When my dad had his first nervous breakdown he was stationed in Fairfield Alabama, a predominantly African American community during the late 1970s. Me and my family were the “other.” We were the odd ones out. I remember my parents talking about advocating for the kids in the neighborhood, how they called Coppertone to get cases of sunscreen for the kids so they didn’t get sunburnt at the summer camp pool. I remember, vaguely, the women who cared for me when my parents were busy. I remember that time it snowed. I remember my best friend, a little boy down the street. My parents were always part of the other. Both coming from dysfunctional families with either mental illness, alcoholism, gambling problems or a combination thereof leading to poverty in their formative years. My father took care of a sibling who died very young of what I believe was epilepsy. My mom recounted a time when she was but a small child, hiding under the table while her five of her six brothers overturned it, arguing, food flying everywhere. So they decided to live a different life than that of their progenitors. They joined the salvation army as teenagers, and got married at 16 and 18. My dad was funneled into leadership, and was a preacher for 20 years. Of course, the preacher’s wife has a job even if it’s not listed on tax forms. The Salvation Army provided a car, a place to live, food, clothing, but minimal money. My parents devoted themselves to charitable works.
After my dad was ousted from the Salvation Army due to his nervous breakdown my parents still sought out similar feeling situations–authoritarianism being a prerequisite because you go with what you know. A group with a clear leader to tell everyone what to do. Being young and dependent on my parents I was thrust into these situations too. As a young adult, I remember the dispassionate feeling inside when my sister told me at least two of these groups my parents associated with were investigated for being cults. I saw firsthand. I pretended I was like them, swept unhappily along, suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Once, at 17, after an ugly fight with my mom where she forced me to go to one of these places, I was totally broken, emotionally unarmed, so I just pretended to be like them, pretended to speak in tongues, pretended to be “saved” again and again, loathing myself for every ugly moment of falsehood, it felt like torture. One of the men, presumably leadership, looked at me at that moment, and told me “you may be wearing a dress with flowers on it, but you are a warrior.”
I am a fighter. A brawler. I like using my swords when I’m working out on the mat. I like swinging them around slowly, in control. I like trying to punch the crap out of other martial artists. Sometimes I don’t miss. They don’t mind. While going through my sisters belongings I came across a cache of photos, of myself, so many photos of my teenaged years, me looking angry. I was angry. I felt living religion was a lie. My mom felt parenting meant breaking children like they were animals. So she tried to break me, and I pretended to be broken. Until I fled at 17, with angry words, her physical threats, full of pain, I left that lie. I don’t want to live in the framework of authoritarianism. Misogyny. Racism. It’s not a comfort to me to relive the painful tropes of my childhood. It’s not a comfort to know that the only way your mom knows to show love is pain.
Last week was tough. I had to attend the funeral of my tai chi teacher. A classmate that I thought a lot of passed away at 42. I nearly broke my ankle April 24, and I’ve been really limited in getting around while it heals. At night, I have a wracking cough. My mom. Jesus. I call her to make sure she remembers to turn on the AC, to help her take care of the daily needs she has, to send her water so she doesn’t get dehydrated again, all the trips last year when she was vulnerable, writing her checks, paying her bills. I swing between wanting to help her and wanting to hate her for all that she did during my vulnerable time as a child. But nevertheless.
She said some things last weekend that were really hard to hear. I was already wounded, physically, spiritually, and mentally from the losses and injuries of the past few weeks. When she was saying them aloud, I felt myself pull away from the conversation, I guess I was hoping to protect myself from hurt. But after I told someone else the things she said, and seeing the horror on that person’s face, I thought “maybe I ought to process this.” And man, it felt like hell. I had a lot of thoughts. I would think about how in the end, I didn’t want to be petty. Yes it was not okay or normal for her to not fit the trope of maternalism. Could I help her although she would forget my birthday after I turned 17? That she couldn’t even offer me a graduation card? A sweet 16 birthday card? So many badges representing what society called caring, and accepting what I never received, the embarrassment I felt when people would ask me why my parents didn’t even get me a birthday gift. Seeing other kids open a pile of presents and feeling shame because no one bothered with that in my house, and if they did, my mom would threaten to return all the gifts, transforming the joy of receiving sour. All the insults, and accusations. All the times the only emotion she showed me was rage? Ultimately I don’t want to be petty. I don’t want to live with regrets. She is 77 today, and nearing the last chapter of her life. I took a moment, during my suffering over what she had said, and tried to put myself in her position. I thought, “She is saying this to me right now because she is angry.” So I decided to give her the space to feel angry. She lashed out, and instead of carrying that emotional burden I decided to let it the fuck go. And so I did, and I felt freedom.
Somehow, despite all that I had been through, I was able to change my framework. Through therapy. Meditation. Music. Martial Arts. Self Care. Motherhood. Wine. I was reluctant to go to therapy, but I also didn’t want to continue repeating the same mistakes for the remainder of my life. Therapy helped me maintain focus on my children as my number one priority with all the other responsibilities of adulthood and divorce swirling around us. It helped me see the pain and suffering of my parents during my fraught childhood. It made a tiny space, for empathy. Most importantly for me, therapy taught me the skills of how to appropriately mother myself, because I didn’t learn those skills previously. The Gottman Institute has been a tremendous help to me. John Gottman’s research taught me so much about emotional intelligence, and about myself. I think it’s really unfair that parents expect their children to act with restraint and behavioral standards that the parents aren’t held to. In my childhood this disconnect was one of the major ideologies I struggled with. Fundamentally it wasn’t right that my mom could rage and rage, yet I couldn’t have any feelings at all or “she’d give me something to cry about,” how she’d regulate my behavior with physical violence when she couldn’t regulate herself and would put our family into chaos, instability, and throw our safety into question. She still can’t regulate herself and in her advanced age she’s less able to hide this fact. The two parts of me, the part that was taught I deserved to be treated like an animal because that’s how my mom treated me and she was perfect, and the part that thought it was wrong for me to have to act a certain way when there were no sanctions or limitations on her expressions of rage eventually settled into quiet acceptance. Motherhood helped a lot. I love myself through loving my children. They teach me every day with their hard work and tireless pursuit of excellence. I don’t keep it secret that Dmitri’s struggle to attain what we take for granted taught me to love myself. Maya’s passion, resilience, empathy, and emotional intuition inspire me to strive to be a loving, helpful mother. And to give them room to feel distress sometimes, and let them solve problems, although I dislike watching them struggle, I want them to work on the skills they need to be functional adults. So that they don’t need me when they are adults, and can choose my company.
Late last week I saw a quote from the Gottman Institute that really struck me, deep down.
“Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”
And I had a startling thought, I thought, if I stop thinking of my children as behaving badly when they are struggling, maybe I can apply that courtesy to other people too? Including myself.
Recently I had an experience where someone advised me to take the spot in me that has a deep and abiding supply of courage, and send that courage to the other parts of me that need it. And, I think that’s just what I’ll do. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my past, of present circumstance, or to be devastated by what other people say. That’s freedom, and that’s how I want to live my life. Writing is the balm that soothes my soul, and I’m so thankful for this space I’ve created for myself. I’m thankful for the family I’ve created, both genetic and my martial family. I’m grateful for my life and the livelihood of my children. In the end, when I’m nearing the final chapters of my life, as my mother is now, I hope that I’ll remember that.