By Elin Stebbins Waldal
The experiences of my adolescence have influenced my approach to parenting. My parents perhaps imagined that their love could insulate me from experiencing cruelty. Sadly, as I learned first hand, my parents’ love was not enough.
Growing up in a small New England town, nestled 31 miles by train from New York City, was in many ways idyllic. My parents modeled a loving union and raised me with promise, privilege, love and education. Surrounded by adoring siblings and a support system that my friends claimed to envy, one might have concluded I had the necessary ingredients to keep me from harm. In fact, the idea of violence occurring to me would have been the furthest thing from my parents’ minds, to say nothing of my own. Issues like teen dating violence were never discussed and certainly not included in the health class curriculum.
At 17, I was your typical teenager who drove through the moment with my own limited life experiences riding shotgun. I was independent, strong, trusting and naïve. When I first met Derrick, he was everything I hoped for: loving, attentive, responsible and polite.
He was older, owned a business and lived on his own, all of which fueled my own desire for emancipation. I fell in love with him when he was at his best, and after high school, I moved in with him instead of heading to college. With bravado and self-assurance that only a young person can possess, I insisted I didn’t need a college education; I was ready to live on my own and earn my way.
A storm of verbal, physical, sexual and emotional violence followed my decision, as Derrick struggled to make a living, keep housing and control his temper. Derrick slowly isolated me from all the people in my life, and I kept the abuse from them. He threatened to end his life, my life, and the lives of my family members and even the dog if I left. His threats chained me to him, and on more than one occasion, took me within inches of losing my life. He relied on and exploited my loving, nurturing, and trusting nature.
I am acutely aware of my desire to keep my own children from harm, and I believe that the best way to protect them is through education. Our children need to understand dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, stalking and cyber-abuse, and we need to use any medium we can—books, movies, etc. —to open a dialogue with them.
In mothering my daughter, I’ve had to check my baggage so that I can see who she really is. Believe me, there are times where I have failed. Not long ago, my daughter asked me if she could kiss a boy she had been “going out with,” and I responded with a definitive, “NO!”
Her voice was urging me to listen to her, but I cut her off, walked away and essentially shut down. Later that evening, she brought it up again, begging me to please listen to her. Again, I indicated that the issue was nonnegotiable. After leaving her room, I felt a sinking feeling. What was my problem? Why was I so closed off? Why was I not affording her a platform to be heard? The next day, we went for a walk on the beach and I asked her: “About the kiss you mentioned…describe it for me?”
“A peck on the cheek for a hello or goodbye when I see him.”
“A peck on the cheek? No lip-to-lip contact? No tongue?”
“EW! GROSS, MOM!”
In our walk to the shoreline, I safely stepped over my baggage-filled trunk to hear her express strength, maturity and clarity over her own personal boundaries. I want her to celebrate every last piece of her existence right down to her toes. My hope for her future is that she remains as open, strong, confident and loving as she is today.
But, my aspirations for her future-self won’t just materialize because I “hope and pray” that they do. On the contrary, it will take a daily commitment on my part to demonstrate my belief in her. Abuse had an effect on me, yes; it shaped and informed who I am. But, I will not perpetuate it through fear-based parenting. I have to afford my daughter the opportunities to try out her life-tools while she still has the hammock of home to fall into. Through a million small ways, I can help her experience feelings of empowerment right now.
Elin Stebbins Waldal is author of Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and its Effect on a Woman’s Life.