My parents each had three marriages. Five marriages ending in divorce and one ending in death, between the both of them. My grandparents on both sides either were divorced and separated by the end of their lives. I grew up with a mother miserable in her marriage to my father. He was verbally abusive and a control freak. It felt horrible to know that half of my blood came from him, such a jerk. I worried I would grow up to be like him. A yeller, a rageaholic, a serial divorcee who could never find unbreakable love.
As dad yelled at Mom, as he yelled at my half-siblings, as he yelled at me, we knew he wasn't just yelling at us. Because usually we had done nothing wrong. We mostly ignored him, wrote him off as a jerk, wrote funny songs about wishing he'd die, you know, all the sensible things people who grow up in dysfunctional families do to cope.
As I've matured, it's become obvious that Dad wasn't mad at just us. We were the straw that broke his back.
As my wise-beyond-her-years, eight-year-old daughter said to me the other day after asking questions about my rocky relationship with my dad, "He wasn't just yelling at you. He was yelling at his past, too."
My dad had a traumatic childhood. His parents, both oldest siblings of huge farm families, didn't want to have kids. They ended up having three, my dad, and my two aunts. Birth control was expensive and hard to find back in the Twenties and Thirties. There were no pills. Women douched with Lysol and prayed to God not to get pregnant again, and again, and again.
This way of life seems so foreign to me. I had access to birth control pills, condoms, all kinds of good birth control from the moment I first wanted to have sex. I never had to squirt poison up my vagina and ask God to spare me a lot in life that could easily kill me or my baby. I waited until I was thirty-five to have Katie. I was thrilled when the pee stick had two lines. Will and I had been married for over a year, and we had been trying to get pregnant for about eighteen months before I was able to conceive.
When we got married, Will told me he wanted six children. I was relieved that I wouldn't have to convince him I wanted a big family. Many people we know choose not to have children, or to have one or two at the most. Having a big family is rare these days. We live in a time when having a large family is usually a choice, not an inevitable burden. My medical condition, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, prevented us from choosing to have a big family. We've learned to love what we've got. We've had a lot of fun trying, but so far we've only been able to have one baby. I'm going to turn forty-four this year. I suspect our baby-making days are done, despite our desire to have more.
Our one child, Katie, is growing up surrounded by love. I have yelled at her one time, when she was about two or three, and I walked into the living room after having left her alone for what seemed like only a minute or two to find that she had dug feces out of her diaper and used it as Play-doh, smearing it all over our living room furniture, the TV, the floor.
Katie reminds me of this time, I guess because it was such a rare experience for her, having someone in authority who she loves yell at her, and also because kids like to point out the flaws in their parents. When Katie says to me, "Remember when you yelled at me?" its like when I say to my mom, "Remember when you sent me to Weight Watchers in third grade?" We love our parents, but we also like to stick our fingers on their parental bruises they acquired by stupid mistakes all parents make.
Will has never yelled at Katie. Neither of us has ever spanked her. She's one of those kids who has been raised to know that hands are for hugging, mouths are for kissing, and words are for expressing love. Before I became a parent, I thought that kind of parenting was hogwash. How can you get a kid to mind you if you don't yell at them or spank them? Then I had a kid of my own and I fell in love with her so much I decided I would try my hardest never to hurt her. I read a book called Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It changed my outlook on parenting. Conversations, not punishments or rewards.
Saying I don't want to hurt my child is different than saying I want her to always be comfortable. I think hovering over children and treating them like fragile heirlooms is harmful for a child's well-being. The other day Will said he wanted to fix the air conditioning in my car. I said no.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because I hardly drive anywhere long enough for the AC to even kick in. I don't need it. The farthest I ever drive is an hour to see Mom and that's only like once a month," I explained.
"But what about Katie? Don't you want her to be comfortable in the car?" He asked. Will is an amazing parent. He always thinks of Katie first. His parenting style is both selfless and strong.
I thought about his question for a moment and then I said, "No, not always. I mean, I want her to be safe. She must wear her seat belt, and we must bring water to drink while we sweat, but no, I don't think kids have to always be comfortable. I think it's healthy to teach kids that life is sometimes a struggle. There's lots of kids in the world whose parents don't even have a car, let alone a car that has air-conditioning."
Will smiled like he does when I say something unexpected, nodded his head and said, "Right on."
I let my kid sweat. I don't buy her a lot of fancy toys or clothes. But I also let her pretty much eat whatever she wants, believing that a child should learn how to trust her body's natural cues for hunger and fullness. So far she hasn't gone into a sugar coma, and she's growing like a weed. I try not to pay attention to her when she's interrupting me while someone else is talking, because I don't want her to think the world revolves around her. I let her wear her hair messy most of the time because it's the way she likes to wear it. But when she comes home and tells me she got into a fight with a kid in her class, I sit down with her and listen to her side of the story before I punish or yell. We talk it out. We think of ways she could have handled the situation better. We think of ways that she can apologize and forgive. Instead of sending her away to time-out, or taking away her video game privileges, we talk.
I have the luxury to do so because we have one child to give our time to, we have books to read, we have our own choices. I learned how to be a good parent by growing up myself before deciding to have children.
When my dad was a kid, he got into a fight at school with a bully. Dad ran home. His dad was outside on the front porch. He asked Dad what had happened to his face. Dad's nose was bloody and his eye was swollen. Dad told him a bully beat him up. Dad's dad stood up, took off his belt, and beat Dad in the front yard in front of all the neighbors and kids and no one did anything to stop him.
"Why did he beat you?" I asked my dad when he told me the story when I was a teenager.
"Because he wanted to toughen me up. He wanted to make a man out of me. He told me to go back out there and defend myself against that bully. He didn't want me to be weak. It was his way of protecting me."
He was in second grade.
When Dad was twenty-two, after he got back from the War where he helped clean up bombed out cities in Europe and I suspect saw a cadaver or two, he walked into his Dad's house and saw beer bottles strewn all over. Dad's mom had recently left his dad. She could tolerate his alcoholism no more. She ran off to Nevada with another man. That weekend, Dad went to check on his dad. He heard the shower running. He walked into the bathroom and found his father, dead, slumped over in the shower.
The medical examiner said Dad's dad had a heart attack. He was 48.
Dad went on to marry, and divorce, marry, and divorce, marry, and divorce again. At eighty-seven, he recently proposed to this woman he dances with, but she said no. I think it has something to do with taxes. Or maybe she's leery of a man who's been divorced three times. Dad lives alone in a senior apartment complex. He dances, he plays bridge. He's on Sertraline. He seems happier than I've ever seen him. His only complaint: he hates to be at home alone.
Recently my sister had a party and invited everyone in the family, both my mom and my dad. They've been divorced since 1992. Time has lessened Mom's resentment. Sertraline has helped Dad lighten up. I sat there wondering what life would have been like if Dad had the psychotropic drug choices we have now when I was a kid. My life would have been so much better. Or when he was kid. Or his dad was a kid...
It's easier to have a healthy marriage and family nowadays. We have options. We have help. We have drugs. It's easier today than it even was when I was in my twenties. Every decade progresses and life gets better when we work at it.
When I was in my twenties, when lots of people in our culture decide to partner up, a close friend of mine said something that made sense, even though it stung to have the truth thrown at me. She said, "Becky, you weren't taught how to love. Growing up, you had no examples of what a good marriage is like."
She told me this when I explained why I couldn't be her bridesmaid. I don't believe in marriage, I thought. Kinda like how I used to think I didn't believe in going to church. When you grow up viewing institutions in a negative light, the last thing you want to do when you become an adult and make choices of your own is to join them.
So I waited longer than most people do to get married. I waited until I met just the right person. I met Will when I was 31 and he was just 21. We married when I was 33 and he was 23. When my mom asked me why Will's the one, I said because he's the only person I've ever felt completely comfortable around. As someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder, that's saying a lot. I've had anxiety so long, it feels more like a character trait and less like a medical disorder. I'm anxious. I worry what people think. I'm really good at faking it. I can laugh and have a good time, but inside there is always a stream of anxious thoughts running through my consciousness.
But not around Will. He somehow calms my anxious thoughts. I knew Will was the person I wanted to marry when I realized he's the person I like to be around the most. It's as simple as that.
So when you hit on him the other night, and when my intuition told me to verify my thoughts with Will the next morning, and he said yes, you had asked him to have sex with you, emotions I have not felt in decades came rushing back. I was so fucking mad at you!
You were once my partner. Long ago. Two decades ago. My first long-term, monogamous relationship, but not a marriage. Back in the dark ages of our youth it was still illegal for gay partners to marry. Three years, we were together. And it was mostly awful. Fighting, drama, crying, breaking things, feeling like I was losing my mind. I was terrible to you. I was the worst girlfriend anyone could ask for. I screamed at you. I treated you like you were an idiot even though you are not. I punched you in the face.
I had turned into my dad--even worse! Dad never punched Mom.
I had to get out. I was turning into a monster. Something in you triggered such fierce anger in me. I wanted to love you enough that it calmed my anxiety, but I could not.
We broke up and it was the best thing for both of us. You got another girlfriend and I spent ten years more-or-less celibate, trying to get my shit together. I began eating healthy foods and moving my body. I talked to therapists. I read self-help books. I first took Lithium, then Amitriptyline, then Paxil, then finally, Sertraline. Sertraline really works for me. I guess I'm a daddy's girl after all.
During the time I was growing and changing and learning how to love, you dated a couple of people, but mostly you seemed like you were constantly searching for someone who could love you in a way you had never been loved. Completely, Without anger. Without jealousy. Without secrets and lies and betrayals. I'm not going to go into details about your family background. That's your story to share, not mine. But you were raised to think sex is dirty and your body is fat and repulsive. You were raised to stay away from boys because they only wanted you for one thing and that loving girls was a sin. It's no wonder you didn't learn how to love in a healthy way, too.
Years passed and we became friends again. We could laugh about the good old times. Yes, there were some. It wasn't all bad. I no longer felt romantically attached to you, so you were more like a good friend, or a sister. You signed my marriage certificate as a witness when Will and I got married. You bought toys for our kid. You came to family gatherings. Like a sister.
In the last year your drinking has gotten worse. You message me hateful rants in the middle of the night, and then when I try to talk to you about it the next day you don't even remember. For awhile now it's been a drag to hang out with you. You come over and talk about how lonely you are, how you wish you had a life-partner. I advise you to quit drinking because it brings out the worst in you, but you think I'm acting holier than thou, since I have my unhealthy habits too, drinking among them. You get mad and bring up old anger and blame. We fight, not as badly as in the old days, but still, it wears me down.
I feel guilty because I'm the one who bought you your first beer.
I've wanted out for several months now. I'm tired of being your friend. In a way, I'm grateful for your betrayal. Asking my husband, the person who turned my life around and taught me how to love, to have sex with you is the biggest betrayal. I thank you for it. It gives me an excuse to quit blaming myself for our horrible relationship. I can finally say, I'm done, I don't want to be lovers, I don't want to be friends, I don't want to see you anymore.
I've changed. I've grown. I've learned how to love. Will has helped me. Our daughter has helped me. Sertraline and therapy and exercise has helped me. My church community has helped me. I have helped myself.
You, on the other hand, have not faced your inner demons. You drink them away and pretend they don't exist. I don't blame you for your pain. You had a crappy childhood too. It's hard for a lesbian to grow up in a culture that tells her it's a sin to love. But you are an adult. You know actions have consequences and that it is wrong to ask your friend's husband to cheat.
I don't think it's all your fault. It never is with people. We learn to be cruel to others by having others be cruel to us.
Jesus was right to teach us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to forgive those who trespass against us, to love God and love people. As simple as that.
Jesus was right to teach us to forgive, because it's more harmful to carry around resentment than it is to let it go. Hate is much worse for the hater. It's stressful. You think, "I'll show them! How dare they treat me that way! I'm never going to forgive them for what they did to me! I'm gonna hate them til the day I die."
You think you're right. It makes so much sense to hate someone who has hurt you. But one day you realize you're just going through the motions. You don't care about anything or anyone. You're miserable. Your hatred has consumed you. You hate those who wronged you, you hate the world, you hate yourself, you hate life. All you can feel is nothing.
Jesus said: Stop! Don't let hurt kill you. Because that's what it is, living without forgiveness. It's a slow, suffocating death.
Jesus said: Love! So I will love. I will not hate you. I will forgive you.
Forgive you and forget you.
After your betrayal, I know the best way I can love you is to leave you. Finally and for sure. Not lovers. Not friends. Not sisters. Just two human beings who are better off apart.
I don't ever want to see you again.
Still, I hope you find someone to love you the way Will loves me. Loyal. Eternal. Calm. Deep. It is a testament to my husband's loyal nature that he did not give in to his biological urges and say yes to you. We're coming upon ten years of marriage, and it's stronger than ever. No one will break us apart. I know that. It's a tremendous feeling to have for someone who grew up in a fractured family. May you find that kind of unbreakable love someday, too.