Geez Louise. Has it really been 6 months since my last Weekly Musings? Well, here it is, a summary of the week’s highs, lows, and in betweens. This week, I muse about visiting my son, finishing a meditation series, reading some awesome non-fiction books, and starting my holiday season. Continue reading
(Sorry this is a bit stream of consciousness. I wrote it in response to replies to the last post about my ambivalence about my father’s impending death.)
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
I don’t feel angry; I mostly feel sorry for my dad. I think about how unhealthy his own formative relationships must have been to produce the man that he is. Something about his upbringing or culture or early experiences or who knows what helped create the person he became, an angry and cruel person who repressed his feelings. Of course, once he was an adult, he had a choice. He could continue down the path he was on or he could change. He stayed mired in his own unhappiness, and like a sickness, let it infect others.
I say this because I truly believe that people who are hurting end up hurting other people. You cannot inflict emotional damage on others, especially loved ones, without carrying a lot of damage on the inside, without being wounded yourself. So I think how unhappy my father must have been and how unhappy he must continue to be, and I feel sorry for him.
I don’t know what hurt he carried from his childhood, but I do know what hurt he carries now. One of his children abandoned him and another child, my father abandoned. (For a parent, that’s some heavy shit to carry with you.) When my older brother became a teenager, he decided, ‘No more. I won’t be treated like this by a person who is supposed to love, protect, and support me.’ From that day forward, my brother stopped having anything to do with our father. For years my father’s letters to my brother went unanswered. Birthday checks went uncashed. Eventually my father stopped making an effort. Whatever relationship the two had, it ended a long time ago and would not be resurrected.
Before that happened, my father abandoned my half-brother. Back in 1972, my father’s girlfriend gave birth to a son. My father lived with them for almost a year after the baby was born, and then he walked out. He turned away and never ever looked back, erasing every tangible reminder of that child. It was as if my half-brother vanished, although it was my father who’d disappeared.
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
When you don’t address your own pain, I think one of three things happens, and none of them is good. Some of us bury our feelings. We hide behind alcohol or food or sex or anything that makes us feel better. This provides a temporary reprieve, but eventually the uncomfortable feelings return. Others of us blame the victim for our own failings. We say things like, “I wouldn’t have been so cruel if you had just been more obedient” or “I wouldn’t have cheated if you had been more attentive.” And still others of us delude ourselves by reconstructing history. We remember things as we wish they had been and not as it actually was. We put ourselves in the best possible light, preserving our pride and our ego. In whatever way we process our pain, if it isn’t dealt with, it doesn’t go away. No amount of pushing it away, blaming it on someone else, or reinventing it will clear the air. No, it festers and grows and ultimately wreaks havoc.
If you knew me better, if you knew yourself better, you would not have hurt me.
I thought about writing all this down and sending it to my dad before he passes, one final voicing of my unresolved issues that relate to him. But, honestly, at this point I have no interest in hurting him, and I know that’s what my words would do. They would scratch off the scab of a wound that has never healed, because my father has never dealt with his own suffering. He never admitted that he is flawed. He never admitted that he made mistakes. He never admitted that he is imperfect, human, like the rest of us. My writing this (again) to him won’t change him. I think that ship has sailed.
So, instead of sharing this with him, I’m sharing it with you all. I am bearing witness that pain begets pain and until we confront that pain it remains. My father will go to his grave with that on his conscience. He knows it in his heart of hearts. It’s sad but it’s his choice. He chose not to know me or any of his children better. He chose not to know himself better, and in doing so, he chose hurt all of us.
My father is dying. Literally. Several years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis and diabetes, and the latter is killing him. He has lost sight in one eye and his vision in the other eye is worsening. He gets dialysis treatment several times a week. He is dying, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was first getting married, my dad was offended by my marriage for two reasons. One, I was pregnant (meaning I’d had sex outside of marriage) and two, I’d asked my brother, and not my father, to walk me down the aisle. It didn’t matter that I was in love and marrying the father of my baby. It didn’t matter that I was in college, and going to finish on time. All that mattered was that I had screwed up and had hurt him
When his dissatisfaction with my life choices was made known, by my stepmother as my dad has never been one to communicate feelings, I decided to say what I needed to say to my father. I wanted to enter the next stage of my life without the baggage of our relationship weighing on me, without any of his added guilt, which I felt was entirely misplaced and unfair.
I wrote him a letter in which I pointed out the nature of our relationship as I saw it. Here was a man who had been verbally and psychologically abusive to me, to my brother, and to our mother (in the few years they were together). Here was a man who was an angry, mean alcoholic throughout my youth. Here was a man who refused to pay child support, despite being taken to court, in an effort to get back at my mother for leaving him (and taking his children with her). Here was a man who had two biological sons, one divorced himself of the father-son relationship by choice, and the other was abandoned by my father a year after being born. I wrote all this to my father and asked him why.
But, my father never responded to my letter. It didn’t encourage him to ask for forgiveness or explain himself or do whatever one might do in this kind of situation. He didn’t even acknowledge it. Of course, by then he had found Jesus, so maybe my dad confessed his sins to God and didn’t feel the need to justify himself to his flesh and blood daughter. The one who had called his attention to her pain and sorrow, the direct results of his behavior. The one who had her own emotional baggage and shit to deal with because of his bad parenting.
Since that time, my father and I have had a distant relationship, which is fine by me. I don’t feel angry toward him although sometimes I feel a twinge of pity.
We are in contact via email and letters (although it is my stepmother who writes me actually) discussing things in generalities. The boys are fine. We went to Rome for vacation. Every 2 years or so we have a meal together. Ninety minutes of physical proximity and then I don’t see him again until the year after next, if I decide to contact him and make it happen.
I decided when I sent the letter, back in 1989, that I was done trying to make the relationship more than what it was or ever would be. Without his participation in fixing it there was only so much I could do or was even willing to do. I was done. I accepted that we would never have a relationship beyond that of acquaintances, but I was an adult and it was time to stop letting his shitty parenting be an excuse for my own shortcomings and flaws.
Easier said than done. Like everything with family and dysfunction and emotions, releasing this kind of past, filled with torment, is easier said than done.
So, my father is dying. And instead of feeling nothing or feeling relief, I feel a pit in my stomach. It makes me a bit anxious and sick. I keep wondering, ‘Why couldn’t he be human enough, especially after 45 years, to own up to his mistakes?’ I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will. All I know is that soon he will be dead and I will still have unanswered questions haunting me, this parenting legacy to deal with.
My mother is always with me. Even though we live on separate continents, she is with me. In the language of e. e. cummings, I carry my mother with me wherever I go. She is alive in me, and she is the best part of me.
My self-confidence and independence come from growing up with a woman in charge. A single mother of two with a non-child-support-paying ex-spouse, my mom created an independent life for herself because she had no other choice. She ran a household. She ran a business. She maintained her passion (playing old timey music). All the while, it was clear that my brother and I were her priority. All the while, I knew I was loved and cared for and always would be.
My love of reading is a result of being read to every night, well into grade school. I remember my brother and I snuggling in the same bed with mom, listening to her steady voice. She read us all 470-odd pages of Watership Down in bedtime hour installments. She seemed to never tire of sharing this time with us, and we certainly felt the same way.
When I got pregnant, my mom initially questioned my choice to have the baby. I was 19 and unmarried. I was living in another state, in a dorm room at an all women’s college. But, once I’d made up my mind, she got behind me and never wavered.
She never said, “You are throwing your life away.” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.
When I left my husband in my late 20s, my mom took me in. She loaned me money. She got my sons bunkbeds for her house. She babysat them so I could study. She even let me sit on her lap and cry when I needed to do just that, when no one could stop the hurt but my own mom.
She never told me to “Grow up already.” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.
When I fell apart last summer, she dropped everything and crossed the ocean to be with me. She spent weeks just sitting with me, letting me cry or read or stare off into space.
She never asked, “When will this stop? When will you get yourself together?” Instead, she stood by me. She loved me and supported me.
I certainly wasn’t the mother to my sons that my mom was to me. Even though she wasn’t that much older than me when she became a mom, she had access to something in her soul that I couldn’t seem to find in myself at the time. She was and is infinitely wiser than me, probably more than I’ll ever be.
When the boys were young, I spanked. I drank too much. I let them watch TV as much as they wanted and let them eat whatever they wanted. I never read them long chapter books. I was too tired. My fuse was too short. My energy was spent in my head, wrapped up in my own thoughts.
While I was not the mom I was taught to be, two decades after my sons were born and several years into raising my daughter, I am starting to become that mom. I’m developing skills of patience and perseverance. I’m letting go of needing to have things my way and focusing always on myself. I’m learning to accept life’s challenges and not give up.
I am growing myself up – both to be a good mother and, honestly, to become my own mother. And I am giving this gift to my children, to carry with them through their lives. I am giving them this part of me, hopefully the best part of me.
Once, right before Christmas about 20 years ago, when the boys were 2 and 4 years old, I don’t remember what they were doing, but they were definitely doing something to piss me off. And, eventually I lost it. Amidst their shrieking, fighting, tantrum, whatever it was, it probably involved all of that, I picked up the phone and proceeded to call Santa in front of them
“Santa,” I said. “Don’t even bother coming by this house. These boys have been terrible this year, and they don’t deserve anything from you.”
That shut them up pretty damn fast. But the minute I hung up the phone, they sobbed uncontrollably, promising to be better and begging me to call Santa back, which I didn’t, because I am a Mean Mommy.
Another time when they were 10 and 12, I was driving them home from school. They were arguing loudly, being rude to each other, and I used that famous line, “If you say one more word, I will pull over this car, and you will walk home.”
That didn’t stop their antics, and the older one was being a real jerk, so I pulled over the car and kicked him out.
“Walk home,” I said, and drove off. Suddenly, my younger son was completely silent in the back seat.
It was winter time, literally freezing, and the walker wasn’t wearing a coat (I’d long since given up fighting with them to get them to dress appropriately in cold weather). And, being in the jazz band in middle school, he had his electric bass with him. Yep, I drove off and he walked the rest of the way home, about a mile, in the cold, without a coat, carrying his backpack and laden with a guitar case.
It was around the same time, the older one informed me that he didn’t want to invite his friends over anymore, because they all thought I was the mean mom. “Badge of honor,” I thought, “badge of honor.”
Despite this, my boys (now grown men – 23 and 25) are not in therapy. They’re both college graduates and gainfully employed, so clearly the scars I inflicted weren’t too deep. But, yeah, it’s true. I will never be nominated for a great parenting award. Still, I’m trying a little more with my daughter to be a mother of reason.
Case in point. One day last week, the teachers at my daughter’s afterschool program (called Hort) went on strike. It was all very German. I received a letter and emails weeks in advance notifying me of the strike. The teachers personally asked if this was inconvenience and if I was able to find alternate care. Since I work from home, it wasn’t such a big deal to pick her up early, but school ends at 11:20. In the morning. So that means I basically have an entire day with my daughter, which is a recipe for frayed nerves, a short temper, and typical Mean Mommy behavior.
To get us out of the house and doing something entertaining, I suggested to my daughter that we ride bikes to the zoo. Now, the zoo is 4 miles from our house, and Emmy has ridden 4 miles before, but with a long break at the half way point. Yes, I had stars in my eyes.
I figured I’d pick her up from school, we’d come home to drop off her backpack and have lunch, and then we’d be off to the zoo. It might take an hour (that’s probably twice as long as it would take me by myself I figured) and then we’d have a few hours at the zoo before leaving and riding home.
Naturally, that’s not at all how it went. Instead, the after school time went something like this.
We get home at 11:30 and immediately start homework. I had forgotten about that, because Emmy normally does homework at Hort. Half an hour later, Emmy decides to fill out a Friend Book she’s been given. These books are all the rave among grade schoolers. They’re passed around to friends, who fill out pages with questions like “What are you hobbies?” and “What’s your favorite food?” I have to translate every prompt for my daughter and then help her spell while she writes. After taking an hour to complete her page in the Friend Book (which required printing a photo to glue onto the page), I beg her to eat lunch because she definitely can’t ride for an hour on an empty stomach. Finally, at 1:30, I think we are ready to leave.
But then the questions start.
“Mom, can I bring my doll stroller?” she asks.
“No. We’re riding bikes.”
“Well, can I bring my doll then?”
“No. We’ll be at the zoo. You don’t need anything.”
“Can I bring Ellie [her favorite stuffed animal]?”
At this point, frustration is setting in, but I’m not going to give into it.
“Fine, bring Ellie, but that’s it. Now let’s go, because it will take us a while to get there on bikes.”
Fifteen minutes later, I call out, “Em, are you ready?”
“Just a minute. I’m putting clothes on Ellie.”
“Em, Ellie is a stuffed animal. She doesn’t need clothes.”
“But she’ll be cold.”
“No, she won’t. It’s 70 degrees out.”
“Well at least let me wrap her in a blanket.”
“Really?” I ask, wondering how much more until my last good nerve snaps.
Finally, 2 and a half hours after we left school, we are on our way to the zoo.
We unlock our bikes, put on our helmets and start riding. For about 5 minutes.
Then Emmy shouts to me, because I’m riding ahead of her, “Mom, can we have a break? I’m really tired.”
Oh. My. Goddess. We haven’t even gone a mile. We will never get to the zoo.
“Okay. We can stop, but would you rather just lock our bikes up and take the bus?” Wisely, I have chosen a route that parallels the bus line that goes to the zoo.
“No. I just need a break,” she said.
A few moments of resting, and we start off again. This time we make it about 250 meters further.
“Mom, I’m tired.”
I take a deep, deep breath and try to channel the Dalai Lama to keep Mean Mommy at bay.
“Okay. Let’s just cross the street and lock our bikes at the bus stop. How about that?” I asked her.
“Okay,” Emmy said, smiling at me. “Thanks, Mommy.”
So we rode our bikes another block to the bus stop, locked and left them there and took the bus to the zoo, where we had a great afternoon.
Good Mommy still has her work cut out for her, but she’s getting there.
My baby started school this past fall. This is not my first rodeo (I’ve got 2 twenty-somethings, so I’ve been there and done that), but this is my first child to start school in another country. Despite being a native English speaker, her (cruel) English-only speaking parents threw caution to the wind and put her in the local, public (German) school. And all was well in the world.
Until it wasn’t.
months into this adventure, Emmy began to complain that kids were making fun of her. They taunted her. “You don’t speak good German. You parents don’t speak German.” I knew from my sister and friends that the transition to the first year of school is difficult. I hoped this was just a manifestation of that and nothing more serious.
Naturally, we talked about this with her in a loving but realistic way.
“You know what, “we said. “It’s true. Your German isn’t as good as the other kids, because you weren’t born here, and we don’t speak German to you at home. But you’re learning really quickly (and well). And who cares if you’re not the best in German. I bet you’re the best in English! Besides, other people don’t determine your worth. We love that you are joyful and loving and happy.”
Okay, part of this was the pop psychology stuff that you tell your kid when you’re at a loss for words, when you’d really like to be kicking the asses of the mean kids (which of course you’d never do in real life) for making your child feel badly about herself. And if I caught Emmy doing something similar, I called her on it immediately. “See, this is how you complain about Paul and Kathrin – that they make fun of you. So do not act that same way toward others.”
As the leaves turned and September turned to October then November, Emmy’s behavior took a turn for the worse. Way worse. Our formerly, sweet, calm, loving child turned into a demon, throwing tantrums at the slightest provocation. And these tantrums always ended in a screaming, sobbing, door-slamming catastrophe. We assumed her behavior was a manifestation of her frustration. She didn’t know how to deal with the mean kids, whom she continued to mention on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Hell, we didn’t know how to deal with the mean kids.
After spending a few weeks (Christmas holiday) with us, Em’s behavior came back down to “normal,” where, thankfully, it’s been since. But that didn’t mean the mean kids let up. It just meant that she internalized it. One Friday in mid-January, I picked her up from her after school program and asked her about her day. She turned to me and said, “I hate school. I don’t want to go back. I want to go to an English speaking school.”
When your child tells you she hates school, it is heart breaking. This should be the beginning of the love affair – nurturing teachers who help her love to read, who allow her to express herself in art, who encourage her. She can hate school later when she has a Pre-Cal exam and PSATs to take. But now? And her school day is 8am to 12noon. She is there for 4 freaking hours.
So now the shit’s hit the fan. Time to get serious. This is not just a transition issue. My little pookie is in pain. Seriously.
My husband and I make an appointment to see her teacher, who is, by the way, the principal of the school. She seems totally surprised by our account of the situation. The summary of that conversation goes something like this, “In general, the Germans are very focused. Even the 6 year olds know that school is serious and when they are here, they are here to do work. Emmy is a bit of a daydreamer, staring out the window and forgetting her homework, which impacts the entire class. But, most of the kids accept that this is who she is (although it’s unlike them). The “mean” boy is just kind of a wild kid. He’s not very nice to anyone. I think the “mean” girl just doesn’t accept Emmy’s non-German, non-focused behavior, and this is how she expresses her frustration.” The principal said Emmy’s German was fine and she has enormous potential, but is often sidetracked by forgetting things and finishing quickly to try to be first.
I’m at a lost for what to do, which is only intensified when she says to me a few weeks after we meet with the principal, “I don’t like myself because no one at school likes me.” Fuck. I get in serious parental fix it mode (read: freak out). I start making crazy threats to my husband, “If this doesn’t improve, she and I will just move back to Texas and I’ll put her in school there.” Then I put her on the wait list for the private international school in our neighborhood.
Then I started thinking about my own experience as a high school teacher. I remembered the students who I referred to as entitled, the ones who expected that things would be easy for them and when they weren’t, mom or dad came to the rescue. I remember one mother who called me after her 18-year old daughter failed a major paper because she plagiarized entire paragraphs. Mom wanted to ask if I could at least give her daughter a 70 (instead of the 0 she earned) so her GPA wouldn’t be so badly affected. No, I wouldn’t. What would happen when this girl went off to college and failed a class, or plagiarized? What if she got a poor performance review in her professional life? Would Mom step in to fix this, too?
I’m raising my kids to be independent, competent, and emotionally resilient adults. End of story. With me for a mom, no way am I putting them in the same effed up place I am. If I “fix” this problem (take Em out of this school, move her out of the country – wow, that sounds so crazy when I write it) then what am I teaching her? That’s I’ll fix her problems? That hardship is not part of life?
Well, the truth is life is hard, and we will all have to deal with the disappointment. Shielding your child from this natural part of life in order to protect her ego at all costs is a recipe for producing an entitled adult who can’t solve her own problems. I love my daughter and I want her to be happy, but she won’t be happy all the time, and she needs to learn to be prepared to deal with the hard stuff without giving up and expecting someone else to solve her crises.
You know what? My daughter is never going to be the best German speaker in her class. So freaking what. That doesn’t mean she is any less worthy or valuable as a human being. So I had to take a big old mental step back. Then I had to tell her that I love her, but there are mean people in life, and there are struggles in life.
Those are the times we really learn. Yes, those times suck. Yes, in the moment, we may hate those times. But that’s life. My husband and I told Em that we are incredibly proud of her for her efforts to learn a new language on her own (because she doesn’t get help from us and we can’t model correct grammar for her). And we told her that people who behave badly are unhappy people; that’s their issue, not hers.
She’s not perfect. Neither am I. And that’s okay, because perfection isn’t necessary for her to be valuable and worthy. We love her regardless, and we are grateful that she can share her struggles with us because she’s not alone. We share those struggles with her.