Love Letter

A Love Letter to the Cycle Breakers

There are superheroes among us. Disguised as ordinary moms and dads, members of this league of extraordinary parents change diapers, pack lunches, and tuck kids in at night just like the rest of us. But behind the scenes, they battle forces of darkness none of us can see.

My dad was one of these superheroes. I was unaware of it through much of my childhood, though the signs were there. I don’t remember when I first took note of the cape tucked neatly under his sweater vest, but by the time I left home, I had some idea of how much time and energy he spent fighting the villains in his head.

Growing up, I heard stories and parts of stories. A grandfather beating his wife before chasing his sons down an alley with his police pistol. A mother plagued by alcoholism and anger. Six siblings from six different fathers. A precious violin smashed to pieces in a drunken rage. Bit by bit, the picture of my father’s upbringing was painted in blacks and blues. He didn’t tell us everything—just enough to give us a sense of where he came from. Superheroes must keep some secrets, after all.

Now that I have three kids of my own and a keen understanding of how difficult parenting can be under the best of circumstances, I recognize my dad for the cycle-breaking hero that he was. I’m well aware that the hell he lived through as a kid, simply by being born into a wounded family, could easily have been my own fate. The cycles of addiction and abuse, the inheritance of personal and parental tools in need of serious repair, the passing down of bitterness and rage like family heirlooms—I’ve witnessed these phenomena in other families over the years. It’s the easiest thing, for mortals to be human.

But at some point, my dad stepped into a phone booth and vowed to be more than the sum of his upbringing. He took on the monsters that followed him and declared war on the dysfunctional demons he carried. He chose to give his children the childhood he didn’t have.

And for the most part, he succeeded. I remember fun family vacations, laughter around the dinner table, prayers and hugs at bedtime. I can still see my dad giggling to the point of tears when my brother announced his pet rock pooped on the floor. I can smell his famous hash browns cooking with Stevie Wonder blaring on the record player Sunday mornings. I can hear his voice filling the room at choir concerts, plays, awards ceremonies, and graduations—“THAT’S MY DAUGHTER!” He was always proud of me. I always knew I was loved, deeply and sincerely.

But there were battle scars he couldn’t hide. I remember watching him leave in the evening to attend ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) meetings and wondering what went on there. I recall pleasant but wary visits with uncles and grandparents and a dim awareness of extended family member drama. I still feel the grief of my dad’s beloved younger brother’s suicide when I was ten—too young to understand that my sweet, funny uncle had been fighting the same war as my dad, but had lost.

And I did witness occasional losing battles—jaws clenched, eyes flashing as the demons surfaced, changing the weight of the air in the room. I remember moments when my mother (a superhero in her own right) calmly tamed those monsters. I remember staring them down myself once, begging my father to fight harder before he silently carried the beasts off to battle alone. He always apologized for battles lost.

But I remember many more battles won. Struggle and strength manifested in deep breaths and strained brows. There was a speed and energy to his movements when he took on the rage monster. I instinctively knew to step lightly, to give him space to build his fortresses and strategize without distraction. In time, I discovered some of his weapons—faith, prayer, books, routine, decompression time, classic rock albums—and saw how much easier the fight was if he kept them well-maintained and at the ready.

I know it wasn’t easy. I’m sure he feels he failed us in some ways. My dad wasn’t perfect, it’s true. But neither is any parent—or superhero, for that matter. All have their kryptonite. But the fact that he kept returning to that phone booth defines his fatherhood for me. I admire my dad for many reasons, but none so much as his courage and fortitude on his internal battlefield.

I’ve met others like him in my adult life, and they all amaze me. It takes superhuman strength and stamina to fight the good fight every day, to drown out the dysfunctional dialogue in your head, to overcome anger and abuse. Cycle-breaking parents face a megalopolis of tall buildings, and those single bounds have got to be exhausting.

So if you are a parent from a wounded background striving to raise your kids differently, if you are silently waging your own battles the rest of the world can’t see, I want you to know that you are awesome. Parenting is damn hard, even with good psycho-emotional tools, so naturally it may feel impossible sometimes. But you’ve got this. Keep choosing that phone booth. Don’t give up.

When you feel weary, remember this: The rewards for your efforts are vast and far-reaching. You are protecting your own family, yes, but your feats also positively impact society at large. Raising kids with minimal damage is a gift to the world. Seriously. How many great thinkers and potential trailblazers have been held back by the scars of their upbringing? How much of the pain people inflict on one another is a byproduct of generations of abuse or neglect?

So wear that cape proudly, cycle breakers. Don’t be afraid to give your kids clues to your “secret” identity. You don’t have to tell them everything, but offer them a sense of what you go through in order to shield them from the darkness. I am so grateful to my dad for tackling those demons for me. Your kids will thank you, too.

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Annie writes about motherhood and other hilariously beautiful things. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and three children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 155

  1. Merry

    Wonderfully understood acknowledgement. This is what I too aim for with my now adult children. It is and has been an incredibly difficult and at many times lonely road to traverse one’s own upbringing.
    But if we are to change it we have no choice except to put one foot in front of the other and keep going at the toughest of times. After all, in a sense we are pioneers navigating unchartered waters without a map. But determined. Readers at this website are all pioneers to a degree I strongly suspect.
    I’m not sure about my two sons yet, but I know my daughter appreciates what I have tried to do has not been easy. And she and my sons will never need to know the full gory details.
    Thank you for being such an appreciative daughter and sharing.

  2. Andrea Rice

    Just finding out about this from family therapist. I finally feel I belong to a group that understands. While I’m not 100% impressed with this site, I wish it could offer examples of specific details parents do that affect their offspring and list specific details between the differences between PTSD and Complex PTSD. I get tired of reading that if affects all types of abuse from sexual, physical, emotional, and others, etc. I have read differences between functional and dysfunctional families and understand. I believe it is to general. Maybe it’s up to the therapist to be specific with each client.

    I am surprised to read about cycle breakers and the support that is out there for us.

    I am surprised to read about personality disorder misdiagnosis in the medical field.

    While, I can go back and remember the good decisions I’ve made with raising my offspring, I prefer not to talk about motherhood with people that have children they are still raising. My offspring is an adult and instead prefer to find others willing to talk or write about adult parents and their relationship with their adult offspring. No more stories of bathing kids, homework hassles, and rebelling teenagers. I’d like to read and write about the relationships others have with their kids that chose to become cycle breakers.

    Last but never the least I’d like to say how grateful I am to find a family therapist that is a caring, sincere person as I am and refuses to give up on me.

  3. Ed Newbegin

    I revisited this post and it had the same effect as last time. Thank you for speaking directly to me, us, as damaged parents who are determined to “turn the wheel” and chart a better course for our children. Mine are all adults now and I can see how they have benefited from my struggle. The worst part early on was the notion that I was alone. That I needed to hide this ugly thing inside me. Even after I got on top of my plan to move ahead positively each small step back felt like utter failure. The only thing to do, as they say, is to keep on keepin’ on. Parenting is for life. These days things are so much better but that’s when I need to be most aware. Forgiveness and the will to carry on is its own reward.

  4. L

    Wow! That was great inspiration. Crying, as it is great to know that others can relate and put this into words. This made my day, as a cycle-breaker. Been going through a rough time fighting the battles in my head. Thank you :)

  5. Chuck Cogliandro

    This is a beautiful tribute to yourself and all your family. You honor your dad so well! The efforts he and you are making are a gift not just to your family but to all of us. I’ve spent many years working through personal issues and nothing has helped me more than a healing method called Family Constellations. It’s a group process which allows you to choose representatives for family members and work consciously with the hologram of the family soul- ALL the pieces of your family lineage which contribute to everything to which you agreed by being born into your unique family. It helps create more understanding and compassion for what everyone in the family took on. Just what your dad did heroically, it sounds like on his own. This method can help in a very powerful way. My wife and I did three years of training together in it and now facilitate groups for others. May you continue to honor your dad and all your family by being a good parent for your kids.

  6. Cricket

    This post is so beautiful, I can’t stop crying. Thank you for writing this. Cheers to you and your dad, and to me and my daughter (now 22), and to all the others here who have fought so valiantly to break the cycle for themselves and their dear ones. Genuine courage, tenderness, honesty, wisdom, and empathy. We win.

  7. Tressa

    I am a cycle breaker and it is a struggle every single day. I see my father in things that I do sometimes and I spend my days beating myself up for it. Each time I lose my patience or become irritated by motherhood I feel guilty – not knowing the difference between the everyday parent losing patience and someone like my father. I feel as though I have to be perfect and brimming with patience at all seconds so that I am not failing and becoming my father. As a child I grew up with humiliation and abuse (in every sense) and even though I know my child isn’t growing up with any of that, I still fear that I will somehow make her feel the way that I felt as a child – small, dirty, unheard, unvalued. I wear my superhero cape every day and hope that I am worthy of it. This Dad is amazing. This post is amazing.

  8. William

    This is my grandfathers. They lived quietly, struggled for success and died anonymously, but the lives of 11 combined children, 19 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren are better for their uncelebrated determination. I do hope they understood that at the end, and I will certainly never forget that example.

  9. Constant Reader

    “So if you are a parent from a wounded background striving to raise your kids differently, if you are silently waging your own battles the rest of the world can’t see, I want you to know that you are awesome. ” At this point, the tears came in torrents. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I pray every day that my children will never fully comprehend what I went through.

  10. Willow

    This is so beautifully written and brings me to tears every time I read it.
    I have it saved on my phone and I read it when I have lost a battle and said or done something hurtful to my son, and it reminds me why I need to dust myself off and go back to battle. Because I will win my war, I will break the cycle.

  11. Roxanne Kipnes

    Hello,

    I just wanted to say that I pray my daughter feels just like you about her mother!

    I too come from that place that your dad did and I too am breaking the cycle of addiction and abuse that is inherent in my family bush, only I continue to the cycle until 2008.

    I’ve been clean 8 yrs in February and it’s not always easy to not step back and then forth again each and every day.

    Beautifully written, your piece brought me to tears and identification.

    Warm Hugs,
    Merry Christmas

    Roxanne

  12. Lori

    WOW! I’ve read lots of blogs, but I rarely ever read one that impacts me enough to leave a comment. Thank you SO much for writing this & understanding this… This speaks directly to my husband and me because we both endured terrible childhoods and now are trying to raise 9 children to the glory of God and it is a HARD battle every single day. Thank you. Again, thank you.

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  13. Jane St. Clair

    This made me cry, too. Parenting is a crap shoot to begin with but going in with no real sense (common or otherwise) of proper parenting is like walking on land mines.

    Your Dad sounds like one heck of a good guy.

    Blessings to you for your thoughtful insight. xo

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  14. Wendy S. Delmater

    I was that parent, and a single parent at that, carving out time to go to ACOA meetings. I told the kids I was going to school to be a better mom.

    Thank you for noticing that fight. I appreciate it.

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  15. sutprem Blair

    A friend shared this on FB. I have two daughters who are adults but what you describe in this blog entry never stops even when kids are grown. Being a parent is the most profound gift and experience . Thanks for your beautiful expression of love for your dad. I won’t subscribe but I bookmarked your blog.

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  16. Jason

    Not unlike survivors of rape and other forms of acute trauma, healing is a long process taken one step at a time. We are not guaranteed anything in life — not even having enough food — but we can always count our blessings as we work on our problems.

    also like survivors of acute trauma, it is a source of great comfort and assistance simply to know that we are not going through it alone. Thank you for giving this to me, it is truly meaningful.

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  17. Tiana

    Thank you, I cried reading this. It’s often very lonely muddling along when no one around seems to understand. I think I’m doing a good job with my daughter but am frequently in pain because I so wish I’d been loved by my family. I do have good friends but still have not recovered from early traumas and loss.

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  18. Tara

    I am cycle breaker from a deeply emotionally abusive family. I fight not only the demons in my head and from my childhood, but also deep and tremendous fear and doubt on how my children will perceive my choices, when they are adults, to break this cycle by stepping away from the abusers permanently. Your post helped me see that my children see me and know my heart, (very much as I saw and knew my parents hearts-which were cold and cruel). It was a much needed reminder that children do indeed know so much more than we realize. Your post helped me through a dark and difficult week filled with much pain and self doubt. Bless you for this post.

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  19. Paula Howard

    This must be the most awesome post I have read in a very long time. Thank you. I relate to every word. Joined and shared.

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  20. Christina

    The morning I originally read your post, I had just gotten home from taking my seven y/o to school. It was a hectic morning, running late, etc., and he was in freak out mode because he couldn’t get his seat buckle fastened fast enough and because I wouldn’t empty a bottled water and refill it with Kool-Aid for his lunch. Yes, one of those mornings. The pressure in my head just kept getting louder and louder the more he escalated, and I just snapped. I turned around and looked my kid straight in the eyes and screamed at him to Just. Shut. Up. His little face was terrified. In that exact moment I was nauseous from the guilt and disappointment in myself. Self loathing mommy hell, for sure. By the time I got back I was desperate to check out of that (which is always the best time to log in to Facebook, right?) A friend had shared your post and it was like the third thing in my feed. I read it and cried for about 30 minutes.
    I’ve been researching and practicing conscious parenting for about a year and it has unlocked a million hidden parts of me. ‘Excruciating’ comes to mind. Most days I feel turned inside out by my relationship with my seven year old son, and sometimes it really is excruciating when you’ve gone into that phone booth for the 20th time in one morning. I needed your post so much in that moment and I want to thank you for writing it. For me, attempting to break the cycle and be a better parent is like a constant tennis match in my head. I know the mother I don’t want to be, but becoming the one I do feels like finding my way in the dark. Educating ourselves with theory helps, but the tough, gut-wrenching stuff we have to do alone, in our own mind and soul. I needed your reminder that every little success counts in the big picture, and that our kids know our hearts and intentions. Thank you so much.

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  21. Nadja Bester

    I think you can safely consider this article a major contribution you’ve made to the world in your lifetime … thank you for giving so many freedom and peace of mind through your words <3

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  22. Heather

    So often I think incomplete thoughts about how grueling it is to break a cycle and sometimes it can feel like you are doing the hardest job in the world, with no gratification, just to be a normal level of screwed up.
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your “complete” thought on this. A friend shared this on Facebook and I’m glad she chose to comment on it’s relevancy or else I probably wouldn’t have clicked to read it. Excellent work.

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  23. Robin hoffman

    I have a story . Wish to not publish it. wish to share but I really wish to just warn … It happens more in your own home . Under the roof of your own protected home. I wish to share my story but feel so degraded and nothing was ever done to stop nor did the social .

  24. Robyne

    Very well said. I grew up in a family that looked good on the outside but was wounded on the inside. I, like your dad vowed to do better for my kids. My husband and I did just that. But I feel for those who didnt make it like your uncle and my sister. Without the insight to see it wasn’t their fault and that they can make their life and the life of those around them better. Those who seek support and help like your dad. We are the superheros that push past our pasts and on to a future. Thank you for this wonderful insight and your ability to put it into words.

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  25. Attachment Girl

    Thank you more than I can say for this. I’m a mom who has fought her demons through all the years of raising my two lovely daughters and have had to confront the damage my past has done to my children; probably the most painful work I ever did. You have no idea what it meant for me to read this. I have no words to express my thanks… ~ AG
    Attachment Girl recently posted…The Sticking Place from What a Shrink ThinksMy Profile

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  26. Renae

    I am seeping as I type this. Thank you so much for breaking through my 26 years of guilt and shame. I wasn’t completely successful when my four children were small but now that they are young adults I can definitely see the cycle is being broken. I have chosen not to have any contact with my very abusive parents and sister’s not because of previous behavior but ongoing refusal to respect my personhood. They chose me as the scapegoat but now I see the blessing because I am free to be me away from their projections. Not sure I’m quite a superhero but now I am relieved of being the projected villain. Thank you again and again!!

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  27. Renae

    I am seeping as I type this. Thank you so much for breaking through my 26 years of guilt and shame. I wasn’t completely successful when my four children were small but now that they are young adults I can definitely see the cycle is being broken. I have chosen not to have any contact with my very abusive parents and sister’s not because of previous behavior but ongoing refusal to respect my personhood. They chose me as the scapegoat but now I see the blessing because I am free to be me away from their projections. Not sure I’m quite a superhero but now I am relieved of being the projected Gillian. Thank you again and again!!

  28. Jessica Steinmetz Liebmann

    This was so needed today. I am a cycle breaker. This is such a powerful, sense time and raw topic for many of us and you wrote on it beatuifully. I can only imagine the overwhelming feeling of appreciation your dad felt for you as he read this, I hope my son’s feel the same way for me. Powerful, girl!

  29. Eric D. Greene

    Love this! I recently posted the following to Peaceful Parenting Community:

    You peaceful and gentle parents are my heroes.

    You are difference makers for your children’s lives, cycle breakers who are breaking from your own upbringing, and you are world-changers, making the world a better place.

    With each hug, with each empathetic statement, with each decision to give yourself a pause and a deep breath and to not yell or hit or shame, you are what this world needs. In my opinion, more than anything else! I truly believe that.

    You have hearts of gold, and I applaud you

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  30. bex

    A million thank you’s for writing such a wonderful and reassuring piece. I’m a cycle breaker- determined not to pass on the legacy of sociopathic emotional abuse that came from my grandmother to my father and my father to me. It’s so tough, I have three children under six, constantly screw it up and question if what I’m doing is good enough. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally at the end of each day. But your wonderful article gives me hope that the fierce love I have for my children, insight and determination to keep on trying might just be enough. Thank you thank you thank you xxx

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      Annie Reneau

      It’s so so so hard! But you can do hard things. :) If it makes you feel any better, all of us feel like we’re constantly screwing up. I know that it’s not the same, but a cycle-breaker friend of mine found it helpful to know that I (her “emotionally healthy friend”) second guess my parenting all the time. She thought her constant questioning of herself was all because of her upbringing. A lot is, of course, but not all. Parenting is hard. But we can do hard things. Keep on keepin’ on, Mama. :)

  31. Jamie

    Oh jeez, thank you! Coming from a dysfunctional family, a neglectful, alcoholic father, a mom who used the belt and verbal abuse, shaming, guilt tripping as parenting tools, I’ve had my demons to face and I still do, even though they’re far less powerful than they used to be. Trying to gentle parent when you’ve never seen anyone do it and fighting the blueprint of your upbringing is a major battle.

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      Annie Reneau

      Yes. All of that. So hard and so ongoing. Your kids will be so appreciative when they’re old enough to understand. Especially once they have their own kids. You’re affecting generations. Carry on, Mama. <3

  32. Celeste Bricio

    I cried reading this. I cried for my parents and grandparents before me, for my children, and their children yet to come, and most of all for myself because I am a Cycle Breaker. It is a real struggle every moment of every day. Your story is exactly what I hope to give to my three children. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  33. Jim

    Thank you! As a father of two (now 17 and 21) I admit I stumbled much as a dad. But I have absolutely no doubt my kids grew up in a vastly better environment than I. And they are good people (though far from perfect – and that’s ok).

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  34. Melissa Banville

    This articles means so much more to me than I could ever express!! Thank you so so much for writing it and for being real and open and oh so encouraging. Most days I feel like I’m barely limping along…the terrible memories just feel like too much. This has given me so much strength to keep moving forward for my own children’s sake and to keep trying, to not let the darkness of the past overtake me. You’re so wonderful, thank you!

  35. Sweet Mamma

    Thanks for the encouragement. One of the hardest things about breaking the cycle, for me, is that it is hard to talk about the past when those family members are still living. I know my parents have good qualities and that they have tried to change the bad ones. For this reason I want them in our lives – on a limited and supervised scale. Sometimes it’s hard to explain that to them and to my kids without just saying, “Grandma and Grandpa were jerks when I was a kids and they didn’t protect me from abuse so that’s why you can’t go on vacation with just them.” Ugh!! Sigh! #makingitbetterforthem

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      Annie Reneau

      That is hard. My dad chose to maintain a relationship with his family, but at somewhat of a distance like you describe. I think that was a good choice. There didn’t seem to be ongoing toxicity those relationships, at least in the limited means they were kept. Some relationships require no contact for safety or sanity, and that’s okay, too. But I think he was glad to have kept in contact with his mother, especially in her final years. But I’m also glad we didn’t live too close by. The distance was healthy, I think.

  36. Linda Roberson

    I want to thank you and your Father from the bottom of my heart. I am walking in your Dad’s shoes. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought about how hard it is to do just the simplest of things. The things that come natural to so many other moms. This blessed me to the point of tears. It’s beautiful to hear your perspective of how even in our weak moments we are still conquerors. I’m balling right now…. ugly, yet beautiful, tears of relief!! Thank you. Thank you.

  37. Krista Dobson Schindler

    Thank you for this beautiful post. My husband and I are BOTH cycle breakers. I never want my children to feel the way I did when I was young. I want them to always know how much they’re loved and how important they are!

  38. Sheri Blome

    Annie, thank you. That was beautiful. I am fortunate to have chosen a husband who helps me keep that cape on every day. Not everyone has that good fortune and that makes it even harder. Please thank your dad, as well.

  39. Layli Phillips

    I see you Annie Gregory Reneau This was a courageous piece to write and gives so much insight into how you became the compassionate, observant, supportive, loving person you are. Thank you and your family for giving us this gift and for raising all of our collective memory consciousness today.

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  40. Lauren David

    Your words are water. Every day I reaffirm my commitment to my son that I will not repeat those patterns but it is an ongoing struggle. Thank you for writing this beautiful letter – it will be a balm when I need encouragement to keep going.

    1. Motherhood and More

      You bring up a good point. My mother had remarkable emotional skills, which I know helped influence my dad and mold us kids. I’m sure it would have been different with a mom who was also battling her own dysfunction as well. We were incredibly lucky in that way. <3

  41. Julia Tyrone Salgado

    I needed to read this tonight more than you can ever know. I am a cycle breaker. I thought I was crazy that it seems so hard. So very hard. My daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m terrified of failing her. I’ve told friends that the trauma of my childhood feels the same as the descriptions of PTSD. An added burden is the knowledge of being a parent…of loving my child so much, I feel that love in every cell of my being, and knowing that I was never even close to being loved that much by either parent…my dad for the abuse, my mother for her apathy. I think the realization of the depth of their disdain for parenthood hit me like a brick after I became a mom. I feel so much anger. It’s not just a lack of preparedness for parenting, but life in general. I feel like an alien on a strange planet. I DO find myself thinking that if people only knew how hard just being “normal” was, they would think I was a superhero for having achieved it. So thank you so much for validating the struggle!! So often we are only seen as damaged goods. Your dad is incredible. Thank you for sharing his story, and yours.

    1. Motherhood and More

      Julia, I just want to give you a big hug right now! I hope you’ve sought or will seek some counseling, as I imagine that PTSD is probably fairly common for children of abuse, and processing that anger you feel will only do you and your daughter good. I’m holding you in my thoughts and prayers as I sit here in my jammies, amazed at the strength of the human spirit. You are so, so strong, mama. You can do this.

    1. Motherhood and More

      Will do. Keep on keepin’ on, Mama. I know it sucks. But keep on keepin’ on. I’m just going to hold you here in my thoughts for a moment, Jessica, and offer a little prayer for your peace. You’ve got this.

  42. Amethel Parel-Sewell

    This is a powerful, insightful piece that resonates deeply with me. Breaking vicious cycles of abuse and family dysfunction are such sensitive topics, and you handled them artfully and gracefully. Thank you. Also, can you please give your dad a hug for me?

  43. Lauren Long Manegold

    This was so beautifully written. My father faced similar circumstances, and is a superhero like yours. As is my mom, the reason he can be a super hero. Thank you for this article. I’m sending it to my dad now.

  44. Hollie Shady

    You’ve made me cry, and at bed time too. I cry because I get it. I’m the cycle breaker. Change is so very hard. It’s also hard not to have a good example to reference. Thank you for this beautiful read tonight.

    1. Samantha Caudill Bush

      One day at a time! My mom is 20 years sober and I am a cycle breaker! I am so thankful to give my kids a life that isn’t full of drama and fear – not a super hero but a very proud mom – great article – well written

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