I was just reading part of a website from a former "quiverfull" woman/mother, and this line jumped out at me:

A relationship in which one party must make all the concessions has nothing to do with love and everything to do with power and control.

This is true not only in marriage, but in all relationships. Husband-wife, parent-child, friend-to-friend, coworker-to-coworker, boss-coworker, teacher-student, and so forth. I'm glad that this woman is "not quivering" any more, in the large-family sense or in the shaking-in-fear sense.


the confrontation

A while back, when the shit was hitting the fan because I was no longer willing to play the crying, wheedling, please-mommy-I'll-be-good-and-do-whatever-you-ask daughter, my mother wrote me a long letter telling me everything that's wrong with me, and I wrote a short letter back. My letter could be summed up as saying "I won't allow you to treat me this way. You may not bully me."  Using the B word struck a nerve. Nobody wants to be called a bully, least of all the bully herself.

My letter came to mind a few nights ago when I attended a parents' night at my children's school. The topic was bullying, approached not from the zero-tolerance, bullies-are-bad-people standpoint that I'm accustomed to hearing from schools, but rather from a very thoughtful, developmental-research-based angle. We discussed a definition of bullying put forward by Dr. Dan Olweus, a Norwegian professor of psychology who has been studying bullying for almost 40 years. He describes bullying thusly:
"A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."
This definition includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
Negative actions are defined as actions through which someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort upon another person. This may include physical abuse as well as verbal abuse like namecalling, threatening, taunting, teasing, spreading rumors, or also "indirect bullying" actions such as making faces or excluding someone from a group. In bullying situations, there is generally a power imbalance, in which the bully has greater power (social status, age, size, intelligence, etc) than the target.

This resonates with how I view bullying when it applies to my children (as instigators or as targets), but what was even more striking to me was that it was exactly what I have believed for many years about my mother and her treatment of me. Discomfort, both emotional and physical, was intentionally inflicted upon me and my siblings repeatedly. I heard her talk on many occasions about exactly why she did what she did, and it was all about manipulating people and intentionally making them squirm so that she could obtain/maintain the upper hand. While she also did this in her professional life, this MO was especially applied of her children, who were, of course, smaller, younger, and weaker than herself, and dependent upon her.

My mother's entire parenting philosophy centered on power. When she recalled problems with us in the past it was always framed as a power struggle, and the only acceptable outcome was for her to win. She made fun of parenting advice that focused on consensus-building or parents showing friendly compassion for children; her favorite parenting author was James Dobson, who wrote:
...Mom or Dad should have some means of making their youngster want to cooperate...I will suggest one: it is a muscle lying snugly against the base of the neck...when firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying "This hurts: avoid recurrence at all costs." The pain is only temporary; it can cause no damage. But it is an amazingly effective and practical recourse for parents when their youngster ignores a direct command to move.
That sounds like intent to cause discomfort to me. I suffered the neck pinch on multiple occasions, usually in public. I imagine it looked like a mother lovingly putting her arm around her child's shoulders. In addition to having to immediately comply with whatever I was expected to do, there was also the expectation that I not let other people know that I was being hurt.

My mother was a person who could read the passage above and think "yes, this is what I will do to my children, this is a good way to parent." How does this happen? Bullies are people. Why do they bully? Because of a fundamental insecurity that stems from receiving inadequate nurturing and/or inadequate limits. They bully to get attention, to get power, to elicit fear, to gain connection.

I would say that my mother is one of the bullies who is the way she is because of inadequate nurture. She didn't want to be like her father. She knew that he was an abuser because his mother both withheld appropriate nurture and did not set important limits. She knew that he visited the same neglect on her (although not the permissiveness). She didn't want to repeat his mistakes with her children, yet she never realized (and still apparently hasn't) that the key to being a good and loving parent was not merely to avoid doing the specific things that he did, but to examine her own neglected childhood and care for herself so that she would not turn to bullying her children in order to get the attention and power she needed but didn't get as a child.

In the schools, enlightened administrators know that in order for bullying to stop, somebody must help the kids who are doing the bullying. Those kids have a need that must be filled, by adults or by themselves. For enlightened parents to stop the cycle of abuse, we have to dig down and find that injured, neglected place inside and find ways to nurture ourselves. If we don't, we are doomed to repeat the errors of our parents and commit negative actions against our own children in our own struggle to find connection.

just NO

Well, following the last post I decided to just click on "no" and leave it at that. Nothing I could write in the RSVP message box would feel right. Nothing would prevent the party organizers from being bitchy about my not coming. Nothing I do or say will change what they think of me. And really, it doesn't matter what they think of me - by which I mean, I know this intellectually, but have a hard, hard time believing it through and through.

There were lots of polite but not quite honest things I could have said on that invitation response.

"we're so sorry we won't be able to join you" (we're not sorry; we are able, we just don't want to)
"we have other plans" (half-lie - my only plan is to not be anywhere near these people)
"give our regards to the birthday girl!" (I don't actually regard her in either a positive or negative light)
"sounds like fun, wish we could be there!" (it doesn't, I don't)

Any of these "regrets" kind of responses would have been a lie, because I don't actually feel regret.  Thing is, nothing genuine could be said, either, because this is how it would look:

"are you fucking kidding me?"
"I don't actually care about you people, so I'm not coming"
"It's ridiculous that you expect me to spend half a day driving, several hours of my life standing around making idle, uncomfortable chitchat with people who think they know me but really don't and whom I don't particularly care about, then get my kids to bed late in a hotel room because I'm not in your good graces enough for you to offer me a room or a couch to sleep on, then have to drive half a day back home again, thereby losing a perfectly good weekend."
"oh, hell no"
"I would rather swallow shards of broken glass"
"Interesting that I'm only considered a part of this messed-up family when you want to throw a big party so you look like a loving, close-knit clan."
"I will not be a part of this charade"

Yeah...none of those should really be entered into a comment box. It's good to type them out here, though. Perhaps, now that I've sent my just-plain-NO response, I can shake this bitter, ugly feeling and move on.

ye olde birthday FOG

I'm stewing in yuckiness. A family member is having a big birthday, one of the ones divisible by 10, which, in a base-10 society, means it's somehow more important than one divisible by 5 or by 4 or by 8. (Tangent: shouldn't prime-number birthdays be more important? Seriously, let's start a trend.)

So, because this person is related to me, and because her new age is large and divisible by 10, there's going to be birthday hoopla. Of course, there has been hoopla about this person's birthdays in the past, including one year when she was non-divisible by 10 and I was pressured to attend her birthday celebration instead of a memorial service for a friend who had died unexpectedly. Under all the "funerals are for the living" and "that person is dead, this one is alive" and "family is important" and "she might not be alive much longer" guilt tripping, I caved, I made a trip that I didn't enjoy to be with people whom I don't like to celebrate the birth of a person to whom I don't feel close, and didn't attend services for this dear friend whom I hadn't seen in years. I didn't get to hug her mom or her sister. I didn't get to mourn with friends. I allowed myself to be controlled by fear of the future, family obligation, and guilt.

To be clear: that was my choice. I didn't have to make it. It was the wrong choice and I still regret it, years later. I know I made the choice because I was, without being aware of it, playing into and along with the family dynamic of Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG).

Today, after several years of becoming aware of and struggling against the family FOG, I'm staring at the invitation to the latest celebration of her agedness. The invitation that comes from a relative who is not my friend, who has exerted pressure on me in the past to "bury the hatchet" with my mother, instead of saying "hey, I'm related to your mom, and I totally understand what a bitch she is, I'm sorry she treats you like shit."  The invitation heralding the honoring of a person who, honestly, isn't very important to me and doesn't play an active, meaningful role in my life. The invitation to a party several states away, that will require travel time and hotel accommodations on my dime. The time spent in the car would outweigh the time spent at the party by approximately 4:1. I'm not sure I would want to drive an hour for this party, much less half a day, especially considering that the party itself will not be fun for me and probably won't be much fun for my kids, either.

For an invitation, it sure doesn't feel inviting. It feels more like a summons.

On a petty note: the person sending the invitation, who is related to me, who is FAMILY, which is supposedly so important, did not acknowledge my birthday and hasn't in years. Just sayin'.

The obvious answer is not to go, and I know we won't go, yet I still haven't given my response. It feels rude to turn it down. Everybody else who has been summoned is going, like the good little conditioned, devoted-to-family children they are. Of course, they may actually enjoy themselves, because the extended family involved has invested time in making these people feel wanted. Me, notsomuch. And of course that just plays into my sense of shame  - if I were a better person, these people would like me, right? Ugh. But rather than saying "nope, not coming" to these people, I angst over my response. I can't just click no (yes, I can, but I feel badly about doing it). I have to have a reason (no, I don't, but it feels socially inappropriate to say no without a "proper" excuse). I have to be polite and pretty when I decline the invitation. I have to "send my regrets" even though I don't actually have regrets.

Why is it so hard for me to just say NO to people I don't like, without feeling like I owe these people some sort of conciliatory message? Is it a sign of being a good person to want to be polite to people who aren't polite to you, or is it a character flaw?

And why, when I recognize the FOG and have chosen not to participate in it, does it still control me on some level?

i am so free from you

I'm up late, reading blog entries from people like Upsi and Kiki and Mulderfan, and this is what my soul sings:

"I am so free from you
I am so free from you
I am so free from you."

It's hardly poetry, but it's what resonates through me.

I remember being a preteen and teenager, and wanting more than anything to be free. Not free in the sense of being able to come and go as I please, or to live outside my parents home, as I imagine many teenagers feel, but free in the sense of free to be myself. Free from tyrrany. Free from censorship. Free from being told what a bad person I am.

I don't have to be near you.
I don't have to be at your beck and call.
I don't have to attend you on the days you deem important for no reason other than my biological relationship to you.
I don't have to pretend that we're "one big happy family".

Family estrangement is considered such a sad thing in our society, but nobody considers how absolutely wonderful it can be from the point of view of the person escaping an oppressive, soul-sucking relationship.  It's the kind of wonderful that makes you want to spin in a full skirt in the middle of a breezy meadow.

Divorcing my mother is the best thing I have ever done, bar none.

As for my father? I'm sorry he chose to tether himself to such a woman. He had potential, perhaps. It was wasted on her. He made his choice, and I made mine.

My choice is to be ME, and free.


needle ice

Sometimes, while watching a movie or reading a book, the situations strike too close to home, and I can feel my body tensing, my throat stiffening, a sense of cold dread coming over me. The child inside me cowers, helpless, as I recognize and sympathize with the voice of a writer who experienced the same childhood invalidation and oppression that I experienced. The mother-daughter scenes in Disney's Tangled (between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel) did this to me - I think I spent half the movie holding my breath and while I think it was an excellent movie, I can't say that I really enjoyed it. Many scenes in Jonathan Franzen's book The Corrections held the same sense of recognition and dread for me. Again, marvelous work of fiction, but I don't think I'll be reading any more Franzen.

I'm currently reading The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in the UK), the first book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I expected anti-Catholic / anti-religious sentiment; I did not expect a scene from my childhood, and it took me by surprise:
"Lyra, if you behave in this course and vulgar way, we shall have a confrontation, which I will win. Take off that bag this instant. Control that unpleasant frown. Never slam a door again in my hearing or out of it. Now, the first guests will be arriving in a few minutes, and they are going to find you perfectly behaved, sweet, charming, innocent, attentive, delightful in every way. I particularly wish for that, Lyra, do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mrs. Coulter."
"Then kiss me."
She bent a little and offered her cheek. Lyra had to stand on tiptoe to kiss it...she drew away and laid the shoulder bag on her dressing table before following Mrs. Coulter back to the drawing room.
"What do you think about the flowers, dear?" said Mrs. Coulter as sweetly as if nothing had happened. "I suppose one can't go wrong with roses, but you can have too much of a good thing..Have the caterers brought enough ice? Be a dear and go and ask. Warm drinks are horrid..."
Lyra found it was quite easy to pretend to be lighthearted and charming, though she was conscious every second of Pantalaimon's disgust, and of his hatred for the golden monkey...she felt like a universal pet, and the second she voiced that thought to herself, Pantalaimon stretched his goldfinch wings and chirruped loudly.
Pantalaimon is Lyra's daemon, which is a kind of familiar. I'm not yet entirely sure what the daemons are, but so far they seem to be a reflection of the person's subconscious - like their inner, more wise, more honest voice. The monkey is Mrs. Coulter's daemon. I can remember having that sense of going along with my mother's tyranny with relative ease - or at least what must have looked like ease to those on the outside - while still having a part of myself that recognized how wrong the situation was. My mother, likewise, had a smooth, aren't-the-roses-nice exterior that she showed to others, while I knew that the authentic, imperious golden monkey version of her was there. I cannot think how many times she said - explicitly or implicitly - "we shall have a confrontation, which I will win." There was no room for my personhood. I hated her even while loving her, and the combination of the two made an icy lump inside of me.

What's funny is that she accused me of being cold-hearted or hard-hearted on many occasions. Those occasions were always times in which I was showing myself to be engaged, perspicacious, and above all, my own person.

I've been thawing for years now, and yet she thinks that I'm the coldest I have ever been.

While reading this book, I'm whispering, Run, Lyra! Trust your instincts!