I don’t think about my father very often — any more. After he died, there was a time when my relationship with him clouded everything I did, or thought, or believed. Before he died, I had no real understanding of how much he made me who I am. He and my mother. Every choice I made, sadly was in some way a reaction to his control over my mind and my heart. I don’t think he meant to have that kind of power over me, nor would he have wanted it. But it happened that way because I was so afraid of him. I so wanted his approval. And longed for more from him and my mother.
I talk a lot about the mind and heart in my writing because though two different organs they are connected psychologically to — what makes us — human. I believe they make us who we are and it is through our choices (by making up our mind) that we grow into different people (transforming our heart.)
It’s strange to think back. I had no idea how unwell my parents were — as a child I thought they were just being parents. Thought all parents were like mind. I had no notion that there was a good or bad way to be a parent. Nor could I conceive that I might one day stand in some sort of judgment over them and I am still very uncomfortable being perceived that way.
[I feel when I write about my mom and dad, I have to give this caveat every time: I know my parents did the best they could with what they had. I figured that out through lots of therapy. I do accept it now.]
Listening to a radio interview yesterday of Anne Sexton’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, I was struck once again by how very dysfunctional my home life was growing up. If you don’t know, Anne Sexton was a poet, known for her confessional verse who won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1967, a year after I was born. She suffered through out her life with clinical depression and after many attempts, killed herself when she was 45 and her daughter Linda was 21.
While I listened to Linda talk about her relationship with her mother as a love/hate and like/dislike, oh how much I related as it is unpleasantly close to what I experience today with my mother.
I love my mother dearly, but I can’t figure out a very good way to be with her. I want to be in her life. And I try, sometimes. And at other times not very hard at all. I know that I must be a better daughter. And that she is a widow. And I have all that weight on my shoulders which I want to live up to. But often we hardly see one another and she lives ten minutes away.
Certain things she does hurts me, over and over again. And no matter how much I have learned to not take it personally it is hard not to do so. For example, it is not personal that she does not show up to things that are important to me because she got sick or is not “up to” it or is genuinely in some physical pain. She’s done that my whole life and it feels personal! But it’s not. I think she just shuts down sometimes. I believe it is because of my father’s treatment all those years — her brain blitzes out and she just can’t “do” life. It comes and goes. Sometimes she’s all over me. And then she’s gone.
I simply want to escape the pain of not being able to understand my parents and how they treat me.
For Linda, growing up it was taboo for her to talk about her mother’s suicide attempts. For us it was forbidden to talk about my father’s rage, my mother’s illnesses, and later the drinking. There were so many secrets. I wrote about that in a poem to my sisters titled A Sacred Contract and that’s what it was.
Linda Sexton said how much her mother’s depression and suicide attempts hurt her. I’ll say it. These are the things that broke my heart early on in life and God is beginning to repair. My father’s rages. My mother’s obvious misery. My father’s belittling and constant picking at her and us. My mother’s frequent sinking into illness to “get away” from him. My father’s work and frequent travel with subsequent fatigue. My mother’s constant “support” and appalling attempts to build him up when he was in one of his Funks of insecurity and fear of failure. I think because if he fell apart the whole thing — our lives — would fall apart also. At least that was the threat. That was the fear. That tsunami was constantly just off the coast for years.
Relationships with parents are difficult and complicated. On the one hand we know how we are so like our parents in their dysfunction and we castigate ourselves for it. There is a level of shame involved that must be overcome.
Forgiving your parents for being who they were. And forgiving ourselves for being so like them or for choosing not to be like them any longer which also somehow becomes a betrayal as well.
Linda went on to say, as she put in her book Half in Love, another dilemma of living with such parents is that there are no boundaries appropriately set up by the adult. And so the child feels unsafe — life feels precarious all the time. My father’s rage was so unpredictable. Even while it was on some level expected, it came at unexpected times. If you cannot count on or predict the bad, on some level you cannot believe in the affirmation and love. I don’t know why. You just can’t.
And yet I worshiped my father. There I said it. And it is true. Just as others did, I did.
And that was also my betrayal. I worshiped my father and came to unfairly loath my mother. It’s twisted. She suffered from his rages more than anyone. She endured. She protected us by holding that fragile matchstick house together all those years. But I saw her as the betrayer of us after all those years. Thinking somehow she should have left him. And what would have become of us if she had walked out on him after one of his thousands of verbal beatings over the years? All I know is now. Now without him we are a fractured family. We don’t know how to be with each other. We are all alone in our lives together.
Parenting by free fall.
As a mother, after all these years I see how this way of growing up gave me “no map for how to be a mother” as Linda Sexton put it so well yesterday in her interview.
I have struggled so much with the confusion of that reality. At times, saying I should never have become a mother. What was I thinking, thinking I could be a Mother? Sure, I can do the driving, and wipe away tears, help with the homework (not math!) and in the classrooms. My mother was a great homemaker. She cooked exceptionally well. I’ve gotten than from her but kids can survive without it. And she loved to garden as do i. She was a terrible cleaner, as am I. It is not that I cannot clean, I just do not.
But shouldn’t home be “a self-sustaining world unto itself. And mothers world-makers?” as David Griffith says in his essay Homemaker about his mother.
The fact of the matter is that I feel about as able to be a parent as a Mime.
I copy other people. I try to mimic Mothers that I admire. But I am mute. And a fake. I continuously hit some strange, solid and impenetrable internal wall. I cannot break through it to discover what it would mean to be a “normal” or “good” parent. A good mother. I have not found the answers in parenting books either. They are not the answer.
It’s something deeper. I don’t trust myself. And beyond that I do not even have words for it because I have never experienced it. There are missing pieces of my soul, my experiences, my character and person.
How can I ever hope to be a healer? Because that is one word I do have for motherhood.
Mothers are meant to be healers.
I am left with the knowledge that my only hope is that The Healer will infuse me with the Spirit of God. Then and only then, there and only there something good will come. I have to trust in that.
I have to set all my hope in that. Because left to my own devices there is only fear, insecurity, depression, addiction, rage, and broken hearts. There is only an inability to love, to connect, to nurture, to receive, to cohabitate — to be human. I am not being overly dramatic although it sounds so. When all you knew was rage you are unable to be normal.
I wrote this poem i 2004 after my father died. It felt like a betrayal then, when the words came out of me they were as much of a shock to me as to others I think. But now I see that they were s t e p s toward my own healing.
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
I shed no tears today
for the warrior who has fallen.
Taken down by Cancer’s sword.
My heart is full of memories,
good and bad.
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Who could have foreseen
the Cancer overtaking his mind;
that became my liberation
in five short months.
The danger –
of loving too much;
and all the things Daddy’s are supposed to be.
Emotions jangling around inside me
like some kind of white noise;
pushing their way into my conscious thoughts.
Invaders, threatening to undo
the weak hold I’ve found on The Good Life.
So many memories
good and bad,
bad and good.
Who was he? Why was he MY dad?
beaten by the Cancer
that was to become my friend.
Betrayal, these thoughts which plague me.
Broken; the unspoken promise
to keep our secrets to the end.
How do I remember?
How do I stay true and honest,
when the Truth causes an ache
too strong to feel,
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Who was he in the end?
A Demon? A Saint?
Now simply a Muse?
Remembered, but no longer feared?
Thought of in furtive,
Good Dad. Bad Dad.
Who is he to me now?
A man driven to despair
Living a chaotic, frantic life.
Not the Good Life I choose,
Not the legacy I will repeat.
Good Girl. Bad Girl.
Who will I listen to?
Who will I believe?
I am the woman I choose to become
These are the Good Days
that I can change.
Yesterday is dead.
Burned in the funeral pyre.
Dust settling around me.
Good Girl. Bad Girl.
I certainly don’t know what it means to be a Mother. A Daughter. A Sister. A Wife. A Friend.
But I can only take this life one day at a time and hope in God.
None of us can rewrite our history. Nor should we try. It makes us who we are today. And for me, it makes me strong enough to write tomorrow.