A Few Good Moms: Can you handle the truth about parenting-related PTSD?

The memories that you make with the kids stay with you for a lifetime...this is the good news and the bad news.
The memories that you make with the kids stay with you for a lifetime...this is the good news and the bad news. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The mom takes a bite out of her sandwich and glances down at her Kindle. Suddenly a piercing wail slices through the air, and a two-year-old in the next booth begins to tantrum. Not my child, not my child, not my child she tells herself silently, but her heart is racing with the memory of a particularly unfortunate incident that occurred with her son in the same restaurant –three years prior.

You want the truth about parenting-related post-traumatic stress disorder? I think you can handle it.

Ah, the memories that you make with the kids: They stay with you for a lifetime. This is the good news and the bad news.

And there is plenty that is truly good. Those precious kid-centric moments continue to cause feelings of love, gratitude, and pride long after they initially occur. Tears well up in your eyes when you look at a newborn and remember so distinctly what it felt like to first hold your little one. Seeing a little guy trucking around in a superhero costume on a random Monday can bring you right back to your son’s obsession a decade earlier. Watching how proudly a young kid sports his dressy clothes in church reminds you of when your kindergartener insisted on wearing his blue blazer to school every day for a week.

But something decidedly less cheerful may also occur, when a situation or behavior triggers unpleasant memories.

It starts with the earliest of parenting experiences: the birth story. Why–oh –why do seasoned veterans of the mothering world feel compelled to share their horror stories with the uninitiated? Is it ever helpful to hear that someone else’s experience was completely nuts or chaotic or scary? Do they need to know that the closest thing we ever came to dying was birthing? Why do we insist on vomiting up our past trauma? Because . . . we can’t help it. We are damaged. But in a really highly functioning, maternal way.

So the sweetly excited novice cluelessly asks her more experienced friends about what happened when their babies were born.

These stories are rarely drama-free and boring. And with each shared detail the color drains more and more rapidly from the pre-Madonna’s face. She is startled when you laugh hysterically at her birth plan and it is all downhill from there. Right after you share the pain of being two weeks past due before being induced with your firstborn, you tag-team another old-timer who regales the crowd with her tale of going into labor frighteningly early. Who knew so many things could go awry?

Finally spent – or perhaps chastened by the damage inflicted – most moms sum it up with a cheery “All’s well that ends well!” Meanwhile the shaken preggers is cursing her luck that she can’t enjoy a stiff drink right about now.

As with parenting, pregnancy is just the beginning. These emotional floodgates also may open for many other parenting “traumas”: ill-timed diaper explosions, crib escapes, toddler tantrums, lost kids, broken bones, horrific viruses, vacation disasters, choking episodes, sibling smack-downs, juvenile insomniacs, daredevil antics, slumber party catastrophes . . .

Um, wow. Sorry about that. Do you see what just happened there? Probably time to call my therapist . . . or just run my mouth to all of you, who may find that you will do it back to me someday.

It is important to note that the most pronounced parenting-related post-traumatic stress may not be triggered by other parents and their kids, but by your own children. When your son hesitates when going into the preschool classroom, your own childhood shyness suddenly is evoked. When your child is cut from the team, the humiliation of your calamitous tryouts experience comes screeching back. When your daughter is not included in the sleepover with friends who painfully flaunt their fun, the betrayals you suffered during the teen years feel like they happened just yesterday.

The gift in this is that you are able to understand what your child is going through; the danger in this is that you may be projecting your own experience and challenges onto someone who is happily introverted, who may be relieved not to play football this season, or who would just as soon watch a movie with her parents as stay up all night acting silly with a bunch of girlfriends.

Having empathy for others is the ticket to meaningful relationships. Reliving emotional moments isn’t always fun, but the truth is, nothing demonstrates your compassion more than when you can honestly tell those you care about: “I feel your pain.”

Want to get a better handle on parenting-related post-traumatic stress disorder? Read this essay about the dangers of living out unrealized dreams through your children, consider a different take on sharing your birth story from, and watch this clip from the movie Parenthood, where one dad looks at his son and sees himself.