I’ve mentioned before that, like many people in a weary world, I grew up with some rough stuff. Many of us did. If you didn’t, I’m truly happy for you, and I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate the awesome people in your life who made that true for you. If you grew up with rough stuff, too, I’m truly sorry it happened to you, and I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate the ways you are able to make informed choices about your life today, and the amazing people you’ve quilted into your family.
Informed choices are there for us to make every day. The Offbeat Empire is a place that celebrates our sometimes non-traditional but always authentic-to-us decisions about life, style, and lifestyle. What has worked for me may not work for you, but in looking back over the last few years, satisfied with my informed choices, and able to glean lessons from my experiences, I want to share — because maybe you or someone you know is in my shoes.
Let me explain — no, there is too much; let me sum up
My parents split when I was eight. I was ecstatic about this. My father was equal parts terrifying and teacher. I learned so much from him, but I also experienced incredibly damaging physical and emotional abuse. I have many scars, visible and invisible, from the battlefields of his ire. His temper was tempered by honeymoon periods of all the crayons I could wrap my chubby little hands around, and getting to go with him to Long John Silvers. He made no secret of the fact I was his favorite, his eldest, and his golden child. This was a mixed message that still gives me pause sometimes, because I was also the target of many of his worst blowups and beatings. I cringe at the cliché “you only hurt the ones you love.”
My mother spent the next ten years trying. She was equal parts martyr and creative. I get a lot of my love of crafting things from her, but having found the strength to leave her husband, she subsequently sank into a quagmire of shifting blame for everything that happened to her from then on to him — everything was his fault. She made valiant efforts to give her children resources so that we could heal, but she also made huge mistakes that sabotaged those efforts and damaged us in new ways. She made no secret of the fact that I was his favorite, his eldest and his golden child. No matter how hard I worked to be amiable or to please her, I was branded his, and worse, I look like him. I cringe at the cliché “a face only a mother could love.”
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
I think it’s fair to admit that it can bring us to our knees and leave us feeling weak as newborn babes, too. Rough stuff isn’t simple to recover from, and healing doesn’t happen overnight. However, it’s my firm belief that there is a lesson in every experience, and learning the lessons helps us to avoid making the same mistakes. Sure, we may make new ones, but we don’t have to make the same ones. These are the lessons I have learned.
Parents aren’t perfect, but there’s a difference between imperfect and unhealthy
We all make mistakes. As parents, people make mistakes, too. Sometimes these mistakes have consequences. There’s a difference between making mistakes and creating patterns of behavior and treatment that are unhealthy for your family. It’s one of life’s hurdles to reach the point where we look at our parents and say “you are not the god-like beings I thought you were when I was small. You are human, just like me, and you have thoughts, reactions, and feelings that are human. It is ok that you are not perfect.”
The realization that grown-ups who have huge influence and speak with authority are just as human as I am is a turning point. Life is less capricious and arbitrary when you realize that “because I said so” is a grasp at straws, and that someone just as human as you are is on the other side of the orders and decisions. Suddenly you can see where parents make choices, and yes, sometimes mistakes. You also start to recognize that patterns of behavior and treatment are either mostly healthy or mostly unhealthy, and the difference is staggering. When your parents’ behavior or treatment is unhealthy, it’s time to take a step back and assess.
Assume best intentions, but recognize bad intentions
Realizing our parents are only human is a turning point. Assessing unhealthy behavior and treatment takes stepping away from your relationship and putting on your objectivity goggles. In any relationship, I believe it’s fair to approach any interactions assuming best intentions. Parents usually make decisions for their children’s welfare hoping to do the right thing, even if they do make mistakes. My father’s honeymoon periods of crayons and hushpuppies were a genuine best intention to make up for what he recognized to be poor decisions when he abused me. My mother’s attempts to make resources available so I could heal from that abuse was a genuine attempt to help me heal and apologize for allowing the abuse to happen. Assuming best intentions lets me strip away the venom of my anger about their actions.
Recognizing bad intentions, though, is important, too. Even with the best of intentions to “make up for” abuses, my father couldn’t seem to contain or restrain himself. For years after their divorce, I was his punching bag literally and figuratively. There is no magic quantity of crayons and battered fish that could even the scales, and his bad intentions — to take out his anger on his child — have to be recognized. My mother, ever eager to bemoan the lack of resources available to people in our position, slipped into a martyrdom where she turned away help from those who would have given us everything we could need. She relished explaining our “situation” to people and rebuffing their assistance so that she would be seen as a strong woman making it on her own. We went without, impoverished and hungry, and we shouldn’t have. Her best intentions — to offer us therapy — aren’t outweighed by her bad intentions — to play the part of the martyr.
Recognizing that even in the face of assuming best intentions, there can be bad intentions is another turning point. My parents were going through rough stuff of their own, and they were human, I’d already realized this. Now, recognizing that their patterns of behavior and treatment were both unhealthy and sometimes made with bad intentions, I had more information.
Halp! I need an adult!
The best decision I’ve made in my life was reaching out to the people who I trusted to be grown-ups. People who were not my parents, but who had better intentions and healthier patterns — people who I could want to be like when I, too, grew up. Their advice, love, and parental guidance filled the voids I had.
Where do you look for a grown-up, especially if you’re already supposed to be one, yourself? I looked to my best friend’s parents, to start. I’d been slowly adopted into their family already, and I realized one day with a start that her mom was a mom. That I’d always gently envied their relationship, and that I trusted her implicitly. One day, while driving home with them, I asked her mom if she would mind filling in for mine a bit. I wanted to bring home my guy to someone who’d make sure I was treated right, and I didn’t trust my mother’s confidence or experience in that arena. I know I surprised her, but she agreed. When I brought my now-husband home to meet her, she knew I’d found the right guy. When she came to our wedding, she introduced herself as my “other mom” and she was so right. She’s been my other mom for a long time, comforting me when I am in sorrow, celebrating my joys and triumphs, and just spending time with me, knitting, quilting, or watching basketball. My best friend is like my sister, and her mom is like my other mom, and I get to love and be loved. It’s a huge win.
Another place to look for a grown-up, when you’re already supposed to be one, too – your extended family. I grew up Roman Catholic and when I was baptized, my mom’s youngest brother was named as my godfather. When I’d done some of the soul-searching required to recognize that my parents didn’t just make mistakes, they were unhealthy, and that they didn’t always have good intentions — when I was ready to reach out for grown-ups — I reached out to my godfather and his wife. My life has been better ever since. The first night that I mustered up the courage to ask them what they knew about my rough stuff, we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, talking openly and honestly, and it was as if the dam burst inside me. From that point on, when I have had grown-up questions, needed advice, or just needed a home, they’ve been there for me. They’ll talk — or listen — and help me work out what to do in tough situations, and whatever I decide, they support me. They’ll argue about football and politics and play Cards Against Humanity. They’ll feed me, clothe me, shelter me, love me and let me love them right back.
Where else can you look for a grown-up? Maybe it’s a friend, a mentor, or a distant relative — whomever you find to be your adult can help you navigate the murky waters of rough stuff. Finding a grown-up who is healthy and has best intentions doesn’t mean you’ll never make mistakes again, but it does mean you can observe and emulate patterns you admire and appreciate. I want to be like my best friend’s mom and my godparents when I finally grow up. Now I have them to look up to.
You get to choose your own adventure
For me, coming into adulthood has meant a transition from compliant child, eager to please, to a self-sufficient woman with healthy boundaries and informed choices. I am not a statistic. I am a person. I still people-please, and I still find remnants of patterns I don’t like, but I get to recognize them and work on them. I make my own choices. I am not bound by the patterns I learned from my parents. I can choose to build new patterns based on the healthy, well-intentioned grown-ups in my life. I am an adventuress, and the star of my own life. It is not up to me to be the best supporting actress in my parents’ lives. Their adventures have been cobbled together by their own choices. I get to choose my own adventure.
Know when to walk away, know when to run…
Life’s a gamble. Here’s the thing: Sometimes, your own best intentions and healthy patterns can’t cancel out the choices your parents make. It isn’t an easy decision to come to, to make, or to act on, but sometimes estrangement is the right choice for you. It was for me.
My father’s abuse was a no-brainer — running and not looking back wasn’t hard for me. I grew to have only fear and anger toward him, and removing him from my life was a great relief. Your mileage may vary and all situations are different, I know this, but for me, the day I decided he was out of my life was a red-letter day. A jubilee. I celebrated the anniversary of it for a few years until one year the date came and went without a thought — and that’s when I knew I had let him go. I’m quite content to have severed our relationship.
My mother was a different story. In my family, women never age past 29. Your 29th birthday is a thing. I’ve had three 29th birthdays now, and I hope to have as many as my grandmother did. It’s a teasing, sweet, funny quirk about the women in my family, and something I looked forward to in the few days before my first 29th birthday, a few months before my wedding. My mother and I had argued a few months before and she’d told me she didn’t like me very much and she never wanted to see me again. Some part of me still thought, “but it’s my 29th birthday! She’ll call!” She didn’t.
A few days later, I called her. In curt phrases she told me she didn’t like me very much, she didn’t know if she loved me, but she’d think about whether she’d make it to my wedding. I was gutted.
I summoned my strength and stood up, even though we were on the phone, and took a deep breath. You see, I already knew she was unhealthy and operated with bad intentions. I’d already found adults to emulate and I was choosing my own adventure. I had made healthy patterns, boundaries, and informed choices. It was time for me to walk away.
“Mom, I’m sorry you feel that way. We’ve chosen not to invite anyone to our wedding who doesn’t love us and like us a whole lot. I’ll be sending you a play-along-at-home kit with all our favors and an invitation to watch our ceremony streaming on the webcam, but I’m afraid I can’t ask you to be there.”
“You don’t want your mom to come to your wedding?” she was surprised
“Of course I do. But I won’t have anyone there who doesn’t love me and like me a whole lot.”
“Oh. So you’ll send me a box?”
Gutted. I’d offered her a healthy relationship, but only confirmed that she didn’t like me very much, and wasn’t sure she loved me. She didn’t come to our wedding. You know who did? My other mom, and my godparents. My godfather walked me down the aisle. I didn’t miss my father or my mother. I was choosing my own adventure, and had assembled a party of adventurers whom I loved and who loved me.
You get to write your own epilogue
My story isn’t about my childhood. It’s not about the mistakes my parents made or the unhealthy behaviors and treatment patterns they created. It’s not about their intentions. My story is about choosing my own adventure, about assembling my avengers and quilting together my family. My story is about making informed choices and consciously deciding to buck the statistics. It’s about finding people who love me and let me love them back, and about letting go of the people who don’t.
My story is not your story, and you have to choose your own adventure. I hope that if you ever have rough stuff, the lessons I’ve shared help you smooth it out. In the meantime, if anyone needs an adult, I think I’m almost ready.