We Love You But….

Daddy was a bully.  Men were expected to be.  Daddy “wore the pants” in his household, requiring that everyone do things his way.

He responded to the frictions of family life by blaming the rest of us. It was mostly just cruel remarks, ugly faces and bellowing–but it thoroughly intimidated us. Occasionally I did get spanked, and though I don’t think it was often (I can’t remember well), I remember feeling that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do to avoid being spanked; it was all irrational, totally dependent on my father’s temper. And of course every time he yelled and screamed at me I was sure I was going to be spanked. It reduced me to panic, and I believed I was a bad kid.

Once I asked my mother “Is it normal for a kid to be terrified of her father?” I remember clearly she looked at me and did not answer. I believe now she did not think it was right, but felt to say so would also be inappropriate: it was her duty to agree with him. It was the way the world was.

At one point he required my mother to do the spanking, because I was “too old” for him to do it. She brought a hairbrush with us to the bathroom, pulled my pants down, and admitted she didn’t know whether she was “supposed” to use the flat side, or the bristles. She used the bristles, but stopped soon, and it never happened again.

If I betrayed that I really wanted something, I was not permitted to have it. Desire was selfish, bad.

Now and then Dad would call a “family council.” We would all sit around the dining room table. He would describe some interpersonal problem in the family, and ask us what we thought was the way to deal with it. But we all knew we were expected to be persuaded by his arguments, to agree with the solution he proposed, and to pretend we had chosen it democratically.

At the same time as Dad taught me to obey and placate him, to perform for him and toady to him, he maintained strongly that he wanted all of us kids to learn to “think for ourselves.” But thinking for myself earned me more than one spanking. I never had any sense of his caring for me, or taking any interest in me. He hardly paid any attention to me at all–except to tell me what to do.

I don’t think my dad was a bad person. I think his ideas of how to parent, and of how to “be a man” were simply what he learned from his upbringing, and from the culture. His dad, I learned much later from Mom, had dominated his wife — my dad’s mother — so much that she was very unhappy; today we would say “depressed.” No one explained to my Dad that when kids do something that irritates you, they are not doing it in order to “get” you; no one taught him to take responsibility for his own feelings and step aside from them in order to act from principle. No one described how kids have to build an ego, that sense of self that allows us to function in the world, by assertion and testing the limits — behaviors that would be inappropriate in an adult, and that they need to grow out of — but that are actiually necesssary at that stage, and not bad, or motivated by ill-will.

No one explained children’s need to learn self-confidence, to feel safe and loved. At the time I was a baby (my mother-in-law later told me), doctors taught mothers not to pick up their infants unless it was absolutely necessary. I doubt they even thought to mention it to fathers; physical nurturing behaviors were for women.

The cultural expectations for men were — and still are — emotionally damaging. As a child, I just took it for granted: “Isn’t everybody’s family like that?”

But even my mother was never comfortable cuddling. My grandmother held me in my lap and rocked me in her rocking chair. When finally as an adult I learned from the human potential movement that I liked to hug people, and came home and hugged Mom, she enjoyed it with me, but still never initiated, even though I got the distinct feeling she was getting something she’d needed for a long time. (I certainly was.)

About the only time I heard about being loved, was when I was told “We love you, but it’s important that you behave well so other people will think well of you, too.” No one explained to them the emotional force of that kind of “but.” My physical needs were cared for, I was given all kinds of upper-middle-class opportunities, and praised for good grades in school. My parents were doing their best. I was not disadvantaged, except in very subtle ways. I assumed I was loved, because we were a family. But I did not feel it. I did not think about it; I retreated.

I think Dad honestly did want me to learn to think for myself. And to some extent I did: I became inwardly rebellious, seeing adults and authority figures as hypocrites, power addicts, and predators. Dad didn’t know how much I learned from his unaware behavior. Nothing in his culture encouraged him to examine his own behavior, or gave him support in growing and healing and becoming more aware and compassionate. Men were required to be rational, directive, problem-solvers: to anaylze and criticize how things worked, to identify problems and fix them. He was trained as an engineer: the epitome of the masculine ethos of that time. It was the only way to be manly.

Although I rebelled against my father’s terrorizing me, the more subtle abuse in the way our family worked … just seemed to me the way things were. I hid out in my room, reading, whenever I could. My family was “normal” and I didn’t know any other way to cope with that.

Until now.

Comments