My Grandma Eva was as close to a Saint as a non-Catholic family could have. By saint, I mean the kind of person who is so good even Jesus would be impressed; the kind of person who if she approved of you, would put in a good word for you and it would count with God. According to family narrative, she was the perfect mother and wife. She was constantly cooking delicious food, helping her kids excel in school, and reading poetry. She was also a performer in the Road Shows that used to be a big deal in our church. She probably walked on water too, although no one ever mentioned it. She died tragically when my dad was six years old from a ruptured appendix. His home life was rough. His dad remarried, and his step mother didn’t like him. He grew up in a tiny house full of step-brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, and half-brothers and sisters. It was chaotic and not very nurturing, but he always had the memory of his mother to keep him going. She was his angel mother.
When I was born, on Eva’s birthday, I became “Little E.” Little E. was expected to be perfect, like her namesake. I can honestly say, I did my very best to become Eva. And I failed. When I went to counselling for severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation as a young mother, I found myself looking across the room at a counselor who was asking me about my dad and my family and Eva. I had been telling myself for years, “There’s nothing wrong with my family!!” and I believed it. Even as my symptoms got worse. Even as I started to realize that I was never going to be able to live up to the impossible expectations of my parents. I couldn’t even consider the possibility that there could be something wrong with my family.
I knew how this worked. One of my aunts, my dad’s half sister, had trouble with mental health. She went to counseling and they started saying stuff was wrong with her home life. Her parents put a stop to that right away. There was nothing wrong with them. Ever since then therapists were under a cloud of suspicion for our family. Apparently the therapist had told my teenaged aunt to “just do what she wanted to do” to help her to feel better. That was the most ridiculous solution in the world, I was told. Now I was sitting across from a counselor who was going to try to make stuff up about my family; like that we weren’t perfect and that I wasn’t supposed to be perfect. That I wasn’t totally responsible for everything that was wrong with my life. That it wasn’t totally within my power to fix it and make everything perfect, the way I knew I had to.
What should I do? I was trapped. Suicide was a sin. I didn’t want to die. I had two kids by this time. I would go to hell and leave my children to suffer like my dad did. Or I could talk to this counselor and maybe he could help me. It was so hard, but I decided to talk. It felt like I was betraying my family, but what choice did I have?
So I talked and talked and talked about the pressure I was under to be perfect and how I grew up terrified of my dad’s angry outbursts and physical assaults. He called them spankings, but that is minimizing what they were. I knew they were wrong, and I was determined that I would never do those things to my children. My dad believed in spanking. It wasn’t a tool in his parental toolbox, it was the toolbox. He used to say, “The foundation of discipline is fear.” And we feared him. That was how he was raised. All of his many siblings were devoted believers in this type of physical abuse which they knew was necessary for children to grow up to be good people. It was almost a religious zeal.
I remember a group of my dad’s siblings sitting around telling stories about their lives. One of my aunts talked about how she saw a couple of boys talking during a scout function. She explained how she snuck up behind them to hit them in the back of the head to get them to be quiet. Everyone laughed because that was “just like dad,” who was particularly fierce about “discipline.” I didn’t know my grandpa very well because he died when I was really young, but I was told awful stories about how he would beat them with a belt whenever they did anything wrong. It was terrifying to think that anyone could be more harsh than my dad, but according to him, his dad was much worse. I was lucky. My dad was so much better than his dad was.
When I had my first baby, it was all bliss. I was a perfect mother and I would show my dad that I was just as good as Eva was and then the needy hole in my heart that craved affirmation would be filled. I had quit my job as a fourth grade teacher when Devin was born to be a full time mom. Devin was perfect and I was perfect my dad was sure to agree. We went to visit my parents when Devin was ten months old and I put all my parenting skills on display. Devin wanted for nothing. I read to him, tickled him, played games with him, loving corrected and redirected him when needed. Dad pulled me aside. He said that I wasn’t disciplining my son. He explained that women are so kind and gentle that they don’t have the stomach to do what has to be done to make their children hurt and they spoil them. He said ideally Ben would do it, but he could see that Ben wasn’t that kind of person either. That was unfortunate. He insisted that I needed to spank my son and do it soon before he was spoiled. I was so shocked and frustrated. My dad was disappointed in me as a mother. Again, like so many times before, I wasn’t good enough. It made me angry and resentful of him. I thought, “Who spanks their ten month old?” My dad was just weird. About a year later, I had second thoughts.
My life was not so perfect a year later. When Devin was fifteen months old, his brother Layne was born. I was so desperate to survive by the time I had Layne, my dad’s ideas about discipline began to seem more appealing. After two rounds of therapy, I was back on the couch again. I was overwhelmed in a little two bedroom apartment trying my best to take care of two babies one just born and the other a rampaging toddler. Ben had just graduated from school and wasn’t making enough to make ends meet yet. We had to rely on the church to give us groceries. Dad’s discipline lectures started to get to me. I decided I would do it. I would spank my son. If it made my life easier, I was ready to try anything. Dad coached me on what to do. “Make sure you take his diaper off. You don’t have to hit him hard, just make it sting. That’s how you do it.” So I did.
Devin was a stubborn little guy. He had broken all the pictures on the walls of his room. His bedroom door was pitted and covered with chipped paint from the toys he would throw at it while he was in timeout. He was active and into everything. I decided I wanted him to leave my jewelry box alone. When he got into the jewelry, I took his diaper off and spanked him. He screamed and cried. I let him down and he went right back to the jewelry box. We did this several times and each time, he went right back to the box. I became frustrated. Maybe I wasn’t hitting him hard enough, I thought.
I put him in timeout, and while he was in his room, he climbed onto the changing table and emptied out the wipes out of the wipe dispenser. When I got him out of his room and I saw the mess, I felt the anger rise inside me. I was so frustrated!! I spanked him and then I tried to get him to help me put the wipes back, but he was off to make another mess somewhere. I put the wipes away, but the moment my back was turned, he had emptied them out again. Even in my anger and frustration, I felt a distinct impression that I had a choice to make. I could continue to spank and scold and make myself and my child miserable, or I could put the wipes on the high shelf.
Devin and I looked at one another. He had not a bit of defiance or fear in his wide blue eyes framed with thick lashes. He just looked at me, and I looked at him. He had turned my world upside down and yet I still loved him. I sat on the floor littered with wipes, and he came to me. I held him in my arms and he started talking to me in his sweet baby voice. He picked up each of his toys and he brought them to my lap and I just listened and marveled at the amazing little person that God had given me to love and care for. Soon after that, he fell asleep.
I put the wipes away and moved them to the high shelf. I also secured my jewelry box where he couldn’t reach it. Spanking just wasn’t for me, I decided. I would rather just put the wipes on the high shelf. Hours later, after dinner, I went to change Devin’s diaper. The light was getting low and I was trying to wipe off some stubborn dried on poop. It just wouldn’t come off. In horror, I looked closer at my child’s bottom. I turned on the light so that I could see better. There were bruises, not poop on his bottom. In my anger I had put purple speckled spots on my baby’s creamy skin.
I will never forget the shame and regret that I felt that day. I had hurt my child. I had done what my dad told me to do, and together, we had done this. I knew that it was wrong before I had done it. I had put my own comfort and convenience over the welfare of my child and done something that was contrary to my values. I felt sick. I vowed to never spank my son again. It was wrong and I knew it.
I was in therapy at the time. I told my counselor what had happened. He said, “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m not going to tell you its okay.” I felt a wash of shame again. His criticism stung all the more because it came so infrequently. He followed up with some reassurances that if I changed my parenting strategy, Devin wouldn’t suffer long-term harm from what I had done.
For years afterward, my dad continued to insist that if I just spanked my kids that my problems with my depression would be over. Even after I told him it hadn’t worked, I remember he said, “Well, don’t throw the baby out with the bath…..” and he had some other ideas for ways I could instill fear and obedience into my little tornado baby. It was so disconcerting to me that he was continuing to pressure me to go against my conscience and hurt his grandson! He still vehemently believes that parents today are doing it all wrong and he has his brothers and sisters to back him up. It took me years to accept that I would never change his mind. No matter how perfect I was, it would never be enough. I would always be “Little E” to my dad, just a little girl in the shadow of a woman who was more myth than flesh and blood. Gradually, I came to accept it and let go of the need to please him.
Sometime in all of this, I had a dream that has haunted me. In the dream I was in heaven. The spirits were surrounding me, but there was someone I was looking for. Eva. At last I saw her. My heart sang with joy as I walked up to her. She had a blank and confused expression on her face. I explained that I was her granddaughter and I was born on her birthday. I had been looking forward to meeting her my whole life. She said coldly, “I don’t know you,” and then she walked away. Shame and devastating sadness overwhelmed me before I woke.
That dream revealed to me my greatest fear– The rejection of Eva. If she disapproved of me, I would have failed as a person. And yet, as the years have passed and I have walked a different path than my dad and his siblings, I see that I’m not really like them anymore. I have embraced the reality of the brokenness of my family and learned to see the beauty in it and the beauty in the person I have become even in my imperfection. Eva has changed in my mind too. She used to be the person I was determined to become, but now she is a mystery to me; a strange and unrelatible caricature of the perfectionism I have cast aside. The blank stare of her spirit eyes as they seemed to look through me in my dream express my own confusion. “I don’t know you.” Who is she? If I died today and faced my Grandma Eva, would she see me as family? Probably not, especially after this week.
My Aunts (Dad’s sisters) attacked me on Facebook on Wednesday night. The Trump presidency has driven a wedge between my parents and I. We had decided that politics were not something we would talk about, so I was surprised when my mom posted something on my Facebook. I had posted about the concerns I had about the Kurds in northern Syria. Her reply belittled my concerns. I felt disrespected and angry. If I had it to do over again, I would have deleted the post and told her to back off. Instead I replied to her post angrily, blaming her for the predicament the Kurds were in because of her support of the President. My Aunts decided that my angry reply to my mom was disrespectful and unkind and they felt the need to publicly admonish me. I was already upset about the Kurds and the conflict with my mom, but I had been coping. I had reached out to my mom with some feeling statements via text message, but had not heard back.
When I read my Aunt’s posts, I became hysterical. One Aunt belittled my feelings and shamed me by explaining how much my parents love and pray for me. After twenty years of battling with the perfectionistic demons my parents implanted in my brain, that comment hit a nerve. I beat my head into the hardwood floor and screamed. I went back and forth between blaming myself and hating myself to screaming at my Aunts as though they could hear me and venting my fury at them. All the while, I thought of how they would see me if they were there. They would think I was a lunatic; a defective and spoiled little brat. They would despise me all the more because of my pain at their words. And yet all I had done all my life was to do my best to do the right thing and be a good person. It would never be enough. I could drive myself to death and I would never be good enough for them. I would kill myself. That would prove to them that it was their fault; them and their stupid family and Eva and all the rest of them. I would go to hell and then they would know that I was really sick. I hadn’t made the whole thing up. I had taken medication and spent thousands of dollars on doctors and therapy and hundreds of hours of painful emotional processing, but they still blamed me for my pain. If I was dead they would know that it was real and it wasn’t my fault.
At the time it made sense, but in the cold aftermath of reason, I realize that even my suicide would be blamed on me. Even my death would only confirm to my family that I should have been more perfect. Thankfully, Ben was home. He kept me safe and I took some sedatives and eventually I was able to calm down. I’ve had a pretty bad headache, but that’s probably as much from crying as from my self inflicted injury. The last couple of days I reflected on how much the opinions of my aunts meant to me. Why?
Why does their approval continue to mean so much? Why can’t I see myself as a good person without meeting their expectations? I’ve unfriended almost all of my dad’s family on social media. I’m also taking a break from my parents for a while. Right now, I’ve decided I don’t need them and their dysfunction in my life. I don’t need their parenting judgments and their opinions about whether or not I treat my parents with enough respect.
I know I’m human and the last few days anger and horror and fear have clouded my reasoning. I’ve said things in anger that I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve assumed things and after sincere reflection, I see that reality is not as I thought it was. I’m wandering on the beach of shame feeling the tide flow in and out. Sometimes I’m a good person, and sometimes I’m an idiot. Sometimes I’m the only one that sees what’s happening, and sometimes I’m the one that plays the fool. In the end it’s probably somewhere in between and that’s okay.
But I’m glad I’m alive. I’m glad I have the mental health resources and support network to keep me progressing in my recovery. What would my Grandma Eva think of me? I don’t know, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter. My Savior is my Lord and my judge and he knows my heart. What she thinks of me is between her and her Savior. All I can do is be the best kind of broken I can be, and always come back to the feet of Him who is Mighty to Save.
I have hope that maybe I’ve been able to create a more healthy environment for my children than I grew up in and that my parents grew up in. That’s what the Savior wants me to do. When he commands me to honor my father and my mother that doesn’t mean I need my parents to approve of me. I honor them by following Him even when they disagree with what that looks like. I can leave false and toxic traditions behind as I seek to walk a path that better aligns with what God wants for me and my children. When they grow up and have kids of their own, I hope they follow their hearts and raise their kids the way they feel is right. And they can whine to their counselor all they want about the ways I screwed up their life. They can even post about it and write it on a blog! I hope they do. I’m sure they’ll remember things differently than I will. I’m just glad I’ll be alive to read it.