Frozen In Time – I was a 13-year-old Mother Arrested development is being 'stuck' in an emotional level of growth due to trauma

One of the most insidious effects of childhood trauma is arrested emotional development. The feeling of still being a child when chronologically you are an adult.

One feels like a child play-acting in an adult world. All our emotions, responses, and interactions are childish. It is a debilitating condition to be in.  You feel helpless, insecure, and lack the confidence to deal with challenges because trauma anchored you in that time period when you were abused.

For me, it was 13 years.

Frozen In Time – I was a 13 year old Mother
Childhood trauma stunts our emotional growth leading to arrested  development

Preparing For Death

I was 11 when my mother died. It was traumatic, though we knew she was going to die. My mother had cancer and she slowly unobtrusively prepared me for her not being around. She trained me to cook, clean and in general, take care of things.

I remember I would dress up in a sari (the attire adult Indian women wear) and would go about doing the housework while my mother directed me from her bed. I would go to the market, buy things, feed my mother if needed, make soup, and clean her potty since she couldn’t walk to the toilet. (My grandmother and other adults did help out but most of the time we were alone).

It was a game, it did not feel taxing because it was playing to me., I felt proud to be an adult and responsible. I was a little woman by the time she died.

My mother died probably thinking that I’d manage to take care of myself.

Shocking Behavior

What she did not prepare me for was dealing with abuse, meanness, and evil. But then how could she know that persecution would come from people who had promised to take care of her kids? Most of us find it hard to believe that it is the family that usually destroys a child. Not some bogeyman who comes from yonder.

And the fact that we were staunch Catholics further confused me about the abuse happening to me. How does one reconcile evil with a person who pretends to be deeply religious? To my family, I became a piece of furniture that could be pushed around without any consideration.

My life is split into- Before my mother died (BC) and After my mother died (AD). From being a loved and cherished child, I was suddenly out cold braving the elements of evil.

Trauma Over Trauma

Soon after my mother’s death, my father became even more violent physically and emotionally. Every day was like living in a war zone. We did not know when there would be a strike or a bomb going off.

Then just a month AD a cousin 10 years older came to molest me. When my paternal grandmother heard my screams, she just muttered to herself, ‘just like her mother.’ This molester went on to abuse me for the next two years while I slept.

Then there was the blatant abuse of being made to take care of the kid cousins because their mom had a career and I was there available to exploit.  And there was this diabolic aunt who would come to my home and tell my father she was taking me to her home for the weekend. The first time I was overjoyed but after that time I got her cunning scheme of exploitation for cheap labor.  The dirty vessels I washed in her house were more than I ever washed in my own home.

The Final Straw

However, the most traumatic event which finally put the brakes on my emotional development was when my favorite uncle began lusting after me. The looks became lingering and attention more obvious. When his wife caught on, her rage was directed toward me, instead of the errant husband. This was my mother’s sister who had promised my mother to care for my brother and me.  She accused me of being the seductress while my maternal grandmother sat mutely witnessing the accusations. She did not protect or defend me. the shock was too much for a 13-year-old.

In 2 years AD, instead of being supported and helped, I went from one terrifying traumatic experience to another.

Anchored To The Past

My mind just could not cope or process the tumultuous events – what the hell was happening? I subconsciously blanked out the memories.  However,  when one blocks something,  we get stuck in that time and place. It was like closing the door and I was a prisoner of my past. I remained stuck in that room for a long time.

Subconsciously, the only way to protect me was to make myself small, to hide my growing breasts and body. It was the only way I could protect myself from danger. I developed scoliosis.

Abuse Arrested My Development

The aftermath of my childhood abuse was depression, lack of confidence, codependency, and scoliosis. The worst was being an emotional child dealing with the adult world. Studies have shown that abuse impairs the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex is implicated in a variety of complex behaviors and contributes to personality development.

Believe me, it has been a struggle not just personally but also professionally.

The only relationship I’ve had was with a man 20 years my senior, because of my codependency issues, I needed a father figure to take care of me. Alas, he turned out to be a self-centered misogynist who further emotionally denigrated me.

Becoming a Mother

All through my pregnancy, I believed that once my son was born, I would be flooded with maternal hormones, and magically I would feel like an adult once I became a mother.

However, because of my partner’s abuse, as a new mother, I was permanently triggered back to being 13 years coping with all the confusion and maltreatment.

Fortuitously, he died but left me in debt and the sole responsibility of caring for my 2-year-old son.

Child-Woman In An Adult World

From then on till very recently, I was like a cripple struggling to play mommy to my son.

The little child-woman my mother left behind had to cope with the adult world alone. It was tough when having the thoughts, emotions, and capabilities of a teenager. And the fact I have always looked younger than my actual age did not make things easier.

Though I managed to get jobs, I did not last very long because I just could not maturely handle interpersonal relationships. Every slight or minor rejection was enough to make me incommunicado. I did not have the skills to handle the workplace as an adult. I’d behave like a hurt child.

Playing Good Enough Mommy

However, as a mother, I managed to play the role of a good enough mother since I did have good enough mothering as a child. But it was more like playing house. I did not actually feel any love or joy. And I was constantly overwhelmed with intrusive memories of abuse, and rejection.  I had to struggle to push down the rage and anger which were easily triggered. It was a constant battle to keep that hurt and angry girl from surfacing.

Oh, there were times when I’d blow out. But from a young age, my perceptive son (since he did get enough of attached mothering, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding on demand for the first 2 years)  knew Mommie only has me. So if I’d overreact he’d just reject me. Which was a good tactic because I could not tolerate being rejected by the only person in my life. I’d immediately correct my behavior.

Mirror Neurons Get Activated

It was 4 years ago, while on a brief vacation my son was confidently negotiating with the hotel manager and it struck me, ‘Hey, that’s my son.’  It was like watching a movie and strongly identifying with the characters, hoping to be in their shoes.

Like a bolt of lightning, I realized that it was real, that I was actually the mother of that 15-year-old boy.  Suddenly, I was filled with pride and joy. A long-forgotten memory triggered my brain’s frozen mirror neurons – ‘that’s what my mother must have felt when she watched me competently helping out.’

The Power of Limbic Revision

It was like a curtain lifting from my mind. The locked door in my mind slowly opened a crack. That was a pivotal moment in my healing journey.

A line from the thought-provoking book A General Theory of Love aptly sums up the healing power of limbic revision:

Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.

Like layers, my past trauma is gradually clearing. The closed door is opening wider and I am able to enter the next room. No longer are the repressed emotions keeping me a prisoner. Slowly that frightened little girl can breathe. She can grow up not just emotionally but physically.

More and more, I  am beginning to feel the joy of being a mother, as I can actually feel love for my son.  I no longer have to play act Mommie. Emotionally and viscerally I am feeling more and more like a  ‘MOM’.  That 13-year-old frightened, hurt, and confused girl is slowly growing up.

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World – Vivek H. Murthy 

Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward


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