She ain’t heavy, she’s my daughter: Trying to understand child abuse

August 31, 2018

I’ve told this story a thousand times. There was never a greater moment of clarity in my life than the moment I first heard my unborn daughter’s heartbeat. We were at Alma Midwifery and the whooshing sound came over the little speaker. It was as if the whooshing zoomed in to surround me and in that moment it was clear that it was no longer about me. My sole purpose in that life was to protect the heartbeat and the person that was growing around it. I was now primarily a vehicle for her success in the world. I don’t know if it was a moment of pure love or a genetic mandate to make sure my chromosomes made to the next generation intact, but it nearly knocked me off my feet.


We were blessed to have a happy, healthy baby who is now a very smart and loving 4-year-old. I still find myself watching her sleep at night or spending time looking in the rearview mirror at her while she processes the world that passes outside the Prius window. The urge to protect her is even greater now that she has some independence. I worry that she will walk in front of a car backing out of a driveway, or get hurt at pre-school, or be grabbed off a playground in the moment that I look away. She’s about to spend a week in Mexico with my wife so you can imagine where my mind will go. I’m ready to step into full Liam Neeson mode at the drop of hat.

I mention all this because I am trying to understand the reality that parents routinely abuse their children; physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. It’s just the hardest thing for me to understand, because I feel like every single strand of DNA inside me is telling me to protect my child from harm. There is no question I would trade my life for hers. Not even a nano-second of hesitation. Cozy is needed in this world a lot more than I am. (But you’re gonna get both of us for a long time.) I’m not some perfect parent, devoid of ethical flaws. What makes me different from them? According to a 2015 report, over 7 million children are identified as abuse victims by Child Protective Services each year. Over a third (37%) of American children are reported to Child Protective Services by their 18th birthday.  37%! That’s insane and heartbreaking and completely unacceptable.

I don’t get it, but as a sociologist and criminologist it’s my job to get it. My work often involves me building some empathy for some pretty horrible characters, including school shooters, Neo-Nazis, and serial killers. It’s not always easy and some bad actors challenge the assumption that all people are redeemable. (This is not a piece about university administrators.) As a parent, it’s easier to explain away a sociopathic serial killer than it is someone who would sexually abuse their own child (especially knowing that many serial killers were sexually abused by their own parents). Fortunately, social scientists are doing this research in a heroic attempt to break the cycle.

And “cycle” is the key word. Many abusers are acting out their own experience of abuse on their children. Others where brought up in cultures and subcultures of violence where the belief was that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” – Proverbs 13:24) Some are alcoholic or drug addicted and take out their chaotic mental state on the nearest target. Some are misogynists and attack “their” women and children to prove their masculinity. Some suffer from accutmental illness while others simply can’t handle feelings of powerlessness in a complex world. Explanations can be very broad, including the lack of social support for the economically stressed trying to raise children in this downwardly mobile economy.


All those give us insight to the abuser. But it’s just not enough. I’ve been pretty economically stressed these last three years, not working full time and not sure when I would be, but I never thought to take it out on my small child. I could get the drunkest I’ve ever been and I have to think hurting her would never arise as a possibility. I could be in the throes of deep depression and her protection would still be paramount. I had a good friend who killed herself because she believed, in her depressive state, that she was protecting her daughter. There’s just something deep inside both of Cozy’s parents that would just STOP anything before she was hurt. What is that thing? It can’t be biological if over a third of kids (that we know about) are being abused. I was whipped a few times as a kid (The Belt!), but I don’t feel mindlessly compelled to repeat that behavior. They can’t all be so mentally ill that they don’t know what they are doing. It’s gotta be more complicated than a screw loose. Then there is the whole wide spectrum of psychological abuse, and abuse by step-parents and mom’s boyfriends and on and on. It seems massive. Like the untold story of America is what we do to our children.

Maybe it is because I didn’t become a parent until I turned 50. By then I had a lot of time to both want a child and think about what kind of parent I wanted to be. There are plenty of “unwanted” children in the world and many are born to parents who are so damaged that they are completely unprepared for the awesome and life changing responsibility of ferrying a baby into adulthood. But why didn’t hearing that baby’s heartbeat help push them in the right direction? Am I being overly judgmental?

I don’t live a bubble. I see it all around me. Adults with stories of childhood abuse and a few parents who definitely should not be raising kids until they have worked their own shit out. Violence in our society is what we sociologists call normative. We use it to express ourselves and “solve problems.” We used to think children were just little adults so why not knock them around for talking back, right? But nobody believes that anymore, unless you live in an FDLS cult in Utah. Kids are supposed to get a pass from our culture of violence. What is it? This question perplexes me to no end. I feel like if we could figure it out, as a species, we could truly evolve.



9 thoughts on “She ain’t heavy, she’s my daughter: Trying to understand child abuse

  1. And so it is. I have been waiting for the day your evolution as a father of your beautiful daughter would “ferry” you to the plight of domestic child abuse. I have a beautiful 20 year old daughter, with whom I raised mostly without her mother. She goes to college, works, and still lives with me. I am a lucky man.

    I grew up in an abusive family run by an abusive father. And to make matters worse, he was a very accomplished therapist. My mother would make it worse by trying to come in between him and me or my siblings. And to add to the irony of my parentage my mother worked for the state of Oregon DHS for 30 years in Adult and Family Services and Child Protective Services. Are you f****** kidding me? No, I am not. I had two older brothers and one younger sister. Each one of us was on our own, due to the fact my father could not come to terms with his own insecurities. We were unable to express anger, happiness, and the wonderment of being young when we were in his presence and quite often when we were not.

    I did not get married until I was 28, which in small-town Grants Pass is quite the feat. I had lived with a few different women and raised basically stepchildren. I did not have an abusive bone in me, and it wasn’t due to the the example my father set; I was born with a very innate sense that my father had serious issues and I was not him. He has used this throughout my life to make it that much harder on me then my other siblings. I went the other way, I was the Crusader of the family, for my family, and for anyone else I knew. And for this, I was abused through my teens. And as luck would have it, my prayers as a child were, “when I move out of the house, everything would be okay in my world.” Sophomoric, to say the least.

    Resources, resources, resources. I believe in society, it is quite often the unreasonable person who is successful in the public Arena. So much emphasis on personal force, which often turns into physical and emotional reality for those in their immediate family and/or geography.

    I had my daughter at 32 years old. For certain reasons I have been raising her on my own since she was 5 years old.I too, know the feeling that only comes from the love a father has for his daughter.

    I sure wish I had an answer or even 50 several answers for domestic child abuse. However as you said, “it perplexes me.”

    I often tell people that I hit the lottery when it comes to my daughter. She exercised better sense and judgment in her personal relationships and many of her behaviors, then I did. However, as I have been told by many it was in fact patially due to the way I raised her. I allowed for her to hone her instincts and personal sense for ethics. However, there were two times in her childhood where I basically sat on her and loved her by being in the trenches with her. She was not shielded from my shortfalls and I believe this transparency of love and vulnerability forged the beautiful woman that my daughter has become. This along with certain social and intellectual expectations.

    I understand that many of you reading this might think of this as my personal release. However, as f*****-up as my upbringing was, the next generation can reverse the cycle and be one of beauty.

    Is it a crapshoot? Or is it a combination of genetics and environment. A little and a lot of all the above.

    You’re a good man Charlie Brown. I wish for a lifetime of a beautiful relationship between you and your daughter.



  2. When i hear about child abuse in any form, it makes me want to throw up. i believe the only one thing you teach a child if you hit them. the lesson is if you are bigger and stronger you can get your way. if you aren’t smart enough to raise a child without using force, then you should never have children,. the more serious injuries done to children is beyond my understanding. i once turned in a man living across the street from me. i saw things he did that made me believe he was abusive. i was right, they found he was making the child eat soap among other things. my instincts were right and i was so happy they took that child away from him. as far as more violent abuse to children it is beyond my ken . be alert to how the people around you treat their kids. if you even suspect abuse, turn them in , better you are wrong than let it continue.


  3. I think you are misinterpreting Proverbs 13:24. If you read the bible, you’ll understand it’s not about abusing children. Our pastor did a two part series with the men’s bible study about how to be proper fathers.

    Coming from a home where my father physically, mentally, and emotionally abused me, I understand the trouble and mental health issue that comes with it.

    Because I was abused as a child, does that mean I’m against spanking? Of course not. As long as it doesn’t get abusive and is done properly. I’ve told my wife that when we have a child, I will spank, but not with my hand. There will be a paddle and it won’t be done in an abusive manner.

    There is a difference between speaking out of love and spanking abusively.


  4. I don’t understand it either. I work with children and just can’t understand why someone would want to hurt someone innocent. There’s other ways of discipline and I found a key one is discussing things. “No, don’t do that because…”

    I don’t get it. Kids are lovely and deserve protection.


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