My oldest daughter, Marie, recently had a playdate with two girls from the neighborhood—Layla, who is about two years older than Marie, and Caroline, who is about a year older. It was the first real playdate my extroverted and ultrasocial daughter had ever hosted at our house (and only her second playdate at all since early March because of COVID). She was noticeably anxious leading up to when her company would arrive, with anticipation spilling from her little body in the form of breakdowns at every small thing that wasn’t as she expected. By the time her friend arrived at 3:00 pm, it had already been a very, very long day for everyone.
At one point, both of my daughters and their guests were all sitting on the sofa, talking about how many cousins and aunts and uncles they each had. I found myself standing there, mesmerized by them. I watched as Layla talked animatedly about her extended family, her face relaxed and confident, her eyes bright and clear, her brow smooth. She smiled and laughed as she talked about playing games with her cousins at big family get-togethers, and about how her grandmother had fields and fields of flowers because she made wreaths and other flower arrangements for weddings.
She talked and talked, but I stopped listening, instead simply watching her. I scrutinized her face; I found nothing but signs of a carefree little girl. As I realized I wouldn’t find anything to indicate otherwise, I was both elated and deeply, consumingly sad. I felt my eyes filling with tears and realizing I was on the verge of crying, so I walked out of the room, asking the girls if they wanted any snacks or something to drink. But I couldn’t stop seeing Layla’s happy, carefree face.
So that’s what it would have been like, I thought. If I hadn’t been abused. If my parents hadn’t neglected us and my mom hadn’t been an alcoholic. If my sister and I hadn’t lived in a trailer without basic necessities or food. If my cousin had played games with me instead of molesting me.
I often find when I’m searching that same carefree happiness on my own daughters’ faces, but part of living in the wake of trauma is learning to trust yourself, so my mind frequently spirals with doubts.
Are they always happy, or am I only witnessing a rare moment? Are they the kind of happy they should be, or is it only superficial because they got the dessert or book or toy they wanted? Maybe I don’t know what I’m seeing and this isn’t really happiness—how would I know? I know nothing about what a real childhood should look like. What if I’m only seeing what I want to see and not what’s really there?
I suddenly realized that Layla is only a few months shy of how old I was when I’d entered foster care and my chest suddenly ached as I thought about everything I’d already been through when I was her age. I was furiously angry and desperately heartbroken. I wanted to reach inside my body to hug myself as an eight-year-old little girl, squeeze her tight and take away everything she’d been through, put a shield around her to keep out all the things yet to come. I wanted to scream at the world for having taken my innocence and root out every person who might do it to another little girl, to stop them before they ever have the chance.
I wanted to squeeze my daughters and tell them they’d never be like me. I’d do everything I could so that they wouldn’t grow up to be so confused and fascinated by how children look and behave when they haven’t been abused and neglected. I used to think that one day my daughters would understand why I am the way I am, but I realized right then that they would only truly understand if they had shared experiences—something I vehemently didn’t want.
At the same time, I wished desperately that I could understand them, that the little girl inside me could recognize what I was witnessing, but instead I felt like I was watching something new and exotic…and that realization broke something open inside me. I was flooded with anger and fear, shame and indignation, determination and resolve.
A while later, there was a flurry of rushed footsteps and giggles, and I heard the door to the basement open and close. I smiled, assuming the girls had all gone downstairs to play. But a moment later, Layla walked around the corner into the kitchen where I was putting away the groceries my husband was unloading from the car.
“I think Marie’s sad,” she said quietly. “I asked her if she was okay, but she told me she wanted to be alone and asked me to go away. But I think she’s sad and doesn’t really want to be alone.”
I thanked her for telling me as my husband went upstairs to talk to Marie. Layla added that she just didn’t want Marie to be sad, then went to the basement to play. I stood there for long minutes, lost, groceries forgotten in my hands; I was dumbfounded by her kindness and concern, suddenly lost in a memory.
I was newly eight years old, being beaten unconscious by a group of kids as a handful of adults stood by, completely unconcerned. The other kids watched, and not a single one tried to stop what was happening or get help. My younger sister was the only one in the crowd who wasn’t participating. I was crying when I came to and instantly mocked for it. Not one person, child or adult, was moved by my tears.
My heart broke a little more for the little girl I was, for never having known a child as sweet as Layla. So this is what it would have been like, I thought again. I wanted to run downstairs and hug Layla, tell her never to change, that she would never understand how big a difference she will make in people’s lives for being such a caring soul. I longed to introduce my eight-year-old self to Layla, to give that version of me a glimpse of a carefree childhood and compassionate friend.
My husband reappeared as I finished putting away the groceries, Marie in tow. It turned out there had been a miscommunication between Marie and Caroline. Marie, who is not only extroverted but also incredibly sensitive, was upset that her friend got frustrated with her. She had expectations of exactly how her playdate would unfold and was struggling to adapt when things didn’t go according to that plan. Of course, this meant it wasn’t long before she was upset again—and again—because of a miscommunication.
My youngest daughter and the two girls continued to play in the basement as I held Marie in the living room and rocked her as she cried, releasing all the pent-up anxiety. My heart ached for her experiencing such strong emotions; I felt helpless because all I could do was wait for her to talk whenever she was ready.
We spent nearly fifteen minutes just rocking as her cries slowed, until she was able to explain more of what she was feeling. As she spoke, the tears continued to track down her little cheeks. We talked about what happened and how important communication is; while something she does every day with her sister may be fine, her friend might not like to play that way or maybe she would if she knew that’s what Marie was trying to do.
When Marie was ready to return to the basement to play, instead of climbing off my lap, she flung herself at me, wrapping her arms tightly around me. She told me she loved me and thanked me. As she pulled away, she looked exhausted, but she was smiling and the crease in her brow had disappeared. I scrutinized her face, finding no evidence of words unsaid or any lingering negative feelings.
Yet again, I was thrust back into my past. I was scared and crying, telling my dad that my cousin had touched me against my will as he yelled at me instead of comforting me. I was physically and emotionally in pain, sobbing as I returned to my family’s trailer after the kids had beaten me unconscious, desperately needing my mom to hold me, only to find her passed out from drinking; I couldn’t wake her and had to suffice with holding her limp arm around my shoulders. I was sobbing in the strange social worker’s car on the day my sister and I were taken from our mother and placed into foster care, and instead of providing comforting words, the social worker said to quit crying and get used to it.
I didn’t need a photo to know my face back then looked nothing like my daughter’s now; I’d received none of the loving support that I’d needed. In that moment, I knew that the decision I made when Marie was a baby to plant my feet in the earth, face my past, and ensure it never became my children’s future had been worth it. All the pain and heartache that accompanies sitting with memories of abuse and trauma had been worth it. I may be far from a perfect parent, but I knew in that moment that I was doing something right, that I was making sure the cycle stopped with me, and ensuring my daughter would have the childhood every child deserves; the childhood I never had.
As I gazed at my daughter, my eyes watered, and I smiled back at her. So this is what it would have been like, I thought again.
So this is what it would have been like.
Katherine Turner is a an author of contemporary fiction that explores love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse, as well as an editor and sensitivity reader. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!