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[personal profile] msagara
Something [ profile] comrade_cat said in the comments tickled a thought I frequently have.

Blaming the crappy part of my life on my parents' divorce is so fucking
cliché though, and I don't want to penalize my parents for making what I
feel was the right decision at the time.

Maybe this is what [ profile] msagara means about not blaming people.

It’s exactly what I meant.

When we’re adults, when we’re parents, we have responsibility and power over the lives of our children. I take that as a given. But we aren’t, and can’t be, perfect people. No other adults are expected to be perfect or to be flawless - and given that parenting is often thankless and exhausting for notable stretches at a time, expecting perfect from parents is unrealistic.

Expecting perfect from anyone, including our children, is equally unrealistic.

I think it’s easy to buy in to the Hallmark Moment version of the mother. (I don’t have a Hallmark image of a father that readily comes to mind). But it’s a fantasy. Or, if I’m being generous, a snapshot. One of the things I really liked about the movie The Rookie with Dennis Quaid (I think), was that it showed the early months of a newborn’s life pretty much as it’s actually experienced. I don’t think we get a lot of that in our various forms of media.

What we get is romance - and there’s nothing wrong with that - and a sense of “happily ever after”, or conversely, romance followed by endless relationship angst. In either case, our lives as individuals with longing & desires of our own abruptly leaves the common narrative when we have children.

It doesn’t, of course, leave us.

But: I think it’s easy to buy into the hallmark version of motherhood as the normative version. This causes the obvious problem: if we assume that that’s what motherhood is, or is supposed to be, we compare our own experiences - both as mothers and as children - and find them hugely wanting.

Our parents aren’t supposed to be people; they’re supposed to be perfect parents.

One of the things I started with my ASD child the moment I knew he could understand (and this happened before he could speak) is give him fair warning when my mood was - through no fault of his - terrible.

My bad moods did not have an impact on him when he understood that they came from a source that had nothing to do with him. I didn’t scream at him; I didn’t hit him - but I was not a cheerleader mother on those days. In the early years, I frequently used the term “headache” to describe those days when I wanted and needed a bit of quiet. I wanted him to understand that my needs had nothing to do with his behaviour, but that his behaviour - really loud play - could adversely affect me.

I didn’t want him to take them personally, but at the same time wanted him to understand that while I had a headache (he once asked me if I had a headache, and I said yes, and he said, “You have that headache face”) his actions could make it worse.

If I was upset about something professionally, if I was stressed about deadlines, I made that clear at the start of the day. Again: it was important to both of us that he understand that my mood was not because of something he’d done.

This was important because he developed theory of mind so late. Without theory of mind, the universe is solipsistic. It revolves around the child. This is not proof of some sort of egregious egomania; it’s the outcome of a developmental state. Therefore, it would be natural to assume that if I were in a bad mood, it of course had something to do with him, because everything did, to him.

I needed to own my imperfection so that he wouldn’t feel that any mood of mine was somehow his fault.

And it’s easy for children to feel that it’s their fault, somehow. When their parents are angry or upset or disappointed they often feel it’s because of something they, as the children, have done - and usually, when we express this openly to children, it is. Their sense of cause and effect when it comes to their parents remains fairly heavily grounded in themselves.

They are the centre of their own universe; being the centre of ours is almost unquestioned.

But it’s also easy for children to carry this sense of their own guilt and culpability going forward. To feel that when someone is angry or upset, they are angry or upset at them; that if things go wrong, it’s their fault.

It’s complicated by the need to instill some sense of responsibility. If, for instance, my child breaks a glass, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t deliberately break it; I, as his mother, expect that he will a) tell me immediately and b) help clean up the mess. I want to make the act of clean-up, which is necessary, uninflected: I don’t want to make him clean it up because it’s his fault, but because it’s his responsibility. I don’t want him to blame himself, feel worthless or guilty or stupid or destructive - because that doesn’t help and it doesn’t change anything. I just want him to help clean up the mess he inadvertently caused.

You can see why it’s difficult. I wanted to make certain that my child understood that I did not think he was a bad person for making a mistake or having an accident. Accidents happen. Mistakes happen. They do not fundamentally alter who you are. But at the same time: they happened, and they frequently required some sort of response. So: It wasn’t deliberate, but it still needed to be addressed.

For a child, there’s no physical difference in outcome between the accident and the deliberate destruction: in either case, I expect him to help clean up the mess. The difference is entirely emotional: I am not angry with him if he broke the glass accidentally; I am very angry if it was a deliberate act of destruction. Intent matters.

One of the ways I made this clear was that I explained that I had not broken the glass, which was self-evident. I emphasized it. I was absolutely willing to help clean up, of course - but if he broke the glass, even by accident, it wasn’t fair that I would then be expected to do all the work. The work still had to be done. It had to be done by someone. We did it together.

But I have seen children who feel that if they did not deliberately do something, it’s not their fault. If they did not deliberately run you over with their bike, they don’t feel a need to apologize or help you up. It was an accident. Their entire responsibility begins and ends with intent.

Well, no. It was an accident. But accidents don’t suddenly mean that you have no personal responsibility in the aftermath. They don’t mean that no damage was caused. You are not malicious. But…you should still offer the person a hand up. If you’ve actually done serious injury, you should get help for them. You are not a terrible person for having an accident (although it’s possible the person with the broken leg will not think kindly of you in the moment), but you are IMHO negligent and irresponsible if you then ride off and leave them lying on the sidewalk with a broken leg.

It is difficult for children to go from “I did it on purpose so I have to attone” to “bad things happen and I have to help out”. It’s easy for them to conflate actions dictated by circumstance as punishment.

It’s easy for them to feel that cleaning up the glass is a punishment rather than a necessary outcome. The punishment for breaking something is you have to clean it up.

It is not a punishment, though. It’s an outcome. A responsibility.

That sets up a whole set of later responses that I don’t think leads to overall happy people.

One of these is: we become a culture of blame. If things are someone else’s fault, it absolves us of having to take action; everything rests on their shoulders. I don’t think you can build a healthy, long-term relationship if that’s your worldview. This is because I’m writing from my own experiences, though. I know I couldn’t.

I think, when emotional pain is involved, it’s much harder.

Let’s go back to the statement “intent matters”. I think, sometimes, that we flip it around. If we are hurt, we assume there was intent on the part of the other person to cause pain. We aren’t hurt in a vacuum. In our minds, pain = intent; our pain = their intent.

But…objectively, in my experience, this is frequently not the case. It is the case in some circumstances. But it often isn’t. It’s like my mother and my sister. There was no intent. But there certainly was pain.

It doesn’t seem fair that we have to untangle our pain on our own. It doesn’t seem fair when that pain clearly came from somewhere. It certainly doesn’t seem fair when the power imbalance of parent/child interactions is involved.

But frequently, parents, being people, see what they themselves intended. They take adverse reactions to a lack of intent to harm as a huge, personal criticism - and they deflect. They tell you you shouldn’t have been so sensitive. They are trying to protect themselves, all these years later, from blame. From guilt and the certain sense of their own failure. Failing one’s child is profound. It is the edge of a colossal void. It is one of a parent’s greatest fears.

Terrified people seldom behave rationally or sanely.

I think blame/fault gets in the way of productive conversation; it impedes understanding.

But…I also feel that lack of intent doesn’t somehow magically make the pain go away. My sister’s pain did not magically go away. So I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge the source of the pain. I don’t think there is anything wrong - at all - with saying, “My parent’s divorce - which was the only solution for the two of them - totally bottomed out my emotional life and my ability to trust or rely on people” or a similar variant.

The inverse, “Husband and I were living in a war zone; we had to split up - but it really undermined my child emotionally, and she’s still paying for it” would also be the same: it acknowledges two sets of unhappy facts.

Saying that the divorce was the best option for two adults who couldn’t live together is true. Saying that it caused enormous pain and isolation is often also true. The one truth doesn’t obliterate the other. Acknowledging the difficulties caused by adult inabilities does not make them Evil Villains.

And sometimes just accepting it means it is something you can work with. You can examine it in all ways, free of anger or guilt or resentment; you can see how seeds planted then have grown roots that you weren’t aware of. That’s the thing with pain: you can’t always see how deep the roots grow if you’ve been incubating it for a long time. But if you can’t acknowledge its source - at least for yourself - you can’t figure out how far down you have to go to uproot something that you never wanted planted in the first place.

Let me close with something personal from my own childhood. I adored my father. I adored him. From birth on. I would wake up with him in the mornings and eat breakfast with him before he left for work for as long as I can remember. When I was a toddler, he woke me up, because if he was gone when I did wake up, I was disconsolate - which was not a kindness to my mother.

My father, like so many fathers of our generation, was required to travel for work.

He was in Germany when I was five. For ten weeks.

He came home. I was overjoyed.

But. I started to have nightmares, and I had these nightmares until puberty. In them, my parents died or, more frequently, were killed. Every. Single. Night. Usually the older of the two brothers died, and half the time, my sister as well - I could almost always save the baby because I could pick him up and run. No matter what I did, I could not save my parents. I could warn them - but I couldn’t save them.

I had serious, serious abandonment issues. My parents were part of my entire life. They did not leave - but he left for ten weeks when I was young. He had to, if he wanted a job; we had to eat, and we had to have a roof over our heads, and I understood this. But I still had issues.

I didn’t realize what the cause of those issues was until high school. I was out with a friend and we were in a bookstore. It was a used bookstore that defined the term “fire hazard”; you could not take two steps without almost tripping over piles of books on the floor. I had been looking at mythology books, and I looked up--and realized that my friend was gone.

I had a moment of hysterical panic. I was sixteen years old, but I could barely breathe. I forgot about the books, and I leapt up and ran around the store looking, heart in my mouth. And of course: he was there. He was looking at books in a different section of the store.

I didn’t let him out of my sight until we left the store; the books were forgotten - and that says something. But…I started to think about it, because: What the Hell?

It was the moment at which I understood why I had these really destructive fears: it was a child’s response. It was the terror of being deserted. And from that point on, I could examine many of my emotional responses in a new (to me) light, and I could almost speak to myself as child and pull that part of me into the present.

I don’t want to say “let go”, because that’s a mischaracterization. If something has fish hooks in your psyche, you are not exactly holding on. But…at that point, I could begin the task of pulling them all out.
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msagara: (Default)
Michelle Sagara

April 2015


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