Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sowing Different Seeds

Maggie's new site dedicated to domestic violence has me looking down rabbit holes that go deep down into the past.

I don't really consider myself to be a victim of abuse, though I guess, technically, I am. I grew up in the days when it was considered perfectly okay to spank a child, or yell at them, presumably carte blanche. We were spanked, slapped across the face, told we were liars, even when we told the truth, told we were stupid, and none of that seemed excessive, compared to other kids we knew, and their family life. The thing that seemed really out of hand, really frightening, was the fighting between my parents.

My father was a walking powder keg of rage in those days, and my mother never bothered to read the signs before she jumped all over him, only to lie down in the face of his rage and allow one of us to bear the brunt. It was a toxic combination, and we learned early to disappear when they began their dance. Their fighting caused us to draw closer together, to depend on each other, and I think that was our salvation, but all that rage still took its toll on each of us individually. They crippled us with their words of worthlessness, they convinced us we could only fail at whatever we tried, so why try at all? Even worse, they pitted us against each other with their petty favoritism, undermining what little strength and comfort we had with the lure of being that exception, the favorite.

As a child of eight or nine, I would quietly escape into the silent dark of night, and looking up to the stars, I would pray earnestly for my real people to come back and find me, to rescue me from this place that surely, I didn't belong in.

It was a different flavor of teen angst to realize that this was where I came from, where I belonged, what I was destined for. Might as well indulge in teen-aged drinking, and hey, it's the 70s, let's experiment with a few drugs. Who cares if you fail school? They sure didn't, so why should I?

For a really long time I screwed up everything I ever tried to do in my life, because that's what little self-fulfilling prophecies do. I can't say that I've turned my life around 100%, because I don't think I'll ever feel like that's the case, but I did make a conscious choice to not emulate my parents' disastrous dynamic in my own marriage. And when I became a parent, the shoe, so to speak, was on my foot, and I was damned if my children were going to grow up feeling only conditionally loved, or lacking in potential, or frightened of their parents. I know I'm not a perfect parent - is there really such a thing? I lose control of my temper, I yell at my kids, I make bad calls; but I also apologize when I'm in the wrong, and allow them to voice how they feel without censure. We have a rule in this house: no name calling, and it applies to everyone. Respect is a two-way street - I can't expect it from my children if I don't practice myself.

I can't change or rectify every mistake I've ever made in my life - there is no going back. I may never recover belief in myself, I may always be damaged internally, but I can refuse to inflict that same fate upon someone else. I can stop the cycle. I can't change my parents, but I can try to understand them, and recognize that they were once undamaged too. I can focus on their good qualities and ask them to recognize their negative ones when they surface. Sometimes they cling to their denial, but other times they surprise me with their open regret and desire to rectify. It's rare, I'll grant you, but it does happen, and there is great healing to be had from those moments.

There is a shift of power that comes, when your parents reach their geriatric years. In many ways we become the parent to their aging child. There is a temptation to pay back those childhood debts, in some sort of twisted tit for tat, but whatever karmic debt they have accrued, it is my hope that I will be a better, kinder parent than they were.

Appended to add: I thought about this post a lot; whether to write anything at all, how much to say, how others might react to this. I tossed and turned all night, fretting it. I'm not happy with how I've skimmed this topic, but I don't feel that I can be more in-depth; partly because it isn't just my traumatic childhood, partly because I have dealt with a lot of my anger, and I'm not estranged from my parents or family. Not yet. I sent this post to Bea, with the title, "Is This going To Ruin Christmas?" She agreed that there is a choppiness to this post, a series of omissions to the tale, a glossing over of the darker details, but she also agreed that there is good reason for that. It isn't just my tale, but more saliently, I don't consider myself to be a victim, primarily because what I have written here has been said aloud, to my parents, my siblings. We are not a family of well-kept secrets, rather, the dynamic might better be compared to running the gauntlet. My aim in writing this is not to dredge up a lot of past flotsam, but to point out that, just like Cary did, in the DV post, that abuse occurs everywhere, we all carry scars. It's what we do with those scars that makes the difference.

And I'm still wondering if I've explained myself fully.


Kelley said...

Good for you, dear. Looking at yourself and being candid about your past takes courage. XOXO

flutter said...

you are a better person, by long and far

Arizaphale said...

What a HUGE post. There is so much in this I relate to.

I still find it hard to say that my father belted me (with a belt) on a number of occasions. I find it less hard to add that I totally deserved it! Of course it was nothing unusual in 1967/72 and for many years I believed it was the norm. It's only now with the benefit of my own parenting experience that I realise how awful it sounds.

The part of your post which spoke most strongly to me however,was the part where you talked about your parents' more recent enlightenment and the attempts at healing.

My parents did a pretty crap job if truth be known and my mum continues to be a challenge but they have mellowed with time. They were babies when they had us (24-30) and with exceptionally limited life experience. They had no magazines and internet to go to for advice and help. No research to fall back on. The district nurses were obsessed with 4 hourly feeding, not how to speak to a child recovering from a tantrum.

But, encouragingly, as we have learned, so they are learning. Last weekend my father came upon the BA's disgrace (property damage say no more) and announced that he was 'ashamed' of her. She was gutted. Things were already tense as we had been locking horns over conditions for homework and that comment sent her to her bedroom in tears. I tried to talk her out for a bit to no avail. Grandma went in and was given short shrift and finally, after another visit from me she mentioned how bad she felt about grandad's comment.

When I came out and explained how upset she was, he was equally upset. He went up to see her and after 20 mins or so I sneaked up to find them sitting shoulder to shoulder on the floor in the hall, chatting. She later told me that he'd apologised. I am happy to say that my own growth meant I did not resent the fact that he'd never managed that step with me. I was just glad that he'd managed it with her and I was delighted to see him grow and their relationship strengthen.

We are all victims of victims as they say and the ability to see our parents strengths and weaknesses and love them just the same is a freeing one.

Thank you so much for this thought provoking post and I hope you continue in your journey to a point where you can leave all those self fulfilling prophecies behind.

Meanwhile, have a glass of wine on me :-D

Csquaredplus3 said...

I think you handled this piece perfectly - especially for a blog. Most of our pieces could be longer and deeper (generally speaking).

I like what you say in your addendum "...abuse occurs everywhere, we all carry scars." I believe that to be true. Sadly, I think you described the reality of many homes in "our generation" - and it did seem "normal". There was always an example of a home that appeared more peaceful, planting the seed that there had to be a better and different way to relate to one another.

This was so well done. Hugs.

hele said...

it is a beautiful post. perfect just the way it is.

i use to hide in a place where i knew no-one would find me and i also prayed that my real people would find me.

sometimes i still do.

and thank you for your words on my blog. it makes me feel less alone*

big hug.

Vodka Mom said...

I think this was a powerful post- and written incredibly well. Do not worry, do not fret. We ALL have little demons that we beat down once in a while.

It's the brave souls who talk about them.

Autumn said...

It's hard sometimes to draw a line on what you should and shouldn't say. Harder still when it isn't just your story, your past. Been there, done that, have a lot of post still in draft to prove it.

I think you said what needed to be said- and you did the most important thing already. You broke the cycle.

Great post.

FairiesNest said...

After our talk I was thinking of all the massive contradictions. "Do what I say" but "don't follow authority", "you are worthless" but "you can be anything","beauty is skin deep" but "don't get fat" AND "clean your plate" ( 2 for one there) and of course all the Labels; good, bad, artist, baby... This is what you are...do not think to venture outside the box. Man you could write a whole post on that one alone. On the up side, we did learn some creative cussing! Good post!

A Free Man said...

Well, that's a brave post to write and I admire your courage. Well done.

Braja said...

You don't have to explain...it is what it is

Maggie, Dammit said...

You haven't skimmed the topic. How can you think you've skimmed the topic??

I'm so tired I wish I could come up with something better to say.

I can't.

How's this: Thank you.

And I love you.


San Diego Momma said...

Beautifully honest post, no matter how much you do or do not choose to share.

It always hurts me to think of children made to feel as you described, and one of the only things that makes me feel better is that these children grow up to be people like you -- determined to not continue the cycle and more powerful than they were "taught" they were.