The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out
Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW
What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of having a child? Most likely, it's "love.? What greater love exists on this earth than that of a parent for a child? Love is what keeps us going when times are tough. Love gives us hope and strength. It brings joy to our lives, but it also exposes us to its bittersweet side: worry and even heartache. But it's worth it. There's no way more guaranteed to bring love into your life, to bring meaning to your existence, than to have a child. It will transform your definition of love. Oftentimes, we don't understand what real love is until we have a child. Then we know. It is all-encompassing, consuming, unconditional, and life-changing. And you will be blessed by it.
When Marla and Brian met, they both knew it was love at first sight. They worked for the same large company, but Brian was in the international division while Marla worked in the public relations department of the domestic division. If it hadn't been for the winter ice storm that knocked out electricity in part of the city one day, they might never have met. The company had nearly 600 employees housed in two large buildings, each served by its own parking lot. Brian worked in one building and Marla worked in the other. But on that day, with the elevators not functioning, they all had to use the stairs of their respective buildings, which emptied into the same area on the street.
The moment Marla saw Brian, she thought, "Wow, what a beautiful man!" Immediately, she checked to see if he wore a wedding band; he noticed and confirmed, "Not married!" Then he added with a great smile, ". . . and not dating anyone, either. Unless you're free for dinner . . ."
To make a long story short, they spent the next year cooking together, shopping for wine, entertaining friends, checking out cozy restaurants, going to the theater, and strategizing about how each of them could move up the ladder in their respective jobs at the company. They looked for every possible opportunity to be in each other's company. If one was heading to a certain restaurant for a business lunch, the other managed to have lunch at that restaurant, too--pretending, of course, not to know each other. It was fun! They liked each other's friends. They toasted each other's successes and held each other through the down times. And when they reached the point where parting at the end of a date was simply too painful, they got engaged. Six months later, they were married.
The first year of marriage was sweet and passionate, and it passed quickly. When their second anniversary rolled around and they talked about buying a gift to commemorate it, they decided that having a baby would be the most appropriate gift they could give each other. Marla recalls, "Our feelings for each other were so deep. I wanted 'his' child, 'his' children. And even though he had once told his friends that he didn't necessarily see marriage or kids in his future, when we met and fell in love, having a child, children, and a family was a natural progression--an expression of our love for each other." Brian and Marla felt they had already been blessed by the magic of love, but when they confirmed that Marla was expecting, they knew yet another, and even deeper, shade of love.
Samantha Rae arrived almost seven weeks premature and spent the first three weeks in an incubator. Marla and Brian went to the hospital on a daily basis. They were so worried. The baby was so tiny and fragile . . . a little being clinging to life. Their hearts went out to her. They felt completely helpless. They cried a lot together . . . especially as they left the hospital after seeing their daughter. They were amazed that they already loved her so deeply! But their hearts were also pained. They loved their little girl more than words could describe.
Marla had planned to take a three-month maternity leave and then return to work, but when she was told that Samantha would not be going home for at least three to five weeks, Marla returned to work, thinking it was the only way to help the time go by. Since the hospital was downtown and just a few blocks from her office building, it seemed like the best way to be near Samantha, especially since she and Brian could slip out of work and visit her when they wanted to.
Nearly two months after the birth, they finally took Samantha home. At that point, Marla made the decision not to return to work. Their baby's health was still too fragile, and they just couldn't consider leaving her in the care of anyone else.
Today, Samantha is three years old and a healthy and happy little girl. Brian says, "Samantha has opened us up to so many new ways to share in our love for her. It's a different life, I'll say that! In the first year and a half, we worried a lot. We even had to rush her to the hospital a couple of times after we brought her home--we were frightened to death. But the last year and a half has brought us mostly laughter and fun. Our daughter has enriched our lives so much."
Marla adds, "We just love our little daughter and it's a love that is greater--and different--than anything I can describe. I love my husband, and he loves me. But we love our baby more than we can put into words. I'd have to say that having a child is a definition of love all its own. For us, our baby--a "gift" to each other, one grown out of our own love for each other--has produced a kind of love, a depth of love, that is simply in a league of its own. Samantha's arrival has also strengthened and sweetened our relationship with our parents; it's gone a long way toward healing Brian's relationship with his father. And it's introduced us to other parents, many of whom have become dear friends. This baby has so expanded the love we get and give to others. It's amazing, and it's a blessing in our lives. Just as Liz Carpenter said, children are the "exclamation point of love"! How very true this has been for Brian and me."
Four Ways a Baby Will Introduce You to the Perils of Love
Most people think they know what it's like to have love in their lives--until they have a child. Then they realize that they never had this kind of love! Your love for your child is unique, and distinct from any other love you'll ever experience. It is a wonderful love, but also a painful one. It's the best feeling in the world, but it will bring up so many other emotions as well. Marla and Brian found out what love really meant when Samantha was born.
You'll Learn the Meaning of Sacrificial Love
Sacrifice involves loss. When you have a child, you willingly give up anything to protect her, keep her safe, fulfill her needs, and ensure her happiness. You may leave the big city you love because you feel she'll be safer in the country. Or you may leave the country to be closer to family and schools, or to have quicker and better access to medical facilities. You're willing to give up the career you've pursued for years because it takes you away from the child you love. Or you may find a new job because the added expenses of bringing up a child require that you earn more income. You'll even give up a dream--running for office, climbing a mountain--if there's a possibility that it could lead to harm for your child. Or you may decide to do these things now because you are inspired and motivated to excel at what once scared you, or that you had no interest in doing. Or now that you're a parent, you may wish to pave the way and make the world a better, safer place for all children. And there's a good chance that you'll find great joy and contentment in watching your child accomplish her dreams instead of focusing solely on your own. You take pride in her achievements and realize that being the "wind beneath her wings" becomes your greatest source of satisfaction. Your own life holds less value for you now in comparison to hers. You learn the true meaning of sacrifice--and you're willing to make it. How splendid the effect our children have on us!
Marla once dreamed of advancing in her career, but when Samantha was born with health problems, she didn't think twice about who needed her most. While she rued the loss of all the progress she'd made advancing in her field, the mother's love she felt for her baby demanded no less than caring for her in these important first years of life. As Marla said, "If I had it to do all over again, I'd make the same decision. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make because of my love for Samantha."
Questions for Discussion
* What sacrifices have you made in your life to be a parent?________________________________________________
* Do you regret giving up any of the dreams or plans you've had?
* If you had it to do all over again, would you make the same decisions?
* Do you think that women and men share equally in the sacrifices they make for their children? Why or why not?
Although Marla had to give up a job she loved, she stayed in touch with her closest coworkers and kept up her contacts in case she might be able to return to her career in the future. After Samantha's health stabilized and she was "out of the woods," Marla was also able to freelance from her home for one or two small clients. She was making much less money than before, but it helped keep her public relations skills fresh and allowed her to keep a foot in the door of a field she loves and may someday return to.
You'll Shoulder Enormous Responsibility
Raising a child is a major responsibility. Who among us does not soon find that children need enormous amounts of our time and energy--not to mention that in the first year they bind us to the house and restrict our once-carefree lives? Children keep us up throughout the night, needing comfort and soothing, especially when they are ill or cutting teeth. And yet, mysteriously, we parents do not find the responsibility of this sort of caretaking burdensome or bothersome. In fact, we find great joy in it! Fifteen minutes after finally rocking your baby back to sleep at 3 a.m., you need only stand at the crib and watch as he lies peacefully asleep, and you'll find a smile in your heart.
Because Samantha was premature, Brian and Marla took on the enormous responsibility of caring for her. They had to administer medications, hook up various monitors and alarms, schedule visits with specialists and therapists, and shoulder the increased worry and fear that accompany the birth of a fragile little being. But out of this huge burden arose a love so fierce that Marla and Brian would do anything they possibly could for their child?s welfare. They willingly took on the added responsibility for Samantha's care--because of their love.
Questions for Discussion
* What added responsibilities have you taken on with the birth of your child?
* Do you think you're a more responsible person now that you're a parent? In what ways?
* Do you feel the burden of your increased responsibilities, but willingly shoulder them?
* How have your increased responsibilities added to the love that you feel for your child?
Marla and Brian were fortunate to have family members close by, and were very grateful for the assistance. Both sets of grandparents often came over to help lighten the load. Marla's sister, a nurse, often came by to check Samantha over, and reassured them that they didn't have to worry or be needlessly fearful. It was a big relief to Brian and Marla not to have to shoulder the responsibility for their baby's care alone.
Your Child's Welfare Will Always Lie Heavy on Your Heart
Your great love for your child means you'll never be worry-free again. Every car crash or crime you hear about will make you think, "Was my child involved?" or "What if that had happened to us?" When your child hurts, you hurt. If another child picks on yours, you?ll have to restrain yourself from demanding that this kid give your child more respect! You'll want to protect your child like a mother bear protects her helpless little cub from predators. And suddenly, the world seems like a very dangerous place. Anytime you read about the death of a child, it brings home the fact that your child is never entirely safe--and that parents can't completely protect them from everything. Even when a child is grown, the worries never go away. Will my "baby" find a job after college? Is my daughter?s husband good to her? Will my son have to go to war? Your child's welfare will always be on your mind, and lie heavily on your heart.
Marla and Brian got a head start on their worrying when Samantha was born prematurely. Not only did they have the normal concerns that new parents have, but they had to deal with the complications that can arise when a baby enters the world too soon. Even though Samantha is now considered to be in excellent health, they still worry. "Samantha's already been through so much," they say. "What if more problems arise in the future? Can we handle them?" Marla was the first to admit that her hand always seemed to be poised over the phone during the first few years. She was ready to call the doctor every time Samantha had a coughing spell. Brian babyproofed every possible item in the house to keep Samantha safe. And there is no doubt in their minds that when Samantha starts dating, every potential suitor will have to endure a very rigorous screening process. Brian says, "I intend to interview each one before I let her out of the house!"
Questions for Discussion
* Does your love for your child increase your worries?
* Do the dangers in the world concern you a lot more now that you're a parent?
* Do you think you'll worry less, more, or about the same as your child gets older? Why?
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