“OK, Abby, it’s fine to talk to her about it today, but never bring it up again,” my mother said to me.
I had just finished telling my mother that my then 7-year-old daughter was upset that morning so I let her stay home from camp. I had recently suffered a late miscarriage and because I was already visibly pregnant, we had told my children that I was expecting, only to miscarry two weeks later.
At first, my daughter had taken the news in stride, but I could see that morning she was upset and needed attention; she was ready to talk about what happened. I asked advice from doctors and therapists about how to talk to my 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son and I was patting myself on the back for doing such a great job of raising them so healthy. I was proud that we could talk about such things and not sweep them into the corner. But, it wasn’t until this conversation with my mother that I really understood what I had been doing.
I was rebelling.
My daughter needed to talk about the loss our family had experienced and instead of shutting her down, I spent the day with her doing just that: talking. We talked about how sad it was and that it was OK to be sad. We talked about what it meant when a baby died in Mommy’s tummy. This went against everything my parents did when they raised me and I was being reprimanded by my own mother who insisted: We don’t talk about these things.
I was raised by baby boomers. We didn’t speak about anything uncomfortable: feelings, whether good or bad, acknowledgement or praise, anything sad that happened, grief and so on. As a child I was told to take my feelings and shove them under a rug, by way of modeled behavior.
I’ve named my parents’ generation the “Hush Generation” because all they ever did was hush us to stop talking about anything uncomfortable. Any conversations about feelings were squelched. My mother’s best friend dies from breast cancer when I am 12. Hush. My best friend’s father dies of Leukemia when I am 13. Hush. It even applied to less tragic things — there was never any talk about getting my period, changing body or sex. We do not talk about such private things. Read it in a book if you must, but for God’s sake, please don’t ask us any questions! Repress your feelings. You will be fine. I was fine. My parents were fine.
But they weren’t fine.
My mother was raised by two Holocaust survivors. My grandmother escaped Berlin, Germany in the middle of the night as a little girl and lived in Shanghai throughout the war. Ten years later her family came over on a boat to California and began a new life in America.
My grandfather was 18 when the war began in Poland. He was sent with his brother to hide in the forest when their town became occupied by the Nazis. My grandfather’s brother got scared and said he was going back to check on their family, but he never returned and my grandfather never saw anyone in his family again after he spent most of the war in labor camps in Siberia.
My husband’s grandmother spent time in Auschwitz as a young girl, and the stories she used to tell were bone-chilling. She was happy to show the number tattooed on her arm to anyone who asked to see. My mother-in-law was taught as a young girl to be afraid of dogs by her mother because they reminded her of the dogs in Auschwitz that the Nazis had. Now, my husband is afraid of dogs, too, and sometimes even he doesn’t remember why.
These were very broken people. Sometimes I wonder how they ever picked themselves up, got married, had children and even attempted normal lives again after the war, especially as immigrants in a new country. They tried, but how could they be there for their children emotionally when they were such broken people? Some of them saw their parents taken away to be burned in gas chambers. Some escaped in the middle of the night and some survived in forests for years. It was these traumatized people who raised our parents. My mother talks about how at night she would hear her father screaming in his sleep from nightmares. During the day, he talked about his nine siblings who died as if they were there next to him.
Our parents tried their hardest to make normal lives for themselves and raise their children, but they, themselves, needed so much help. No one went for therapy back then, so they certainly never got past their issues with their parents. I have heard that there are support groups for children of Holocaust survivors, but I am not aware that my parents attended any of these groups. It was difficult for our parents to raise children without the proper tools and knowledge to help us.
And now here we are, raising our own children. Will we be able to help the next generation and stop the cycle? Can we start to open up to our children and have them open up to us so that finally, finally everything is out in the open?
It is hard for me to talk to my kids openly, and I must consciously remind myself to do it. I had to search for books on our changing bodies as my kids hit puberty, because I had never been given a book about puberty. I talked to friends and younger adults about what the best way to talk to our children about puberty is, because I have no experience with this. I took classes from a child social worker at my kids’ school on how to talk to children to prevent sexual abuse. As an adult, I’m learning how to talk about uncomfortable things and discovering what is appropriate to tell my kids and what isn’t.
It’s not easy, but it is effective. Every day after school, my son, who is 12, gives me an entire rundown of every detail of his day, including all the people who made him upset. I am so happy that he feels comfortable talking to me about everything, as exhausting as it is to listen to every day!
Recently, in my community, it was made public that a teacher at an elementary school was abusing boys for years. The teacher died several years ago from cancer, but his victims are now in their upper 20s and 30s and they’re coming out with their stories as they begin to send their own children to the same school. The teacher was fired from the school in 2010 when the first victim came forward, but instead of making the story public and allowing more victims to come forward at that time and have the teacher arrested, they fired him from the school and let him continue his life in a different field of work that didn’t include children, until he died from cancer two years later.
The community was shocked when we learned this story recently, because when the abuser died he was known as a well-respected, loved man and was honored at the school where he abused the children; they even held his funeral there. The victims, as well as the parents in the school, are fighting to make the story public now, because even though he is already dead, we must rectify what the school administration did by covering up the story such a short time ago. As parents, we refuse to let this happen to our children.
We had some friends over for a Shabbat lunch recently, and this story came up in conversation. My daughter, who is now 13, was listening to the conversation intently. My immediate inclination was to hush up our friends from talking about such things in front of my daughter, but then I stopped. I realized this could be a great time to talk about sexual abuse with her. Later, when our friends had left, I talked to my daughter about what she had overheard.
I told her about the teacher who did terrible things to little boys at school right here in our neighborhood. She was really surprised and upset, but I could tell that our conversation was effective. I ended by saying, “We know you would tell us if something bad happened to you and we could help you. Even though it’s a terrible story, we can learn from it.” She agreed with me and then was ready to change the subject.
“Speaking of bad stuff!” she said. Then she told me all about some friends of hers who have gotten into some “bad stuff.” It wasn’t so bad, but I’m so grateful that it was the beginning of another great conversation opening up to each other.