Having had too much to drink, I once openly grieved the separation of young children from their mother and siblings, adding to that my heartache about the emotionally abusive treatment they were receiving in their new residence.
For this admission of vulnerability and empathy, I was mocked, publicly, at a table in a cocktail lounge at the restaurant I managed during my summer breaks from school.
“If you really cared about them, you would skip your semester abroad,” he said.
I considered legal proceedings. I considered dropping out of school and getting a job so that I could afford a house that would fit us all. But these thoughts, like my voice, were futile. I wasn’t in a democracy. I was in a family.
All over Facebook, friends are sharing their stories of separation–the lasting impact–from the Holocaust to asylum-seeking to summer camp.
Feeling our own pain, however large or small, is a radical act. It allows us to feel the pain of another, without making it our own, which only serves to immobilize us.
Self-connection is necessary. Self-connection allows us to stay attuned to the needs of others while remembering our response-ability to the life we inhabit, right in the moment.
Self-connection might look like a walk, or a nap, a therapist chair, a bodyworkers table, a cup of tea in the garden, a meditation on a hummingbird’s flight, a weekend retreat, anything that reminds us of our distinctness so that the connection we offer is whole.
The first time I ever yelled at my son was at our back door on our way out to preschool. I was pregnant, feeling awful, and my steady supply of patience had suddenly evaporated. It was downhill after that. My bubble as a “perfect parent” popped, again and again, particularly once I became a mother of two boys.
That said, I had a strong skill set for parenting. I had been the oldest of eight and an elementary school teacher by profession. In fact, I had been my son’s preschool teacher for 2 years until he fired me: “Mom, would you leave like the other Mom’s do?”
When I left the preschool the following year, I was given the job of coordinating an ongoing parenting workshop in our district. I was an eager participant as well. I explained that I held so much personal power in the home that I wanted to be sure my boys came into their own. The majority of the others complained that their children never listened to them.
“All I do is yell,” confided one mother.
I’ll never forget that admission because her sadness touched me, and I also wondered about it. Why did she yell? Didn’t she bring her boys up to listen to her? It takes persistence, but it can be done; and it’s much more effective and empowering than yelling.
It would be ten years before I realized that I had become that mother. It didn’t happen over night. It crept up on me, like a slow, growing fungus. Frustration played a part, fatigue did too, as did the diminishing return of being a perfect parent.
My oldest was 10 when the fungus picked up its pace. It was time for violin practice, and he not only balked, but refused. When I insisted, with accentuated volume, he had the audacity to leave. He ran out the door and hid behind his rock pile. My husband encouraged me not to follow him.
But when he returned, there were fireworks. I’ll never forget coming face to face with my own powerlessness as we yelled at each other at the top of the stairs; or the desperate absurdity of my next move: “I’m going break all your toys,”I said.
There was a long pause while we absorbed my threat, followed the expansion of our mouths into a smile, and then laughter.
It was time for my role as Commander in Chief to change; and to tell the truth, looking back now, seven years later, as my son rounds out the last semester of high school, I did a pretty good job with the transition. We still like each other; and even though the fireworks have increased over time, they are more frequently followed by understanding and acceptance and even… affection.
Lately, this emerging adult confides that my personal power is intimidating. That even though I listen and consider and even change my mind at times, I have such a commanding manner, that even when I’m giving, I can be taking away.
I resent this. I want everyone to find their own power. I don’t want to diminish mine just to make them comfortable. I’ve worked hard to claim this power in my life; it’s what enabled me to transcend a great deal of pain and to create the beautiful fulfilling life I have now –which includes a positive relationship with my teenager.
It seems a shame to be giving up my voice just when I’m coming into it as a middle-aged woman with dramatic hormonal surges of clarity, but I listen and consider and begin to shape a plan; because that’s how much I love these men–not only my husband and my teenager–but his younger brother, who at 12 is still a sensitive soul who can’t bear these heated arguments.
I know that the last handful of years has taken its toll on my youngest; and that by the time his brother is off to college, he’ll begin his own adolescence. Perhaps this second act will be less intense, simply because it’s no longer a complete unknown. Maybe it will feel as easy as it did when he was born and we had already endured the initiation into parenting so that we spent much of the time coasting. Maybe we’ll be more relax more this time around with a teenager, knowing that we didn’t totally fuck up the first one.
But you never know. Things can be going on swimmingly, and then a tidal wave comes out of nowhere. Like the day before last. When my oldest and I went head to head at breakfast and I banged my fist on the table like I’d seen my father do. My younger son resigned himself to leaving the room, while my husband rebuked us, again and again.
Growing up in what could be a volatile home, my husband was afraid of anger, and rarely expressed it. He was also the middle child, the peace maker, and so his first-born wife was infuriated each time he stood the middle ground instead of rolling up his sleeves to tackle the intensity of parenting a teenager. “I’m raising a man!” I’d rant with all my mid-life fury, challenging him to tell me what he was after.
This is how the intensity built on Sunday so that what started out as a typical disagreement between two parents and their son mutated into ongoing fireworks between husband and wife; only I was the only one launching anything of color. By the time my husband truly engaged, at the tail end of a tiring day, he was fully loaded–with pain. The pain from a lifetime of witnessing volatility, the pain of fear and powerlessness, and the frustration of facing my angst and anger without expressing his own or without being able to communicate how toxic the build up was for him.
The result was–chilling and sobering and a wakeup call–for both of us. His–to more fully explore the pain he never felt or flushed; Mine–to realize the impact that my own volatility might have on my family.
I decide to go on a diet. A volume diet. A power diet. I will not relinquish my hard-earned voice, but I will cultivate it on the inside so that my sons and my husband might have more space to cultivate their own.
I check the calendar and discover that “lent” begins tomorrow. What a coincidence! (I’m not even Catholic.)
Those years of spanking, with the belt, on my naked bottom, over his lap–those were a legitimate act of parental discipline, right? And the time when I was a grown woman, home from college… and he hit me across the face with the back of his hand; not once, but three times; that wasn’t the kind of wrong where you press charges because I had mocked the authority of the man who provided for me, right?
When does standing up for yourself shift from disobedience to claiming ones rightful place in the world? And what earns that place?
Money or size?
And what about respect? How is that come by? Does it only flow in one direction? Who decides?
These are the questions I’ve asked myself as a woman, but up until now I’ve never realized that I was among those violated. Until my husband punched our door in the middle of a heated argument, and then kicked the wall beside the bed until the sheet rock collapsed on itself; then, I realized; this is about “them,” this is about all women.
My first thought was the children. My teenager remained safely behind his closed door while my 12 year old called out from his dreams. I rushed to his room and sat beside him until he settled back into a softer sleep.
Then I quickly returned to the bedroom, grabbed my things, and headed downstairs. I considered leaving, as I had in college when my father gave me the black eye, but where would I go and why would I go?
I made up a bed on the couch and put the phone beside me. The room was dark except for the glow of the wood stove so I could barely see my husband arrive at the bottom of the stairs.
“Don’t come any closer,” I said. “I’ll call the police. I mean it.”
He said my name desperately, unbelievably, before resigning himself to leave. I ached for his grief but I felt afraid of him at the same time. His outburst had triggered a lifetime of vulnerability and intimidation.
I wondered if I was to blame like I had been as a child… when I was bad; or as a young adult when I was disrespectful. I was reminded of what my in-laws once “joked” in a heated moment when they felt their son was victimized by my constant demands: “Maybe he takes you out back and beats the crap out of you.”
I tried to fall asleep, but I kept thinking about the wall, and about how that could have been me, and about how some woman somewhere was definitely being kicked across a floor while her children screamed. I was definitely not returning to that room until the wall was repaired.
When the floor creaked above me, I froze. When another tall figure appeared by the wood stove, I sprung upright, and reached for the phone, ready to dial.
It was my oldest son. He lay down beside me in a space that was smaller than a single bed even though our queen had been too close for his comfort for years on end. He wrapped his arm around me and took my hand in his.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He stayed for an hour. We talked. About ourselves. About anger. About self-expression. About power. About helplessness. When I heard the floor creak again, I moved my hands through the blankets, but I couldn’t find the phone. My son asked what I was doing, and at first I said, “Nothing,” but then I attempted to explain the vulnerability that is unique to women.
He listened attentively and then apologized for not coming to me when he first heard his father’s outburst.
After he left, I lay there, softening, wishing for my mother, wanting the comfort of my husband. I suddenly understood how a violated woman might return to the lover who had abused her.
I remembered that my father once confided to me that he’d hit my mother “only a few times” when she was overly emotional. I was appalled; and couldn’t understand why she hadn’t stood up for herself or for me when he hit me. But we were both petite women, and he was towering. That and the fact that my mother was born only twenty years after women claimed the right to vote; and I would be ten before “marital rape” was a crime in every state. That kind of subjugation lives on covertly in the dynamic of the culture for generations.
My own husband is a kind, gentle man, not prone to anger, but he grew up in what could be a volatile home, as did his parents before him. Those legacies don’t just disappear. Not without attention. And consciousness. And courage.
I began to realize that the threat I felt was not so much about the man upstairs as it was about the position of women throughout time. My mind turned to all those who are terrorized the men in their lives–by lovers, fathers, brothers, husbands–in the past and in the present–and especially those among us who are too threatened to get help.
I woke the next morning, in my own bed, with a pounding skull, and a tight jaw, and a stiff neck. “This is trauma,” I thought. (And I hadn’t even been touched.)
I decided that our wall wouldn’t be repaired right away after all. That we would use it as a reminder of what is at stake. Particularly today as our lawmakers deliberate over VAWA: The Violence Against Women Act.
I am certain that whatever rights and protections are bestowed upon women are bestowed upon us all; just as whatever trauma is inflicted impacts us all.
I must confess that I’m biased. I pack a lot of personal power into my 5 foot 2, mama frame. As the oldest of 8, leadership came early. That combined with a love learning and children led me to teaching, where to no surprise, classroom management came easily. When I asked my sixth-grade students why they behaved so poorly for a colleague while behaving so well for me, one replied on behalf of the class, “We know you mean business, Ms. Salasin.”
Unfortunately, parenting a toddler was nothing like managing a classroom. I quickly found some wonderful mentors to guide me as a new parent. When my first-born approached double-digits however, things got”stickier”– climaxing on the day that he refused to practice his violin and dashed out of the house defiantly after I told him to stay.
I was beside myself with thoughts of crushing his will.
When we finally did pick up the “conversation” again, things quickly grew heated, and I actually threatened… to break his toys… before breaking into a smile, shocked at myself. (We both shared a belly laugh then at how ludicrous and desperate I had become.)
This was a turning point for me. I knew that my “rule” in the home had to be adapted in order to remained connected to this emerging man. I didn’t want to give up my personal power, but neither did I want him to grow up without his.
Another mentor appeared. This time with a practice: Non-Violent Communication (NVC). A parent group was formed, and I began studying and applying this subtle, but paradigm-shifting orientation toward power and needs. Most parents came because their kids wouldn’t listen; I came because I wanted to be sure that I listened.
Within months, my oldest was able to use NVC as a powerful tool for communicating what he needed. More often than not, he got what he wanted because he was able to connect to the depth of his needs and share them; and I wanted to respond. Equally instrumental, was his growing ability to understand my needs; and respond, accordingly.
Now this son is 16, and his younger brother is following in his footsteps–using communication that connects and relates. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments of frustration or that we don’t lash out from time to time; but we know how to rebound and reconnect; and we practice this every day; and it has truly been amazing–particularly in relationship with a young man who is getting ready to head off to college.
I feel proud. I feel proud that my boys have grown up witnessing and respecting the power of a woman; and I feel equally proud that they know how to understand and express their own needs from a place of strength–and connection.
In our home, each voice is respected. This doesn’t mean that I shirk my role as a parent to guide and teach my sons. I am a strong guide, and they don’t always like it; but they are accustomed to it.
At the same time, I work to help them develop the skills they need to leave me… and hopefully return someday–as a friend.
In desperation, we may think that we have no choice, but that’s not true. The exciting thing about needs is that they are not mutually exclusive. A teenager can have a need for autonomy; and a parent can have a need for respect; and both of these needs can met.
It’s only our strategies that are be in conflict, and with creativity and presence, strategies emerge that meet both needs.
I don’t mean to imply that there will be no conflict or pain, but that there is a way–in our homes and in our communities and our wider world–to respect the needs of ourselves and others–with strategies that support both.
The place to start is self-compassion. Had Mr. Jordan deeply connected to his feelings, he would have realized that he was sad and angry and frustrated. These feelings would have pointed to his needs for respect and consideration and even power; and in his connection to these needs, he would have felt compassion for himself in this challenging role of parenting a seemingly ungrateful child.
In the space between connecting with himself and later his daughter, he would have tended to his hurt in whatever way brought him peace. For me, it is yoga and a visit to my therapist and walk with a good friend on a country road. For someone else, it’s sailing or hunting or Tai Chi.
Fully connected with himself, Mr. Jordan would then be ready to explore his daughter’s needs–even in the face of her hurtful Facebook postings.
He might guess that his daughter was needing greater autonomy or that she might need a greater understanding of how the household roles were shared. He could respond to his daughter in a way that not only set limits but also engendered respect–not for his power–but for his feelings as a man and a parent.
I’m not saying that this is easy. As a parent of a teenager, I know how often my son needs a reality check about how the rest of us feel. I also know that this characteristic self-absorption is a necessary edge of adolescent development. Thus I endeavor to provide those reality checks without shame; whenever needed. That doesn’t mean I never get angry or use my anger to more strongly communicate my needs.
It is important to note here that there is an inherent imbalance in the parent-teen relationship. Teens make it their full time job to claim independence; while our role is only part-time. In this imbalance, we often resort quick to fixes: Shooting a laptop for instance. Videotaping it and putting it on Facebook. Or maybe something less dramatic, but equally disconnecting.
On the other side, parents hold a greater measure of basic power: the money, the home, the food, the clothes, the keys, and often size and strength (at least for fathers and daughters.)
Despite how many applaud Mr. Jordan’s definitive line in the sand, most have come to realize, through deeper reflection, that his display of power was one of helplessness and hurt, not one of instruction and love.
He made a mistake, one with great ramifications, but in doing so, he provided the rest of us with an opportunity to look at where we feel powerless, and what we do about it.
Given Mr. Jordan’s machismo, he might have though twice about publicly humiliating his testosterone-driven offspring. The tragic results of those kind of father-son “lessons” make regular news.
Which brings me to another beef I have with those who claim that this was a case of a child learning respect. As a lifelong educator, I will now turn to the dictionary to address this gross misunderstanding of the word in question:
1 a feeling of deep admiration for someone;
• the state of being admired in such a way;
• due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others: respect for human rights.
Perhaps Mr. Jordan’s daughter respects his aim, his camera presence, and even his follow through with a threat; and maybe that’s all he was after; but my guess is that he wanted his actions to create within her: “due regard for the feelings, wishes, and rights of others,” and this alas, is best taught without a weapon.
When correcting a child, the goal is to apply light, not heat.
Is it just me or are there others who are equally disheartened by how many people have applauded the dad who shot his teenager’s computer after she used it to bash him on Facebook? And I’m not just talking about parents of teenagers. Young people think this guy is cool.
Is this really our country? Is old-fashioned humiliation considered heroic parenting? Are we seriously claiming that intimidation is an expression of love?
I’m sorry, but this particularly obnoxious teenage apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. You don’t teach someone respect; they learn it.
To be honest, I haven’t read this troubled girl’s Facebook post or her father’s outrageous videotaped response–because I know it would only outrage me further; and what concerns me is not one misguided parent, but all those who applaud him.
Have we become a country that is so afraid of our teenagers that we celebrate their alienation? Do we have so much shame about own youthful abandon that we need punish someone for absolution? Or have teenagers become the scapegoat for our disillusionment with ourselves and this country?
Recently a colleague bemoaned American parenting when she read that French toddlers were capable of sitting at a dinner table for over an hour; while American children demand immediate gratification.
This isn’t about AMERICAN CHILDREN, THIS IS ABOUT AMERICAN CULTURE!
There’s a lot of talk about the “right way” to use spanking as discipline–and to my beloved father’s credit, he always used it in a disciplined manner–only my body/spirit didn’t register the difference.
“The past is an Aladdin’s lamp which (we) never tire of rubbing” -Phillip Lopate
Sitting in Amy’s Bakery next to a plate smeared with jam and butter,
a half mug of hot cider in hand,
the fog drifting over the river, and yoga in my
bones, I am the only one who jumps when a man drops his umbrella.
No one else even flinches,
so I ask myself:
Deep breath, and I hear the hammers banging away at my therapist’s office–yesterday–and the sound of my dad’s footsteps coming up the stairs–a lifetime ago:
muscles tightening across my back and chest.
i cower in the corner of my bed;
while my vertabrae freeze with rage.
A voice rises from deep in my gut:
GET AWAY FROM ME!
But that is now;
Then, i plead,
“No, Daddy, no!”
as I cover my thigh with my hand,
and scramble to fit even further into the corner
till my spine burns itself into the wall
i don’t disappear.
The belt slaps, once,
and i am…
Like a dog
i will escape this tiny body, this whimpering tone, and rise above him, like an evil genie out of a bottle,
green and black
booming with power and threat
and he will be vanquished
turned to dust.
Until then, I
I fight injustice;
even though it always ends the same.
of my freshman year at college;
home for the weekend;
playing the white baby grand in the parlor;
the theme song from “Endless Love.”
As he calls to me from his room above,
“Kelly Ann, Time for bed!”
My back bristles and hardens.
“Kelly Ann, did you hear me: Time for bed!”
I ignore his voice
I finish the song
I pray he’ll think I can’t hear him over
the pounding of the keys…
“KELLY ANN!” he booms, shaking my entire life.
Deep breath, and
my fingers continue moving…
I’m 18 for god sakes!
I no longer need to be told to go to bed.
My fingers quicken,
pretending he doesn’t exist.
that he doesn’t matter,
that his footsteps aren’t coming down the stairs,
that he is not turning the corner,
that he is not 6 foot 4…
“If you want to see what happens then you can just keep on playing,”
exposing his hand.
With another deep breath, I stand and throw down all my cards:
“And if you want to see what happens you can just keep on playing…” I mock, with my hands on my hips, just like his.
In two strides he is across the room.
I rise to meet him in all my power;
But i am not the genie;
i am 5 foot 2.
Swiping my eye, my cheek
Stand up again
Hot words fly
We move from the piano
toward the couch
beside the marble table
He swipes a third time
and turns to leave me there
on the floor
I do not cry
I have won
or have i?
He has never hit me
like this before;
not like a wife.
I have always been
splayed out over his lap
pants down, age 4, 7, 9;
or bed shirt lifted up the thigh, age 10, 11, 12.
I stumble toward the kitchen for ice;
for a drink of water;
for my keys.
My mother meets me there in the dark.
I hold back tears, knowing she’s come to comfort me;
but she doesn’t even look at me, when she says,
“You shouldn’t talk to your father that way.”
I am stunned, and suddenly I see her, really see her:
cloaked in a robe of fear,
unable to feel, anything,
leaving us each alone, in this dark kitchen, where we have laughed and confided and cooked his meals together.
He has hit her too: “Only once or twice when she couldn’t get control of herself,” he explains.
I drive the empty nighttime blocks down Pacific,
toward my boyfriend’s house on Palm;
where everyone is sleeping;
and he is out.
I lie down on the sectional under the bay window;
and stare at the street lights
bringing my fingers to my swollen cheek, my eye,
until I’m icy… inside.
When my boyfriend arrives, he offers to go in my defense,
but he’s not much bigger than me,
and it is over now anyway.
I have swallowed it whole.
My father often remarks
that one of us will leave
before I turn 18, adding,
“And it ain’t gonna be me.”
Didn’t his mother say the same thing?
In the same room?
Of the same house?
But it is he, who leaves, again,
when my mother takes a lover,
half her age:
my boyfriend’s best buddy, in fact.
She thinks she’ll escape from her frozen life,
until she realizes;
that it’s her life’s pain that needs to thaw.
and when that’s not far enough…
when my sisters still call
“Mom is lying, drunk, on the front lawn,”
“The car window is smashed and there is blood,”
“Dad has called us horrible names, shouted terrible things about her,”
“He’s threatening to send us back if we don’t behave,”
I open the doors onto Overbrook Avenue in Philadelphia,
and then return to my studies,
finally putting an Ocean between me and that pain,
with a semester abroad;
so far away, that no one calls,
not even to say,
that my grandmother has died;
that her funeral has already taken place.
Lonely and estranged,
I eagerly anticipate
my father and his soon-to-be fiance’s trip abroad.
They check out of the modest hotel that he had me meticulously find;
and move into the Savoy at Her bidding.
When they go shopping, without us,
my sister orders room service from their palatial room (while she spends her nights on my floor):
soup in a silver tureen;
and is later scolded at the price (and the audacity)
though they know nothing of the luxurious bath she took in their tub,
or how she lounged in the thick terry cloth robe afterward.
At the restaurant,
my father and I;
our hearts and tongues loosened by the succession of wine,
that my stepmother orders,
in the hope of dulling our connection.
We scream about my mother, my sisters,
about everything that’s been lost, wanting someone
I leave our velour booth
and stumble into the dark lobby, sobbing,
on this, our last night together.
I don’t know how to get it back
or even what it is that I want back;
I am only 20.
My father follows me in quick strides;
Comes at me in the empty lobby;
Raises his hand;
I become twice his size,
no three times,
and a hiss leaps from my gut…
“DON’T you touch me!”
Stunned, he retreats
to the dinner party,
he has seen both–
his (dead) mother
and his ex-wife.
Alone again, I crumble;
it is too much to be so strong
too hard to hold so much pain inside.