but it was never ok to touch another child there. She was glad they were friends, but Annie needed to know that that was not OK.
Then, it seemed in unison, all eyes turned to me. It seemed it was my turn to say something. But what does a parent say in this situation? I didn’t know how to feel, let alone respond.
I felt light-headed as I spoke, a thousand voices in the background telling me what to say and how I should act. I told Jennifer that I too was proud that she had the courage to tell Ms. Brown. I told her I was glad she was OK. Then I turned to robot Annie, still rocking. I leaned forward and stopped the chair. I wanted to yell at her and tell her what she did was sick and wrong. I wanted to scream and ask, How could you think it’s ok? But I knew I couldn’t.
I had to think of the perfect thing to say; the one insightful and amazing thing that would make it all go away. I wanted it to all go away.
All I could say was, “Annie, I still love you, but that was not OK.”
Jennifer’s mother looked at me with kind eyes. Why wasn’t she angry? Why wasn’t she yelling at me? She was so kind.
I felt like a terrible person. So mad, so grateful, so sick, so lost.
There was my daughter, or the child that looked like my daughter, rocking and staring at the wall. Do you have something you want to say? She stared and rocked.
Then fear and sorrow pressed through. My daughter was damaged. I knew when we adopted her that she had some issues, but nothing like this. I thought I knew her. We had spent hours talking, playing, going to therapy, and I never would have expected this.
The dam broke, and the tears could no longer be stayed.
I apologized to Jennifer’s mother; I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Again, she was kind, too kind. It made the tears come harder. I couldn’t breathe.
Ms. Brown said, “Annie, do you know why your mom is crying? It’s because she loves you so much.”
No! The thought blasted in my head. I am crying because what she did was wrong, so wrong. I am sorry for Jennifer, and I am sorry for Annie. I’m sorry that I don’t know what to do.
I stood up, apologizing to the sweet mother. I grabbed Annie’s hand and tried to leave. The knob of the front door had a child-proof covering on it. My hands were sweaty and shaking. I struggled to open it, but I couldn’t. I felt trapped. I wanted to get away from Ms. Brown, Jennifer, and the kind mother. I wanted out.
I tried again, finally opening the door to the outside, away from the ambush, away from them. But Annie was still there.
I whisked Annie to the car. Ms. Brown followed me out. I couldn’t hear her words, but her face showed sadness and regret.
I drove, silent except for the stifled sobs. I knew I should have kept it together, for Annie’s sake, but that wasn’t my Annie.
Half way home I finally glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. She was staring straight ahead, unemotional. Then the anger came, and so did the questions. A switch flipped in
my mind. One after another I spat them out through the tears in rapid-fire succession, “What were you thinking, Annie? How could you do that? Haven’t we told you that was wrong? Do you remember when that boy touched you at your old school? How could you make someone else feel that way?”
She only stared.
I stopped and tried to compose myself. Annie had never seen me cry before. She spent the first five years of her life taking care of a drugged-up mother with abusive boyfriends; she didn’t need to take care of me, too. It was her turn to be taken care of. But how could I take care of this?
I couldn’t hold back my anguish. I looked at her in the mirror and asked, “Why?”
She simply shrugged her shoulders.
I yelled, “Why?”
The tears continued until we arrived home. I sent her upstairs to her room. I stayed in the garage. Thoughts swirled in my mind: What kind of person touches someone else? I wasn’t expecting this, so what other surprises are there? Just how damaged is she?
Emotions tore at my heart. I felt anger, betrayal and despair. I was angry because I didn’t
want a damaged child. I felt betrayed because when I prayed about adoption, I felt warm inside. How could God make me feel so good about someone so bad? I felt despair, because I knew giving up wasn’t an option: We adopted her and were sealed to her: An eternal commitment had been made. I was stuck being her mother; and right then, I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want complicated. I didn’t want difficult. I didn’t want her.
I didn’t want to be the parent of a broken child.
There are myriads of resources for mothers of victims of sexual abuse. But what about mother’s of the perpetrators? What about us? What about me? I was hurt, angry, and afraid.
I did things I thought I’d never have to do, like call and report my own daughter to CPS (which is mandatory when adopting a child through our state). I prayed for the girl my daughter had touched, that she wouldn’t be scarred—that she wouldn’t continue the cycle my daughter was on. I prayed to know what to say, what to do.
I prayed most fervently that God would hold her in His arms, but when I did, I felt cold. She wasn’t my daughter. I didn’t know this girl, this girl who could do that to someone else.
We took Annie to counseling. Turns out I needed it just as much.
Through months of counseling, praying, studying, talking, and purposeful decision making (choosing to love her despite her choices, etc.) I began to learn what it was like to be the mother of a victim and a victimizer. I learned how to recognize my anger and accept it. And I learned how to keep her and others safe. No one was allowed to go into her room. She must play downstairs when friends came over. We made sure nothing even remotely salacious would appear on our TV, as to not trigger her. We locked down all computers and left her with one hand-held device that was not internet-capable. Our home was as safe as it could be for her.
Oh, how I wish I could have kept this incident within the walls of our home. But I understand that with my knowledge of my daughter’s past choices, came the responsibility to not only keep her safe, but to keep others safe from her. It was a painfully delicate and sobering responsibility. I had to protect other children from my own daughter. I met with the school psychologist and principal, who enacted discreet rules at school to ensure the safety of those around her. I spoke to the parents of the few select friends we allowed Annie visit in their homes. Heaven forbid she do this again.
The counseling helped all of us. We gained tools and insights that allowed us to cope. But prayer worked the miracles. Prayer allowed me to see Annie through God’s eyes. I realized that I had lumped my daughter into the same pile as adult habitual perpetrators: anyone that could touch another person beyond their consent was monster. The judgment was quick, naïve, and wrong. There had been no malice in her motives, no sexual appetite to feed at any cost. She had been a victim of circumstance, a follower of a twisted example. She was dealing with demons she couldn’t recognize, especially so young.
In the ensuing days, I began to catch glimpses of her through her cloaks of self-protection and fear. She was hurt, confused, and afraid—but not broken. Not a monster. She was my daughter, and I did, and do, love her.
I am not condoning what she did. It was wrong. Not natural—for a healthy person. But, for what she had been exposed to, it was normal. Normal and natural are not the same. And it’s been my job since that day to help her redefine what is normal and reset what is natural. And that was a great revelation for me: my daughter wasn’t broken; she was wired wrong. She was wired to sit on men’s laps and wiggle so they will like her. She was wired to be familiar with touching and being touched in private areas. She was wired to have no regard for personal space, and to live in squalor. She was taught by example and experience until all these things were wired in her brain. It was my job then to protect others while I rewire and build up my daughter.
It still is my job. She has grown up into a beautiful young woman, filled with faith and hope and forgiveness. She has put this incident behind her, and has not done it since. Still, I cannot relax fully. Years later, the rule still stands: no friends in the bedroom. We always know where she is. Our watchful eyes have caused some to accuse us of being helicopter. They don’t know why, and frankly, I don’t care to explain that I am protecting their child. Yes, Annie is doing remarkably well, but the sad reality is that it happened: someone abused her, and she abused someone else. She belongs to an ugly chain whose links stretch wide.
But Annie and I share a few things that are key:
- The understanding that she is, first and foremost, a daughter of God.
- The Atonement can heal victims and perpetrators.
- The notion that rewiring a mind is possible.
- The determination that she is the last in that chain.
- That power of unconditional love.
I pray the wake of her dysfunctional childhood will be small, that the child she touched years ago has also experienced healing. I pray that she doesn’t feel shame. I pray that she will continue to develop healthy relationships. I pray that she will keep seeking the tools she needs to keep her mind and body in a healthy place. And I pray that her relationship with God and her family will continue to grow.
I love my daughter. She’s been hurt. And she’s hurt someone else. But, she is changing, growing, healing. With professional tools, hard work, and faith, she is becoming the young woman she chooses to be, not the one she was taught to be before she came to us. I’m changing too; growing and healing. Together we are learning the true meaning of the grace that the Atonement affords, and the hope it offers—hope that the cycle will be broken. Hope that she will not just be ok, but be happy, joyful, and healthy; not broken—but whole.”
*The names in this story have been changed.
Note: It’s important to note that children may experiment out of curiosity, and that does not mean they are sexual abusers. We do need to teach our kids what is and is not okay conduct.
Additionally, children who have been abused may act out what has happened to them and unintentionally hurt another child. Please try to understand how this trauma of being abused has altered their perceptions. They may not understand what they are doing is wrong; it may seem like a normal action because that’s what they’ve been exposed to. Please help your child understand what is appropriate and what is not and make sure they get the proper professional help they need to heal from their abuse.
Some children, particularly as teens, may become abusers. Sometimes it’s because they have been abused, but often it stems from pornography use or other means of seeking sexual gratification. The abuser needs to receive proper counseling and therapy as well. Do not hesitate. The consequences of revealing this are far less then letting it continue onward without intervention, allowing the abuser to develop worsening behavior and harming more innocent lives along the way.