Tag: Abuse

25May

When a Good Offense is the Best Defense for Abuse

Growing up Quiverfull, I was always aware that we had more to prove than ordinary families did. When we attracted public stares, whether for being out on a school morning or simply for the novelty of so many stair-step children at the salad bar, my siblings and I took our cue to behave as much like miniature, meek adults as possible. I, as the oldest of eight, took this especially to heart. When relatives brought up concerns over my parents’ choice to homeschool, I knew that my grades were our first line of defense. When various adults from church took me aside and told me I could talk to them about anything, I said thank you and clamped my mouth tight around my smile.

Our lifestyle was hard to defend, which made defending it all the more essential to us.

The truth is that we adopted fundamentalist ideologies like patriarchy, authoritarian parenting, and legalism out of fear, not because they bettered our lives. We believed thunder-voiced leaders who told us that isolation from the world was the only way to save our souls. God’s wrath was a specter shadowing every aspect of our daily life from what we ate to how childish energy should be managed, and when we suffered, it was for our own failure to measure up. Telling onlookers the truth was never an option.

Instead, we took up offense as our best defense.

We proclaimed that public-schoolers were idiots with inferior educations as we hid the fact that one of my siblings struggled with learning disabilities that only got worse through horrific at-home “treatments.”

We loudly judged the physical and emotional closeness we saw in couples who were dating (as opposed to family-chaperoned “courting”) while we buried shameful secrets about what can happen in a family when the males are given authority over the females’ bodies.

We declared that children were not safe around homosexuals or social workers or atheists or Democrats even as my siblings and I wore extra clothes to cover the bruises we had sustained in our own home.

I was used as an example of how successful the Quiverfull movement was in producing superior future leaders who would take back the United States for God, though I was told in private that I had no potential and no character, that I was stupid and regrettable and damned.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that promoting our lifestyle was a strategy to deflect attention away from our dysfunction. Mind you, I’m not sure that it worked. My husband points out that having adults continually offer me a listening ear wasn’t normal; many people in our church and neighborhood must have sensed that our home life was much less idyllic than we pretended. However, our loyalty to our beliefs was our shield, and if we had been offered a reality television show from which to champion our choices, I believe we would have taken it.

Yes, this is about the Duggar scandal. It’s about why I was so utterly unsurprised last week when news broke that Josh Duggar has a history of sexually preying on young girls including several of his sisters. While the circumstances of our childhoods were not identical, the ideologies behind them were, and I know firsthand how quickly evil can incubate in an isolated and repressive environment.

It’s no coincidence that Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles whose lifestyle teachings heavily influenced both my family and the Duggars, was ousted from his organization last year after thirty-four accusations of sexual abuse by women who worked for him. Nor is it mere chance that Doug Phillips, founder of another Christian organization that widely promoted patriarchy, homeschooling, and other common tenants of the Quiverfull lifestyle, has had his life unravel over the last year after news of his infidelity and a sexual abuse lawsuit by his children’s former nanny. Despite how adamantly these two men spoke out against worldliness and impropriety during their careers, their positions of “God-sanctioned” power gave them the perfect opportunity to act on their impulses. Perhaps it’s even why they spoke so adamantly.

The best defense is a good offense, and how can you better divert attention from your own sexual behavior than to preach against others’? How can you further distance yourself from a history of child molestation than to take a job publicly implying that LGBT individuals are a threat to children? How can you cover up the sexual abuse perpetrated on and by your children any more thoroughly than to publicize yourselves as the model Christian family? “The lady doth protest too much” may not apply to every situation, but Shakespeare was a better judge of human character than most.

My point is that none of us should be surprised by the news of Josh Duggar’s crimes or his parents’ attempts to cover them up. The system of beliefs under which he and I both grew up creates an environment in which the powerful can inflict abuse with few repercussions, their victims can be made to feel responsible, and defending the family lifestyle is more important than helping the family heal. Growing up Quiverfull taught me to hide family secrets through misdirection, offering up my ultra-modest wardrobe and political rants and Bible memorization trophies to public scrutiny so that no one would guess the horrors happening behind the scenes. Last week’s news is just another reminder that I was not alone in this.

As sickening as the Duggar scandal is to hear, I’m hopeful that its exposure will offer a counterpoint to the façade of a happy, healthy family that they’ve televised over the last six and a half years. The cocktail of movements I call Quiverfull for lack of a more comprehensive term is nothing to be admired. Rather, it is a control-based system that allows—and sometimes encourages—different forms of abuse while publicly touting itself as God’s ideal, and the more people who recognize this in the wake of current news, the more understanding and support we will be able to offer its victims.

30May

Django, Djesus, and PreDjudice

Last night was an accidental movie night. By this, I mean that Dan brought in his laptop and tablet and an impressive tangle of cables and I brought in my ironing board and iron and an impressive pile of shirts, and we sat down on the sofa to sip a drink before getting on with our evening’s work and forgot to get up until three hours later when the closing credits of Django Unchained rolled on.

Now, I’m a sucker for a good Tarantino film (our last accidental movie night can be blamed on Grindhouse being aired in English on Italian TV; how were we supposed to pass up that bit of magic, I ask?), and Django was every bit the ride from subtly intriguing to laughably outrageous that we expected. Still, I sat heavily on the sofa cushions when it was over, feeling like the breath had been knocked out of me.

It’s the subject of slavery, see. I’ve read plenty of books and seen even more films about it, but at a certain point, I just can’t maintain my protective distance any more. The tragedy of humans buying and selling other humans, stripping them of rights, and abusing them as they would never mistreat their in-animate property seeps into my lungs and steals the breath right out of them. If this were an isolated blot on the timetables of history, I could look at it more objectively, but the fact is that we humans, when given the power and the cultural approval to do so, willingly abandon our humanity.

I was born and raised in one of the original Confederate states, and while pushback against the Civil Rights Movement had pretty much dissipated by the time I came along, racism was—is—still alive and well in the South. Today’s racism doesn’t have the theatrical stamp of white hoods or riot gear; rather, it’s a stream of superiority running so silently through the community’s perspective that we don’t even realize it’s there. We don’t identify what’s really going on when we describe the black family across the street as “uppity” for driving a shiny SUV and the black family two doors down as “freeloaders” for relying on Medicaid. We don’t realize how frequently we use race to explain why something is distasteful to us—“Oh, you know, Mexicans and yard care…”—or how our assumptions about others’ income, education, personality, and reliability are fueled by prejudice.

I realize that this is a deep, complex issue that can’t just be laid out and then neatly wrapped up by a middle-class white girl with a blog. I have no love for debate and no desire to shame the people I grew up with over a bigger cultural issue. That said, one glaring realization stands out to me in the emotional aftermath of Accidental Django Night: The reason that traditional slavery no longer exists in the United States is not that we’re a more enlightened species now; it’s that brave people over the last two centuries fought and sacrificed and took unpopular stands and often risked everything to get one human right after another passed into law. 

Even worse, we’re still not there, still not to the place where all people are granted equality regardless of skin color or income level or sexual orientation or religious conviction. Straight, wealthy white Christians (of which I am one, I know) still control almost all legal and educational decisions for the country. Human traffickers still sell and trade lives within American borders. Hate is still harnessed everywhere from courtrooms to first-grade classrooms, and it makes me wish sometimes that I could just shrug off this broken human condition like an ill-fitting coat. I don’t want this bloodline of oppression and exploitation any longer.

In the end, though, this is a fundamental part of my faith. I have problems with many, many tenets of mainstream Christianity, but the concept of depravity is not hard for me to swallow. It’s only too obvious throughout the pages of history books and newspapers that humans, left to their own devices, turn into monsters. It is also obvious to me that without a higher power inspiring and nudging us along, we have little reason to fight our shitty inclinations. While I don’t believe that this higher power is limited to the straight, wealthy, white Christian God often portrayed by pastors of the same demographic, I do believe in a God who helps us rise above our natures. We supply the self-awareness and humility, [s]he supplies the soul-therapy.

Jesus talked extensively about the realm of heaven here on earth, heaven’s subjects administering healing and kindness and justice and grace, and I love that idea of operating within humanity as a citizen of something beyond. The flawed thinking behind travesties like the Crusades and Westboro Baptist Church is that our mission as Jesus-followers is to overcome others when in truth, our mission is to overcome ourselves—to ascend beyond our cruel and self-preserving instincts into the upside-down beauty of regarding each other as more important.

Granted, this mission more closely resembles salmon flopping up waterfalls than it does the calm spiritual levitation that last sentence might have implied. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and teeth-grittingly hard work not being an asshole (can I get an amen?), and considering how assholery begets assholery, there’s plenty of two-waterfalls-forward, one-waterfall-back action among those of us who interact with other humans. Still, overcoming my biological dark side is worth the manic fish routine to me. I’m willing to continue trying, continue aspiring to a perspective based on love because I believe with all my heart that it can change the world.

It might not be the reaction Tarantino was going for, but there you have it.

22Mar

Parenting: The Big, The Bad, and The Gentle

Writing yesterday’s post felt like channeling thunder. What I wanted to say was so big and so emotionally charged that it was all I could do to keep up with the words. (Just ask Dan how many times I jumped up from lunch to add one more sentence.) Creating like that, as a conduit rather than a miner, is every writer’s dream scenario, yet once the publish button was clicked and the adrenaline dissipated, I began to feel small and dangerously breakable. I lay awake a long time last night fighting the self-protective urge to turn on my computer and start deleting. Putting out something so personal yet so controversial for the whole Internet to critique felt like one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.

But then this morning dawned, as mornings tend to do, and the world feels like a gentler place. In fact, gentleness is exactly what’s on my mind today. You see, when I first found out I was pregnant with Natalie, my greatest fear was that I would fall into the same parenting patterns I had grown up with. I knew that abused children often grow up to become abusers themselves, their brokenness an indelible part of their identities, and the thought terrified me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I perpetuated the same kind of violence and mind control on my own children, but I didn’t know the first thing about parenting without using those tactics. I literally had no idea what I was doing.

The next part is very hard to admit considering what I shared yesterday, but I did try spanking as a disciplinary measure for a while when Natalie was young. I believed that if I didn’t, my sweet girl would become one of those children enacting demonic death scenes in the candy aisle at Target. I wanted her to have firm boundaries, and I knew of no way to enforce them other than a swat or two when she misbehaved. It was a far cry from the drawn-out beatings of my childhood, and I wanted to be proud of myself for punishing without abuse, but my primary emotion was still guilt.

I felt terrible for causing my daughter pain, however slight, and on the rare occasion when my frustration level made me eager to cause her that pain, I felt like a monster. Using spanking as a way to control my child went against every mothering instinct I had and required me to silence my heart. I wasn’t abusing my daughter, at least not in the way I thought of abuse at the time, but I was using the same line of reasoning as abusers from my past—assert your dominance, control your child, condition her to be unquestioningly obedient. The realization that I had been toeing the fundamentalist line all along churned like a live bat in my stomach.

I abandoned the practice almost overnight. I worried that I was giving up the one effective tool in a parent’s arsenal, but I was done deactivating my mama-heart in order to conform to advice I knew to be harmful. Furthermore, I was done viewing my children as military recruits who I needed to squelch and intimidate and drill into my image. I wanted to start seeing their independence as an unfolding gift rather than a threat and their curious, opinionated little minds as equally important as my own. My parenting style needed a makeover.

I wanted to write about this today because I know some of you come from backgrounds similar to my own and may be wrestling with your own fears and general feelings of lostness about how to parent without abuse. If that describes you, I just want to wrap you up in a virtual bear hug and assure you that there is hope. There is so much hope, friend. You can be a firm and effective parent without ever having to resort to violence or emotional manipulation. None of us is ever going to achieve a perfect parenting record free of regret, but I can promise you this—you will never regret choosing gentleness.

Eight years into mothering now, I have adopted some gentle parenting strategies that continue to work well for our family:

1)    Natural consequences. Dan and I want our girls to grow up with a clear understanding of how their choices matter, so we try to facilitate natural consequences whenever reasonable. This doesn’t always mean something negative; for example, Natalie knows that if she gets ready for school quickly, she’ll have time for her favorite breakfast. On the other hand, if she dawdles or procrastinates, she’ll be scarfing down a banana en route. If Sophie refuses to put on a jacket when we go out, she’ll be chilly, and if she doesn’t eat the food on her plate, she’ll be hungry until the next meal. If the girls can’t resolve a sibling dispute, they will have to take a break from each other. If one of them hurts the other, she will have to find a way to make it right and mend the relationship. I could list a million other examples, but you get the idea; rarely do we come across a behavior problem without some kind of logical consequence that makes traditional punishment unnecessary.

2)    Give and take. Once as a teenager, I arrived early to a babysitting gig and was shocked to hear the little boy ask his mother for a second yogurt and the mother answer “Sure!” The supremacy of “No” was so fundamental to the parenting philosophies of my childhood that it blew me away to hear a mom breezily honoring her child’s request. That moment has stuck with me, and it often comes to mind when the girls ask for something or when they assert their opinions in contrast to mine. It reminds me to pause and consider the validity of their desires, and I’ve grown increasingly less afraid of the word “Sure!” Fundamentalism would call that giving in, but my relationship with my children is only a tug of war if I make it so. Practically speaking, give-and-take means considering the girls’ counterpoints about why they don’t need a nap, saying yes to that nibble of chocolate at breakfast, and working together to solve family issues. Not everything needs to be non-negotiable.

3)    Preemptive measures. When my girls get particularly cantankerous, I know they haven’t been getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, naptime has a tendency to turn into a battle when the girls are already overtired, so the smoothest way I’ve found to remedy cantankerousness is to make sure they get enough sleep in the first place. (When they get at least 10 hours of sleep a night, they are generally cheerful and easygoing all day. Less than that, and they turn into land piranhas by mid-afternoon.) Likewise, I know the girls tend to act out if they aren’t getting enough attention from their dad and I, so a little preventative play time can stave off a lot of interpersonal struggle. Anywhere that I notice a pattern of unwelcome behavior on the girls’ part—defiance when it’s time to leave the playground, whiny malaise after swim class—I look for a way to preempt the problem in the future (give them a 5-minute heads-up before we leave the park, pack snacks in the gym bag). Knowing what is likely to trigger unpleasantness in my girls lets me remedy many situations before they ever start.

4)    Grace. Kids can be volatile creatures, caught up without a moment’s notice into a tempest of rage or an exhausted meltdown. I was taught that these episodes are unacceptably sinful behavior warranting extra punishment, but the reality is that young children go into meltdown mode because their emotional maturity is still developing and they don’t yet know how to handle surges of anger or helplessness or disappointment. For me, parenting with grace often means looking past “unacceptable behavior” and comforting the deeper issues at play. (I’ve shared stories about this here and here, and Erika’s account of unorthodox grace is a must-read.) Parenting with grace also means extending forgiveness to myself when I mess up, as I do frequently, and accepting my girls’ no-strings-attached forgiveness as well. Our relationship works the best when grace is flowing both ways.

Grace flowing both ways

These are just a few big-picture strategies, and I would love to hear your gentle parenting tips in the comments. We can all benefit from each other’s trial-and-error learning, non? If you’re interested in more on this subject, I’d highly recommend my friend Melissa’s series on Gentle Parenting Tools, and there are plenty of online resources for learning positive discipline techniques on sites like The Center for Effective Discipline and Gentle Christian Mothers. And please hear me—if you’re afraid of perpetuating the cycle of child abuse, hold that terrified, love-thirsty part of your heart close because awareness is the first step toward change, and you’re already there. You are not trapped in a style of parenting that goes against your instincts and betrays your own aversion to pain. There are other options, there is grace enough to lessen the sting of regret, and there is always, always hope.

21Mar

From the Other End of the Power Spectrum

Trigger warning: child abuse.

We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.

I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.

In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:

  1. “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
  2. “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”

One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.

Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.

The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.

Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:

  • Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
  • Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
  • While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
  • Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.

I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.

But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.

In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.

Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.

My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.

And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.

This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)

~~~

More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:

The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole

Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger

God is Love by Sarah Moon

The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King

How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman

Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons

After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp

20Nov

Day In and Day Out

A few days ago, as I was rummaging around in the darkest corner of our fridge for the ginger, I found a granddaddy long-legs, its limbs pinched around itself like a claw. It was so unexpected and out of place—this arachnid death-tableau in the crisper drawer—but it struck me immediately as a totem, an image bearer for the memories that have been creeping around my consciousness on skeletal legs these last several days.

I’ve grown unaccustomed to bad memories, healed as I am by years of color and distance and impromptu dance parties. Yes, PTSD is a zombie escape artist who rears through the packed earth every so often to feast on my brains, but the breakouts have become rarer with time, and I simply wasn’t prepared to feel the past whisper-scraping up to me again.

It’s like this:

First, the sound of a lock turning from the inside; stealthy intentions grating against rust. I know what comes next, but I’m slow to react, seconds too late to stop the iron-plated door from sucking suddenly open. And there it is—a memory no longer pinched around itself but extending its claw legs, freezing me in a moment I once fought hard to escape. My perception of the world fractures, and I become the spectator and the victim at once. I relive all the helplessness I felt as a young girl in extreme emotional and physical pain, and then the helplessness of regret. I should have known it wasn’t right. I should have told someone. I should have fought, tooth and nail and voice and soul. Why didn’t I fight?

I know that letting myself get sucked back into that room only does me harm. There is no redemption in unanswerable questions, and their cobwebbed pain will cling to my skin for days after I leave. I do leave though, on the strength of repeat forgivenesses and the strain of personhood that runs deep enough to wake me from dreams. In this case, it wakes me to compassion, and I turn my anger from the child who didn’t know better, who had been taught wrong-as-right and don’t-tell-a-soul all her life. My anger turns away from my former abusers as well. They deserve my anger, certainly, but I’ve expended plenty on them in years past, and grace gives me room to breathe.

As my anger fades to the bigger picture—to religious despotism and church-sanctioned cruelty and this messed-up world where anything can be justified with enough jargon—my memory-cell fades from view, and I hear the door thud shut as if from underwater. There are other doors, of course. Perhaps tomorrow, or next week, or even an unguarded moment later today, I’ll hear the scratch of spinneret against doorjamb and scramble first to hold the past shut and then to escape it. This is the reality of life after trauma.

But there is also LIFE after trauma, a spacious world of possibility surrounding and surpassing moments of regression. In fact, that’s what I most wanted to put into writing today—that the very best way I’ve found to keep bad memories at bay is to invest myself in the present. Looking into my daughters’ eyes just to study their blue, to count the laugh lines ringing their irises… Folding the laundry with fingertips attuned to the interplay of threads, each filigreed whorl of cotton… Holding the bitter of coffee and the sweet of cane sugar on my tongue a few seconds longer… Pressing snooze to slide like a puzzle piece into the curve of my husband’s back, to soak in our collective warmth before the day… Turning the music loud in my earphones and feeling, with all my heart, the beauty of this unpredictable, compassion-won life I’m living.

15May

Pinterest Parenting

I have a confession to make: I dislike taking my children to the park. So strongly do I dislike it, in fact, that I agree to a maximum one hour a week at our neighborhood playground and sigh in relief when inclement weather lets me off the hook. All that changing of clothes, applying of sunscreen, and filling of water bottles so that I can hover near my daredevil four-year-old while craning my neck for my seven-year-old who is playing hide ‘n’ seek with her friends and may no longer be in the country for all I can tell? Goodness, it is so not my favorite thing.

I feel like I’m admitting to some heinous crime against parenthood here, but wait—it gets better. I also strongly dislike showering the girls after swim class, organizing their birthday parties, teaching them to ride bikes, and doing crafts with them. Don’t even get me started on that last one; there is little in this world more unsettling to me than glue in the hands of a preschooler.

Keep in mind that I’m not exactly glowing with pride over this. I’ve absorbed enough parenting magazines, mommy blogs, and Pinterest boards to convince myself that the ideal mom would help her children mix up eco-conscious finger paint as they rode their bicycles from an all-day picnic at the park home to the lavender-infused bubble baths they’d brewed the day before. I have a glossy image in my mind of the ideal mom: creative genius with infinite patience meets soccer mom with sex appeal, something like June Cleaver and Maria von Trapp rolled up in a sugar cookie crust and pretty much nothing like me.

I’m embarrassed to be writing this, any of this, because I don’t want to add any credibility to the Mommy Wars. I want to proclaim in bold, confident type that if a mother is invested enough in her child to worry about how many months she should breastfeed, she’s doing a good job. End of story. Yet… I’ve known many parents who earnestly believed that physically and mentally abusing their children was the best strategy. Even now, I often notice parents letting their children hang out the passenger window on the highway, their kindergartners go on violent rampages, and their children’s teeth rot from hygienic neglect, and I have to admit that there’s something to be said for holding up a standard. We parents need humility and accountability just like any others in a position of power. We were never meant to do this job in isolation.

At the same time, the comparison game can quickly turn into the shame game. Having access to so many inspired ideas at once can make us forget that we’re looking at a collage of unique personalities and talents, not one composite superhuman. I see a mom who creates whimsical food faces for her children’s lunches and think I should be doing that. The next mom knits stuffed animals for birthday gifts, and never mind that I don’t know how to knit one, purl anything, I should be doing that too. Living room chemistry labs, French idiom flashcards, Mommy & Me Karate, I should be doing it all.

Clearly, logic has no place in my compare and despair routine. The karate mom, chemistry mom, and knitting mom are not the same mom, so why do I feel like a failure when I can’t master all of their individual strengths? I can’t really blame the media for this one; it’s all me. I’m the one focusing on pinboards meant for the karate mom and the chemistry mom and the knitting mom and the loves-taking-her-children-to-the-park mom and taking each one as a personal attack.

Here’s what I should be doing instead of browsing Pinterest for reasons to feel unworthy: I should be piling a dozen oversized pillows on my bed, calling the girls in, and cracking open a storybook. I’m great at reading out loud—did you know that?—and contrary to busting out the bikes or the glue (shudder), reading together is an activity that the girls and I love with equal enthusiasm. It’s one of my personal mama-strengths. Family travel is another, and if I were pressed to come up with a third, Sophie could tell you just how much fun we have baking cupcakes together.

I think that the main reason we moms take up arms against each other is in misdirected self-defense. We feel like other women’s successes are a commentary on our failings, and we bristle, desperate to believe that we’re not screwing up our children as thoroughly as that snide little voice in the back of our minds says we are. As a realist (code name for pessimist) and a chronic internalizer, I struggle with that mindset more often than I’d like to admit. However, I’m finally fighting back against it by trying to give the most attention to my strengths rather than my deficits. The key word here is “trying.” Self-congratulation feels like such a taboo, but honestly, why wouldn’t I work on celebrating and cultivating the ways in which I love my children best? It’s the quickest antidote against my own mental Mommy War that I know of… and? It lets me return to browse the eco-conscious-lavender-bicycle-karate-supermom pinboard without an ounce of guilt.

~~~

Your turn! What are your own awesome talents as a parent, a child, a friend, an artist, or a Pinterest-browsing human being? What are YOU especially great at? (No cop-out answers now; your strengths are worth a little celebration!)

25May

Untethered

I don’t know where to start writing about this, even just for myself. It’s too big for me, too heavy, and my soul just wants to stretch out on a beach chair in some blissfully deserted part of the world and fall asleep to the sound of waves. How do I write through where I am now without coming across as fickle or, as more than one person has suggested, deluded?

It’s true—my perspective was warped by years of religious brainwashing and abuse in God’s name—but if nothing else, growing up with people who swallowed someone else’s ideology taught me not to do the same. I refuse to adopt a belief system just because others tell me to, and that applies to Christianity as well. Have I ever believed in God because my own story and experiences led me there? Have I ever even had that option?

I once thought that every good thing that happened to me was an act of divine benevolence. Scholarships, job offers, relationships, fast recoveries, relationships—each a personalized stamp of God’s approval and generosity.  What does that mean for my friends who had to work their way through college though? What of my friends living off of unemployment? What of those who didn’t meet Mr. Right or never recovered or had their homes destroyed by a natural disaster or went bankrupt or lost a child? Where I used to see God’s puppet strings, I now see coincidence because I can’t deal with the implications of an all-powerful benefactor playing favorites.

It doesn’t mean God isn’t good. Rachel Held Evans wrote about the same internal debate, and I’m relieved to know that the struggle isn’t confined to my own head and that others have found other ways of measuring God’s goodness. In nature, for instance, I can’t help seeing the beauty of its blueprint… but I don’t see perfection, and I don’t see personal intention. Whether the sky cooperates for someone’s outdoor wedding or a hurricane devastates thousands of families, I simply see a flawed universe set to random.

And I understand now more than ever why some Christians I know cling to their beliefs at the expense of everything else in their lives, even peace of mind. Coming untethered from a doctrinal picket line is a frightening experience, and there is only a hairline difference between feeling liberated and feeling lost (I tend to vacillate between the two). I can’t turn off my questions any more than I can turn off my instinct to breathe, but I wish I could. Some days, I am absolutely certain I would choose unthinking acceptance over this mind that tracks down holes more easily than it does happiness.

I have problems with a lot of people who claim to take their marching orders directly from God, and this casts doubt on the whole notion of a converted life (at least a life converted from assholery). I have even bigger problems with the Bible, questions that I fear have no answers aside from churchy platitudes, and as much as I might want to, I cannot sincerely subscribe to the whole traditional Christianity package. I cannot accept that a loving God created people for heaven and then set their defaults to hell. I cannot believe that a Jesus who taught turning the other cheek represents the same deity who went around wiping out heathen nations in the Old Testament. I cannot see my way past the violence or the inconsistencies or the staggering injustice of what some call the “Good News.” I just can’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this leaves me. I’m not rejecting faith, but I can’t flash a denominational membership card either, and even the space just beyond the old tether’s radius is unfamiliar territory. My biggest hope is that God isn’t tied to the picket line either and that my uncertain journey forward will bring us face to face, maybe in an open-air café without closing hours where he can answer every question I’ve ever penned in my journal or posed to uncomprehending pastors or sensed without being able to articulate. More than anything, I want God to be real and different than I was always told, and I think this longing counts as faith for me right now. And if I am simply deluded, I  pray I’ll eventually stumble across that beach chair.

 

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