Trigger Warning: Child Abuse
My daughter is swinging, head tilted up to the sky, pondering the shape of the cloud—is it a puppy or a tiger? Or maybe a dragon? She picks a flowering weed from the yard and brings it to me, so proud of her gift for Mama. She sits down and draws one of her imaginary kitty superheroes and the tale of how it saves the day—her lips pursed, then open, then pursed again—concentrating as though it’s the most important story she’ll write in her life.
I pull her close, breathe in all of her joy and wonder and innocence. Tears of rage, sadness, and grit fill my eyes. I am painfully aware of how small she is, how beautifully oblivious she is. Just six years old . . . just how life should be at six years old.
It’s 1985. I am seven years old and thrilled to be spending another weekend with my grandparents at their lake home. This night is extra special because Grandpa told me we get to have a sleepover in the sailboat down at the dock! It’s fall in Michigan and it’s cold, so Grandma makes sure I’ve got plenty of layers and blankets to keep me warm before sending me off. I skip to the dock, filled with excitement as we climb aboard. As I start to drift off to sleep, Grandpa comes to lay next to me and asks if I’d like him to rub my back.
Still innocent, still unsuspecting.
And then his hand leaves my back, and I know in my core that it isn’t right, but I am frozen. Inside I am screaming Stop! but outside I am paralyzed with fear and cannot find my voice. He never says a word. It continues all night; I drift in and out of slumber.
In the morning I step onto the dock in my teddy bear nightgown, pink pants, and jacket and breathe in the crisp air. It is sunny but cold, not a cloud in the sky. I look around, my mind racing, my intuition telling me to go tell Grandma. And then the voice of doubt shouts that she will laugh at me, that she will tell me this is normal and okay. My screaming, writhing intuition retreats. I have silenced her.
It’s 1986. I am playing at my best friend’s house and tell her that we’re moving into my grandparents’ place while my parents find a home to buy. My intuition is raising her voice, willing me to tell someone. So I do. I say it out loud to my best friend and she immediately confirms what I knew all along: it wasn’t right, he shouldn’t have done it. I need to tell my mom. Right. Now. She hands me her Strawberry Shortcake and Huckleberry Finn doll and instructs me to use them to show my mom what he did to me.
My mom sobs and holds me tight, tells me she’s so sorry, promises it will never happen again.
And then it happened again. And I couldn’t find my voice. Again.
He didn’t just molest me. He stripped me of my innocence. He inflicted an emotional war inside me that no child—no human—should ever have to fight. He burdened my 7-year-old heart in ways I couldn’t yet understand. Everything I knew to be true about this world was blown up in a moment by way of a wandering, sick hand. A hand that once stood for strength and love in my eyes.
He was my family. He was supposed to protect me, not violate me.
My daughter is twirling on the living room floor in a pink toile skirt, singing her song she made up called “I Can’t Forget About You.” She finishes her performance with a bow and then runs into my arms for a hug. As I embrace her, I imagine wrapping my arms around that little girl standing on that dock. I imagine holding her face, looking her in the eyes, telling her to speak up. To never, ever, ignore that voice within.
Every tear shed, every decade spent continuing to silence my intuition until I finally learned to rip the tape from her mouth, every hour spent on my therapist’s couch, every brick I smashed out of my wall so I could let the light in . . . it all prepared me for this most important duty as a mother: protecting my babies. Not just my daughter, but my son too.
And while I can’t raise them inside a bubble, I can talk to them. I can teach them.
Ninety percent of child sexual abuse cases occur at the hand of a close family member, friend, or acquaintance—not a stranger. Yet we don’t want to believe this could be true. We don’t want to believe that the stand up, church-going, intelligent, loving, successful father or family friend or aunt or grandfather or neighbor could do this.
Talk to your kids. Teach them body parts by their anatomical name at a young age. Teach what boundaries mean from a young age. Teach them what stop means. A hard rule in our house is tickling. If at any moment my child is being tickled and says the word stop, the tickling stops. My family knows this. Even if they ask you to do it again two seconds later, when stop comes out of their mouth, you stop.
Teach them to verbalize when they need some personal space. Teach them about respecting their bodies by asking permission if you need to check a private area. Talk about intuition, teach them to trust their bodies. If something inside them feels off or wrong, engage them in conversation about things they could do or say to remove themselves from that situation. Role-play things that someone might say to entice them.
It is a fine line between instilling fear and creating awareness so don’t harp on this every day.
Maybe a few times a year. Preface conversations with the fact that most humans are good in the world, but there can be bad ones from time to time. And while it’s not likely, it’s smart to be armed with knowledge and confidence if you ever encounter one of them.
It’s 2022. I’m at a cookout with my twins. An acquaintance comes up to chat; shortly after, her husband approaches and kneels down to say hi to the kids. That voice I once silenced? She stirs in his presence. I listen. She hasn’t failed me up to this point in my life, so when she sounds the alarm, I pay attention.
Trust your gut.
Protect your babies.