I am trying to put meaning to my circumstances as they intensify, and they are intensifying. Every day is an adventure and not a good one. I don’t know what’s going to happen next with my husband, and each of my daughters has had separate but equal meltdowns with me about their own perception of their relationship with him. What I find most interesting about this, aside from the turmoil I feel trying to non-judgmentally listen to them, is that each girl reports the same feelings. Each girl feels almost identical. How could this be?
I don’t want to be a party to parental alienation in any way. They already feel alienated from him due to his own choices. So, I try to reassure them that he does, in fact, love them; he simply may lack the interpersonal skills to communicate those feelings in ways that would mean something to them. My 18 year-old could “give a fuck” as she puts it. He’s an adult and really ought to know better by now. My 16 year-old shares those feelings. She invited me into her therapy session last week for support and then proceeded to crucify her father. She all but screamed, “I hate him!” I just sat there and listened. That was not easy. I don’t feel any loyalty to him in this. I feel like a failure. I relate to her. My father was a horrible father. I hated him as my daughters are beginning to hate their own, and I think to myself, “How on earth could I have chosen a man who would repeat my own father’s choices?” I blame myself here. I wanted my daughters to have a loving father. I so wanted to spare them my experiences.
Sure, their father isn’t a pedophile. Phew! They won’t have to deal with that experience, and thank God for that. On the other hand, he is the poster boy for parental neglect and emotional outbursts that my therapist has defined as emotional abuse. Two of my daughters have shared with me that they are frightened that he might physically hurt someone. All of them have said that they feel that they must walk on eggshells around him.
When you begin asking to hear the truth, this is what happens. People begin to tell it. It is very hard to hear. I am so thankful for all that DBT training because I am able to listen. I am able to validate them. I am not taking it personally because it isn’t personal. And, here comes the hard part, I am taking the next step: “If I have hurt you in any way, please let me know because I cannot make amends if I don’t know. So, when you are ready, I would very much like to listen.” Within this atmosphere of truth-telling, I have been able to tell my daughters that I am willing to make any unknown wrongs right. So far, the slate is clean. I chose early on in my parenting to apologize when I made mistakes and keep short accounts. Humility has been something I have tried very hard to cultivate. It has kept me better in tune with their needs. It’s still not easy. Things will be missed. People get hurt.
Still, this is gut-wrenching. I don’t know where this train is headed. It isn’t looking good. My prayer has, therefore, been that I will be given an equal measure of passion in my life for something that will counteract the pain. I, like so many women, am a relational person. My marriage was my greatest passion in life along with my family. My daughters still require most of my time. The oldest will be leaving for college in the fall, and the three remaining all have special needs of some kind. Either I orbit around them or they orbit around me. I have to work very hard to maintain healthy boundaries so that we don’t create co-dependency.
We need greater passions in our lives when we are faced with great trials. It balances out the burden and pain. What I have found is that I need a lot of intellectual stimulation to feel human and separate from my family–to feel like a person. I need meaningful human interactions that don’t revolve around meeting the needs of my children. So, going to a meeting with one of my daughter’s therapists to discuss a treatment plan doesn’t count. Going to the grocery store doesn’t count either. That’s a woman in a role performing a chore to meet the needs of her family.
Women who are in the caregiver role need to be women as individuals again. Women who work outside the home and then come home and parent need to be individuals outside of their home and work environments. Women who stay at home to care for home, hearth, and family need the same thing. Even women who have no children have many roles to play. It is so easy to get lost in the myriad personas that we take off and put on. We forget who we were, who we are, or perhaps who we would very much like to be. This is why, in my opinion, we are vulnerable to gaslighting and circumstances that might escalate to abuse. We forget that we have a choice when it comes to our identities.
So, what steps can we take? In my case, I am taking small steps. I started seeing a therapist. That is perhaps a big step, but I started with other steps before that. I made friends. I spent time with my friends outside playdates with my children or double dates with my husband. I met with one friend one evening a week for a “Stitch ‘n Bitch” at a local 24-hour Perkins. We would knit and kvetch about the meaning of life while eating fries with mayo. Sometimes well into the night. I see another friend at least once a week for coffee. We share our lives. We have fun together. Having fun is extremely important. We just went to an art exhibit together. I take care of myself with haircuts, and one of my friends and I get mani-pedis together. These sorts of things build self-esteem. Do what works for you. If it’s not haircuts and mani-pedis, then find your thing. I’m a make-up whore. I’ll admit it. So, I like to buy lip gloss, nail polish, and anything else. Even if I can’t afford anything new, just looking makes me happy. Taking the time to do what makes you feel good about yourself be it going to bookstores, Home Depot, your faith environment, coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, or Comic Con, will build you up and validate you. This is vital particularly if you are living in an invalidating environment as many of us are. We get to learn one of the most empowering things of all–self-validation.
While many women are validated by their children, raising their children, and even educating their children, we raise our children to leave. That’s the point. Those children will be gone one day. We are women before we are mothers. Many women define their worth by being married. They longed to get married and keep a house. We are, however, women before we are wives. When we are strong women with identities that are intact, fenced in, and founded upon solid truths that have been internalized, we are a lot harder to manipulate and abuse. The good news is that it’s never too late to differentiate, learn who we are, and build strong foundations.
For me, this is how you apply meaning to painful circumstances. They can act as a catalyst to personal growth and launch us into better circumstances and relationships, or they can weigh us down. The better news is that we get to choose here.