Family, Self

The Startling After Effects Of Toxic Stress

Are you staying in an unhealthy marriage for the children? I did. I was confused. I was ashamed. But mostly, I was afraid of hurting my kids.

Now we know that childhood exposure to "toxic stress" can have a cumulative toll on a person's well-being for a lifetime. Children exposed to prolonged adversity, such as physical or emotional abuse or chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, are at greater risk for cancer, diabetes and other diseases. Toxic stress increases their risks for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, STD's, domestic violence and depression. Simultaneously, toxic stress can reduce children's ongoing chances of success in school, holding jobs and maintaining stable relationships.  And yet, as discussed recently in the New York Times, children can be shielded from the most damaging effects of this stress if their parents are taught how to respond appropriately. But how do couples respond appropriately if a parent cannot see toxic stress for what it is?

For more than a decade I stayed unhappily married, because I was unable to see a healthy alternative to my life. Part of me floated on the surface like all was serene and unsinkable in my domestic sphere. But under the surface, I was scared, treading water in a bog of delusions like I was afraid of the light. I'd ask myself if I were to get divorced, how would my children bear being split between two households? Before I could even fathom an answer, I'd remind myself, "I would never be able to afford my own household."  I was unemployable. Felt worthless, and I thought I had no choices.

I was, in reality, a SAHM, (a stay-at-home-mother) and I knew I was a good mom. But I thought my skill set was nontransferable to the workplace—or anywhere, actually, because my self-esteem had run aground. I was in a toxic relationship, the details of which are unnecessary here, because what matters is that I was like a lot of people. I felt powerless and I couldn't see straight. I thought I should content myself with the way the marriage was, what life was, what I was, all because I had children now. Why did I think I was entitled to anything else when plenty of people around me were unhappy as well? I lived in New York City where one need only step off the curb to be called another form of "MOTHA" by a ticked off bike messenger.  Stress, anger, unhappiness and "putting up with it" are commonplace in New York.

I had grown up with a bleak unhappiness, too. I saw it whenever I returned home. Back in my mountain town where the socioeconomics were different, perhaps people were not as openly stressed as New Yorkers, but there was a low-grade chronic stress and melancholia that clouded the landscape. People were often more disheartened, more haggard and beaten by the burden of responsibilities they faced—the fatality that was their lives. There were no choices here either. Once you bring children into this world, you don't have the right to be selfish. You must provide.

With growing up in dysfunction and marrying dysfunction, I couldn't see it for what it was. I thought I couldn't provide, because I was unemployable, so I felt as if I should just hunker down and do what I knew I could for my children, which was to nurture them. I was not deserving of following my dreams or ambitions, or of nurturing myself.

Until some kind of alarm went off, and I realized my children's world was no "Leave It to Beaver" sanctuary; it was more like a war zone with no end in sight. There was so much yelling. My children were being raised by grownups who were not really adult at all. As their mother, I was not shielding them from stress, because I was unable to protect myself, or imagine an alternative from what I'd grown up with, or what I was being force fed. My best intentions were feathering the nest for the toxic stress they were growing up in. As I shifted my eyes to find a way out of the marriage, I realized I had to face the light. Indeed, my children were my light.

If you are in an unhealthy relationship, get help; if not for yourself then for your kids. You will always be your children's role model. What kind of role model is the question you must ask yourself.  At SAS, we help women understand that education is a universal right and that knowing what your options are gives you a sense of ownership over your life. Knowing what your options are helps you choose the way you wish to live and what you want to bequeath to your kids.  

If you feel alone or isolated, know that you are not alone with these feelings, either. There are a lot of women like you, but remember, you are the adult. When your kids see you move toward your happiness, no matter how hard it is, they will be inspired. Follow the light that is your dreams. It's what you want for your kids.

If you would like supportive feedback on what is possible right now to lessen the toll of toxic stress in your life and your children's, give us a call.  There is no charge for this initial consultation, and we welcome you.

For More Marriage Advice From YourTango: